Archive for the 'Baroque Summer 2010' Category

“System of the World” by Neal Stephenson

Friday, August 27th, 2010

New gap on TBR (To Be Read) shelf:

TBR shelf, sans Baroque Cycle

New residents of AR/IDCTR (Already Read/I Don’t Care To Read) shelf:

Baroque Trilogy on the ABR (already been read) shelf

We did it! My husband and I finished reading Neal Stephenson’s System of the World well before the end of August for my self-assigned Baroque Summer reading project. We read Quicksilver in June, The Confusion in July, and the third volume in Stephenson’s sprawling, insane, erudite and entertaining Baroque Cycle trilogy this month.

SotW continues with main characters Jack Shaftoe, Daniel Waterhouse, and Eliza, duchess of Qwglhm (which Stephenson says is a joke and not meant to be pronounced, but I hear in my head as the Simpson’s Chief Wiggum saying his name, but with a K sound in front of it ending with a mushy r: Kwiggulm”). And there are a host of other characters (Isaac Newton, Princess Caroline, Louis the Sun King) who are almost as entertaining as the ones Stephenson invented.

“Men half your age and double your weight have been slain on these wastes by Extremity of Cold,” said the Earl of Lostwithiel, Lord Warden of the Stannaries, and Rider of the Forest and Chase of Dartmoor, to one of his two fellow-travelers….

“I am astonished that you should call this an extremity of cold,” answered the old man. “In Boston, as you know, this would pass without remark. I am garbed for Boston.”

Stephenson is a huge geek, and the book is about (among many, many things) the rise of finance, philosophy, natural sciences, and computers. If you’ve enjoyed other Stephenson, like Snow Crash or Diamond Age, it’s likely your thing. It also reminded me, in its sprawling, inventive craziness, of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. If you liked any of these, and aren’t opposed to doorstoppy books, give the trilogy a look. If not, or if you don’t identify as a geek, this probably isn’t a good fit.

I had a good time reading these as a summer project. They’re so dense it was sometimes hard to keep track of the details and personae, but reading them consecutively and reading along with my husband helped a great deal. I was involved with the characters, learned things from the historic details, was eager to return to the book when I was away from it, and sad to leave it when it was done.

Geeky stats: Trilogy begun 4 June, finished 21 August 2010. Other books read in that time: 12, out of which 8 were graphic novels. Total pages (not including intro and outro material and acks): 2,618.

How long before we succumb to a re-read of Cryptonomicon, which the trilogy is kind of a prequel to? Not long, I bet, though as usual my TBR list is long.

Pie Relativity

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Here is an excerpt from Neal Stephenson’s System of the World, volume 3 of the Baroque Cycle. One of the fictional main characters, the natural philosopher Daniel Waterhouse, is in a carriage with Isaac Newton. I found it particularly hilarious, and a good example of how Stephenson mixes humor and scientific history, with some characterization thrown in for good measure. Is it hilarious if you haven’t read the book?

In an apt demonstration of the principle of Relativity, as propounded by Galileo, the platter, and the steaming morsels thereon, remained in the same position vis-a-vis Daniel, and hence were in principle, just as edible, as if he had been seated before, and the pies had been resting upon, a table that was stationary with respect to the fixed stars. This was true despite the fact that the carriage containing Daniel, Isaac Newton, and the pies was banging around London…

Isaac, though better equipped than Daniel or any other man alive to understand Relativity, shewed no interest in his pie–as if being in a state of movement with respect to the planet Earth rendered it somehow Not a Pie. But as far as Daniel was concerned, a pie in a moving frame of reference was no less a pie than one that was sitting still: position and velocity, to him, might be perfectly interesting physical properties, but they had no bearing on, no relationship to those properties that were essential to pie-ness. All that mattered to Daniel were relationships between his, Daniel’s, physical state and that of the pie. If Daniel and Pie were close together both in position and velocity, then pie-eating became a practical, and tempting, possibility. If Pie were far asunder from Daniel or moving at a large relative velocity–e.g., being hurled at his face–then its pie-ness was somehow impaired, at least from the Daniel frame of reference. For the time being, however, these were purely Scholastic hypotheticals. Pie was on his lap and very much a pie, not matter what Isaac might think of it.

…Daniel, as he spoke, had tucked a napkin into his shirt-collar–a flag of surrender, and an unconditional capitulation to the attractions of Pie. Rather than laying down arms, he now picked them up–knife and fork….And he stabbed Pie. (p. 457)

Baroque Summer: Where I’m At

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Can we all just not apologize for how busy we’ve been and how lax we’ve been about blogging, etc.? Good.

My summer reading project has been Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. Not only am I on track to finish, but I’m actually a bit ahead! As with Infinite Jest, which I read last summer, this has been an entertaining, involving and educational read, and I’m so glad I’ve finally gotten around to these books.

Stephenson mixes fascinating historical characters like Isaac Newton and Leibniz with fictional ones like the Shaftoe clan and Eliza. The result is a wild ride that succeeds in making things like science, history, finance and philosophy not just understandable, but fun and funny, with some etymology thrown in for good measure, like the origins of the words mob and face.

I chose well when I picked this project and hope to give a better review near the end of this month.

What are you reading now, and what are you reading next? Next for me is Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun.

“The Confusion” by Neal Stephenson

Friday, July 30th, 2010

I finished The Confusion, volume two of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, so I’m on track to complete my summer reading project of all three behemoths! Volume 1, Quicksilver, was divided into 3 books, one each for Daniel Waterhouse the natural philosopher, Jack Shaftoe the vagabond, and Eliza the former Turkish concubine. The Confusion alternates between book 4, Bonanza, which is Jack’s story, and book 5, Juncto, which is Eliza’s. As in Quicksilver, and Cryptonomicon before it, I found the Shaftoe parts more enjoyable; they’re frequently humorous tales of adventure, in the spirit of the picaroon novels Stephenson mentions in the stories.

Eliza is embroiled in intrigue and finance, plus has a vendetta against one man (or is it several?) who done her wrong. Her story was more frequently affecting, and much more complex and challenging.

These books are challenging and great fun. I’m learning about history, though it’s a fictionalized version. And I’m enjoying myself with a vast cast of characters I like spending time with. Which is good, because these books are so long. Overlong? Perhaps. But it’s hard to resist Stephenson’s zeal for the historical subjects and his characters.

I’ll have a little incidental reading in between, but then I’ll be off into volume three, The System of the World.

“Quicksilver” by Neal Stephenson

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

I did it! I finished Quicksilver, volume 1 of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy as part of my summer reading project. Was it worth a month of my time? You betcha, as we Minnesotans sometimes say. I know a few of you gave it a try; anyone still reading besides me and G. Grod?

The big book is divided into three smaller ones. Book 1 is Quicksilver, and uses character Daniel Waterhouse to introduce us to historical figures like Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. Waterhouse is the son of a Puritan, but is not so fervent as his father was, which got that man blown up by Charles II. Book 1 focuses on alchemy and the rise of “science” which was at that time referred to as Natural Philosophy. It also does a good job of portraying the blurry line between science and religion/philosophy, and the frequent connection between math genius and madness.

Book 2, King of the Vagabonds, introduces Jack Shaftoe, a mercenary, and Eliza, a harem girl Jack rescues from beneath Vienna during a military siege. They proceed across Europe trying to make their fortune, meeting historical figures like Leibniz and William of Orange, and generally getting into a lot of trouble while doing so.

Book 3, Odalisque (which means Turkish harem slave, which Eliza was), brings Daniel and Eliza together, and introduces Bob, Jack’s more respectable brother. Natural philosophy, politics and finance collide as they usher in huge changes.

The hugeness of the book, in both size and subject, strangely makes me want to be pithy in describing it. It’s speculative historical fiction, much like Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, the research for which spawned the idea for this series. If you like Stephenson’s work, like Snow Crash and Diamond Age, this will be in your wheelhouse. I found it a fun AND educational, if wrist-straining, summer read.

I’m going to take a little break, then move on to Volume 2, The Confusion, which I hope isn’t truth in advertising.

Baroque Summer update

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

I said I was going to finish book 2 of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver by today. Didn’t happen. I’m on page 403, with Jack Shaftoe and Eliza making their way through the European countryside. They make for good company. I’m still aiming to finish by the end of the month, and have no other books I need to read in the meantime. I’ll update again when I finish Book 2.

Baroque Summer: Quicksilver Book One

Friday, June 11th, 2010

I’m off and running with my summer reading project, Baroque Summer, during which I hope to finish all three of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle volumes, Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World.

is conveniently split into three books, so I’ll read and recap them one at a time. Book One is, confusingly or conveniently, “Quicksilver.”

We open on mysterious stranger Enoch Root in 1713 Massachusetts, who seeks out Daniel Waterhouse, a ridiculed figure he finds at the Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technology, situated between Charlestown and Newtowne. Initial chapters alternate been Root meeting with Daniel and Root’s past, in which he met a young Isaac Newton. When Root gives Waterhouse a royal summons, though, Waterhouse is persuaded to return to England, and boards the Minerva, whose captain is named van Hoek.

From thence, chapters alternate between the Minerva and Daniel’s past in mid to late 1600’s England. This includes the plague, further religious strife, and burgeoning scientific investigation by those why styled themselves alchemists, and those, like Daniel, who call themselves Natural Philosophers. Daniel was the son of a vocal dissident Puritan. Many around him assume, incorrectly, that he espouses his father’s belief in predestination. From his youth, Daniel encounters many famous historical figures, such as Newton, Leibniz, and Hooke. With them, he participates in numerous experiments. He also struggles to figure out the tangled web of politics and their relation to religion. When his father figure and mentor, Wilkins, dies, Daniel is adrift and worried. He’s not much helped when his former schoolmate Roger Comstock (of the “Golden Comstocks”) offers himself as a patron. As “Quicksilver” comes to a close, Daniel realizes his path will not be simple:

His role, as he could see plainly enough, was to be a leading Dissident who also happened to be a noted savant, a Fellow of the Royal Society. Until lately he would not have thought this a difficult role to play, since it was so close to the truth. But whatever illusions Daniel might once have harbored about being a man of God had died with [his father], and been cremated by [his mistress]. He very much phant’sied being a Natural Philosopher, but that simply was not going to work if had to compete against Isaac, Leibniz, and Hooke. And so the role that Roger Comstock had written for him was beginning to appear very challenging indeed. (330-1)

As you can see, Stephenson employs the archaic “phant-sy” a contraction of phantasy, just as “fancy” is contracted from “fantasy”. The “ph” spelling emphasizes the connection to the Phanatiques, another term for religious dissidents such as the Puritans and the Barkers.

At another point, Daniel comes across a hairpin in the shape of a caduceus, the symbol of the Roman god Mercury, which is also another name for Quicksilver. The caduceus, a rod with two snakes, has been misappropriated by the US medical establishment and correctly should be a rod with one snake, or a Rod of Asclepius, who was a healer.

If this kind of obsessive nerdishness is appealing to you, then you’ll likely enjoy Stephenson’s speculative take on the 17th century.

Is anyone reading along with me? If not, I’m going to take these books in chunks at my own pace. Next up: Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, a blast from my past followed by Lev Grossman’s The Magicians for July’s meeting of Books and Bars. Then I’ll be back for book 2 of Quicksilver, “King of the Vagabonds”.

Baroque Summer: Week 1 and New Schedule

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Apologies for the slight delay to the previously published schedule for my Baroque Summer project. (That is, if anyone’s reading along with me. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) I have made it to page 217, about a fourth of the way through Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, the first of his Baroque Cycle trilogy.

As often happens, the correct way of doing this became clear once I was already doing it. Mr. Stephenson has helpfully divided up the first and third volumes, Quicksilver and The System of the World, into three books. The publisher even tried making mass market paperbacks of each of Quicksilver Books One, Two and Three, until they realized, too late, that few people would choose to pay more for three MMPBs than they would for one TPB or used HC. When reading a book divided into three books, it makes MUCH more sense to read one book every ten days. I’ll blog today about the first fourth, but then I’m switching the schedule (again, if anyone’s with me; if you’re not, I’m just probably going to proceed pell mell, blogging madly as I go.) to match the structure of books 1 and 3.

What about book #2, The Confusion, you’re wondering? Well, Volume 2, The Confusion is an alternation between 2 books, so I can’t divine a much better way of splitting it up than doing about a third of it every ten days. Confusion, indeed.

Baroque Summer, revised schedule:

Book 1: June 10th
QS Book 2: June 20
QS Book 3: June 30
Confusion to p. 254: July 10
Cf to p. 556: July 20
Cf to p. 815: July 30
System of the World Book 1: August 10
SotW Book 2: August 20
SotW Book 3: August 30

So I’ll blog here today on Quicksilver through p. 217, but will be back again (I hope) on 6/10 to write about the entirety of Volume 1: book 1. Got it?

After maps, an invocation and a quote, Quicksilver opens on a witch hanging in 1713 Boston, attended by a mysterious man named Enoch the Red, later named as Enoch Root.

Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head. The crowd on the Common stop praying and sobbing for just as long as Jack Ketch stands there, elbows locked, for all the world like a carpenter heaving a ridge-beam into place. The rope clutches a disk of blue New England sky. The Puritans gaze at it and, to all appearances, think. Enoch the Red reins in his borrowed horse as it nears the edge of the crowd, and sees that the executioner’s purpose it not to let them inspect his knotwork, but to give them all a narrow–and, to a Puritan, tantalizing–glimpse of the portal through which they all must pass one day.

At Enoch’s request, a young boy named Ben leads him away from the crowd and to a man named Daniel Waterhouse. It is Daniel, not Enoch, who becomes the main character of this first book. The son of a Puritan, Daniel was early on swayed to the company of alchemists and natural philosophers. He meets and mingles with many famous historical characters, most notably Isaac Newton.

In 1713, Enoch persuades Daniel to return to England. From there, the chapters alternate between the past and 1713, usually between Daniel’s sea voyage and his youth. Throughout both periods, and in ways familiar to those who read Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, fictional characters mingle with historical ones into an almost seamless yarn.

I saw almost because I do occasionally get the sense of the writer in the background shuffling his index cards, saying, “OK, I’m going to put this Newton anecdote here, and this Leibniz factoid there…” Nonetheless, Quicksilver does what the best historical fiction should–makes a new story out of something old, while simultaneously commenting on and revealing things that really happened such as the Bubonic Plague, the Fire of London, along with mythic characters like Mother Goose and Captain van Hoek.

The times were a heady mix of politics, religion, finances and nascent sciences. Daniel, as an intelligent naif, is an excellent avatar for the reader to navigate the twists and turns of the story and its many characters. Stephenson, though, manages a sprawling canvas with remarkable clarity. I’ve been taking notes as I’ve gone along, but wonder if I’d be OK if I didn’t–if I’d lose track of characters or plot points. Taking notes does seem to suck some of the fun out of reading what’s clearly a historical romp, as I found it did last summer with Infinite Jest. Yet I think a slow, careful reading the first time might make for a fast, fun reading the next time. And I’m fairly certain this one will be worth re-reading, not just for its nutrition, but for its tastiness. I often gape or laugh aloud when something is revealed. Thus far, I’m having a very good time.

Baroque Summer: Hold that Thought

Monday, June 7th, 2010

As I thought might happen, given that I was traveling the past two weekends, and trying to finish Stieg Larsson’s Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, I wasn’t able to meet my first page goal for Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver.

I am aware that, as the instigator of this project, this is pretty lame of me. I apologize.

I’m only about 40 pages shy of 217, though. I’ll try to finish tonight so I can comment on it tomorrow. Will anyone be joining me?

Baroque Summer is Here!

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

Get your engines started, ladies and gents. My crazy summer reading project begins today, June 1. I’ll be reading all three of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy, Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World over the summer. The pace is 200+ pages a week. First post and discussion will be next Monday, June 7. Details are here.

Embarrassing disclosure #1: My geek husband G. Grod and I bought all three when they came out in hardcover (HC). Then we bought the trade paperback (TPB) of Quicksilver when it came out, as I thought I’d read it, and it would be way less wrist strain than the HC. I didn’t make it very far, though. So when I proposed the Baroque reading plan, my husband said he’d read along, and he’d take the TPB and I had to read the HCs since he’s already read them. Then I went book shopping today and found another TPB of Quicksilver, and 2 apiece of The Confusion and The System of the World. So I have a matching his-n-hers set of Baroque Cycle TPBs so my husband and I can read simultaneously, and neither has to drag around the doorstop, author-inscribed HCs. Yes, that means we have 3 sets of the trilogy. Yes, we are geeks.

Embarrassing disclosure #2: I bought Stieg Larsson’s Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest last week for $16. I was traveling over the weekend, and thought I could tear through it before I had to start Quicksilver. Alas, I didn’t get as much reading time as I thought, and I’m only about a third of the way through the Larsson. I think the best plan is for me to try and finish before I start Quicksilver, but I may be behind next Monday on my own project. Nice. Though I imagine some of you understand, no? Happy reading, all, and I look forward to seeing who’s here next Monday!

Baroque Summer: The Schedule

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Imagine Chevy Chase standing by a pool, clapping his hands, saying “This is crazy!” over and over. That’s kind of how I feel about putting this in writing. But as of this moment, I still want to read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy this summer, which includes Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. I read and loved Crytonomicon, Snow Crash and Diamond Age, and am assured by my husband that the trilogy is worth it.

So, here’s the plan. The pace is about 30 pages a day, or 200+ a week to finish the whole trilogy over the summer. Anyone who’s crazy enough to think they’d like to join me can chime in with feedback in the comments.

June 1, 2010: begin reading Quicksilver. Stop just before “Aboard Minerva, Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts” on p. 217
June 7, 2010: discuss up to 217 QS. Read up to p. 430 “Saxony”
June 14, 2010: discuss up to 430 QS. Read up to p. 659 “London”
June 21, 2010: discuss up to 659 QS. Read through 927, end of Quicksilver.
June 28, 2010: discuss end and all of Quicksilver. Start The Confusion. Read up to p. 197 “Off Malta”.
July 5, 2010: discuss up to 197 TC. Read up to p. 412 “London”.
July 12, 2010: discuss up to 412 TC. Read up to p. 617 “Book 5″.
July 19, 2010: discuss up to 617 TC. Read through 815, end of The Confusion. (insert Neal Stephenson joke of your choice here)
July 26, 2010: discuss end and all of The Confusion. Start The System of the World. Read up to p. 225 “Cold Harbour”.
August 2, 2010: discuss up to 225 TSotW. Read up to p. 448 “Westminster Palace”.
August 9, 2010: discuss up to 448 TSotW. Read up to p. 667 “Library of Leicester House”.
August 16,2010: discuss up to 667 TSotW. Read through 892, end of The System of the World. Pat self on back, unless it’s injured from toting around huge tomes all summer.
August 23, 2010: discuss end of The System of the World and entire trilogy. Wax rhapsodic about all the short books you’ll be reading next.

Note: chapters often split in the middle of pages, so all chapter titles above are where I’ll stop, not what I’ll read through. Also, I believe the page count is good for both the hardcover and the trade paperback (it is for the copies of Quicksilver in our house. Yes, we own two.)

As I said for my 15/15/15 challenge, I’m not a seasoned pro at this online reading challenge thing. I have no logo and nothing fancy, and links and discussion will be from the comments section. But I’m open to ideas.