Archive for the 'Reading' Category

The (or is it An?) Unsettling Ending of “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Since this post is obviously going to have spoilers for the book, I’ll start off with a story. My friend RG was a student at Swarthmore College when Margaret Atwood visited. After Atwood’s talk, my friend went up to her and asked, knees knocking to be in the presence of one of the great writers of our time, “Ms. Atwood, what happened at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale? I didn’t think it was clear.” Ms. Atwood replied, (frostily? kindly?, looking over the edges of her spectacles? I’m not sure) “What do _you_ think happened, dear?” in what was obviously a rhetorical question, or an oblique answer phrased as a question. My friend felt both dejected at the lack of clarity and embarrassed at still not “getting it.”

I’ve come to believe that ambiguous, “lady or the tiger” type endings are a sign of respect the author gives the reader. They’re certainly a hallmark of the Atwood novels I’ve read: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride, and Alias Grace. Yet their frustrating opacity often serves the opposite purpose of complimenting a reader on her capacity to draw her own conclusions. Instead it enrages many readers, who feel cheated that they don’t get a definitive ending. (This is a frequent criticism I’ve heard about Tana French’s In the Woods, which I re-read recently.)

The final section of The Handmaid’s Tale is titled “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale.” It’s the supposed transcipt of a future symposium of the history of Gilead, the republic the previous narrative was set in. On my recent re-reading, I found its most unsettling aspect the almost throw-away remarks that things in Gilead got much worse for women and liberty in general after the events described in the narrative. But that was before I read Valerie Martin’s helpful Introduction* to the Everyman’s Library edition.

Martin suggests further reading, and recommends among them a collection of critical essays Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms ed. Kathryn VanSpanckeren and Jan Garden Castro. Two essays deal specifically with The Handmaid’s Tale, “Nature and Nurture in Dystopia” (to recap: they’re reversed) and “Future Tense: Making History in The Handmaid’s Tale” by Arnold E. Davidson. After reading Martin’s gloss on Davidson, then the essay itself, I felt naive for having felt unsettled by one thing only in that last section.

The historical notes with which The Handmaid’s Tale ends provide comic relief from the grotesque text of Gilead. Yet in crucial ways the epilogue is the most pessimistic part of the book. Even with the lesson of Gilead readily at hand, the intellectuals of 2195 seem to be preparing the way for Gilead again. In this projection of past, present, and future, the academic community is shown to have a role, not simply an “academic” role (passive, accommodating) but an active one in recreating the values of the future.

I highly recommend seeking out Anderson’s essay after you finish reading The Handmaid’s Tale for a thorough, provocative, and disturbing close reading of the last segment of the book.

*I really wish that the material so often put before a text was put after it. I don’t want an analysis or context _before_ I read. While it’s my preference, I know I’m not alone, and I doubt I’m in the minority. I also think acknowledgements before the book rather than after are pretentious and obnoxious. Brief dedication, yes. Lengthy name dropping? Ugh.

On Margaret Atwood and “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

From Nathalie Cooke’s Margaret Atwood: A Biography

Atwood started writing The Handmaid’s Tale in spring of 1984 while living in West Berlin and finished it later that year. It was published in 1985 to critical acclaim and would go on to be short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. While she wrote it, her husband said to her, “You’re going to get in trouble for this one.” Though she was well known in Canada previously as both a poet and novelist, this brought her a larger, international, mainstream audience. Her American publisher ordered a second printing before the first was even released.

She claims the original idea came from a dinner-party conversation about the dangers of religious fundamentalism. “No one thinks about what it would be like to actually act it out,” she or someone else said. Then she said, “I think I’ll write about that.”

In 1983 she began to compile a scrapbook about “the religious right wing, no-cash credit-card systems, on the low birth rate and prisons in Iran.” While the setting for the book is Cambridge and Boston Massachusetts, Atwood had traveled to Iran and Afghanistan, and the repressive rules for women she encountered there were also part of the inspiration for the near-future dystopia of Gilead.

Cooke quotes Atwood’s argument that The Handmaid’s Tale is not science fiction:

Science fiction is filled with Martians and space travel to other planets, and things like that. That isn’t this book at all. The Handmaid’s Tale is speculative fiction in the genre of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nineteen Eighty-Four was written not as science fiction but as an extrapolation of life in 1948. So, too, The Handmaid’s Tale is a slight twist on the society we have now. (277)

(Interestingly, this rejection of the SF genre is one speculative fiction, sci-fi and fantasy writers and readers would likely both agree and take issue with. They’d likely agree it was speculative fiction, but take issue with her separatism, since most works grouped in the sci-fi and fantasy genres can be better described as speculative fiction.)

In spite of this protest, The Handmaid’s Tale won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction in 1987.

Diana Wynne Jones 1934 - 2011

Monday, March 28th, 2011

English fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones passed away March 26 after a long bout of cancer. I feel fortunate to have read her work, which I owe to my dear friend Thalia. I met English Thalia in Philadelphia in the mid-90s, and in the back and forth of new friends who are also book geeks, she lent me The Lives of Christopher Chant, and told me about how she’d read that instead of studying for one of her critical final exams. I devoured that, then quickly sought out Jones’ other work, which was easy to do. DWJ was a prolific writer over several decades, and so popular in England that most of her books were not only still in print, but also available in American editions. Neil Gaiman has said her books were an influence, and J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series has many similarities to it.

Her intelligent and beautifully written fantasies are of seminal importance for their bridging of the gap between “traditional” children’s fantasy, as written by CS Lewis or E Nesbit, and the more politically and socially aware children’s literature of the modern period,

Reading her obituary in the Guardian, I am amazed at authors whose lives she crossed: Arthur Ransome, Beatrix Potter, C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien. And her work now stands deservedly alongside theirs on bookshelves in homes, libraries and bookstores across the world.

If you haven’t yet read Diana Wynne Jones, you are missing wonderful things. I particularly recommend Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant (in that order), Howl’s Moving Castle, and Deep Secret.

“You Are Not the Only Person on This Earth”

Friday, March 4th, 2011

At The Common Review, Rebekah Frumkin’s “Our Psychic Living Room” preaches to this already-converted David Foster Wallace fan:

What Wallace is often trying to say in his fiction and essays–the message, as it were, at the heart of so much outpouring of feeling–is simple: think about someone else besides yourself. Which is a message a lot of us need desperately to hear. Wallace attacked the bored stasis of the unengaged American life–the stoned sitting and staring, the herdlike consumption of pleasure-inducing drugs (which could be anything from alcohol and cocaine to shopping and television)–and sounded an unselfish call to action. As someone who fought valiantly to escape the constraints of his own troubled mind, Wallace knew the value of a good change in perspective. “You are not the only person on this earth,” he seems to be telling his readers. “You really need to understand that and try to act accordingly.” If every bored person could just wake up and stand witness to what’s happening in the world, then maybe we’d all be a little more generous with our time and resources.

Emphasis mine, as it’s something that’s come up a few times this week. Article via Arts and Letters Daily.

Making Time, Again

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

In recent entries about the answer to “where do you find the time?” (here, from McSweeny’s, and a holiday version, in which I can’t believe I forgot to write: Don’t send cards, especially if all you’re doing to do is send pre-made cards with your signatures.) I noted my favorite Lee Smith quote about women writers. I was remiss in not mentioning my friend M who blogs at Mental Multivitamin, who has also influenced me, both in my attitude toward taking time, as well as in helping me teach myself what I value enough to take time for, like reading, writing, and, as she calls it, the life of the auto-didact.

If you struggle with finding time to read and write, or if you find yourself wrapped up in shoulds to the exclusions of things that nurture your self, be it emotional, intellectual, physical or spiritual, then this entry, and the links within it might help.

From “Where Do You Find the Time“:

I make time for the things without which I could not live — my family, my work, and my studies. And then I make time for the things among all the rest that will enliven my sense of self; and, of course, this has and always will include involvement with my community. But — and this is essential — it will be on my terms, not someone else’s

“Await Your Reply” by Dan Chaon

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

I re-read Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon, ostensibly for Books and Bars. But for those of you who don’t live in MN, we got a monster storm last weekend with 16+ inches followed by bitter sub-zero weather. The streets are plowed out mostly, but parking and the cold are still formidable. I skipped B & B and stayed home, snuggled down on the loveseat with my husband and 2 boys for The Muppet Christmas Carol. 7yo Drake remembered many details from last year. 4yo Guppy covered his eyes at the scary parts. And husband G. Grod didn’t quite stay awake for the whole thing. The Marley brothers, Jacob and “Robert”? Ha! It was a satisfying night.

But, back to Await Your Reply, which I read earlier this year and thought was very good. A re-read not only confirmed, but increased my high opinion of it. This is a smart, fast-paced mystery, with sympathetic and fascinating characters. Ryan is a young man who has recently met his birth father and established a relationship with him. Lucy is a high school senior who runs off with her history teacher from small-town Pompey, Ohio. And Miles Cheshire has been trying to find his missing twin Hayden for over a decade. The chapters alternate among these three tales and six characters. The momentum and connections build until the book becomes hard to, and irritating to have to, put down. I found it well worth re-reading, noticing many more small details that flew by me the first time, and making me wonder at all the things I still might be missing, including allusions Chaon refers to in the author interview at the end of the TPB.

Read this book. And read it again. I do not think you’ll be disappointed. Enthralled, rather.

Wondering: why was this book not included in the 2010 Morning News Tournament of Books? I think it could have handily bested the winner of last year, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Obsessive book-geek good news: The long list for the 2011 tournament was published this morning!

Obsessive book-geek better news: They’re accepting applications for a guest judge! I’m going to apply! I’m all aquiver with geek joy.

On New Translations

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

I recently finished reading the newest translation of Madame Bovary. A Julian Barnes article on translation made me wonder at the recent hype, and this piece on translated works at articulated the question that had been nagging at me:

We have been imbibing “Bovary,’’ “Zhivago,’’ “War and Peace,’’ and a host of other classics quite peaceably for decades. Is it possible that the lust for lucre, rather than the luster of literary merit, drives this rush to push new/old product onto the shelves?

Certainly the “new!” aspect of it makes it seem more desirable, and gets more press. But I’m now suspicious, and wondering if I haven’t been duped. Link from Blog of a Bookslut.

A History of Translating “Madame Bovary”

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

At the London Review of Books, Julian Barnes, author of Flaubert’s Parrot and other acclaimed works, on Madame Bovary:

Madame Bovary is many things — a perfect piece of fictional machinery, the pinnacle of realism, the slaughterer of Romanticism, a complex study of failure — but it is also the first great shopping and fucking novel.

He discusses, with several examples, the perils of translations and what strengths the new one by Lydia Davis has, and has not. I’d wait till after you read the Davis translation to read this piece, though. Link from Blog of a Bookslut.

Twin Cities Book Fest: James Howard Kunstler and M.T. Anderson

Monday, October 18th, 2010

One of my favorite Twin Cities events is the annual Rain Taxi book fest. I walk into the building where it’s held, and a feeling of peace and happiness comes over me. “These are my people,” I think to myself, surrounded by writers and readers. All day there are exhibits by local publishers, writers, bookshops and other book-related but the real draws are the children’s pavilion, where authors read and sign all day for an all-ages audience, and my favorite, the panels throughout the day with well-known authors. This year I went to see James Howard Kunstler and M.T. Anderson, both of whose books have been recommended by fellow bookish blogger Mental Multivitamin.

Kunstler is the author of the non-fiction The Long Emergency, about the over-reliance on cheap fuel, and the wishful thinking that will get us into trouble. He’s written two novels, World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron (long “e” in Hebron, as they pronounce it in NY and OH), based on what life might be like in the aftermath of a fuel breakdown.

In person, Kunstler is energetic, funny, and doesn’t sugarcoat anything, as when he said each time he visits the Twin Cities the downtown gets worse and worse. He railed against what he called “the incapacity to construct a coherent narrative between what’s happening to us and what we’re going to do about it.” He sums up “what’s happening” as a threefold crisis: financial, energy and climate. He says these three are struggling for primacy, and currently the financial crisis is “winning” by getting the most attention. He noted that distress and delusion rise together, and a symptom of them is something he calls “techno-grandiosity,” especially interesting because many of the other Book Fest panels were on technology and its relation to reading, writing and publishing. Along these lines, he warned we’ll be disappointed by alternative energy sources when we don’t have cheap global fuel to fall back on. We’ll need to make radically different choices, and not just assume that solar and wind power can pick up where cheap oil leaves off. In the US, he says this means we need a viable rail system as a true alternative to motoring and aviation. Building the rail system is what he called an intelligent response, rather than just wishful thinking.

He talked about why he wrote World Made by Hand, and addressed the most frequent criticism he receives, about its unvalorous women characters. “Social situations are going to change when financial things change,” he said, noting that women gained ground in the gender wars on the corporate battlefield, in wages, jobs and status. When corporations no longer exist, he says, struggles over gender will change.

Kunstler said he also heard from many who disliked the supernatural element to the books, especially given his no-nonsense attitude to science and uncomfortable facts about where the world is headed. In the novel, the city dwellers still have remnants of enlightenment, so aren’t superstitious. This clashes with the worldview of the religious, who aren’t “burdened” by beliefs in science and technology, like the character of Brother Job, who he described as a cross between Boss Hogg and Captain Ahab.

An audience member asked what Kunstler had against bikes and bikers. The author laughed and said for him, writing a novel was an emergent self-organizing process. He realized as he wrote that after a global breakdown, things like rubber and substitutes, as well as specialized metal for sturdy bike frames, wouldn’t be readily available. Further, biking depends a lot on paved roads, which would break when they were no longer used and maintained. Instead, people would choose more reliable off-road transportation options, like horses.

While he railed at many examples of what he called “simpleton views,” he did actually offer some advice: move to smaller towns and cities like Kalamazoo, Duluth or Grand Rapids, or somewhere that has a meaningful relationship with food production.

M.T. Anderson, author of the National Book Award winner The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, was an interesting contrast to Kunstler’s “we’re all doomed, but some of us are gonna be better prepared than others” take on things. Anderson got wide recognition with his satiric novel of the future, Feed, published in 2002. In it, most U.S. citizens are connected to the feed of the title, which is a chip implant in your head of a 24/7 internet. The main character, Titus, is a “distracted idiot” said Anderson. I re-read Feed last week, and was surprised and impressed at how well it had aged. In response to an audience question, Anderson said the one big thing he’d failed to guess and that had surprised him was the weird element of aggressive self promotion that has grown from websites to weblogs to the current age of Facebook.

During the Q and A, he was asked what bedtime story he remembered reading. He said he couldn’t recall, but he did remember his father singing him a song at bedtime about Anne Boleyn. He then burst into song, hesitating over some of the lyrics, but some audience members helped out to carry it through. It was a nice way to end the session.

In Feed, Anderson chose to satirize how we’re all going to hell, technologically and ethically. I don’t think he and Kunstler would disagree, but the latter goes beyond satirizing the present, to wondering what the heck happens after that. Seeing both authors, and hearing them speak, made me very interested in reading their current books, and I’ll keep an eye on what comes next from each of them.

Reading Update

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

At bat: Madame Bovary for the reading at Nonsuch Books
On deck: John Jodzio’s If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home for Books & Bars at the Aster on 10/26
In the hole: Villette by Charlotte Bronte for my book group
Next baseball metaphor here (help me out, readers, I’m NOT a baseball fan): re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and read Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, both for Books & Bars

Against Smug, Self-Aware Art

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

Evert Cilliers at 3quarksdaily on most current art:

There is a certain kind of art made here in America for a lofty but banal purpose: to enliven the contemporary educated mind.

You know: the mind of you and me, dear 3QD reader — the NPR listener, the New Yorker reader, the English major, the filmgoer who laps up subtitles, the gallery-goer who can tell a Koons from a Hirst.

This art is superior to the cascading pile of blockbuster kitsch-dreck-crap that passes for pop culture, but only superior by a few pips.

This art sure ain’t Picasso, or Joyce, or Rossellini, or the Beatles, or even Sondheim. It’s more Woody Allen than Ingmar Bergman, more Joyce Carol Oates than James Joyce, more Jeff Koons than Duchamp, more Arcade Fire than the Beatles.

It does not expand the borders of art or wreck the tyranny of the possible or enlarge our hungry little minds.

It is art of the day to inform the conversation of the day by the people of the day who need to be reassured that their taste is a little more elevated than that of the woman on the subway reading Nora Roberts.

For want of a better label, here’s a suggested honorific for this kind of art:

Urban Intellectual Fodder.

I liked his questions, even if I didn’t always agree with his conclusions. He’s got strong, contrarian opinions. and doesn’t note most great art is validated retrospectively, not as it occurs, hyperbole aside. (E.g., do I really believe The Social Network is the most important movie of the decade? I doubt it’s even the most important of this year.) But I like his criteria for recognizing great art:

It makes your hair stand on end. It takes your head off. It has a physical effect, like some kind of vicious blow that makes you jitter with excitement, or some kind of fierce cloud that enfolds you in a hard, clammy grip. It’s like getting a kick up the spine with a cosmic boot, or having your senses garroted by an expert assassin, or suddenly being plunged into water so cold it shocks you to death.

What’s the last book I read that did that to me, or even came close? (Off to peruse the list…) Of recent reads, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad was the most thought provoking.

Revisiting Books You Loved; Beware the Suck Fairy!

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

Has this ever happened to you?

You read a book you used to love, and–something’s happened to it! The prose is terrible, the characters are thin, the plot is ridiculous. Worst of all, that wonderful bit you always remembered…turns out to be half a line.

Then your book has been visited by The Suck Fairy, as explained by Jo Walton at Tor. This happened to me recently upon re-reading Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight. After reading the comments, I know I was not alone.

Why Read If We Can’t Remember?

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

James Collins ponders why we read if we can’t remember what we read in “The Plot Escapes Me” at the New York Times:

Certainly, there are those who can read a book once and retain everything that was in it, but anecdotal evidence suggests that is not the case with most people. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people cannot recall the title or author or even the existence of a book they read a month ago, much less its contents.

So we in the forgetful majority must, I think, confront the following question: Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?

I’m sure I’m not the only one relieved that he musters decent evidence for continuing to read even as what we read falls away. Isn’t that what life is, really?

(I think this link came from The Morning News.)

Author Libraries

Monday, September 20th, 2010

At the Boston Globe, (HT The Morning News), “Lost Libraries,” the strange, sad fate of many authors’ libraries:

Most people might imagine that authors’ libraries matter–that scholars and readers should care what books authors read, what they thought about them, what they scribbled in the margins. But far more libraries get dispersed than saved.

“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.