This is the third book in the eight-book Baroque Cycle, and also the third part of the first volume. So it involves a fair amount of tying together seThis is the third book in the eight-book Baroque Cycle, and also the third part of the first volume. So it involves a fair amount of tying together separate characters and story arcs introduced in the first two books, Quicksilver and King of the Vagabonds, which is mostly accomplished by having Eliza meet up with Daniel Waterhouse in England. (Jack Shaftoe does not appear at all in this book, though he is alluded to a few times by other characters. His brother, Bob, does make an appearance near the end, introducing a story arc of his own that intersects with those of Eliza and Daniel.)
Structurally, this book follows the latter part of King of the Vagabonds in switching back and forth between two geographically distant characters' points of view. Where in the second book it was Eliza and Jack, here it is Eliza and Daniel, who are much more similar in temperament and habit --- both are smart, cautious characters who observe, plan, and then act, rather than heedlessly throwing themselves into the thick of things. This makes for more suspense, and more sense that each narrative is building toward something, as opposed to just listing along from one episode to the next. But it also makes for fewer entertaining incidents, so if you really liked Jack's part of the last book, you might find yourself bored by this one.
Eliza by now is ensconced in King Louis IV's court at Versailles, where she has a sponsor of sort, the comte d'Avaux, whom she met in the previous book and who has gotten her a position as governess to the children of some noblewoman. That's only a pretext for her to be at Versailles, though, where she has several more important roles she keeps shrouded in varying degrees of secrecy. Nearest to the surface, she acts as personal finance manager to practically the entire court, most of whose members are nearing bankruptcy trying to maintain their households and wardrobes at a suitable level of opulence. Known to fewer people, she corresponds with d'Avaux, keeping him updated on what goes on at court; she also corresponds with the Natural Philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who has published his calculus. She uses a couple of different codes to write her letters; the letters she writes to d'Avaux are written in a simpler code that she anticipates will be broken by Dutch spies, who are her real audience for those missives. (D'Avaux, it was revealed in the last book, is working to undermine King Louis, but is not pro-Dutch either. I'm not 100% sure how much his agenda and Eliza's overlap, though I don't THINK he knows the Dutch are reading his correspondence ...) Anyway, at the highest level of secrecy, she's spying for William, the Prince of Orange, who intends to seize power in England.
And, reading that paragraph, you will start to see why I don't like the title of this installment in the Baroque Cycle. An odalisque is a woman whose defining feature is her idleness; she's kept by others to be idle, and beautiful, for them. Eliza, who has to be the one the title refers to, is dizzyingly active ALL THE TIME, simultaneously doing two or three incredibly difficult things, and making sure no one sees her doing them, at any given time. Stephenson might well have chosen the title ironically; that's the only way I can see it making any sense.
I mentioned that Daniel Waterhouse comes back into play in this book; he does, and when we meet him he has come into his own as a political power player. He's still a Fellow of the Royal Society, but he doesn't conduct any research of his own. Instead, he hangs around King James II's dwindling court, watching his doctors try to treat his advanced syphilis and talking with other people about what's going to happen next. He intercedes on behalf of his fellow Puritans, getting them released from jail whenever they get rounded up on suspicion of fomenting another rebellion (remember that in the first book, Daniel's father Drake was instrumental in bringing Oliver Cromwell to power, and was rewarded for this by having his head cut off once Charles II was restored to the throne). While he's watching and waiting, the Glorious Revolution happens around him. He knows he has played some role in bringing it about, but he mostly just wanders around dazed once it actually starts unfolding. Mostly, he tries to keep an eye on his friend Isaac Newton, who is going off the deep end, abandoning physics for some sort of esoteric metaphysics. His parts of the book, especially compared to Eliza's and especially toward the end, are anticlimactic. ...more
As with any Austen work, calling Lady Susan a "romance" is to court controversy. This is because the title character doesn't have a romantic bone in hAs with any Austen work, calling Lady Susan a "romance" is to court controversy. This is because the title character doesn't have a romantic bone in her body, and she --- along with just about every other female character --- regards courtship and marriage as less a search for True Love and happiness and more as a woman's only way to provide for herself and, eventually, her daughters.
Lady Susan is more frankly mercenary than any other Austen character, and she is not facing down the spectre of poverty, so she's more a hilarious, cynical antiheroine than a sympathetic character. She's no Elizabeth Bennett, one of many daughters of an obscure gentleman of modest means; she's the widow of one rich husband seeking out a second, and also trying to set her (maddeningly obtuse) daughter up for life with a rich husband of her own.
This is a very early Austen work, so the satire is much more pointed and direct, and there isn't as much subtle shading of character or gentle fun poked at the eccentricities of the landed gentry.
I also felt like the epistolary structure of the novel made it harder to follow the plot, especially near the beginning when there are so many different characters to keep straight. And while Lady Susan's letters are delightfully wry and catty, I didn't think any of the other characters was given enough space to establish a voice of their own. They mostly act as either hapless dupes or disapproving spectators of Lady Susan's schemes.
So, Lady Susan is a lot of fun, but Lady Susan is kind of a lightweight novel whose structure works against it. ...more
Just about everybody knows the story, whether they've read this book or not. That makes it a little harder to judge the book on its merits, since youJust about everybody knows the story, whether they've read this book or not. That makes it a little harder to judge the book on its merits, since you can hardly fault an author for failing to maintain suspense if you pick up the book already knowing what's going to happen.
Even with that difficulty, though, I thought the first part of the book --- chapters written as diary entries for the lawyer Jonathan Harker, who has gone to the forbidding Eastern European country of Transylvania, in the Carpathian mountains, to help a local nobleman called Count Dracula sort out his paperwork in preparation for moving to London --- was absolutely spellbinding. Jonathan's slowly unfolding terror as he realizes what the Count is, and finds that he has no way to escape the castle, infects you as you read it. It's amazing that it does this, because these pages are not written in real-time narration. They're Jonathan's diary, so with each entry we know he survived long enough to write it. That doesn't make his encounters with Dracula, once Dracula's pretense of friendship has been dropped, or with any of the other creepy denizens of his castle, any less spine-tingling.
If I was just going to rate that part of the book, I'd give it five stars. That part, Jonathan's captivity and narrow escape, is absolutely word-perfect. But there's more, and while it's still interesting, and still pretty suspenseful, the tension never mounted as high at any other point in the book for me as it did in that first chunk.
Part of the problem, for most of the middle chapters, was the constant shifting of narrative vantage point. Dracula is an epistolary novel, which means that everything in it has to be a letter, pages from a diary, clippings from a newspaper or anything else that could be written, or read, by the characters themselves. We meet the two women characters, Mina and Lucy, through their letters to one another; around the same time, we meet Dr. John Seward, a psychiatrist who is treating a really strange patient who eats bugs. All of these people write about very different things, and it can be hard to piece together a narrative from their correspondence and random musings.
Eventually, of course, the things everyone remembers from the movie start to happen: the deserted ship lands (as chronicled by a very excited newspaper reporter, whose article is clipped and saved by Mina), Lucy begins to be plagued by sleepwalking episodes, and then, after one really bad night, she falls mysteriously ill. She is pale, anemic and tired all the time. Here Dr. Van Helsing, the guy who knows vampires, shows up, and the characters try to protect Lucy from her nocturnal visitor, and, later on, to find his lair and destroy him.
(The second high point of the novel for me, as far as suspense and terror go, is the part where they're trying to flush Dracula out and leave him without a place to retreat to during the daytime to restore his powers. He has some huge number of boxes full of earth from his homeland, like forty or fifty, and he has spread them out among several properties in London. The heroes have to find them all, and render them all unfit for Dracula's use by crumbling bits of communion wafer into them, before the sun sets, or else Dracula will know what they're up to and either slip their grasp or kill them.)
One of the things that undermined the tension in a lot of the key places for me --- particularly during the hunt for Dracula's boxes --- was the author's insistence on recording long, mundane conversations in dialect. The characters go around the city quizzing day laborers about recent jobs they've had, to see if any of them were involved in moving the boxes: a reasonable and clever thing for them to do, sure, but did they need to transcribe every interaction in this vein verbatim? I think not. Also, the dialect is really thick, and a lot of it sounds twee to the modern ear, I think.
One of the other reviewers said something about class in this novel: how the middle and upper classes mix freely (e.g., Arthur, Lord Godalming, hanging out with professional men like Harker and Seward, and considering them more or less his equals) but the working classes are shown to be cheerfully subservient. They "recognize their betters", is how he puts it, and I think that describes the tone of the various day laborers' interactions with Seward, Harker and Van Helsing pretty well. So that's a little odd to the modern reader, too, as is the really obvious Victorian idea of women as inherently unsuited to do anything because of their superior virtue and inferior everything else. (I found that *very* annoying, myself. Even Mina, who is very intelligent and resourceful, and who is always gathering and compiling information for the male characters, gets a whole lot of "oh, the poor dear can't handle it" exclusion from both the decision-making and the action).
The characterization of Dracula is very interesting, particularly what Van Helsing considers to be his great strengths and weaknesses. His strength is that he adapts, and also that he was such a smart, brave and ruthless person in life; his weakness is that he does not yet know all that he can do. Van Helsing enigmatically describes him as having a "child-brain", which seems to me to connote a lot of native intelligence and curiosity, but not a very large body of knowledge or experience to draw on. But this is unexpected when you think of how old he is, or the later conceptions of the vampire psyche as one burdened with an excess of knowledge and experience! What was he doing for all those centuries? Sleeping?
Difficulties aside, though, he is a massively interesting not-quite-human character. (I have a special love for those, you may have noticed). I don't know that any movie portrayal has ever captured what a strange and terrible creature he is: Bela Lugosi's suave, sensual Count embodies his capacity to overrule other people's minds, but in the book this just *happens* when he's around, not even necessarily in the room with you. That incarnation of Dracula also didn't include his more predatory-animal qualities. Really, although the sexual and sensual elements are there, I think they have taken on a greater significance in the modern vampire stories than they have here; here, Dracula is far more fearsome than he is beautiful or sexy. I don't think he is represented as being at all sexy in this book; it's clear that vampirism, especially in a woman, is like a sexual awakening (or degeneration, to a Victorian: becoming fallen), but what is sexy isn't the vampire who bites you, it's the power you gain and the loss of inhibitions. Dracula is the serpent, only instead of tempting you, he creeps up on you and makes you just like him. ...more
A couple years went by between my reading the first book in this series and getting my hands on the second, but given how little the characters and evA couple years went by between my reading the first book in this series and getting my hands on the second, but given how little the characters and events in this book overlap with the first, it really doesn't matter.
Where the first book followed Daniel Waterhouse, Natural Philosopher and scion of a staunch, politically active Puritan family, and took place mostly in England, this book follows "Half-Cocked" Jack Shaftoe (whose nickname refers as much to an anatomical peculiarity of his as it does to his spontaneous and intemperate disposition) and a mysterious, beautiful and very clever woman named Eliza, and takes place mostly on the European continent.
It also has much less of an emphasis on 17th-century science than the first book, delving more into that era's political and economic developments. (Indeed, so much of the action of this book revolves around schemes relating to the buying and selling of shares of stock that I was both bored and somewhat confused for long stretches in the middle. Finance is like intellectual Kryptonite to me; can't understand it, have zero interest in understanding it.)
Anyway, the characters. Half-Cocked Jack sounds like someone took the most dramatic, colorful elements from Dickens (Jack's motherless childhood with his brother Bob, earning money hanging onto condemned men's legs as they swung from the gallows, ensuring a somewhat quicker death), Hunter S. Thompson (Jack is slowly losing his mind to syphilis, and as his side of the story progresses he becomes increasingly prone to vivid hallucinations which he cannot distinguish from reality), Jonathan Swift (in the frankly scatological descriptions of the kind of life Jack leads - hygiene is apparently a luxury a 17th-century Vagabond learns to do without), John Kennedy Toole and Gary Shteyngart (Jack's lewdness, sensuality and his knack for accidental heroism), and blended them all together in a single character. The actual experience of reading about this character's adventures is only slightly less awesome than whatever you've conjured up in your head while reading the previous sentence; the only problem is that they're so disjointed and episodic there's no sense of narrative momentum, just one damn thing after another.
The other main character is Eliza, a beautiful woman Jack rescues from a Turkish army camp during one of his brief spells of soldiering. When she first appeared, I wasn't sure I'd like her: her first interaction with Jack is a strained, eyeroll-inducing stretch of sexualized banter revolving around the tired, ages-old "battle of the sexes" scenario: the man has every kind of power imaginable over the woman, but because he desires her, that somehow evens the scales, or even secretly gives her the upper hand. Whatever. But luckily, Eliza is more than that: she's incredibly clever and a gifted storyteller, spinning tall tales that captivate Jack, who has lived more tall tales than most people have even heard. Like Scheherazade, she doles out portions of her life story (how she came to be a slave in a Turkish officer's tent, for instance, when she is a European woman who speaks English) strategically to make sure Jack keeps her with him long enough for her to get where she wants to go, which is Amsterdam.
Once Eliza gets to Amsterdam, she and Jack split up; she stays put, hoping to get in on the expanding mercantile economy and getting swept up in a scheme involving shares in a silver mine somewhere in the mountains of Germany, which gets her running in such high-rolling circles that she runs into a couple of lordly types who seize the opportunity to use her to further their various political intrigues. Her story gets more and more interesting and suspenseful as the stakes of her game rise and the rules get more complex; Jack's, on the other hand, seems to lose steam once he parts company with her. He continues to wander around Europe, with some vague notions of selling the fine warhorse and other loot he picked up in Turkey and thereby financing x more years of Vagabond life, and maybe also leaving something for his children. (He's never met them, but he knows he has some). He goes from place to place, stuff happens to him, he is increasingly unable to distinguish what's really happening from his hallucinations, which tend to resemble Elizabethan morality plays. It's all fairly anticlimactic, even though there are a couple of really awesome episodes. The book seems arbitrarily cut off at the end, for both of them, though. Eliza's arc in particular still seems to be building toward a future climax when the narrative ends and the (very long) section cataloguing the Dramatis Personae begins....more
The Afterword to this book says something like, "The Mill on the Floss is earnest, moral and long, and we wouldn't want it to be otherwise." Well, I wThe Afterword to this book says something like, "The Mill on the Floss is earnest, moral and long, and we wouldn't want it to be otherwise." Well, I was fine with the earnest and moral aspects of it, but I do think I might've liked it better had it been shorter.
I loved Eliot's faithful rendering of the strong emotions of the child Maggie Tulliver, and her spelling out detailed moral arguments between or within different characters, but I thought the book went really slowly, and seemed to ignore its own plot much of the time in favor of sketching out miscellaneous scenes from rural English life. And despite its melodrama, the story moved so slowly and haphazardly that I only sporadically felt engaged in it.
Also, Maggie seemed very much like a lot of other heroines from this period. I had started the book expecting to see a very odd, compelling character, but to me she read like an echo of Jane Eyre, Sue Bridehead, Agnes Grey, Marianne Dashwood or any other Victorian literary heroine characterized by a strong will, keenly-felt convictions, an active mind and imagination, a fine-tuned emotional sensitivity, and a childhood or young womanhood marked by poverty and loss....more