Well, this book is Margaret Atwood's attempt at writing that Neal Stephenson novel. This character, Zeb, is the primary protagonist and narrator, though the novel's framing device is that he is telling his life story to Toby, one of the two heroines of The Year of the Flood. So sometimes we get passages narrated by her, asking Zeb questions, drawing out more of the story from him, but mostly the book is told from his point of view, recounting his entire life up to the point at which the story is taking place: the aftermath of the Waterless Flood, with all the former God's Gardeners and MaddAddamites (the undercover scientists who passed information about the various genetic-engineering projects their employers were working on to the Gardener leaders) who survived the Flood reunited and living together in an uneasy, awkward peace with each other, the Crakers (the genetically-engineered humanoids created in Oryx and Crake) and the pigoons (the super-intelligent feral hogs likewise introduced in Oryx and Crake).
The present-time storyline, the one narrated by Toby, deals with the forging of that peace, particularly with the pigoons, with whom only the Crakers can communicate. With the help of the Crakers, it is established that the reason the pigoons are stalking the humans is because the humans have killed some of their young and eaten them, and the pigoons want justice. (The humans had not realized that the pigoons were sentient.) This process -- the hammering out of terms on which the humans and the pigoons might coexist -- is fraught with tension and makes for very interesting, suspenseful reading. The pigoons might not seem as malevolent now as they did in the first book, but they are still scary and they are as inscrutable to the reader as they are to the characters. In time, we see that they are trustworthy, but it takes a while.
There are also short passages where Toby narrates to the Crakers who the other humans are (the Crakers had only ever known about Crake, Oryx and Jimmy; Crake never intended for anyone to survive the Flood, and he deliberately sheltered his creations from contact with any human except Oryx), where they came from, and what happened to bring them to this place. It's tricky because she has to interweave her story with the mythology of Crake that Jimmy has already established in his role as their somewhat reluctant storyteller and prophet. Craker minds do not work like human minds, their thinking is much more literal and less abstract, so Toby does not try to tell them Jimmy's account might be incomplete or mistaken. Instead, she finds out what he has told them, and tries to graft the things she needs them to understand onto this accepted body of lore. These parts of the book are also very interesting -- Atwood does so much with so few words, such simple language.
One of my favorite passages is one of these: the Crakers ask Toby why Zeb says "oh, fuck!" whenever he's upset. Their formula for addressing another person is "oh [person's name]", so they assume that Fuck is a person. They ask Toby who this person is, and she tells them that he is an invisible friend who comes to help Zeb in times of great need.
But the majority of the book is taken up by Zeb's flashbacks, which detail his childhood in the house of an abusive stepfather, his escape from that household with his nerdy, exceedingly clever older brother Adam, and Adam's efforts to build an underground network of shady characters to enable him to steal his father's money (of which he has a lot, being the leader of a megachurch). That network becomes the one that encompasses the God's Gardeners, the undercover scientists and the people who re-settle the scientists with new identities once they've blown their cover, like a Witness Protection Program for radical environmentalists.
That's the part of the book that kind of reminds me of a Neal Stephenson novel -- Zeb and Adam fall into some fairly stock cyberpunk tropes in their use of the Internet to facilitate theft, fraud and espionage, and their donning and shedding false identities like so many different hats. Also, so many of Zeb's adventures, as well as Zeb himself, have that larger-than-life quality that so many Stephenson plots and characters have. (One example: one of the cover identities Zeb uses has him working at "Bearlift," a company specializing in helicopter airlifts of food for polar bears, who are finding it harder to forage with their environment changing so rapidly. One of these airlifts goes south, leaving Zeb and a fellow Bearlifter stranded on a mountain, where Zeb ends up killing both his co-worker and a bear in order to survive. This is all so incredible, and told with such nonchalance, that it is at least as funny as it is exciting.)
But Margaret Atwood is not Neal Stephenson -- if this were a Stephenson novel, we'd probably meet Zeb and Adam as adults, while Atwood sees fit to show us their childhoods. Zeb is an interesting character, and because his brother plays such a pivotal role in bringing about the Waterless Flood, you can kind of see why she chose to include so much backstory on them both, but sometimes you do get the sense that not all of these threads are connected, and that some of these plot lines are dead weight.
Not all -- sometimes, Zeb's story serves to fill in missing pieces from Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. The biggest, most obvious instance of this is Zeb's account of the formation and organization of MaddAddam, and his explanation of what their relationship to Crake and the Waterless Flood was (they knew of him, he was very loosely affiliated, but he acted on his own when he decided to design a plague that would wipe out all humankind and hide it in a mass-marketed sexual-enhancement pill), but another, equally satisfying bit of closure comes when we finally find out what happened to Jimmy's mother, whose mysterious disappearance was one of the things that didn't quite add up for me in Oryx and Crake.
I almost want to reread that one again, and see if I like it better now that I have a fuller appreciation of the whole story.
(A couple paragraphs up I compared Margaret Atwood somewhat unfavorably to Neal Stephenson, saying that she had taken characters and story elements similar to a lot of his, but told a much slower-paced story that takes longer to get off the ground, and sometimes drags a bit, but she does much, much better than he usually does at tying all the different threads in her tapestry together.)...more
What was that famous saying about how there are only two plots: the hero goes on a journey and the hero comes home? Something like that? Well, this boWhat was that famous saying about how there are only two plots: the hero goes on a journey and the hero comes home? Something like that? Well, this book tells both of those stories at once, and still has room for a very beautiful love story on top of that....more
With this enormous volume, the Baroque Cycle comes to a close. While there is the same kind of speeding up, adding new plot threads and jumping from oWith this enormous volume, the Baroque Cycle comes to a close. While there is the same kind of speeding up, adding new plot threads and jumping from one set-piece action scene to another that is typical of Stephenson's endings, I thought he actually succeeded at tying everything up in this one. I guess he can do that when he's got an entire epic-length novel in which to end things, as opposed to the fifty pages or so he tends to devote to endings in his stand-alone novels.
In this volume, unlike its predecessor, the three books blend seamlessly into one another, and the mega-novel reads just like it had all been written at once. (Maybe it was --- it was published first as a three-in-one volume, and only later were the individual books released.)
Daniel Waterhouse, the first of the three protagonists to be introduced in Quicksilver, is also the first to show up here. Having been drawn out of his long retirement in Massachusetts by Enoch Root, to try and mediate Newton and Leibniz's decades-long feud over (nominally) the credit for inventing calculus and (ultimately) differences of opinion on cosmology, he has arrived in England, where he is standing in a field that will be the site of an "Engine for Raising Water by Fire" (i.e., a steam engine). From there, he goes on to London in the company of a mysterious person named Threader, whose innumerable discreet business transactions with various wealthy townsmen make the trip take far longer than it should. Daniel figures out that Threader deals in the newfangled paper money that Daniel finds so baffling. At the end of this long, meandering trip, something explodes near their coach. Daniel recognizes the flame as that produced by phosphorus, which tells him 1) the explosion was not an accident and 2) whoever made the bomb is an Alchemist.
This one simple task that Daniel is given --- get Newton and Leibniz to talk to each other and start working together instead of at cross purposes --- mutates into an imposing snarl of "side quests" in RPG parlance: Newton is Master of the Mint, and plagued by a mysterious counterfeiter named Jack the Coiner, whom Daniel ends up helping him hunt down; Leibniz has found a royal patron for his Logic Mill project, and he wants Daniel's help in getting the thing built, as well as giving it raw information to encode. There is also a succession crisis --- Queen Anne is childless, old and sickly, and both her brother James and her cousin George have claimed the throne --- and a criminal investigation for Daniel to embroil himself in.
Both of the other protagonists, Jack and Eliza, have entered the story by now: Jack is, of course, Jack the Coiner, working covertly for Louis XIV to undermine Britain's economic power, and Eliza has attached herself to the Hanover court, as she is a close friend of Princess Caroline, whose mother wed George August, who is now one of the claimants to the English throne. Eliza and Daniel are playing for the same team --- Daniel is a Whig, mostly for cultural reasons (he's a Puritan, and there is strong overlap between the Puritans and the Whigs), he's helping Leibniz, whom Eliza also tries to help, and he's helping Newton, whom the Tories are trying to discredit as Master of the Mint. But Jack is working against both of them, which must cause him some internal conflict because he still loves Eliza, though he tries to make himself forget this.
Other characters figuring in this volume are Jack's brother Bob Shaftoe, who is still a sergeant in the Queen's (later King's) Own Black Torrent Guards, and who, with his regiment, helps Daniel and Newton raid a castle belonging to a Tory lord where they suspect Jack the Coiner may be hiding, and later takes part in some skirmishes with Tory militiamen. His regiment is also charged with guarding the Pyx, where samples of coins taken from circulation at regular intervals are kept under lock and key, stored until such time as someone high-placed takes it upon himself to have their purity assayed in a Trial of the Pyx.
There is also Eliza's handsome and resourceful German-born son, Johann; a Puritan shipbuilder named Nathan Orney, who has some wonderfully arch exchanges with Daniel (they call each other "Brother Nathan" and "Brother Daniel," though their feelings for one another are pretty far from brotherly); the huge, one-armed Russian agent provocateur named Yevgeny; the wily Jesuit priest Edouard de Gex, who is in England supervising Jack's sabotage of the English currency; Dappa, who has left Jack's employ for Eliza's, and who has taken up the pen to write articles condemning slavery; and Charles White, an odious person who serves the Viscount Bolingbroke, leader of the Tory faction, and who decides that Dappa, being a black man in England, must be someone's property, so he might as well be his, Charles White's, property. He has Dappa thrown into jail, from whence he directs all his pamphleteering at White personally. Their feud culminates in what may be the most absurd dueling scene this side of Twain's "The Great French Duel."
The ending of the book is truly epic: two climaxes build at once, cutting from one to the other. They have been long in coming: they are the Trial of the Pyx and the execution of Jack the Coiner. Stephenson draws them out, longer I think than any other scene in any of the books. But the drawing-out doesn't feel slow at all; it gives those scenes a sense of grandeur and finality.
Another thing I loved about the ending of this book --- which, after the two climaxes play out, consists of a series of epilogues showing where each major character ends up --- was its thematic coherence. Toward the middle of the book the title is explained: Princess Caroline is presiding over the reconciliation of Newton and Leibniz, and she tells them she wants them to work together because she senses that a new System of the World, a more rational one guided by science, technology and commerce, was being born, but that it was a fragile one that would require both of their combined efforts to keep on track. She specifically worried that the flowering of science would lead to a withering of Christianity, and she called on both philosophers to try to forestall that. At the end of the book, Daniel is standing in the middle of a mine that has been pumped dry by one of the new steam engines, and he reflects that the new System has succeeded in displacing the old. Throughout the saga, Daniel and Eliza have been instrumental in bringing it forth: Daniel has furthered the cause of Natural Philosophy, and Eliza has championed commerce. Eliza's anti-slavery labors also fall under the rubric of this new System: as Daniel sees it, the machines the new System enables man to build will do the work that slaves used to do, and will render slavery obsolete as well as morally wrong. (I do not think that this is true; I know that slavery has survived the machine age.) Newton seems to have one foot in the old System and one foot in the new; he's the world's pre-eminent Natural Philosopher, and as Master of the Mint he oversees the rationalization of England's economic system, but his great passion is Alchemy. Indeed, he tells Daniel he only took the Mint position to try and get his hands on the fabled Solomonic gold, the gold suffused with the Philosophic Quintessence that makes it heavier than all other gold and that, distilled, hardens into the Philosopher's Stone that grants eternal life. And Jack seems to be entirely a man of the old System, thriving on chaos and unpredictability. Everything he does --- undermining Newton's coinage, trying to have Daniel, Newton or both of them killed, throwing his lot in with the absolutist King Louis XIV, as opposed to the ever-more-republican English government, stealing the Solomonic gold and unleashing it upon the world --- seems opposed to the forces of Reason and Modernity, except that he also exemplifies some very modern values, like individualism and egalitarianism. As King of the Vagabonds, his command of the Mobb, and his appreciation for the Mobb's power and knowledge of its nature, prefigure the modern era when most countries are democracies. And in that way, Jack comes off as the most forward-looking of the characters, seeing the potential of mere peasants to be political actors when Daniel and Eliza are fixated on Kings, Barons, Dukes, Princes and Princesses.
Long story short, Neal Stephenson is a genius. I do not doubt I will revisit this series many times....more
This book blew me away with its depth of feeling, characterization, fast pacing and deceptively simple language. I was also astonished at how seamlessThis book blew me away with its depth of feeling, characterization, fast pacing and deceptively simple language. I was also astonished at how seamlessly Madeline Miller interweaves her own smaller stories into the larger backdrop of the Iliad.
I'm a huge Greek mythology nerd, have been so since childhood, so this is a book I theoretically could have written: taking something huge, like the Iliad, and adding your own small details to it. Filling in between the broad strokes of these archetypal characters. Retelling this ancient story in a modern way, while retaining a sense of its epic scale.
It accomplishes that by deliberately limiting its perspective to that of Patroclus, Achilles' beloved companion. Patroclus does not participate in the fighting until the very end; he stays with Achilles in his tent, and sometimes helps the medic, Machaon, tend the wounded. So the epic battles are largely happening in the background. What's in the foreground is Patroclus's relationship with Achilles, which is told to us in a series of vignettes covering a much broader time interval than the Iliad does, starting in their shared childhood at Achilles's father's court.
We see the action of the Iliad approaching, first from a distance, and inching closer and closer as the book progresses. The seeds of the Trojan War are planted early in this narrative, in a scene placing the child Patroclus in a room with all the other kings and heroes vying for Helen's hand, and swearing the oath with them to come to the defense of whomever Helen marries if anyone steals her from him.
There were a couple of other things I loved about that scene, besides the foreshadowing: first, Miller's ingenious sketching of all the other major Greek heroes of the Trojan War --- she gives only a few lines to each man, but those lines are so evocative that you immediately know who everyone is before she names them --- and second, her impressive rendering of Helen. Helen appears only once in the story, in this betrothal scene, and Miller makes the counterintuitive choice not to describe her.
(What ambitious writer could resist the temptation of describing the most beautiful woman who ever lived? There were lots of points in this book at which I had to stop and acknowledge Miller's cleverness as a storyteller, and the decision to keep Helen veiled was one of them.)
Anyway, once that scene is over and the war, and Patroclus' and Achilles' deaths, are looming ominously in the distance, there's a long lull in which Patroclus and Achilles become close friends, and then lovers. The scenes between them are probably the most romantic thing I've ever read. I can't do them justice in this review.
Besides their heartbreaking tenderness, these scenes also stand out for their characterization of Achilles. Reading Miller's writing of Achilles feels a lot like watching someone walk a tightrope, or successfully make a series of increasingly precarious leaps. There is so much that could go wrong trying to write a novel about someone like that, someone so much larger than life. The most obvious risk to me is making him seem arrogant, selfish, spoiled or rude. It would also be easy to make him a Mary Sue, too perfect to be believed. Somehow Miller manages to give him flaws, make those flaws believable, and also keep the character likeable without compromising the disastrous nature and grand scale of his flaws.
(Another masterful bit of foreshadowing: when Achilles is just getting to know Patroclus, and asks him what he did that his father would exile him to Achilles's father's kingdom, Patroclus answers that he killed another boy who was trying to take something from him. Patroclus wants to know what Achilles would've done in that situation, and Achilles says something like, "I don't know, no one has ever tried to take anything of mine! I imagine I'd get quite angry at them if they did." And does he ever.)
Around the same time Achilles and Patroclus are falling in love, we meet Thetis, Achilles's sea-nymph mother. Her characterization was another thing I thought was absolute genius on Miller's part; rendering a convincing, psychologically complex and realistic character who is also obviously not human is HARD, and Miller does it beautifully. This Thetis has a lot more going on than the Thetis we see in the Iliad, who acts solely as Achilles's advocate to the Olympian gods. Her interests are identical to his in the poem, but not in this novel! Here, she has certain ideas about what kind of a person she wants Achilles to be, and what kind of life she wants for him, and those ideas are not necessarily what Achilles wants for himself. He's torn between Thetis's dreams of godlike glory for him and his love of Patroclus, which brings him closer to the human side of his nature. Accordingly, this Thetis hates Patroclus and tries to chase him away from her son.
I also just like the way Thetis is described. You tend to think of the Greek gods as looking just like people, writ large, because that's how they act most of the time, but yet you also know that in their true forms they're almost unbearably fearsome. Miller's description of Thetis walks this line perfectly; she's a woman, with black hair and pale skin, but she's also scary and otherworldly. Her voice is not a woman's voice; it's a horrible rasp, a noise made by saltwater and stone, not vocal cords. Miller always uses the same sets of similes to describe her: her skin is as pale as bone, the line of her jaw is like the blade of a knife, her mouth is a jagged red rent in her face. She doesn't blend into a scene: she appears, and there is one or two people in particular she's appearing to; no one else even registers to her. You get the impression that she sees people --- mortal people --- as annoying brief intrusions on her timeless, eternal solitude. Characteristic of her are the words with which she dismisses Patroclus the first time she meets him: "You will be dead soon enough."
The last thing I want to single out in this review is Miller's handling of the relationship between Patroclus and Briseis, the girl taken prisoner by Achilles and then taken from Achilles by Agamemnon. In the Iliad, we never really see them together (they're both secondary characters who don't get a whole lot of lines in the poem, though Patroclus gets more than Briseis) and don't get the idea that there's any special bond between them until Briseis speaks at his funeral, saying she loved him. This novel, with its more intimate scope, shows us this relationship from start to finish. It also gives Briseis a personality and desires of her own, which is tough when your only role in the story is that of human MacGuffin to be fought over, and traded between other, more important, characters.
That's probably the essence of this book's genius, right there: centering the book on characters who are secondary, or even peripheral, in the Iliad and giving them enough depth to anchor a novel.
This is the book I will probably always wish I had written....more
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 thing I liked most about this book was its conception of what a modern-day Amazon society would be like: in some ways, Lori Devoti's vision makesThe thing I liked most about this book was its conception of what a modern-day Amazon society would be like: in some ways, Lori Devoti's vision makes a lot of sense to me, but other choices she made were very surprising.
The book is set in the modern USA, in Wisconsin, but with one major difference: Amazons are real, and they've been living undetected among "mundane" humans for about 2,000 years. For the most part, they live nomadically, moving between Amazon encampments scattered across the country and only mixing with regular people to conceive children. (This setup reminded me of about equal parts The Gate to Women's Country and the Harry Potter series).
These Amazons aren't all warriors, though: they have four castes, each specializing in different things. Most Amazons are warriors, gifted with strength and speed beyond what even an elite human athlete possesses and trained in the use of sword and spear, but there are also priestesses, who can do magic using the four elements; artisans, who learn the craft of tattooing and give each Amazon the two tattoos that mark her tribal membership and augment her powers; and hearthkeepers, who are domestics. They cook, clean, take care of children and basically keep the whole society alive and functioning from day to day. They are held in contempt by the other three castes, which strikes me as very odd, and weirdly sexist.
One of their number --- the book's protagonist, Melanippe Saka --- has left that world to join mainstream society. She owns a tattoo parlor, and lives with her mother, daughter and grandmother. She left the Amazons because she was pregnant with a son: Amazon tradition dictated that she had to give up this son, but she wanted to keep him. She lost the son, and held an elder Amazon in her tribe, a priestess, responsible for that loss.
The plot of this book is a murder mystery: ten years into her voluntary exile, Melanippe starts finding the bodies of girls who've been murdered, and whose tattoos mark them as Amazons. She tries to avoid getting involved, but of course she can't (there'd be no story otherwise) and soon enough she's forced to confront her old enmities and work with the women she walked away from ten years ago to stop this new danger that threatens all of them. ...more
We first meet Melanie, the protagonist and narrator of Daniel Isn't Talking, at a particularly vulnerable point in her life. She's a new arrival in anWe first meet Melanie, the protagonist and narrator of Daniel Isn't Talking, at a particularly vulnerable point in her life. She's a new arrival in an unfamiliar country, having emigrated from the United States to England to set up house with her new husband in a cottage owned by his family; she's not working, and is dependent on her husband for both financial support and social ties; she doesn't really know her husband all that well, as she seems to have turned to him soon after losing her boyfriend at the time in a tragic motorcycle accident; and she has two small children, the elder of whom is four years old and, you might have guessed, can't talk.
It's soon made clear that young Daniel has autism, and on the heels of that discovery, all hell breaks loose in Melanie's personal life. Her husband abandons her, leaving her the cottage but cutting off his financial support of her. With no job, two children to feed, and Daniel's various expensive tests and therapies to pay for, she is soon reduced to selling off everything in the house that isn't nailed down.
The rest of the book is about how Melanie gets on her feet again, establishing herself independently in this new environment, finding the right therapist for her son, getting her daughter started in school, and falling in love. This story --- Melanie recovering from the shock of her husband leaving her, and finally getting past her grief for her lover, and starting to live for herself again --- is good enough, if a bit cliche.
Supporting characters make it more interesting, like Melanie's friend Veena, another immigrant (albeit from India, not the US), who works as a cleaning lady while studying philosophy. She is funny, interesting, supportive of Melanie and understanding of Daniel in ways that Melanie, mired in her angst, can't be. She also gives Melanie needed perspective: she reminds her, gently but firmly, that worse fates exist than having an abnormal child. (I wanted to stand up and cheer when she said that; Melanie's woe-is-me, my-son-is-broken act REALLY got on my nerves!)
That said, the Melanie/Veena relationship smelled uncomfortably like white-lady patronage to me. Melanie pays Veena to clean her house, though she is not very good at it; what Melanie is really buying is her conversation.
Another supporting character I liked was Melanie's brother, who is barely in the book at all but who intrigued me. He lives in the US and takes care of traumatized parrots. Melanie doesn't like him very much, chiefly because he doesn't help her in any way when she's on her own and broke. She is disgusted by the fact that he has so much empathy for his birds but none at all for her.
The biggest thing that bothered me about this book was its treatment of Daniel, and, through him, autism in general. See, Daniel is really not a character in this book so much as a plot device, a Thing Melanie Must See Through. It's kind of hard to articulate why I think he's objectified in the text, since the story belongs to Melanie --- I would be unreasonable to expect all Daniel, all the time --- but it seems like Marti Leimbach never gives any hint, not only of what Daniel is thinking or feeling at any time, but that he can think or feel at all. He seems reduced to a collection of sullen silences, bizarre behaviors and random temper tantrums. In this, the book compares really unfavorably with Keiko Tobe's manga series "With the Light," which tells a very similar story about a young mother and her autistic little boy, but in which both characters are portrayed with equal depth, nuance and sensitivity....more
**spoiler alert** So, the first time I read this book (which turns out to have been exactly four years ago, to the day) I was so excited I gave it fiv**spoiler alert** So, the first time I read this book (which turns out to have been exactly four years ago, to the day) I was so excited I gave it five stars, but now, on rereading it, I do see some flaws, so I knocked my rating down to four.
I reread it just now because I had just gotten the third book in this trilogy, MaddAddam, as a Christmas gift, and at the beginning of that book there's a "Here's what's happened so far" plot synopsis. I found I did not remember a lot of what had happened in The Year of the Flood, so I figured a reread was probably in order.
And that leads into my primary criticism of the book --- there's not much plot, and what there is, you don't really remember. It sort of all happens at the end, all at once, in a confusing jumble, while the rest of the book is a long, slow progression of flashbacks and waiting.
(This was my biggest problem with Oryx and Crake, too --- so much of it was just Jimmy hiding out in abandoned houses, telling us his life story in flashback. This book has two characters doing much the same thing, only with more interesting life stories.)
This book successfully addressed a lot of my other problems with the first one, though --- I completely take back my statement about the worldbuilding being weak. The two protagonists of this installment in the series have lived less sheltered lives than Crake and Jimmy, so they have seen more of the world, and can relay a more complete picture to us, the readers.
The biggest new addition to the worldbuilding in this book is the God's Gardeners, a nascent religious movement that embraces simple, sustainable living in harmony with the environment and with all other animals. Both of the narrators have been a part of this group at some point in their lives --- the first narrator, Toby, is an older woman who joined them after they staged a demonstration at her workplace and enabled her to escape her abusive boss, and who stayed there for years, eventually becoming a sort of authority figure in the movement; and the second, Ren, is a young woman who spent most of her childhood among them and only left when her mother decided to return to their previous life in one of the rich, walled-off corporate enclaves, which she remembers but Ren does not.
I love the God's Gardeners. I love their philosophy, I love the detail Atwood lavishes on their modest living arrangements --- they grow a garden on the rooftop of a mostly-vacant building in a nasty neighborhood, which is also where they live, and they sell their excess produce at an open-air market. Most of their material possessions are salvaged --- "gleaned" is the word they use. They don't bother with electricity or running water --- what water they have is rainwater, and they have some kind of composting toilet rigged up. I love that they are shown living this kind of back-to-nature life in the heart of a decaying city.
Another thing I love about the God's Gardeners is their mythos. Atwood begins every chapter with a sermon preached by Adam One, who is the closest thing they have to a leader. These sermons are beautiful, and the God described in them is one that I could almost believe in. They are comforting to read, with their language of brotherhood and belonging. Each one starts out with an invocation of one of the many "saints" the God's Gardeners venerate, who are mostly famous biologists like Dian Fossey, Rachel Carson, E. O. Wilson, Carolus Linnaeus, Stephen Jay Gould, David Suzuki and Francis Crick (what, no Saint Watson or Saint Franklin?), but some of them are actual, old-school saints like Julian of Norwich and Francis of Assisi. If you have much background in biology, these Saints' Days will be delightful little Easter Eggs for you --- the ones you know, you'll smile at Atwood's gift for deploying them aptly, and the ones you don't know, you might be moved to learn more about.
There is also a Hymn at the beginning of every chapter, which Atwood has said are most strongly influenced by the styles of William Blake and John Bunyan, as well as actual Anglican hymns that I guess Atwood grew up singing. I like these, too.
I also love the characterizations of individual God's Gardeners --- Atwood introduces us to each one, gives them all unique personalities and skill sets, and she seems to love them all. Even the ones who are somewhat ridiculous --- there's the overly sentimental Nuala, who cries at the drop of a hat and "flirts with anything male," and there's the drug-addled Philo, called "The Fog" for his mental state. These characters could just be punchlines, but in Atwood's hands they have dignity and courage. Nuala has a genuinely kind heart, and she can pull herself together in a crisis and keep everyone else's morale up. She is also clever with her needle. And Philo can pull himself out of the fog that is his namesake sometimes, and provide occasional level-headed suggestions. He is unflappable and absolutely loyal to the other Gardeners.
There are also straight-up heroic characters, like the wise mushroom and medicinal-herb expert Pilar, who also keeps the community's bees. She seems like an unassuming old woman at first, but as Toby gets to know her and learn from her we find out just how much she knows, not only about plants, fungi and beekeeping but also about the world outside the Garden, and the Gardeners' ties to important scientists in the corporate world. We also find out that she can be fearsome --- she's the one who teaches Toby about poisons, including the Death Angel mushrooms that become so important to the plot later on.
And there's Zeb, who would not be out of place in a Neal Stephenson novel. He's a big, brash biker type who teaches "Urban Bloodshed Limitation" (a.k.a. martial arts) to the Gardener children. These techniques are not about beauty, sporting competition or meditation --- they are designed to end street fights quickly and decisively in the practitioner's favor. He is the Gardeners' primary liaison to what they term the Exfernal World (which I take to be a portmanteau of "external" and "infernal") and to other Gardener communities in other cities.
One of the things that Zeb does in this capacity is help move around refugees from the corporate enclaves --- a whole lot of the Gardeners, and pretty much their entire leadership, was once scientists working for one biotech company or another, but who left because they thought the work they were being asked to do was morally wrong. But some of the scientists who come to the same realization stay on, acting as moles for the Gardeners, telling them what's going to come down the pike in the realm of bioengineering projects, and working on their own projects aimed at restoring Nature to its original, unmolested state. (The one example of this that I can remember is a bacterium designed to digest asphalt.)
This is the part of the book where we start to see characters and plot points from Oryx and Crake seeping in: one of the refugees Zeb brings in to stay briefly at the Gardener commune before moving on to her eventual safe house is Jimmy's mother, who is finally given a bit more depth, and reasons for her random disappearance and cryptic postcards.
Near the end of the book, a raid by local authorities forces the Gardeners to disperse, and even though both of the narrators had already left the community well before this happens, it definitely changes the tone of the story. Ren and Toby start moving; Ren meets back up with her childhood best friend, with whom she's been in sporadic phone contact, and eventually also meets up with Toby --- they must've been holed up fairly close to one another. (These books are very unclear about geography. That seems to be a common problem with the subgenus of dystopia that has isolated enclaves of relative wealth and technological sophistication surrounded by vast wastelands of poverty and devastation; there's a lot of attention paid to characterizing the enclaves, and to drawing contrasts between them and the outside, but not usually very much invested in showing how one place outside the enclaves differs from another. It's a curious flattening of physical and human geography, and it always bugs me and makes the world seem smaller than it's supposed to be.)
Anyway, the very ending is a sudden explosion of violence and chaos at the end of a long, long stretch of nothing much happening. This violence comes from the three escaped prisoners who are now introduced --- well, one of them has been in the story for a while, as he's the boss from hell that Toby escaped from when she joined the Gardeners however many years back it was. He was violent then and he's only gotten worse since, having been in and out of "Painball," which is the thing Atwood seems to have come up with by asking, "What would be more brutal than the prison system we have today?" What it involves is randomly assigning prisoners to teams (red and gold, marked by color-coded tattoos on the hands) and having them battle to the death, armed with modified paintball guns (source of the terrible, *terrible* namesake pun) that shoot balls of, not paint, but some corrosive substance that causes the flesh it contacts to rot. Atwood says that prisoners are given a choice --- instant death by firing squad, or that. She goes on to say that all women prisoners, whatever their crime, and also all political prisoners, choose the firing squad. Anyone who survives Painball is rendered permanently unable to do anything but eat, sleep, rape, and murder. (She calls it being "reduced to the lizard brain.")
So, this is a story about all sorts of unbelievable things, from lion/lamb hybrids engineered for kooky religious reasons, to glow-in-the-dark rabbits, to extra-smart, malevolent pigs, to sheep that grow colorful hair extensions, to road- and bridge-melting bacteria, to a worldwide pandemic spread by a sexual-enhancement pill, and the thing I've just described is what I am having the hardest time accepting. There is no reason for a system like that to exist. And not because people are good, either --- because it would cost more, be ridiculously hard to keep secure, and inevitably involve some escapes. The only reasons I can conceive of for her to have included it are 1) another indication of gratuitous depravity and social decay, like the video games and Internet sites Crake and Jimmy bond over in the first book, 2) a reason to bring back Toby's nemesis at the end of the book (which she wouldn't have had if she'd had him killed or locked up until the end of his natural life, as would probably happen under our current US laws), and 3) an excuse for a really bad pun.
And, speaking of really bad puns, that brings me to another problem I had with the first book that did not get any better in this one: the cheesy brand names. I understand why she does it --- it's a satire of creeping corporatocracy --- but a lot of them just aren't funny, and there are so many that it gets really annoying.
Anyway, I still liked this one a lot better than the first one, and this one also somewhat improved my impressions of the first one. The God's Gardeners were great --- it was no accident that what stuck clearest in my mind between first reading it and rereading it were little details of the Gardener lifestyle. Characterization and worldbuilding are incredibly well done here --- plot is still a bit uneven, though I am starting to be in awe of her ability to tie so many story elements together and not lose track of any of them!...more
This is definitely my favorite book by Sinclair Lewis so far. (The others I've read are Arrowsmith and Babbitt). While the social commentary is as shaThis is definitely my favorite book by Sinclair Lewis so far. (The others I've read are Arrowsmith and Babbitt). While the social commentary is as sharp as it is in his other works, the characters in this one are much better realized and more subtly drawn. It's also a much more emotionally complicated novel --- we're not just supposed to laugh at Carrie, as we are meant to laugh at Babbitt, or to root for her, as we are meant to do for Arrowsmith; here, we're meant to do both of those things. Carrie might be Our Heroine, but that doesn't mean she'll always be in the right in this novel.
There are also a lot of really interesting supporting characters. My favorite was Miles Bjornstam, the atheistic, socialistic "Red Swede" who is Gopher Prairie's town crank and resident handyman. But there were a lot of others, too; I was really grateful that Lewis put so much thought into the characters of all these small-town wives Carrie alternately loves and hates --- they could easily have been caricatures (and a few, like Mrs. Bogart, were caricatures), but in this book they were not.
Carrie's husband, too, is written in a very interesting way. Sometimes, he's a buffoon, sometimes he's Carrie's oppressor and antagonist, sometimes he's her ally and sometimes he's downright heroic. In particular, his actions toward the end of the book really bowled me over. ...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