Volcano stories are never really about volcanoes, just like shark stories are never about sharks, and zombie stories are not about the shambling horde...moreVolcano stories are never really about volcanoes, just like shark stories are never about sharks, and zombie stories are not about the shambling hordes, but the few that cower from them. Sadly, this volcano story IS about a volcano--or rather it is about the volcano-related research that the author did in order to write it. It's full of sentences like, "They could feel the warmth from the hypocaust, a clever Roman heating system that worked like this..." in which you can feel how Harris is dying to tell you about this cool thing from ancient times. I'm all for cool things from ancient times, but it takes a great writer of historical fiction to make the details seamless, and this one doesn't fit the bill. (Disclosure: I made up that sentence, and it's a bit of an exaggeration, but not too much.)
Story-wise, Harris devised a pretty great premise, and then proceeded to march it forward step by deliberate step, occasionally prodding at it with something sharp, until it was devoured by pumice and ash and noxious gasses in the final 50 pages.
That premise is: Something is wrong with the aqueduct that services the towns around the Bay of Naples, and tenderfoot engineer Marcus Attilius is dispatched from Rome to investigate. The previous hydro-engineer, or "aquarius," has vanished without a trace, and it is all quite mysterious. Except that it isn't. The mystery is neither very complex nor very interesting, even to a reader who like me who NEVER figures out whodunnit and never sees the twist coming. In this case, there is no twist; the answer to everything is volcanoes.
But it's Attilius himself who is the real ball-and-chain of this book. If I had to describe his personality, I'd say...he doesn't have one? I guess he's kind of serious and stoic, humorless, not a good leader of men, not especially bright (though Harris seems to want you to think he is). He has a dead wife, which feels like something from the Instant Characterization Toolbox. "What's that? Nothing interesting about the character? I don't know [rummages through toolbox] here, give him this dead wife!"
Attilius's job in this book is not to be a person, but to convey the story forward. His job is to stay on the path, to go where Harris needs him to go. Go where the action is, fix the aqueduct, meet Pliny, visit Pompeii before and after, and so on. He's an unmanned drone taking us on a tour.
All that said, this isn't the worst way to pass the time. It is competently written, largely devoid of hideously amateur genre prose, and it's about ancient Rome, so it can't be all bad. If you've been to Pompeii, that will probably help. Harris's descriptions certainly do recall the place in recognizable ways. But this is no "I, Claudius." You'd be better off re-reading that.(less)
I'm not sure what I can say about my reaction to this novel, which is clearly a Very Important Classic Novel, and aside from that contains some brilli...moreI'm not sure what I can say about my reaction to this novel, which is clearly a Very Important Classic Novel, and aside from that contains some brilliant, beautiful writing and is genuinely hilarious in some places, and which at the same time I found extremely boring.
I could focus on the good, I suppose, which is that I'm glad I read this for Chapter 5 alone, in which they attend a performance of Beethoven's 5th. "...the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end." Yes, let's leave it at that.(less)
"Again, the Official wears a simply bitching white cowboy hat..."
In addition to being really good in a multitude of ways, this book caused me to laugh...more"Again, the Official wears a simply bitching white cowboy hat..."
In addition to being really good in a multitude of ways, this book caused me to laugh such that I convulsed, and made ridiculous little squeaking noises, and literally drooled on myself. Colloquial turns of phrase like the one above are delivered with just the right frequency that they always stun and surprise, and if you're me, revoke control of bodily functions.
Also the best writing about tennis,and maybe sport in general, I've ever read. I'm so, so late to this party, so tragically, unbearably late. Though the good thing about books, I suppose, is that the party never really ends, even if the crowd has thinned (or swelled with idiot latecomers like myself) and the mood has sombered.(less)
This book was okay. The main character is Tourette's syndrome, transported through the narrative by a flesh-and-bone cipher named Lionel Essrog. There...moreThis book was okay. The main character is Tourette's syndrome, transported through the narrative by a flesh-and-bone cipher named Lionel Essrog. There is no Lionel, there is only his Tourette's, and credit where credit's due, Lethem portrays it very convincingly. It's clear he had a good time coming up with strings of linguistic free-association for Lionel to bark at people. I put this book down feeling like I had a grip on what Tourette's is and how it feels to have those compulsions--not exactly what I most crave out of a novel, but well done all the same.
The story through which host Lionel carries parasite Tourette's is ungainly, slow, and not very interesting. The mystery's not all that complex, but Lethem still needs an essay chapter at the end to explain it all. Without the Tourette's, I'm not sure what you'd have here. I did enjoy the female characters, Kimmery and Julia. They were much more sharp and distinct than the males, who seem to drift in and out of the story without leaving much of an impression, which is exactly the relationship of this book to my life.(less)
I read the first 500 pages of Drood in a state of enthralled wonder--not unlike the mesmeric opium trances Wilkie Collins is so prone to--and then had...moreI read the first 500 pages of Drood in a state of enthralled wonder--not unlike the mesmeric opium trances Wilkie Collins is so prone to--and then had to drag myself bodily through the last 275.
I'm not sure what flipped the switch. It's not as if the writing changes (it's a model of stately excellence throughout), though perhaps it has something to do with the way your relationship to Wilkie, the narrator, changes over the course of the book. Maybe it's just that the deliberate, methodical, generous pacing finally grows wearisome. Whatever it is, the pure thrill of Drood, sustained for so long, wanes toward the end.
If the jacket copy description of this book entices you, then you should absolutely read it. It's the opposite of those books whose slow openings are worthwhile for the momentum they gather. This is a book whose brilliant first half-millenium of pages makes the slightly less gripping finale worth it.
A few reviewers here seemed put off by all the "Victoriana" stuffed into the novel. Aside from asking the obvious question--what else would they like it to be stuffed full of?--I'll just say that they're wrong. At no point did I feel like Simmons was letting his research take over. I mean, yeah, there are pretty much entire chapters devoted to close readings of passages from Dickens's and Collins's work, but those ended up being some of my favorite parts, and I think the most illuminating character-wise. The one that comes near the very end (Wilkie ruefully admitting the genius of the prose in Bleak House, "silvery pools in the dark sea") is, strangely for this horror novel full of crypts and entrails and burly detectives sapping people in alleyways, one of the most powerful and exciting passages for me.
Admittedly, these things are perhaps not for everyone, though why that should be I confess I have no idea. It's unintelligible.(less)