Really, really wonderful. The setup sounds like a straightforward accounting of sexist bias in the art world. And it is that, for a while. But it expa...moreReally, really wonderful. The setup sounds like a straightforward accounting of sexist bias in the art world. And it is that, for a while. But it expands into ambiguity, complicating its bright lines with the real world's and the protagonist's own complexity. And then it grows again, into a discussion about art, the superficiality of fashionable aesthetic experiences, and the desirability of efforts to democratize the masculine will to dominate.
Remarkably, none of these stories invalidates the ones that came before it, and none of them arrives at simplistic answers. The book gives itself a leisurely and tear-jerking victory lap, but I was glad to have it after the intellectual fury of the preceding chapters. Honestly, at 90% I was preparing to write a Goodreads review about the author's multiple-narrator/format device leaving the book bloodlessly post-hoc. But then I teared up more in the last tenth than any book in recent memory, and realized I'd just read a great character study after all. I don't know, maybe these Brazilian beers are stronger than I thought.
The one criticism I do still feel comfortable leveling is the book's treatment of Rune. (view spoiler)[Up to immediately after his betrayal of Harry, he works as a perfect counterpoint: Harry has been out-Harry'ed. Rune not only understands and can outmaneuver her, destroying her like she destroyed Anton; but Rune also has a complete and utterly nihilistic theory about the system of external validation of personalities that Harry is seeking to understand and manipulate. He seems to believe Harry's project is meaningless, despite its urgency. Terrifyingly, it is strongly hinted that Rune has no personal core at all--that he is nothing, and is so by necessity, because his art is about the meaningless shallowness of conveying any alternate sense.
This all sounds pretty silly and pretentious when I write it out here, but I think it really works pretty well on the page. Rune is a much more compelling character than I expected, and is genuinely a bit scary. But thennnnnn not so much. Rune is suddenly made petty and sadistic and pathetic, and disposed of in a head-scratching manner. It's unnecessary, and a shame. (hide spoiler)]
Otherwise, though, I thought this was great. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
It's a little depressing to see so many Goodreads reviews lauding the grace of this book's writing. It's kind of bad writing! In truth, it uses a pret...moreIt's a little depressing to see so many Goodreads reviews lauding the grace of this book's writing. It's kind of bad writing! In truth, it uses a pretty formulaic trick to evoke resonance and meaning: overwrought run-on sentences interspersed with smirking, percussive declarations. Pleading, plaintive, frankly embarrassing jumbles of words followed up with overconfident Joss Whedonisms. Read the damn thing again and you'll see. The offense is not absolved by our narrator repeatedly acknowledging her tendency toward purple prose early in the novel.
The book describes several generations of the Swain family, culminating in the narrator, who is chronicling her history while facing a long-brewing medical crisis. Poignant events occur during this history, but there is no particular plot or tension. Everyone is either a stalwart, a moony dreamer, or an impossibly quirky Irish small-town personality.
And the fucking Irish! So many words are spent noting the idiosyncrasies of the Irish character. I have begun to suspect that the Irish character is best characterized by its refusal to shut up about itself. Honestly, it felt a bit like a preview of one of those romantic comedies set in some small town hours from Dublin that I never care to watch.
So, look: the writing is less sophisticated than it pretends, but it's not graceless, per se. The plot is less interesting than it imagines, but it's not boring, per se. It's difficult to call this a bad book. It's just that there's so much artifice present, so many words designed to convince us it's a certain type of book, with a certain associated value. It's flatly not that book, and it doesn't deserve the associations that it helps itself to.
It also suffers considerably from its insistence on name-checking other books. This is both pretentious and self-indulgent. Please, no more literary books that bend over backward to pat their audiences on the back for the act of reading by elevating it to some quasi-mystical nonsense. (A partial pardon is extended to Carlos Ruis Zafon because he usually manages to kill a bunch of characters gruesomely in between rhapsodizing about typefaces or whatever.)
Anyway! I expect this novel to be optioned into a mildly successful film starring whoever the contemporary equivalent of Andie MacDowell is. But I really wish the Booker judges would stop falling for this stuff.(less)
I really liked this. It's pretty funny, for one thing. And as a chronicle of hypomanic self-defeat in the wake of a parent with serious mental illness...moreI really liked this. It's pretty funny, for one thing. And as a chronicle of hypomanic self-defeat in the wake of a parent with serious mental illness, it is truly outstanding.
But I do agree with Ben that the plot is thin. And worse, I don't think I agree with Ferris's conclusion. He seems willing to shrug off heritage and the circumstances of birth as irrelevant (and to ignore the protests of those offended by the associated cultural appropriation of the alternative). I don't think that's right, really. I thought our protagonist was zeroing in on the idea that suffering is meaningless and should be discarded, but that's not where he ends up. And I guess I just don't agree that identity is wholly ours to construct. That left me feeling hollow about the ending, and more disappointed than I thought I was going to be a third of the way in.
Well, that was quite a leap. Can't say I've ever gone from one star to five before. But I revisited and finished this book, and it turns out to be the...moreWell, that was quite a leap. Can't say I've ever gone from one star to five before. But I revisited and finished this book, and it turns out to be the impressive achievement that its fans claim. It's a masterful stream of consciousness narrative told by a deeply unreliable narrator and one of the most compelling and chilling depictions of mental illness that I've ever read. It's also a beautifully crafted example of authorial subtlety -- not so easy from the first-person perspective -- that deploys foreshadowing with grace and artfully conveys revelations to the reader while keeping our narrator unaware of them.
I think this book could easily wind up being used in high school English classes: it's well-constructed, harrowing and short. But there's another reason: the experiment with language. As noted everywhere, Kingsnorth tells the story in a "shadow language," a readable but still deeply alien tongue meant to reflect elements of Old English (while not striving for accuracy). As you'll see below, I initially found it deeply frustrating.
And I still think there are elements of the experiment that are a bit self-indulgent. What was gained by my not understanding, until the afterword, that "scramasax" means "dagger" or that "socman" is a class of free farmer?
Kingsnorth's afterword says that his intent was to more accurately portray the thought patterns of people separated by time and culture, and that language is an essential part of this. I'm not sure I buy it, at least for the purposes of a novel. Still, the language inarguably affects the experience of reading the book. It works your brain differently -- I found myself getting sleepy much faster than usual, weirdly -- and it changes how you perceive Buccmaster's language, with its limited vocabulary and lack of structure. There's a revelatory element, too, as the book progresses and one begins to wonder where the lines exist between Buccmaster's ignorance and his mania. It both introduces distance and sweeps you in to a place where you have no choice but to accept the flow of language. All in all a neat trick, and one that I'll grudgingly admit was essential. But it is certainly not without its frustrations.
ORIGINAL REVIEW FOLLOWS:
Boy. Screw this. When authors write in dialect the subsequent conversation is often tinged with difficult racial dynamics. Well, here the dialect is a made-up approximation of Middle English as the narrator describes the devastation of the Norman invasion in a stream of consciousness. It's annoying as fuck. I made it 3% through. An example, laboriously typed through autocorrect:
i will tell thu of this time my grandfather toc me trappan the ael i was a cilde a lytel cilde but my grandfather he wolde sae that the ways of the fenns moste be taught yonge or will nefer be cnawan
So yeah, okay: I don't really get to weigh in on this book because I didn't give it a proper chance. There are some people who will enjoy the artfully added layers and the alienness of the chosen tongue. For the rest of us, the dialect will be a superficial gimmick and a substantial obstacle to connecting with any emotional core that the book might have. And we will be inclined to punish the author with one-star reviews for wasting our $9.
Honestly, I loved Jim Crace's Harvest, from the last Booker class. That novel was a historically informed first-person rumination on the destruction of a kind of pastoral idyll in England. I was primed to really like this book. I am not going to struggle through this silly, showy stunt, though. Get bent, Mr. Kingsnorth.(less)
A fundamentally sad book, and one that I'm not sure I'm qualified to have an opinion about: I'm not Jewish. I certainly hope my friends who are don't...moreA fundamentally sad book, and one that I'm not sure I'm qualified to have an opinion about: I'm not Jewish. I certainly hope my friends who are don't see the world the way Howard Jacobson does; if they do, I suppose they'd know better than me. But this book seemed ugly and hopeless. Tons of spoilers follow.
(view spoiler)[This is a post-apocalyptic fable, but the apocalypse was an upheaval of violence, not a plague or bomb. The nature of the disaster is concealed from the reader at first, but eventually it becomes clear: a new, modern-day genocide of Jewish people has swept England and perhaps more of the western world.
Society is subsequently engulfed by guilt, and undertakes a deliberate program of historical denial. The genocide comes to be known as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. Everyone in the country enters a lottery to be relocated and given new surnames. History is erased, but an overpowering sense of guilt and consequent malaise persists -- as does a suffocating, if subtle, totalitarian surveillance apparatus that enforces the new order.
This is a pretty good setup, I think, and in particular could have been used in an illuminating way to comment on how America does and doesn't deal with its legacy of slavery. But Jacobson is not up to this task.
I hesitate to say this, because it could be uncharitably read as a claim that there is some rational cause behind outbursts of ethnic violence, which I certainly do not believe. But Jacobson's conception of his antisemitic villains is cartoonish. They lounge about getting drunk and listening to Wagner, sputtering stereotypes and stewing in sexual frustration over advances rejected by Jewish women. (This last bit is a particularly corny rhetorical tic popular on the left, I think, deployed with regularity and in a hypocritically puritanical manner to juvenilize its opponents). Jacobson indulges in antisemitic soliloquies for pages and pages at a time. He luxuriates in the imagined shape of this hate. It seems unhealthy.
He is willing to indulge in some seemingly earnestly held reductive stereotypes, too. Without a Jewish population, this world's arts have wholly regressed -- visual art is now just pastoral landscapes, and theater has ground to an utter halt. And the sole male Jewish character is portrayed as deeply neurotic.
The action concerns attempts by the authorities to rekindle the Jewish people by a program of subtly directed marriage among the few survivors they can find. The explicit theory is that only by having a population to serve as a scapegoat -- someone to hate -- can society achieve balance and find a productive outlet for its innate fury. To Jacobson, antisemitism is simply an axiomatic feature of the universe. He has his characters in the government briefly consider using Chinese immigrants as scapegoats instead, but this is dismissed within a paragraph or two: the Chinese are deemed too fundamentally strange, too alien, to be viable recipients for the kind of evil social energy that he has in mind. I don't mean to diminish the long suffering of the Jewish people when I say that this degree of solipsism is hard to take seriously. Horrible things have been done to many, many different ethnic minorities when the majority has been given the chance, haven't they?
And then it all just ends. A serial killer plotline is dropped two-thirds of the way through the book, without resolution. A main character hurls himself into the sea in a terribly cliched finale. Jacobson has indulged the emotional need that drove him to write this thing, and he seems uninterested in making it into much of a novel. The reader is left with villains that are not much more complex than those in an Indiana Jones movie; and a universal agreement among everyone in the book that antisemitic hatred and a drive toward genocide are ineradicable. (hide spoiler)]
It's an utterly horrible understanding of the world. I wish I had the personal experience necessary to repudiate it more thoroughly. Instead, I suppose I have to simply hope that my reflexive distaste for his hopelessness proves to be correct.
It's nice to have the trilogy wrapped up, but I found myself progressively less satisfied with each book. Rajaniemi's contribution is creating a narra...moreIt's nice to have the trilogy wrapped up, but I found myself progressively less satisfied with each book. Rajaniemi's contribution is creating a narrative within a post-Singularity society, where minds are indistinguishable from computation and identity is no longer constrained by individuality. It's a dizzying thing to try to read, but if you enjoy consuming sci-fi that only becomes comprehensible in retrospect, this is cask-strength stuff.
But there are problems. The universe is invented in the first book, and there are fewer fun add-on ideas in each subsequent volume. The Oubliette is a lovely riff on privacy and digital rights. In the second book, Sirr is a somewhat diverting orientalist backdrop (if not one that ever makes a ton of sense). But in the third book it's just plot mechanics and some extra details about how the Zoku society works. I don't think there were any additional inventions on par with those of the first two books.
Second, while the experience of reading something this conceptually dense is enjoyable, I find it leaves me with little memory of the actual plot. I'm not sure this is Rajaniemi's fault--he's a good stylist, and achieves more emotional resonance than many sci-fi authors (though still not much). But his universe is so mind-bending that things wind up being a bit impressionistic -- you can recall who's an antagonist, but how are you supposed to remember a narrative when you're rarely even sure if an event is happening in physical space or one of several types of simulations? Or if the people it's happening to are people or fragments of them? I usually have a pretty good memory for this kind of stuff, but I found myself surprised by how little of the preceding books I remembered. This deficit gets worse with each sequel. Here, in the third, I felt fairly adrift. The All-Defector, in particular--the book's chief villain--completely failed to convey menace. I get the impression that Rajaniemi got bored with his Sobornost inventions, but they always seemed much more frightening to me, but are left unused in this book.
I'll still enthusiastically recommend the Quantum Thief. And I think that if someone winds up sold on that novel, they might as well let themselves be propelled along to the trilogy's conclusion. Particularly if they can read them all at once. But I have to confess that this treat had lost a lot of its flavor by the last bite.
The Martian wound up growing on me, but there's a lot about it that drove me bonkers. The whole thing absolutely screams "first novel", and suffers ba...moreThe Martian wound up growing on me, but there's a lot about it that drove me bonkers. The whole thing absolutely screams "first novel", and suffers badly from Weir's overestimation of his own charms -- particularly the not-actually-funny narrative voice of Mark Watney, the protagonist/obvious author stand-in. This becomes most gratingly obvious during a scene in which a NASA psychologist is interviewed by a TV host:
"He sounds like a great guy," Cathy said.
"He really is," Irene said. "He was chosen for the mission in part because of his personality."
Barf. Watney comes off as one of those particularly pathetic antic comic types, the sort who measure humor in jokes per minute. There is a pervasive impish immaturity that's supposed to be charmingly youthful and disarming, but which mostly served to break my suspension of disbelief. This guy is supposed to be a brilliant scientist but finds jokes about boobs funny? Naw. Jokes about jokes about boobs are funny. Or possibly jokes about jokes about jokes about boobs, if you're a NASA-level intellect. Weir isn't able to write characters that are smarter than he is and it shows.
That limited ability to portray character depth extends to the other characters as well. Negative emotions are portrayed, but never really beyond the sort of richness you might find in a Sesame Street vignette about how Sometimes It's Okay To Be Sad. This is arguably accurate, given the inhumanly competent robots NASA now finds for its missions. Still, it's not exactly relatable.
So the novel's charms boil down to its boy scout survivalism. And I admit that I love that stuff. The book certainly doesn't live up to Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson on this front, but eventually the obstacles mount to a sufficient point that you become exasperated and relieved on Hadley's behalf.
I'm left wondering how realistic it all is. I can speak to the electrical and software engineering a bit, I suppose: describing 30-some volts as "high voltage" is silly, there's a bunch of hand-waving about rechargeable batteries, and using an LED voltage (probably around 2v) to produce a hydrogen-igniting electrical arc is ludicrous. But the software stuff is legit, and his EE knowledge generally lines up with my own (which probably means that a NASA engineer would be left in hysterics). I wonder how he did on the orbital dynamics bits. Probably not great, but it reads well enough.
The only howlingly bad part is when Watney decides to disassemble his living habitat to create another, more portable but wholly optional habitat. Maybe I'm underestimating the quality of NASA epoxy, but this seemed suicidal to me.
Also, the author has characters describe things as being "ghetto" a bunch, which is not great.
But I wound up staying up late to finish this book as it reached a pretty exciting conclusion. I think that earns it three stars. (less)
Alright, now we're getting somewhere. The psychohistorical underpinnings of the Foundation are laid bare and their ridiculousness becomes inescapable....moreAlright, now we're getting somewhere. The psychohistorical underpinnings of the Foundation are laid bare and their ridiculousness becomes inescapable. The collapse starts to look like paranoid second-guessing in a style that could be completely, wonderfully suffocating and revealing.
But Asimov doesn't know how to do that and so it just winds up with a bunch of twists and related nonsense. Still! Ben's right, this one starts to show some actual character development and plot uncertainty. This was a better book than the ones that preceded it.
I also have to admit that I've found myself making jokes and thinking in terms of the Foundation the last few days. So it's probably unfair for me to dismiss these books' importance. Asimov clearly achieved... something. (less)
Hmm. These are getting a little tedious. I was hoping that the Mule would be an answer to the basic problem that psychohistory makes no fucking sense....moreHmm. These are getting a little tedious. I was hoping that the Mule would be an answer to the basic problem that psychohistory makes no fucking sense. Alas, no: (view spoiler)[he's a magical mutant (hide spoiler)]. The eventual twist is obvious the moment it's set up, but takes foooooorever to be revealed. And when it is, it's via a big speech (again: Randian). Which prefaces the revelation that the last two books you read were a distraction from the main action!
I can see why this series is influential, but it embodies a lot of things that make me dislike sci-fi fans. Hopefully Second Foundation redeems it -- at this point I think I'm invested.["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This is a strange sort of coffee table book written by two figures who occupied central positions in the Bell engineering un...moreJohn Pierce was a badass.
This is a strange sort of coffee table book written by two figures who occupied central positions in the Bell engineering universe. The product is an accessible but rigorous treatment of concepts like bandwidth, modulation, multiplexing and a little information theory. It's all grounded in the functional requirements of the telephone system, including the various constraints that made one solution or another preferable.
The book drags a little once it gets away from clever physical processes and into signal switching, but perhaps that's just my own background showing. Reading the authors' rumination about the probable future of telecommunications is fascinating, and though they don't get everything right, they are impressively prescient.
The book ends with a discussion of ownership models for communication networks and some wistful tut-tutting about the Bell System's ultimate fate. But by that point it's hard to begrudge them. This is an information-rich love note to the science and know-how that brought us electrified communication. Recommended. (less)
A a boy, I collected Marvel trading cards. These were popular at school but ultimately less satisfying than the more encyclopedic Marvel Universe book...moreA a boy, I collected Marvel trading cards. These were popular at school but ultimately less satisfying than the more encyclopedic Marvel Universe books: the cards had so little space that heroes' attributes had to be boiled down to a five point scale, spanning dimensions like "stamina" and "energy projection."
I feel like I could apply this technique to Richard Powers. "Turns of phrase" and "subtlety" are both fives -- this is some impressive subtlety, clearly on par with cosmic beings like Galactus or that giant tree who lived in Quasar's closet. But his other skills are weaker. "Philosophy" might be a three. "Narrative inventiveness" a two. His skill at "endings" is no better than that of a healthy human male of average build with no supernatural augmentation.
I've only read one other Richard Powers book -- given to me as a test early in a relationship, which I suspect I failed badly -- but it suffered from many of the same flaws. Artful rumination about character biographies, a steady narrative progression, and then an ending I can't remember. There's no twist in Orfeo, but I'm left feeling similarly dissatisfied.
The book centers on Peter Els, a mostly-retired experimental composer who has spent away his life -- both years and relationships -- seeking the musical sublime. Most recently he's undertaken a little garage bioengineering, inserting a musical score into a bacterial genome as an artistic project. Law enforcement stumbles across this and Peter (somewhat implausibly) becomes a famous fugitive, reconnecting with the central figures in his life as we learn about them through flashbacks. This narrative can be affecting, but is predictable and maybe not that interesting.
As you might imagine there's a fair amount of stuff about the war on terror and mass surveillance. But it falls as flat as an email written from a big, comfortable house in Berkeley.
The book exists to present a thesis about music specifically and art more broadly. Much of this is fleshed out by rhapsodic (sorry) descriptions of the pieces Els listens to. Alas, I don't have the musical vocabulary to follow along, rendering these passages so much dancing about architecture. They should really sell the Kindle version with a companion set of MP3s.
But the lovely descriptions of pieces I can't hear or understand are there to build toward ideas. There are a few angles here: the postmodern exhaustion of possibility; the claustrophobia of accumulated history; the apparent futility of creating art in such an environment; and, most centrally, an insistence that beauty has absolute foundations--that it's not subject to relativism or reinvention.
These are conservative ideas, and depressing ones. I'm usually pretty susceptible to them, but only if they're followed by an implausible chaser of transcendence. The transcendence Powers offers feels threadbare, however. (view spoiler)[A blaze of glory rush into murder-by-cop? (hide spoiler)] Cliched. Beautifully, beautifully written. But badly cliched. Those final paragraphs might be the best summation of the book's charms and failures.
There's grace to Richard Powers' writing, but it's wrapped around ideas that are surprisingly unyielding. I'm not sure this is a problem, but it does leave me feeling strangely bereft.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)