August 01, 2010

Chenda and the Airship Brofman, Emilie P. Bush

I did not like this. The plot is costumey, somewhat Ruritanian, and the plot and characterization are rote--pre-War roles played by modern people. I speak as one who rather liked Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and also the Tomb Raider movies. If you mix those randomly with Girl Genius and The Moonstone, you might get this. My tastes are low, but this is incoherent.

I quit reading properly at page 38, with the heroine (rich young brilliant widow with a duty to save the Rebellion) enjoying her new costume. Flipped through later bits -- she does something important by having magic jewels, and gains accidental power over the weather. All gods are one god. There are a lot of exclamation points and italics and even ALL CAPS! Minor characters with funny names speak in broad dialect ("Dat Verdu is so da trickster! Dat dumb guard take de bait.")

However, Chenda's eyes are brown, not violet.

Find in a Library: Chenda and the Airship Brofman

So wrote clew.

March 06, 2010

The Air We Breathe, Andrea Barrett

The air we breathe can be as warm and unconsidered as family love, or carry a disease as subtle as distrust, or waft outright poison like betrayal.

Find in a Library: The Air we Breathe

So wrote clew.

London in Chains, Gillian Bradshaw

*Pots* of fun; a bildungsroman in which a young woman deals with family tragedy, civil war, political plotting, and sexism by dauntlessly becoming a printer. Also, romance!

Find in a Library: London in Chains

So wrote clew.

January 24, 2010

Mansfield Park and Mummies, Jane Austen and Vera Nazarian

This is the best of the Austen-plus-horror novels I've tried; this one is actually good if you like Austen. What most put me off Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was that I thought the author seriously disliked Austen, couldn't imagine that anyone really wanted to read it without the action scenes, didn't pay enough attention to catch the same rhythms in the interpolated prose.

Nazarian is not reverent of the original, but she is deeply affectionate and knows when she's adding anachronisms, in footnotes both arch and base. Also, vampires and mummies are plausible horror elements of the 19th century, so the seams aren't pulling across such a gap; reanimating mummies is suitable for a household that values tradition and inheritance and quiet, and vampires are all right for cads and adventuresses. ...The werewolves are just for fun, I think. Sometimes plot elements are just stuff that happens.

Why has Northanger Abbey not been pastiched? Because it is a pastiche of Gothic monk-and-murder novels to start with? But it would be a different interesting novel if the levelheaded realist was mistaken.

Find in a Library: Mansfield Park and Mummies

So wrote clew.

September 27, 2009

'The best way to make a small fortune...'

'...is to start with a large one' that you've borrowed. The Splendid Pauper certainly did, well-dressed and well-fed to the end of his days, despite borrowing so much and so unfruitfully from his friends and family and own children that he was nicknamed 'Mortal Ruin', after his actual name Moreton Frewen.

He was high Victorian gentry, the uncle of the eventual Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a second son; and his plans to make big fortunes ranged over the US (cattle ranching, silver mining, currency reform), Canada (cattle ranching, developing a new city), South Africa (mining), Kenya (land-grab colonialism), India (financial interest in proving corruption in other people's mines), Australia (mining). He was physically tough, reasonably kindly, not exactly financially honest but not nearly as much a scammer as some of his famous peers, clearly golden-tongued, well-connected, lucky in his marriage, and not even stupid about the schemes he was investing in; but he didn't make up with persistence and thrift for the capital he lacked, so the plans that did come to fruit made fortunes for other people.

His biographer winds up the story by arguing that Frewen was trapped by his emotional connection to a gentry that made its money from agriculture, when English agriculture was becoming a money-sink rather than a source of wealth. Still, some people made the jump from the old connections to the new money, and Frewen had more chances than most. His children had pretty good lives, the ones that survived the wars, and at least one of the houses stayed in the family until the twenty-first century.

The Hills at Home is fiction, the first of three novels, about a New England family down on its upper crusts, retreating to the family home pour mieux sauter. It's charming for its review of many irritatingly self-absorbed people, irritating each other; and fun in a flashy movie way for the family wealth they casually ruin to make themselves feel better (chipping the Ming vases, dragging the fur coat in the mud), and fun because they do rebound, they make clever connections and pull in favors and turn out to be more ruthless than feckless and the family fortunes bend upwards again.

If you actually found yourself near anyone like any of these people, historical or fictional, the safest plan would clearly be to attend one delightful dinner -- with your wallet left at home -- and never see them again.

Find in a Library: The Splendid Pauper

Find in a Library: The Hills at Home

So wrote clew.

June 09, 2009

The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway

The Friendship Pagoda is unassuming to begin with, but the good ones unfold and whir and glow much longer than expected, and sometimes catch on fire. Friendship is underrated.

The Gone-Away World is as perfect as a firework in its outer plot. It's a kung fu science-fiction apocalypse revenge story. I know there are a lot of those, but this one has all the proper virtues well crafted (elegiac tone; training montage; set-pieces on unlikely sets) and shuffles them nicely to keep it lively. Basically the parts, the deaths and trauma and restoration of the civil order, are not in their usual places. Good beach reading.

I thought the writing was good, too; not flashy very often, but often enough to seem restrained rather than simple, with a consistent voice for the main character.

What really makes my knees weak, though, and I love this book so much it's embarassing to say, is the moral structure that underlies just about all the important plot events. Not everyone I've lent the book to noticed this at all, it isn't didactic, so I feel a bit black-beret coffeehouse going on about this, but the moral is handy for our Or Any Other days... and it's used in enough aspects that I'm having trouble picking the best catchphrase. "Only connect the beast and the monk.", definitely; or, you will be what you have done. What you do for a nation, or corporation, or religion, or love, is still your action. But also, lightheartedly, and yet the same theorem; beware bug-eyed alienation of labor; or, keep an eye on the invisible hand. Harkaway doesn't make many of the jokes he could, not explicitly, but since the story reifies reification I'm pretty sure there's some coffeehouse in his temperament too.

It's a manly-man tale, but the women have character and consequence; this is not to be relied on, in either SF or philosophical novels, so it was a relief. It does remind me of Snow Crash, which was also a young man's coming-of-age story but with real female characters. This is a bit worrying, as I think Stephenson's increasingly crackerjack-prize women are a direct response to his worldly success as a writer.

The dust jacket on the (US?) hardback is fuzzy, which is seriously flocked-up, man. Partly fuzzy. Partly glossy. Should be slightly jelly-textured in parts to get across the unnervingness of parts of the story.

Find in a Library: The Gone-Away World.

So wrote clew.

July 12, 2008

Lavinia, Ursula K. LeGuin

Feminine virtue is the form and content of this novel; and that's a conundrum, because 'virtue' is by etymology and old custom male. This conundrum is also the form and content of the novel; I find the whole increasingly elegant as I think about it.

More explicitly, the story is a reimagination -- fanfic, really -- of Italy just as Virgil's Aeneas establishes what will eventually be Rome. Virgil is a character, as he is in Dante (and is plausibly, thoughtfully bewildered by the contrast). Lavinia herself, Aeneas' wife in Italy, is a cipher in Virgil, as a 'good wife' is a cipher in later Roman literature ('sweet and gracious silence'?). But the pre-Roman cultures are not nearly so oppressive of women; the Trojans picked it up from the Greeks and Persians. (Which is, as far as I know, probably anthropologically true.) So why did Lavinia agree to marry a foreigner who brings nothing but war?

Well, the oracle said she had to, and conforming gracefully to necessity is a virtue, and feminine in its unregarded difficulty. LeGuin manages to make it seem reasonable and tolerable as a life's work, although very sad. For that matter, she manages to make Aeneas a greatly sympathetic character, mostly by making his unkindnesses -- leaving Creusa, leaving Dido, invading Italy -- also a matter of conforming gracefully to he decree of the Fates, even though they promise glory through war that he hates. 'Virtue' is much in question:

"If a man believes his virtue can be proved only in war," he said to Ascanius, "then he sees time spent on anything else as wasted. Farming, if he's a farmer--government, if he's a ruler--worship, the acts of religion--all inferior to prowess in war. ... I would not trust that man to farm, or govern, or serve the powers that rule us. Because whatever he was doing, he'd seek to make war."

Find in a Library: Lavinia

So wrote clew.

June 19, 2007

Passion, Jude Morgan

Another version of the Wollstonecraft/Godwin/Shelley/Byron/Keats tangle; I'm not surprised that I can enjoy several, but it is surprising that this very realist, historical version lies so comfortably in my memory next to Tim Powers' fantastic one.

I don't know about the title, though... there are passions aplenty, but they all founder on the reef of money. It's not just the women who suffer the more the less they have 'five hundred pounds a year and a room of [their] own'. The men, no matter how artistic, are almost all warped by their desire for inherited or patronage money. Not all:Keats is born too poor and dead too soon to live for expectations. I can't tell how much of this is just a bad gamble on the quick payoff, and how much is because inherited money is more respectable in a way they haven't rejected with sexual and political respectability, and how much because working for a living was even harder in their day than ours.

Morgan's prose is delightful -- tremendously varied -- Caroline Lamb has a Mad Scene during a waltz, and it is subtly in triple-time; propulsive, dizzy, intoxicating. Her interactions with her family are little plays. The Marys exist in careful reasoned prose, Augusta Byron in slightly imagist thoughts, often a little behind events.

For those who can't remember -- the ending is not as tragic as it seems, through most of the book, that it must be.

Find in a Library: Passion

So wrote clew.

June 17, 2007

The Tent, Margaret Atwood

On retellings:

Listen, I said. None of this sounds like me. It doesn't exactly call out. How about getting me a job in the plot factory? I think I'd be good at that. What? he said. He sounded alarmed. I'd get the hang of it really fast, I said. I could make up some new plots, or give a twist or two to the old ones [...] What I was really thinking was, I'd be able to rope off a main character or two for myself. Fulfill my childhood dreams. Or I could do a whole plot with nothing in it but exotics. Exotics wall to wall. Then I'd be the main character for sure, no question.

This is a little book full of minuscule essays which are didactic, but avoid the lumbering predictability of most didactic work, since the point is right there right away instead of heaving earnestly into view.

The illustrations are little and angular too, with bird-beaked people very like some of the figures in The Space Child's Mother Goose.

Find in a Library: The Tent

So wrote clew.

June 03, 2007

Indiscretion, Jude Morgan

Morgan writes delightfully, particularly dialogue which one can imagine people actually saying (certainly saying to themselves, on the staircase, on the way out). She refurbishes the Regency novel without 'rethinking' it. There is nothing about the plot that isn't true of terrible genre novels. The heroine is poor and plucky, knows more than she is supposed to at her age but less than she needs to in her station, tries to protect her friends when it is not at all clear how, and finally achieves safe harbor in a good engagement.

Still, it's giggling-aloud funny, and the characters were real (not, perhaps, realistic; slightly Dickensian). My only regret is that now it will be harder to enjoy fluff written by worse writers.

WorldCat (Find in a Library) for Indiscretion

So wrote clew.

April 16, 2006

Snobs, Julian Fellowes

I would have left this as unconsidered fluff (bad behavior in high life; social system unchallenged; narration by insider pretending to be outsider), but I think I picked it up because someone compared it to Anthony Trollope, and there are coy internal cues that we're meant to compare it to Trollope.

It doesn't compare. It's true that most of Trollope's popular novels circle the expensive problems of the land-inheriting class, and the social and moral dilemmas of their sisters and daughters. It's certainly true that Trollope didn't expect England's class system to change, and that he didn't expect sainthood of anyone. But Trollope paid just as much attention to the interior life of his poor characters as his rich ones; I am thinking of two Reverends, one the undesirable Slope and one painfully moral, painfully poor one. Fellowes doesn't. Also, his characters seem to have only emotional crises, not emotional and moral ones; I suppose I can't rule out a diminution in moral feeling among the rich of England, but Joanna Trollope has characters with moral crises. Perhaps her characters aren't rich enough to be above these things.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

April 07, 2006

Shifu, You'll Do Anything For A Laugh, Mo Yan

Some of these are ghost or supernatural stories, and some not. All of them are so full of tension and possible disaster that the appearance of a ghost can be something of a relief. This must have something to do with their background in China, in the starving 1960s and the changed social contract since; something like The Uses of Enchantment.

And some things might be more realistic than I knew; children eating coal, for instance. The April issue of Geotimes had an article on pigs eating coal; to the author's surprise, this is well-attested and might even do them good; people have used pigs to find coal seams.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

April 03, 2006

Point of Honour, Madeleine E. Robins

Only in the last twenty pages did I realize that this is an actual noir story; until then I had been complacent and dismissive in the belief that it was a Regency romance coyly pretending to be a noir. I am grateful to have been so fooled; it reminds me of the line that 'you can't con an honest mark'.

I don't know why it needed alternate history, though. Surely the actual politics were sufficiently full of maneuvering and interest? I don't see that a Queen Regent makes a tough female character more likely: I didn't blog Charlotte : Being a True Account of an Actress's Flamboyant Adventures in Eighteenth-Century London's Wild and Wicked Theatrical World, but its subject was quite as reckless as any fictional heroine. (Her failure as a fictional heroine would be excess and inconsistency.)


Find in a Library: Point of Honour or
Charlotte

So wrote clew.

August 26, 2005

44 Scotland Street, Alexander McCall Smith

I found this very pleasant to read, but not memorable afterward. It was written for serialization, not just because the author happened to have such a contract but because he thought serialization would be an interesting experiment. The result is sort of gossipy and unordered, which realism is one of his strengths.

I was fascinated by one material detail, that a posh Edinburgh house had a 'drying room' in which everyone's undies were put on racks to dry. Now, I know the UK has clothes-dryers. Is it swank because old-fashioned to have a dedicated room? Swank because expensive? Swank because you can maintain more delicate clothes? Not swank, just one of those things old houses have? Not swank, just the way houses there are built?

From the vivid wooly descriptions of an acquaintance who studied in Edinburgh, I'd hedge all these rationalist material explanations with the possibility that it's a damp clammy way to live and that appeals to Edinburgh ascetics. But I know nothing about it.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

August 22, 2005

Lord Byron's Novel: the Evening Land, John Crowley

There weren't any surprises, wch I found disappointing. The parallels between the 19th c. family and novel and the 21st c. family and letters were too smooth, even though the modern half seems to be trying to persuade us that there aren't any real villains any more, or even real errors. By the standards of 19th c. fiction, even in the smoothed-out prose given here, the modern story is too easy to be interesting or even credible. I can, from the view of Byron here used, just imagine that he was working away from the Aberdonian concept of Christian sin, but I cannot imagine that he would have abandoned the idea of sins against, say, personal ideals, or Romantic truths.

The only open question at the end of both novels is whether the internal one, accepted as a nearly-lost work of George, Lord Byron, was a forgery, and if so was it forged by his daughter Ada Lovelace? Which is plausible; she certainly needed to "forge the uncreated conscience of h[er] race". But as far as I'm concerned Crowley only sets up the problem, he doesn't work through cases for the possible answers, or what they would imply.

The unavoidable comparison is to A. S. Byatt's Possession, which sets more puzzles. (Well, perhaps the Vigenere cipher and the email correspondence are meant to be taken as puzzles, although we aren't given enough of the first to chew on, and the second ought to be quotidian by now. They may be symbols, but as dry bones only which do not live.) Byatt answers more of the 19th c. puzzles, and sets up a happy ending suitable for a comedy, so it has taken me some thought to decide why I thought her book was more rigorous even though it finally turns out to be more fun. It's the characterization, I think; her people suffer more and enjoy more, my favorite being the sexual metaphor that rapidly turns into reading. Crowley's characters were more schematic, more like early David Lodge.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

August 02, 2005

The Emperor of Ocean Park, Stephen L. Carter

I can't not make the pun: this is great noir. It's an obvious joke because the setting of the novel is in wealthy black America; it's not a joke, because that setting is as treacherous as the best film noir ones ever were. The exact paranoia is that the hero knows that some of the people around him are betraying him, indeed that almost any of them might, and not only does he not know who, but because his life and wealth arises from social connections he has to pretend he trusts everyone.

Not that the hero pulls this off, since in the first place he's a reasonably fallible mortal and can't fake trust that well; and in the second place the plot has as many wills and graveyards and assassins as silver could put on celluloid.

It isn't In the Time of Our Singing, which is more complicated in psychology and prose (but pushes the assassinations farther offstage).

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

May 01, 2005

St. Dale, Sharyn McCrumb

There was a kerfuffle in a corner of blogland a while ago over whether Achilles is a hero. (Not whether he was a hero; and originally it was over whether Che Guevara is or was a hero; but Achilles is conveniently apolitical.) Brad DeLong hosted a lot of this and has at least one linkfest on it.

I thought much of the confusion was due to a modern, maybe specifically USian, oddity: that we have combined our ideas of 'hero' and 'saint' and we expect people's behavior to be equally combined. Possibly we got this from 'virtue', which has meant both 'strength' and 'goodness'.

McCrumb's novel follows a pilgrimage that visits NASCAR tracks up and down the East to lay wreaths in honor of Dale Earnhardt. It's supposed, I think, to make us more sympathetic to the many fans of stock car racing who grieved for his death as though he were a martyr. Certainly there are several wine-and-cheese characters who Learn to Understand.

There are also several uses of the word 'sympathetic', and understanding doesn't align with all of them. What I thought McCrumb showed me was that a lot of the veneration of Earnhardt comes from a confusion of virtue and strength; the latter was more clearly associated with Earnhardt than the former. The main virtue ascribed to him is instead a strength, that he never quit being as aggressive as he was at the beginning. This last will be deeply attractive to people who have to knuckle under a lot, but when it gets down to increasing your own son's chance of fiery death, I'm pretty sure it's heroism but not virtue. Cf. Rustum and Sohrab; but that wasn't done knowingly.

I think, not with respect to this novel particularly, that the confusion of strength and virtue is very useful and is therefore not examined very closely. The circle of thoughts looks like, Achilles is great; therefore Achilles is admirable; therefore Achilles is good; therefore anything Achilles does to continue winning is justified. At the end of this there are no bounds put on strength. Achilles himself never went so far towards wrong.

ISBN: 075820776X

So wrote clew.

Author, Author, David Lodge

There's humor and pathos in Henry James' life, largely because his personality seems to, like his writing, close itself against any accusation of humor or insult of pathos. Lodge should be able to draw it out, not necessarily by writing like James. Lodge has instead produced a biography that takes more pains than liberties. The first hundred pages are dull.

James embarrasses himself professionally &c. in the second half, which is a bit perkier but I only leafed through it.

ISBN: 0670033499

So wrote clew.

February 24, 2005

Pirates of Pensacola, Keith Thomson

Why pirates? I should read the Dave Barry pirate novel, he's probably resonating to the zeitgeist. Or v.v., by now.

As silly pirate novels go, this is fine and silly. The plot is extra-coherent in the way of slapstick movies, all wet mops guaranteed their day of vengeance. I was charmed that there's a Secret Pirate Cove hidden in an obscure Caribbean island, just as secret valleys are vital to The Island Stallion and Lorna Doone and other fine works; but Thomson has carried his pirate town into the present day and specifies in passing that the dense street trees were chosen to hide the town from aeroplanes.

ISBN: 0312334990

February 14, 2005

The Fool's Tale, Nicole Galland

Many melodramas rely for their action on our sympathy with obstinate stupidity: Keep the Aspidistra Flying, for instance. Tragedies relieve this burden of sympathy by making it unimaginable for their hero to behave differently. The Fool's Tale imposes that degree of limitation; it's obvious early on that retribution will occur, but it would be inhuman for the characters who rush to meet it to act any other way.

Better yet, the form of the retribution is obvious only in hindsight, and all the gritty medieval details are given as plain realism, so the retribution is all the more shocking when it finally looms up.

If I think about some of the dialogue as translated medieval Welsh, it gets less convincing. I don't remember anachronisms of matter, only vocabulary. Of course, all that really means is that it's not like the Oxford or Penguin translations of Welsh and medieval poetry I've read, and I don't actually complain that a modern writer isn't imitating Jowett. There probably isn't a plausible prose for popular historical fiction.

I was reminded of Dorothy Dunnett's The King Hereafter, the one novel in which she isn't debilitatingly worshipful of her hero.

ISBN: 0060721502

February 10, 2005

My Life As A Fake, Peter Carey

I admire the construction and ambiance, the extravagant setting and reserved admissions, of this novel; but I never really enjoyed it. It isn't quite a tragedy and it isn't quite a moral tale, and I neither liked nor disliked the characters enough to be drawn into their torments of each other.

I might file it next to A Pound of Paper, which I also couldn't quite get into, for their shared theme of literature as an escape from provinciality.

ISBN: 0375414983

January 06, 2005

@expectations, Kit Reed

I lost sympathy on the second page, when it became obvious that this was failing to be a Richard Powers novel. It would have been between The Gold Bug Variations and Plowing the Dark, only the characters are more predictable and less tragic, the prose more often falls out of alt into breathlessness, and theorems get name-dropped before any situation they could metaphorically be thought to describe is constructed.

It might have been choked at birth with chick-lit ambitions. I admit I suspect this partly because of the cover art, which looks like an ad for an online pregnancy test. The next suspect failing is that the female, lovestruck protagonist has a professionally competent history and no sign of being surprised that she's currently acting like such a goopy fool. I know that real people do this, hold all the cards but temporarily think like a fourteen-year-old, but I don't find it credible that they get all the way to the Learning and Growing stage without some amazement and self-recrimination for their own stupidity.

The last failing is an odd case of claiming something instead of writing so that it's obvious. The engine of the plot is a reckless romance in a MOO, and the credibility that someone could fall hopelessly in love in text is undermined by the slow, mechanical explication of exactly what gets typed, control characters and all. I think it would have been far more effective to have written the first MOO scenes as though they were materially real, because the story doesn't make any sense unless you believe that the characters experience the MOO as a heightened reality. Prose has better tools than a change in typeface and some @ symbols to indicate that.

This is a funny case of show-don't-tell because it's possible to literally show what the character would literally type, but doing so is what fails to show what we are told the character experiences. Possibly it was all meant to undercut our sympathy for the character, but nothing else suggests that this is so, including the reasonable and kindly ending.

ISBN: 0312874863

December 21, 2004

The Pirates! In an adventure with Scientists, Gideon Defoe

My other half thought this was very funny, somewhere between audible laughter and uncontrollable wheezing. I don't see it at all. There's nothing mean or vicious in it, so normally I would ignore it as a random variation in taste; but I have a cautious theory that it isn't random, that its appeal is specifically to the cool and maybe to the boyishly cool.

The subject matter is traditional for boyish amusement (pirates, monkeys, dressing up like women, repetitive word-games, meeting a hero and running away) and the treatment is perfectly flat. It's all funny precisely because the author doesn't care.

In-group cool requires that you know about, and maybe mention, the current right things; possibly all of that applies here but I'm not cool enough to know. The Pirates! is all mention in the use-mention difference to display cool affect, lack of affect. Pirates, monkeys, Darwin trot on and off stage but the plot runs on their accidental, not their inherent characters. Shit just happens.

The flap copy says the author wrote "to convince a woman to leave her boyfriend for him. She didn't." I'm not surprised, if she also found it a model of detachment. Nor would I be surprised if the copy is a final display of detachment and the woman abstract.

ISBN: 0375423214

December 02, 2004

Nobody Loves a Centurion, John Maddox Roberts

Neither the best nor the worst of the various ancient-Roman-mystery-series. This particular volume, the sixth, joins Julius Caesar in Gaul near the beginning of the famous military campaign.

The main character is a basically lazy young scion, who likes solving mysteries out of some combination of pissiness, generosity and curiosity.

ISBN: 0312320191

November 20, 2004

Gloriana's Torch, Patricia Finney

Wonderful spy novel; set in the sixteenth century, so literally cloak-and-dagger, and dashing in it. It's fairly grim, since it revolves around intrigues against Queen Elizabeth; war, civil war, religious schism, disease and the slave trade all come into it. It isn't as grim as, say, Patricia Highsmith. Some of Finney's characters do not betray those they love, and a few more do but don't enjoy it.

This is the third in a series, which I recommend you read in order; I liked the first but missed the second. The scale of events has grown through the three novels, so this one is in many parts an adventure novel. The writing is less pretty than I remember in the first, maybe because events move at such a thundering pace.

Along with intrigue and adventure, and credible character development, there is a big swath of mysticism and alternate history which makes perfect sense for the book; Finney explains in her afterword that she was wondering what the strategy behind the invasion of the Spanish Armada was, and she came up with one that would have worked, had her characters not foiled it. Half of them dream all through the novel of what will happen if they don't stop the Armada; horrible things, the least of them the destruction of London Bridge.

Some of her characters are Africans forced north by the slave trade. One intended to come North to free the other and also learn the making of gunpowder to put her nation on a better footing against the whites; but instead they are both drawn into this stranger's war and lost to their own nation. I was put off by the appearance of mystical, sympathetic black characters set up to die the touching but convenient deaths of sidekicks, but even in the Anglocentrism of the novel, I think Finney makes it clear that the other victory might have prevented more misery and injustice. Finney also apologizes for not knowing enough about West Africa in the sixteenth century. I think the final result is less using the Other for convenience as trying to imagine a past that was, now irremediably, distant and doomed.

ISBN: 0312312857

October 14, 2004

Tooth & Tongue, Bret Fetzer

I am thinking of the Oulipo. These fifteen fairy tales have all the standard parts, maybe only the standard parts; with so many canny peasants, greedy rulers, and pairs of sisters (pretty, plain), it should have felt repetitive; but it isn't. It's less repetitive than anthologies by different authors often are.

Therefore I have an image of Grimm's Fairytales cut into a prime number of cards (probably thirteen) and permuted; but not cut at the obvious lines. The results are exhaustive without being predictable.

This is a very dweeby reaction to have. I have no evidence from the book. I should instead praise the teasel prose and hyacinth dialogue. Also, there are illustrations, all disturbing.

Try reading the stories out loud for Halloween. If in Seattle, try to hear Fetzer read them himself; if not, he's recorded six stories as Fish & Fable.

ISBN: 097247630X

September 16, 2004

The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers

How unbelievably ambitious. Like all Powers's novels, the tone is melancholy, the narrator fallible. The underlying burden, of being black and Jewish at once in the United States from the 1930s on, is not quite as completely painful as the theme of Operation Wandering Soul, but has no comfort other than a gospel hope that it will end someday. I don't think the language is quite as beautiful as that in The Gold Bug Variations, but it doesn't matter, because the singer comes in with Dowland, with Bach, with Palestrina. The weight of the plot is probably a fugue (probably a Mass), with all the repeats and inversions and silences.

ISBN: 0374277826

Much later: The reviews and commentaries I've read mostly describe this as a novel about being black, or of mixed race between black and white. I think this is odd in the context of the novel, which implicitly covers the Holocaust and explicit antiSemitism. It really isn't a novel about either case individually, although it's long enough to develop characters in one case or the other.

The most impressive scene is an argument between two aging men in pain, one black one Jewish, on whose pain is worse; they are both usually too wise to have that argument, they do anyway, it's very painful even to read, and there is no real reconciliation: it's a destructive break within the family. Nor do I think Powers took a side in the argument.

August 31, 2004

The Wild Numbers, Philibert Schogt

This is an academic midlife crisis novel and it isn't about adultery. It isn't even about literary theory. It's sort of about math, though not so much that that should scare anybody off. It's short. It's good.

Even short, it's remarkably immune to the telltale compression of the pages. The plot has many reverses but doesn't signal whether it's going to converge or diverge. Still, the story concerns ambition, madness, despair, and social competiton, with supporting rôles for father-son relationships, love, and the impossibility of human communication.

I can't find a translator's name in the Plume edition.

ISBN: 0452282470

August 25, 2004

The Beekeeper's Pupil, Sara George

M. Huber was a founder of the scientific observation of bees; he was blind; his was lucky in his servant Francis Burnens, who, wrote Huber, was comprehending them as well as I, and [...] was born with the talents of an observer.

George's book adds no scandal or class war, in writing what might have been Burnen's diary. It's very orderly. The observations of the bees inspire mild reflections on human society, no more. It's a little like an Andrea Barrett or A. S. Byatt novel about Enlightement science, but their characters usually come to more painful ends. Neither the subject nor the reader gets "cruel delight" in this.

This isn't the only recent fiction on Huber; there's at least one poem cycle, Blind Huber.

ISBN: 074270414

June 02, 2004

Digital Fortress, Dan Brown

Laughably but not lovably bad, unlike SOS at Midnight, which was lovable.

There are four things going on in Digital Fortress: characterization like mid-era Carolyn Keene, some actual sex and violence to update it, a haphazard rehearsal of the privacy vs. gov't knowledge arguments, and a gormless attempt to use cryptography in the plot mechanics. The last provides most of the humor.

I am, for instance, hardly sure that a NSA manager wouldn't carry unauthorized assassination reports around in clear; or that the NSA has no important bottlenecks controlled by one unaudited person. If those are likely, then the parts of the story that hinge on the NSA'a gold-plated caution and brilliant techno-wheezery are less believable, so Brown loses me either way. Characters are also good or incompetent at specific skills at the convenience of the plot.

But the actual giggles were all in the climactic scene, in the countdown to disaster; we are to believe that a roomful of cryptographers and chip-wizards, many of them military,

  • are amazed when a sequence of four-letter strings contains 64 letters—a perfect square!
  • can't think of any numeric meaning for the word 'element' in the context of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs
  • describe a letter sequence starting 'quis' as "a bunch of random letters"

There were a couple other howlers, but those linger.

There was one interesting character, but he was dead the whole time. The plot revolves around his being immeasurably cleverer at math and/or psychology than the rest of the NSA. I can't tell if this is supposed to suggest that he was right in combating the NSA's plans to surveil us all. I think it more likely that Brown wrote him as another MacGuffin and failed to notice that he was not just smarter than the rest of them, but the only character who repeatedly acted on painful and examined moral considerations.

ISBN: 0312263120

March 19, 2004

Love Me, Garrison Keillor

Keillor doing what he does so well, but nothing he hasn't done before. The character and story of the novel proper, I'm going to forget within a few months, but there were a dozen sentences at least that made me laugh out loud; and when my other half looked up & I read them out, he laughed too.

If you really like Keillor, this will have just enough Keillor-isms to keep you happy; if you're neutral, I donno. If you're filled with the loathing of predictable Midwestern smugness that Keillor's most eloquent detractors convict him of, sharpen your pencil before you bother to open the book.

ISBN: 0-670-03246-8

March 09, 2004

The Slynx, Tatyana Tolstaya

Russia in a fantastic, tumorous re-Neolithic age, after a perplexing Blast; published without illustrations, but those can be assembled from elsewhere. My library had it out in a pile of 'Gloomy Russian Novels to make February seem Pleasant by Contrast', but this one isn't gloomy. The scraps-and-mutations culture post-Blast is tragic or cathartic, but usually violently cheerful; they live on mice & under Directives, but with high spirits.

Tolstaya's prose is vast, rumpageous, cheery, full of dialogue that it's a pleasure to repeat out loud. (Honor to the translator.) One of the cover blurbs calls it 'postmodern'; it reminds me more of the less refined works of science fiction's "New Wave". (Am I redundant?) A Canticle for Leibowitz, obviously, but with gusto.

The burden of the tale is to do both with post-Blast—post end-of-USSR, in part—politics, and with culture literary and material. Much poetry is quoted - more honor to the translator! - and and index of authors is given at the end. Chapter X runs through a fool's categorization of everything printed, The Yellow Arrow to Plaiting and Knitting Jackets.

Translated by Jamey Gambrell.

ISBN: 0-618-12497-7

February 26, 2004

The Island of Bicycle Dancers, Jiro Adachi

This has an ending about as grim as it could be, and still be happy. The survivors are tidying up their lives with regret, without permanent attachment to the lost.

Double cultural background for that practicality; working-class immigrants to New York, and New York bicycle messengers.

ISBN: 0-312-31245-8

February 23, 2004

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon

Written in the voice of an autistic fifteen-year-old. I found it modestly interesting as a psychological novel about autism, and more interesting as an exercise in prose. I suspect there's plenty of emotion-consciousness in the choice and ordering of subject matter that wouldn't really have been produced by the narrator, but scene by scene the exacting detail, confusing foreground with background, is convincingly odd.

A.S. Byatt wrote Still Life as an experiment in writing without metaphor (and didn't continue the experiment). One of the main characters in that is autistic or nearly, now I think of it.

ISBN: 0-385-50945-6

February 17, 2004

The Bug, Ellen Ullman

Ullman does write about what programming is like, and why it drives people and drives them crazy. My other half and I probably gave away a dozen copies of Close to the Machine to puzzled friends and relatives (I bet they read it, too: I used to disingenuously add, "It's the programming we find so compelling. The sex scenes are a San Francisco thing.")

No heroic coders in The Bug; one doomed coder, a tragic victim who makes everyone around him miserable too. I've read a review that couldn't see him as a tragic figure, because, I think, the reviewer didn't imagine how compelling programming can be. If not seen by The Light That Failed, he's really quite repellant. No worse than the poet of Ars Poetica, though.

I don't know if you need to have been a programmer or a poet to read this as a tragedy. You probably do need to program a bit to see that it's a classic fair mystery, very like the Golden Age ones with train-tables and floorplans of the country house. I was delighted when I decided she'd pulled that off in pseudocode instead of a time-schedule. Neither the story nor the mood depend on 'getting' the mystery; both are like The Gold Bug Variations, allusive and sad. "I alone am escaped to tell thee"; "I wish I were what I was when I wanted to be what I am now".

ISBN: 0-385-50860-3

January 22, 2004

Waxwings, Jonathan Raban

What a cheerful story - for the first few pages - and then there is Dickensian terror; and later, chapters at a time of louring doom. The resolution is none too awful, but still tentative and tender, like the day after a bad stomach-flu.

It's sort of a Seattle Tech Boom novel, and more an Academic Midlife Crisis novel. Like Seattle and the Demons of Ambition, it's rather a story of what it was like to be a confused accidental observer of the boom than an explanation from inside. Nor was boom-history, I think, at all its purpose; it's a good plain novel of characters, with intentional echoes of Victorian literature that I found apposite and graceful.

I don't think I seek out academic midlife crisis novels. They seem disproportionately common. I hear that professors of writing have been known to bridle at the suggestion that this is a genre; no solidarity, poor souls, no self-respect.

This edition is printed in a slightly odd font with capital letters peculiar enough to arrest my reading; but no colophon! I don't know what font it is.

ISBN: 0-375-41008-2

December 18, 2003

The Shadow King, Jane Stevenson

The previous novel, The Winter Queen, had an unlikely romance between Elizabeth of Bohemia and a theologian (and exiled African prince). They were secretly married and as secretly had a son, the protagonist of this novel.

It's entirely a grown-up historical novel - the situations could be setups for swashbuckling and intrigue and Man-in-the-Iron-Mask secrets. Instead the sober and cautious characters act within reasonable limitations, and it's gripping anyway. Seventeenth-century daily life was bloodsoaked enough, especially as the son is a doctor, and lives for a while in Barbados. He also has a completely unromantic, but very affectionate and moving, arranged marriage, to a woman who probably isn't going to turn out to be a princess in disguise.

Aphra Behn occurs as a character, and the one who most nearly buckles a swash, because she has so little common sense or self-control. (Or money.) Oh, she's a wonderful half-villainess.

ISBN: 0-618-14913-9

December 17, 2003

Elegance, Kathleen Tessaro

This is loosely in the Bridget Jones genre - young upwardly-mobile woman makes a fool of herself, learns not to, gets love of adorable rich young man. The hook is a (real) book of advice, called Elegance, by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, which book Tessaro liked and her heroine reconstructs herself by.

I quite liked the resolution to the heroine's psychologically painful upbringing; her parents have gotten better, and she loves them more easily now. The friends are also better than mirrors for the heroine's development. I'm afraid the love-interests aren't.

I am enchanted to discover that Dariaux's book is reviewed on PatternReview.com, which is itself a brilliant website, a gorgeously dense database-driven site that clearly works very well even for any not-computer-enthusiast users. I have a longstanding peeve with the "more whitespace!" theory of helpfiles, textbooks and instructions, and PatternReview blows that theory out of the water. If you present a lot of data in a way that illustrates its underlying logic, the presentation itself starts to explain things to the newcomer; and the ability to scan and compare is invaluable to the expert. Go, admire, do likewise; or learn from the review of Dariaux a sensible, comfortable set of rules for where zippers should go in clothes.

The bits of Dariaux quoted in Tessaro are against comfort; it's nice to see the other half of the argument.


ISBN 0-06-052225-9

December 07, 2003

The Coffee Trader, David Liss

A café noir, a half-thriller or mystery woven through financial speculation on the early market for coffee in Europe.

It gets a lot of its film noir feel from the social conditions of the Portuguese Jews living in Amsterdam in 1659. They've fled the Inquisition. Many were brought up as Secret Jews and are having to relearn or learn how to live as Jews. They are proud of being, on the whole, well-off among the burghers of Amsterdam, so they are also dissociating themselves from the poor Eastern European Jews who are trying to immigrate.

The internal ruling council of the Portuguese Jews therefore pretends to feel equal to the main society, but they're acting as enforcers against their own and are terrified - justly - of even a hint of scandal in the larger world. The cross-loyalties and dirty politics are far past the complication of, say, Raymond Chandler's Daly City. The several narrators, adventurers and speculators all, play the game more or less well.

The other driver of events is coffee itself, a perfect drug for the traders who decide to make a market for it.

There is no heroic shamus, no one to navigate between high society and low and bring out the truth. The weak lose everything; the ruthless get rich and still live in fear and regret.

ISBN: 0-375-50854-6

November 24, 2003

The Silver Gryphon, Gary Turner, Marty Halpern, eds.

I picked this up for the Kage Baker 'Mendoza' story, which was good, as were the rest in their range of genres. The writing-styles also differ bracingly. On my scale of taste, all were writerly enough to improve on mere plot, without being so mannered as to distract from it. I could even have done with a bit more mannerism, as I like a bit of overwrought prose.

R. Garcia y Robertson's "Far Barbary" reminded me a lot of the picaresque sections of Quicksilver. There's a travelling mercenary soldier who gets a large share of clever female company, for reasons he rarely understands, and a habit of cross-cultural analysis that tips from the insightful to the snide.

ISBN: 1-930846-15-0

Ars Poetica, Clay Reynolds

The narrator is a poet, but we don't get his own poetry; rather, his quotations of great metrical poets, stuck onto the history and rationalization of his career as a total arse, a manipulative, untrustworthy, malicious, arrogant, self-pitying failure to the end.

He claims that poetry made him do it, by way of drink and fornication. Academic politics are the likelier poison. The Invisible Adjunct mostly talks about how destructive nasty academic power games are to those who don't quite master them; here's a moral tale or the horror of winning.

It wasn't too squeamishly painful to read, though; there's a lot of distance between the reader and any of the characters.

ISBN: 1-881515-48-6

November 12, 2003

Passage, Connie Willis

I've been helping someone nurse at a deathbed. I'm not good enough to not distance and intellectualize, and of course it's books I use. Passage comes frequently to mind, for the increasing confusion and fragmentation of narrative, and the repeated SOS. SOS. Disaster.

It's my grandfather; he's ninety-three and got a lot done in his life. He was remarkably hale until a month ago, and was fairly pleased about his achievements. The very last thing he took up, when he admitted that power tools and the backhoe were getting beyond him, was braided rug making, and he came up with what might be a new technique. He wrote down instructions: I'll scan and post them in a bit.

October 03, 2003

Morality for Beautiful Girls, Alexander McCall Smith

Is this Imagist writing? I'm not sure there are any metaphors or similes, etc., in the whole thing, but the details paid attention to are vivid. (Was Imagism ever anything but a frail offshoot of preWar modernist poetry?)

The conversations are also exact, although many of them are about philosophy or morals so they aren't concrete. Very good. Not much happens - maybe not more than in The Last Days of Publishing - but I was enthralled while it went on.

ISBN: 1-4000-3136-2

The Last Days of Publishing, Tom Engelhardt

I thought more should happen. Either publishing (as the high cultural endeavor associated with nice bindings) should actually have failed and the protagonist should have dealt with that; or the foray into starting a DIY publishing house should have happened in the book, or the writing should have been more of a thing in itself.

ISBN: 1-55849-402-2

The Monk Downstairs, Tim Farrington

This is, technically, more of a bodice ripper than the costume romance I read just before - a button might be lost, in the most consensual and conversational way. The conversations follow a guarded balance between honesty and tact, in an educated California etiquette. Every so often there's a short letter on the anguish of lost religious faith, like a palate-cleanser between sweet courses.

The "readers guide" of questions is a quaint thing. It opens with an essay by the author comparing his life to the novel, but the " Topics for Discussion " don't mention the author at all or anything about how the writing might shade or evade answers that would have to exist of real people. Farrington isn't an especially plain or transparent writer; the sentences aren't complex but they are much studded with metaphor and lightly with allusions to philosophy and religion.

ISBN: 0-06-251786-4

The Seduction, Julia Ross

Costume melodrama - lace cuffs on men, jeweled swords, corsets. These fine clothes are removed - in slow stages, and after lengthy barbed conversations. Masculine prowess is displayed in mowing a hay field, which scene made me both laugh and fan myself.

The plot, and the characters, will have the charms of familiarity.

ISBN: 0-425-18469-2

September 28, 2003

Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson

I would like a great deal more philosophy, Natural or otherwise, and alchemy in this. The description of politics and cultural change is okay, the picaro adventures have trotted over a quantity of Europe and promise more continents still, but that's deep-mined territory. Technological history, and the maze of personal preferences sorted into perverse historical dependencies; that's what I look for in Stephenson.

I might have been wrongfooted by having been reading Dumas and Behn and Hakluyt in the last few weeks. The older the books are, the more my sense of the past as different from the present (not just a subset of our stuff and knowledge) is tied to its styles of rhetoric and composition. Quicksilver uses a few orthographical flourishes to seem Olde, "phant'sied", "Barock", etc.; but then the Sublime Porte is called Constantinople, not even Stamboul or Istanbul, which seems odd from a character who has lived in the Palace there. Possibly I'm wrong about when the, oh, power of naming moved West. Possibly this was an attempt to remain readable to some slightly other audience. More formal, arcane sentences, that's what I think it needed; the ones that sound as though the author is convinced he is or should be writing in a language with coherent but different grammar. Latin as an honor, Greek as a treat, physics as a weapon.

The main female character is more active (esp. in the sense of 'moves the plot') than the ones in Cryptonomicon, and she certainly gets more narrative time - I nearly said "screen time"; the constant harping on how wonderfully sexually appealing she is¹ is probably what exasperates more people into the "nerdboy masturbatory fantasy" description². Not that I think no-one should write or read or enjoy books with sexy female characters, but the continuing absence of non-sexy female characters - among so many interesting nonsexy male ones - is an anomaly in the distribution.

One notices that sort of thing, I hear, when looking for secret messages in a text.

I don't think any of the Natural Philosophers afflicted with stone in the urinary tract referred to it as 'calculus', although a reference to 'calculus'¹¹ on the teeth is made. Upcoming pun, or did I miss it?

Big old prop to Braudel in the intro, which is of course Just and Right; and I have a cookbook in my reading queue that is an even more thorough homage (in that it means to improve on the master).

ISBN: 0380977427

¹ Did the culture of the time make it impossible for a woman to do anything without using Feminine Wiles? Why, no. Consider Christina of Sweden and Caterina de Erauso. For that matter, there may have been a considerable history of armed women in Bohemia.

² Through Crooked Timber, indirectly. Possibly from someone else who thinks it started with Cryptonomicon; Y.T. in Snow Crash is not merely sexy but sexual, much more an actor, not an object; and the heroines of The Big U even more so.

Given that progression, maybe the real lesson is that the puppet female characters are what sell to the mainstream more than they do to math nerds. And, I should reiterate, there's a good argument that Eliza is a real character, not animated filler. (Am I looking for the term "NPC"? I fear so.)

¹¹ stone, cf. 'calcinate', or calculations with pebbles on an exchequer

September 09, 2003

Grass for His Pillow, Lian Hearn

I liked this better than the first book. The two main characters are in the middle of grand, operatic trouble, and are becoming operatic characters. Since their rôle models died of operatic behavior, they are thinking quite hard about what to do, but still do what Narrative Force requires. Good trick.

The woo-woo skills of the Lost Prince are less annoying because he spends much of his time among people who have as many. On the other hand, (plot spoiler)he turns out to be descended from at least two powerful houses! Predictable, when I'm annoyed by it; in keeping with its literary tradition, when I am more forgiving.

ISBN: 1-57322-251-8

September 08, 2003

Across the Nightingale Floor, Lian Hearn

This would have been perfectly plausible as a fantasy novel, but I doubt it would have had anything like the dreamy reviews it got as "Fiction". The plot has been standard for at least seven hundred years (rural orphan becomes noble warrior); the author has the good sense to steal from the best originals, and openly refer to the inimitable; and the writing is fine.

But... why on earth is there a secret Tribe of born assassins who can make themselves invisible and project second selves? And why does the hero have to be one of the best ones? Tokugawa-period politics was plenty interesting without. The rural orphan would be even more impressive if he didn't have the free deluxe extension set of powers from Month Two. Oh, well, this is a grudge I have against much of the pop entertainment of our day.

The high-medieval tragic romances, with swordfights, are just the thing.

ISBN: 1-57322-332-8

August 06, 2003

Punk's Wing, Ward Carroll

The best character in this is the jargon. That's not because it's a terrible book; but the plot evolutions aren't hard to guess, and the characters aren't long on dramatic evolution or soliloquy. It's set in a training squadron of F-14s, so there's plenty going on between the short soliloquies.

Half the jargon is wonderful. The in-group affectionate (?) insults and slang are vivid; the half-technical Air Force jargon is so compressed and specific, so expressive, and so clearly designed to be spoken - over noisy headphones, I imagine - that some of it is poetry. (There's a little subplot of a Son Going Wrong to rap music: I hoped for a flight-jargon rap, but no.)

The villain of the piece is also jargon. The obfuscating, self-impressed, inflated managerial jargon of much of the military management, most of the politicians, and all the industry suppliers is as evilly disposed towards Truth and Responsibility as the fliers' and mechanics' jargon is generous.

If jargon is characters, there's a semi-buffoon: the language of feeling and mutual understanding. The tough guys use it as though it were a joke when they actually mean to be kind to each other, which is quite sweet and endearing. There's also a Bridezilla subplot seen through the poor bewildered groom-to-be; another problem with inflated words and symbols.

Punk's Wing is the second of a series, and I hope there will be a third, because it really doesn't end with a triumph. By the end of the book the trainee fliers have mostly survived - survived learning tailhook landings, in-air refueling in a war zone - but the most lethal thing has been a Big Lie, speaking from the chorus of evil jargon, and it hasn't been confronted yet. It isn't clear that there's a mechanism to confront it. But clearly it was a profitable lie, and too many of them would be too much for even the studious, courageous, loyal pilots to overcome. I wasn't expecting a tragedy.

ISBN: 0-451-20877-3

July 25, 2003

Blue Avenger and the Theory of Everything, Norma Howe

Wierd writing style. YA, kind of sweet characters; hardly anything happens in the plot. The writing is self-conscious and self-referential like..
like.. Like a lot of things. Starts by micro-describing moments both quirky and bland: early Douglas Coupland. Soon refers, explicitly and in style, to William Makepeace Thackaray. Two pages later, a pseudo-advertisement for "KwikyRead©", which is both a response to the Thackaray pawn-gambit and frame-breaking, as the company being advertised appears in the book; very like Jasper Fforde.

I assume that much of this game about what writing style is usable in a YA book is the point of the book. Needs more non-self-referential stuff (characterization, event, dialogue, imagery... anything) to hang the virtuosity on, though.

ISBN: 0-8126-2654-0

July 09, 2003

Schools of magic

I think it wise, and only honest, to warn you that my goal is immodest. It is not my purpose to "transfer knowledge" to you that, subsequently, you can forget again. My purpose is no less than to effectuate in each of you a noticeable, irreversable change . I want you to gain, for the rest of your lives, the insight that beautiful proofs are not "found" by trial and error but are the result of a consciously applied design discipline.

...

Your obligation is that of active participation. You should not act as knowledge-absorbing sponges, but as whetstones on which we can all sharpen our wits.

Edsger W. Dijkstra, Introducing a course on calculi, EWD1213-0

I fear that the force of this as a "school of magic" will be lost on anyone who hasn't learned the difference between a proof and a heuristic, or rule-of-thumb, or hopeful dependence on the sun's having risen every day so far. Indeed, I am told that most people think of mathematics as the exact opposite of magic; although, looking at the wild-haired oddities represented doing both, there must still be an undercurrent on my side.

They even share the tragedy that we don't really live in that world; we probably live in a world of best guesses and rules-of-thumb. (Philosophy and applied science attack me from opposite sides; I duck.)

I don't know how much a capacity for joy in proof is inborn. I hope math (and philosophy and science) try harder than the Ministry of Magic to share the wealth. I know I judge modern representations of magic by whether they are at least as numinous as my (not impressive) experience of science; really, I think that's fair. Doesn't have to be the same, but has to be as gripping. And that's the thing that disappoints me most in the Harry Potter novels and the widest reactions to them; they are claimed to be fascinating because they are magical, and people are being palmed off with tinsel.

A. S. Byatt and some summaries of her essay think the magic fails psychologically, by not being attached to the development of the character's sexuality; I have my doubts about it politically, since the wizarding world seems pretty much parasitical on the mundane one. These might be ensubtletied in later books; anyhow, there are plenty of arguments about what art and power should be used for. Sex and freedom are only two of the favorites. The Potter novels are doomed to being library books in my household because the magic is neither art nor science; power at worst and marketing at best. Anyone reading this, as I write it, in summer, could see a larger world in a bean-seed in a cup of dirt. (You could even live bounded in a nutshell and think yourself master of infinite space, if it were not for the negative curvature.)

Dijkstra archives, URL: http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/EWD/

June 17, 2003

A Whistling Woman, A. S. Byatt

Far too good for me to write a real review of. (If you haven't read any Byatt, start with the short stories or The Virgin in the Garden, the first of the quartet ending with Whistling....

But one funny thing I noticed; Margaret Atwood writes science fiction and denies it. Richard Powers writes fiction about science that certainly gets very woo-woo close to science fiction but, AFAIK, never gets called on it. Byatt has a chunk of a fantasy novel in here, but it's pretending to be written by a character, so her use of fantasy tropes to say things about real life slides under the radar. Also, of course, whatever she's saying isn't obvious; and since she got away with writing some invented Browning and Rossetti, moreorless, in Possession, what's a little invented heroic fantasy?

Her characters judge some of the things going on around them in terms of Tolkien:

Leo thought that if Tolkien had been describing this music he would have said that it was like the endless rippling of a brook, with rapids and whirlypools. There were quite a few Tolkienish people in the audience, people with silvery bands round their brows and those sort of flimsy shirts which flared out to pointy cuffs and dangled. Leo didn't like to see them. They looked sort of made-up and unreal, and in some way diminished the shining reality of the Tolkien-world in his head. (p. 342)
Leo is a child; but the people doing Tolkien badly around him are adults, if barely. Helps fill in my sense of whether Tolkien was actually in the public consciousness in 1970, or just those of a few students. (I was a babe in arms, myself.)

Along with pretty, imagistic writing, this novel has a lot of plot - plots are laid, hearts traded, buildings burn down, madness proves prophetic or not, long-kept secrets are finally revealed. However, the events and their people are not as perpetually dispiriting as I found them in Babel Tower, its immediate predecessor. Relief!

ISBN: 0-375-41534-3

The Man I Should Have Married, Pamela Redmond Satran

I wonder why this was published as a light novel (trade paper, no flowers in the cover illustration) and not a genre romance novel. It's a tolerable bit of fluff about a wealthy married woman, who, when her husband leaves her, finds happiness in old-house renovation and a hunky old flame.

The best thing about it was the increasing complications of all the blended families - I think every child has a step-sibling in each direction by the end - which adds a lot of difficulty to any pair of lovers getting together, without requiring them to be deeply stupid. Okay, maybe that's why it's a real novel¹: believable conflict, based on moral duties, which spring from choices freely made before a substantial change in character. The worse part of the novel is the financial fantasy of running lovely little shops and doing really sensitive old-house renovations for profit. Desirable, of course, and the heroine gets seriously dirty doing it, but I think it's shown less realistically hard than the parenting problems. Therefore it's a summer novel.

¹I don't think there's a clear line in writing quality; I'm sure that some genre writing is more complex and subtle than some 'respectable' writing. I am finding the latter hard to specify, though, since I don't keep those books - or even finish them - and seem to have successfully denied them memory-space.

ISBN: 0-7434-6354-4

June 10, 2003

Silicon Follies, Thomas Scoville

Ellen Ullman did most of the elements of this novel better - Silly Valley as a flip-side of the counterculture; cautious sex; and the pleasure of working with the machine. The last, she did much better. Scoville seems embarrassed by it.

He has a tidier, more old-fashioned plot, which you may regard as a good or bad thing. Given its length and lack of seriousness, this would be about right for the commuter hop between Seattle and San Jose.


ISBN: 0-7434-1120-X