Friday, 30 September 2011

Reamde and other September books

It's the last day of September and I am fretting about some electrical works the details of which I will not bore you with here. So I thought I'd take some time out to blog about some of the more noteworthy books I've read in September.

1. Reamde, Neal Stephenson.
I'm a big fan of Stephenson, and I loved this book. But I was a bit wierded-out by the way it didn't seem to be about anything. Cryptonomicon, for example, is a great adventure story but also about security in various different forms. It has lots of big ideas in it. The Baroque Trilogy, which I adore, is about a big shift in ways of thinking, an attempt to remake the world in terms of intellectual productivity instead of inherited landed status, and it's about the big flaw in the remade world (slavery), and at the same time it's extremely rollicking. Anathem is just amazingly crammed full of ideas, far too many to summarise. I loved the bit linking the oddities of consciousness to quantum physics, I loved the alternate worlds stuff -- it's just amazing. In fact when friends of mine complain about Stephenson it's the crammed-full-of-ideas-ness of it that bugs them. I like this, myself -- I can't imagine anyone else who could make you feel how truly amazing it would be to be around when Newton invented calculus. So Reamde is a brilliant adventure story, reminiscent of some of the bits in the Baroque trilogy where Half-Cocked Jack is careering picaresquely around the South Pacific. But it doesn't have a theme or idea. It has baddies -- crazy Russians and international jihadists -- and a heroine, and it's very hard to put down. But even though it's immensely long (the Kindle was invented for books like this) it still feels like one episode in a much larger canvas which would bring out what it's all actually about. (The bits in the MMORPG are neither here nor there -- they're just another setting, like the bits that are set in mountains, or the bits in docks in China.) So maybe this is a Neal Stephenson book for people who aren't fans of Neal Stephenson. It's a great read, but it never made me feel the thing where it's like he's opened up a big dizzying vista of ideas, and that's my favourite Neal Stephenson thing.

2. The Cookbook Collector and Intuition, Allegra Goodman.
I hadn't heard of Allegra Goodman until an article which received quite a bit of notice in book-related blogs, especially American ones, claiming that the ignoring of Goodman while Franzen was surrounded by "Great American Novel" plaudits was due to the sexist nature of the modern literary world. This was specifically about The Cookbook Collector, which came out at the same time as Freedom. That's why I read The Cookbook Collector, and I really enjoyed it. It's about two sisters who are particularly close because they lost their mother as children. It starts in the late 90s when they are both living in the San Francisco area: sensible elder Emily is the CEO of a highly-revered internet startup; idealistic Jessamine is a post-grad who works part-time in a rare-book shop (where she encounters the eponymous Cookbook Collector). There's more than a hint of Sense and Sensibility in their relationship. After this I read Intuition, which is an excellent examination of the scientific method and its intersection with the reality of humans with their complicated motives and ability to self-deceive. I really enjoyed this one too, and I recommend it highly. (As for Franzen, I just couldn't get caring about The Corrections, but I'll give Freedom a try sometime.)

3. The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins.
A much plaudited trilogy set in a nearish-future post-Apocalyptic North America where poor children chosen by lot fight to the death in a complicated arena for the amusement of the rich and powerful. It's very well done, and quite realistic about the psychological toll of killing. This does not make it a cheerful read. -- in fact it's a bit oppressive. Probably best for intense teenagers to write book reports on.

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