Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Einstein Intersection

Samuel Delaney was one of the important members of the New Wave of science fiction that started in the 60s, and The Einstein Intersection is one of the books which heralded the new direction science fiction was taking.  Less literal, more allegorical, and, in this novel, very explicitly mythical.

Delaney evokes the stories of Theseus, Orpheus, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and Billy the Kid.  Unusually, the protagonists are aware that they're re-enacting these archetypal stories, even as they switch among them.  In theory, this should give the plot more power, because we don't really know what's going to happen -- our Orpheus-hero could turn out to be working through a different story altogether.

But I found that the book was robbed of power instead.  There's some sense that the characters have to re-enact all the old stories in order to find new ones for themselves, but I don't understand why they want to.  Why would they stay on a hostile Earth (and it's clear that leaving is an option) and live old mythswhen there's no need?  It's never really explained.

On a side note, the Einstein Intersection of the title is very 60s, and doesn't make much sense to me.  There's some weird thing about Einsteinian provable truths crossing with Godelian non-provable truths, and it rather rubbed me the wrong way.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Marcus Aurelius Meditations

Not much to say about the Meditations.  They're a great statement of stoic principles, best read a few at a time, otherwise they get very repetitive.  But as a set of morals to live by, one could do worse.

Some of the Meditations are quite beautiful, some a very elegant phrasing of a more prosaic thought.  Overall, I'm glad to have finally gotten around to reading them.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca has one of the most famous opening sentences of any novel in the 20th century, followed up by a fantastic first chapter, very atmospheric and evocative.  From there, the story loses its drive for a while, but I was willing to cut it a lot slack from that first chapter.

I felt like it never quite regains the heights of the first chapter, but it regains its momentum once the planning for the fancy-dress ball starts, at about halfway through.  The reader knows something will go drastically wrong, and DuMaurier skilfully stretches out the suspense.  The last chapter of the novel is very rapid, which is just as well, because by that point it would be pretty easy to stay one jump ahead of the narration.  But I liked the understated way the novel ends, with no final confrontation between the narrator and Mrs. Danvers.  It fit in well with the sort of melancholic feel of the beginning.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

End Games

End Games, published posthumously, is the last of Michael Dibdin's uniformly excellent "Aurelio Zen" series.  Not one to fall into a routine, Dibdin took on a number of different voices and styles through the series, from high farce through depressed tragedy.  End Games is pretty squarely on the humorous side of the spectrum, with a few broad caricatures in the cast, and a plot involving the the Golden Menorah from the Jewish Temple, a movie about the Book of Revelation, and the burial place of Alaric, the leader of the Goths who sacked Rome.

The story takes a little while to get into gear; it takes Dibdin a little while to establish his cast and the tone of the novel.  In addition, the plot is very intricate, with several plot threads running simultaneously; in a masterpiece of plotting, Dibdin keeps them clear for us, even though nobody in the novel ever sees more than a couple of them.

The humor tends to be broad, as I mentioned above.  (Are there really any Microsoft millionaires who don't realize you need a passport to get into Italy?)  But I think that's really a part of the style of this sort of novel -- it's as silly as criticizing Bertie Wooster for being so ignorant.  It's a deliberate story-telling choice, as we can see from other Dibdin novels, where he adopts a completely different voice, and this novel needs to be reviewed on its own terms.  On those terms, it's a huge success, and a fitting novel to end a series on. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Occultation is a collection of horror stories by Laird Barron.  Most of the reviews I've seen compare Barron to Lovecraft, but I don't really see a huge resemblance.  If nothing else, Barron is a much tighter writer.

I think that people are focusing on the sense one gets in Barron that the horrors are bigger than just a vampire or zombie, that sense of "big" horror that we can't even really comprehend.  But Barron makes it much more personal than Lovecraft does, and I liked these stories more for it.

One side note -- Barron seems to love insect imagery, I'm not really sure why, even in stories where insects don't play a large part.  Other than that, this is a short note, because other than saying that these are good horror stories, I don't find much else to say about them.

Tristram Shandy

Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy has been on my re-read list for a while now, and I'm finally getting back to it, and what a pleasure it is.

It's almost impossible to talk about Tristram Shandy without talking about the narrative tricks -- skipped chapters, "translations" from invented Latin sources, breaking the fourth wall, and so on.  There are very few post-modern tricks that weren't explored by this novel back in the 1700s.

But I think, on this reading, that those tricks, funny as they are, are not the reason we still read the book today.   Sterne's portraits of Walter Shandy and his brother Toby (not to mention the less-important characters like Yorick or Dr. Slop) are vivid and funny, even if one takes out all of the textual tomfoolery.

Another thing that's become more clear to me on this re-reading is that, as digressive as Tristram might be as a narrator, Sterne is incomplete control of his narrative.  He constantly alludes to the topics he's going to get to when there's time to do so, then seems to get sidetracked, but he does seem to always actually get there.  I think the longest tease is the references to Widow Wadman, whose story doesn't show up until near the end, but, even there, we do eventually get the story.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Lady Killer

Ed McBain's Lady Killer is something like the seventh entry in his 87th precinct series.  I've read a few of the later novels (and some of his other work), and it's quite good.  So a while ago, when amazon was offering big discounts on a lot of the early 87th Precinct novels, I scooped a few of them up, hoping to see the evolution of a writer.

Unfortunately, even at 7 books in, this is not really a strong book.  The officers of the 87th are on the trail of a killer who has sent a note saying that he will strike at 8 PM.  They have 12 hours to find the killer and victim in a city of millions.  Luckily for them, McBain pulls the old "killer wants to be caught" bit, and so the note has clues within itself.

In the end, it's an inoffensive story, a quick read, but very slight.

I've still got a couple more of these early ones, so hoping for better luck next time.

The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham, is hard to read now, in our more post-colonial day.  It's the story of Kitty, a spoiled woman, who goes into plague-torn China and comes out a better, more empathic person.

Part of her growth comes in her reaction to the Chinese people.  At first, she thinks that they're all funny-looking and barbarous.  By the end of the novel, after caring for some of the plague victims in a convent, she learns that they're people too, and generally becomes less spoiled.  But the novel undercuts its own message.  Even as Kitty learns more about the Chinese, the novel gives us almost no Chinese people with any individuality at all.  Only two of them have names, and one of those (Colonel Yew) doesn't even have a speaking part.

Essentially, all of the Chinese people are in the novel to serve as catalysts for Kitty's personal growth.  The Europeans are nicely drawn individuals (Kitty's husband, the nuns in the convent, etc); only the Chinese are so treated like one big mass.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fluke, or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings

I've had Fluke on my to-read list for a long time, but I was disappointed in the last Christopher Moore book I read, so hadn't really gotten around to this one.

I had thought the humor in the last one more than a bit labored, and at first I was pleasantly surprised with Fluke.  It was funny, the characters engaging, and I was enjoying the noodling around.  Unfortunately, at some point the plot started up and it all went to hell.  The plot is kind of funny in a way, but I never really found myself laughing, and at the same time the writing seemed to get less funny.

In the end, I was back to my original opinion, and can't imagine I'll be reading more Christopher Moore.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Hearing Secret Harmonies

At long last, the final volume of A Dance to the Music of  Time. Like its predecessor, I don't think it comes up to standards of the best books in the series, but it's not necessarily easy to pin down why.  Certainly, on a sentence-by-sentence level, or even paragraph-by-paragraph, Powell is as good as ever here.

Oddly enough, I think part of the problem is the relatively well-defined plot.  I think that most of the books in the cycle have some sort of underlying structure, as I've mentioned in the occasional blog post.  But these last two novels may as well be subtitled "The Decline and Fall of Widmerpool."  And I think that the overtness is unfortunate -- Powell works well when everything is understated, I think.

Having said that, the final chapter was fantastic.  Everything that I've liked about the whole cycle, with a nice tie tack to the first novel, A Question of Upbringing, bringing us full circle.