Anathem by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Readers will probably either love or hate this book – a nice thing, given its length, is they’ll probably get a good idea of what camp they fall into within the first 10-20 pages (I really enjoyed it). It’s strange and ambitious – both a critique of contemporary society and an exploration of various philosophical/metaphysical ideas with plenty of pages describing the details of spacesuit construction. Religious faith comes in for a bit of a beating, although I think the book as a whole is more ambivalent than some of the explicit narrative suggests (the avout are, after all, basically monks – maybe more on this later).
As a number of reviewers have noted (Alan Jacobs wrote a good review here: https://www.thenewatlantis.com/public…) it could have been tighter and shorter, Stephenson’s prose is sometimes clumsy (and rarely rises above a certain workmanlike baseline), and his characterization is not as robust as one might hope. And, in a book where language, in different ways, plays a large role, he struggles to maintain “linguistic discipline” through the book (there should be more linguistic/stylistic markers between the different populations). But, I have to wonder if some editor managed to get Stephenson to write more “MFA-acceptable” prose if some of the expansive ambition of the book would be lost. Stephenson goes big, like really cosmically big, and it’s fun. While genre lines are crossed more frequently these days, I often find some of the more literary authors dabbling in SF use SF tropes to tell the same sort of stories they could tell otherwise – basically “adultery in space” etc. Often the prose is good but the story is a bore – it’s too small. My favorite contemporary novelist, David Mitchell, gets some distance down the track of what I’m looking for – his literary skills are immense (for an example of the “linguistic discipline” I mention above, it doesn’t get much better than the subtle ways Mitchell describes different modes of speech in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), and he writes “big” stories, but I sometimes wish he would take a sharper metaphysical angle, if I can describe it that way – i.e. point to a more distinctive view of the big universals his books often return to thematically (predacity, communication etc.). Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself achieves a certain unity of poetry and ideas … but there is something about the persistent irony in Roberts’ work that I struggle with (need to reread that book though).
Anyway, I enjoyed this one – needed some Husserl and spacesuits in my life at the moment, I guess.
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Matters now began to move briskly. Waiter C, who rashly clutched the sleeve of Ronnie’s coat, reeled back with a hand pressed to his right eye. Waiter D, a married man, contented himself with standing on the outskirts and talking Italian. But Waiter E, made of sterner stuff, hit Ronnie rather hard with a dish containing omelette aux champignons, and it was as the latter reeled beneath this buffet that there suddenly appeared in the forefront of the battle a figure wearing a gay uniform and almost completely concealed behind a vast moustache, waxed at the ends. It was the commissionaire from the street-door; and anybody who has ever been bounced from a restaurant knows that comissionaires are heavy metal.
This one, whose name was McTeague, and who had spent many lively years in the army before retiring to take up his present duties, had a grim face made of some hard kind of wood and the muscles of a village blacksmith. A man of action rather than words, he clove his way through the press in silence. Only when he reached the centre of the maelstrom did he speak. This was when Ronnie, leaping upon a chair the better to perform the operation, hit him on the nose. On receipt of this blow, he uttered the brief monosyllable ‘Ho!’ and then, without more delay, scooped Ronnie into an embrace of steel and bore him towards the door, through which was now moving a long, large, leisurely policeman.
Fight scene, P.G. Wodehouse style, (from Summer Lightning).
This mastery of the roaring wind, this majesty and noble power of flight, made me shout aloud and dance up and down with excitement. Now, I thought, I have seen the best of the peregrine; there will be no need to pursue it farther; I shall never want to search for it again. I was wrong of course. One can never have enough.
The Peregrine by J.A. Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A strange, intense book – unexpectedly dark. I read a few entries a day, which I think might be the best way to digest it. At first, I was struggling a little with the repetition (basic summary without all the poetry: narrator searches for a peregrine, sees a peregrine, describes what he sees … over and over), but over time the book starts to have a sort of hypnotic effect. The narrator is almost non-existent beyond his obsession and longing. This creates a certain effect – creating mystery, opening a space for identification – but I found myself wishing for a little more about Baker’s actual life in the book (there’s plenty of framing material in the introductions and afterword in this edition). I agree with Robert Macfarlane in his afterword that this is a book less about “becoming a bird” than “failing to become a bird” and it creates a certain atmosphere of melancholy and loneliness. I think the juxtaposition of Baker’s obsessional searching and watching with the mundanities of everyday life (he did, after all, dedicate it to his wife) would have made for a richer, deeper book. But, perhaps I’ve just been spoiled by Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk which so wonderfully mashes and mixes memoir, “nature writing” and literary biography. Baker’s book operates in only one register with a strange intensity. This makes is part of what makes it interesting, but I find myself wishing for that other book in my imagination – the obsession set in the larger context of a life. Contra Werner Herzog, I think it would make an interesting film – not as a “direct” adaptation, but if it took into account Baker’s life.
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This confirms my sense that I have been allowed to use my life well, in work that was worth the time spent on it. Many people might see my two principal occupations as incompatible: being a middle-class American intellectual/wife/housewife/mother of three children, and being a writer. I won’t say that doing both jobs at once was easy, but I can report, from very late in the life in question, that I found some inevitable conflict but no incompatibility between the two. Little abnegation was demanded, and no sacrifice of life for art or art for life. On the contrary, each nourished and supported the other so deeply that, looking back, they all seem one thing to me.
Sad to hear of Ursula Le Guin’s passing – for my money the best contemporary American novelist around. The above is from her introduction to the essay collection, Words are my Matter.
There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.
The message is simple:
When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The quote above is the conclusion of this tremendously powerful book. For a variety of biographical reasons I found it hit me particularly hard. That it was written under the duress of an advancing terminal cancer is astonishing. The risk with this sort of book is a descent into sentimentality, or a sort of “here are 7 life lessons” reduction (… let me guess … lesson 7: seize the day?). This is not that sort of book. Here is Kalanithi at one point in his treatment:
The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?
It is not that there is nothing to learn here (Kalanithi’s oncologist encourages him repeatedly as treatment progresses “to find his values” and part of what makes the book interesting and moving is his wrestling with this mission) but it is complex, thorny, multi-layered. This is one that will stick with me – and perhaps I’ll have more to write about it later.
I merely say ‘Think it over.’ It is nothing to cause you mental distress. Other men love you. Freddie Threepwood loves you. Just add me to that list. That is all I ask. Muse on me from time to time. Reflect that I may be an acquired taste. You probably did not like olives the first time you tasted them. Now you probably do. Give me the same chance you would an olive.
Psmith, proposing, in P. G. Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith
At the beginning of Mark Noll’s America’s God, which I recently started, he states the following:
… my hope for [America’s God] is that it might approach the ideal expressed by Caroline Walker Bynum in her remarkable study of the meaning of food for religious women in the Middle Ages. Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast is, she wrote, “about then, not about now…. My commitment, vision, and method are historical; I intend to reveal the past in its strangeness as well as its familiarity. My point is to argue that women’s behavior and women’s writing must be understood in the context of social, economic, and ecclesiastical structures, theological and devotional traditions, very different from our own. If readers leave this book simply condemning the past as peculiar, I shall have failed. But I shall have failed just as profoundly if readers draw direct answers to modern problems from the lives I chronicle.”
I think threading this needle – of avoiding the temptation of “simply condemning the past as peculiar” or alternatively “drawing direct answers to modern problems” – is the key to good historical writing (whether it is straight history, or biography of historical figures, or historical fiction or whatever). My complaint with Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo biography is that he drew too direct of a line between Leonardo and the white collar worker (me) listening to the audiobook on my commute to my cubicle. Alternatively, a large part of my appreciation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s historical novels is that she achieves this balance with such economy and grace. The two temptations Bynum mentions often work in tandem: to draw a direct lesson to our current moment frequently requires that anything that doesn’t “fit” gets condemned as impossibly peculiar (or ignored as irrelevant). It’s hard to hold the whole in mind. Of course, maintaining an alertness to both strangeness and familiarity is the key not just to good historical writing, but to being a good reader of history as well. Although really, a certain attentiveness to others, an attempt to keep the whole in mind, is just good life advice, irrespective of its importance for writing and reading.