Anathem: Goodreads Notes

AnathemAnathem 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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The Peregrine – Goodreads Notes

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 PeregrineThe 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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The Tech-Wise Family – Andy Crouch

The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper PlaceThe Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With every article and book that I come across connecting anxiety/depression with smartphones and social media use (and there seems to be a deluge lately), this book seems more and more essential. Highly recommended if you have children (and even if you don’t) and are trying to think through the “proper place” for technology in your family (and really, your life). For a taste, here are the “Ten Tech-Wise Commitments” Crouch explores and defends in the book:

1 We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
2 We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.
3 We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play, and rest together.
4 We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.
5 We aim for “no screens before double digits” at school and at home.
6 We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
7 Car time is conversation time.
8 Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
9 We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
10 We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.

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David Foster Wallace and Lost in the Cosmos (Goodreads Notes)

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help BookLost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book by Walker Percy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was fascinating to read this at the same time as David Lipsky’s book-length interview with David Foster Wallace (Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself). Wallace and Percy have a set of overlapping interests (the modern self, desire, TV/celebrity, addiction etc.), along with a certain “smartest-guy-in-the-room” perspective and commitment to ideas (and, to be fair, both were likely the smartest guys in most rooms). The difference that comes across (and it may be partly due to the different formats of the books) is that Wallace really counts himself among the “lost” (Wallace had, if I remember correctly, a well annotated self-help library) while Percy keeps a certain ironic distance (it feels like Kierkegaard is the only self-help he needs). Which is to say, while I share many of Percy’s commitments, I feel a greater kinship with Wallace’s bewilderment and discomfort (and this may just be the result of age, format, and my own moral and intellectual weakness).

The stuff on “re-entry” is great, and it often reads like a set of Kierkegaard-ian parables (some stronger than others). Another way to look at the book is as a sort of modern wisdom literature – a collection that proceeds by juxtaposition, aphorism and parable, leaving the reader to do the work of discerning the appropriate connections and coming to the truth (the very opposite of most self-help literature with its tendency towards prefabricated steps to success).

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Good Morning, Midnight (Goodreads Notes)

Good Morning, MidnightGood Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I need to admit that possibly this one just wasn’t for me. There are two “big” revelations that are teased out until the end, one of which is a narrative device I particularly dislike, but YMMV (no spoilers here, but I had a pretty good idea of where things were headed a couple of chapters in). Beyond that, for a book describing the end of the world, the book just felt too … small. I get that this was part of the point – but even if the author didn’t want to go into epic details about the end of the world, for a such a contemplative book I was expecting a little more metaphysical heft (a little God-talk – even if it’s just rage against the God who isn’t there wouldn’t have been out of place, I think). I made a joke after reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves that if it had been written by an MFA student, the prose would have been better (and there would be fewer obsessive details about spacesuits), but the main plotline would have been a college professor contemplating his affair and crumbling marriage with the end of the world as a background and BIG METAPHOR for the domestic drama. This book doesn’t descend to that level of literary cliche, but after reading it I don’t think I was too far off the mark. I guess, I feel like this story could have been told without the “end-of-the-world” backdrop (and backdrop is all it ever is). This is all a bit more critical than it probably needs to be, as the prose really is beautiful and I liked the simplicity of the structure, but I would have traded in some beautiful sentences for more imaginative risk.

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Seveneves (Goodreads Notes)

SevenevesSeveneves by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a different mood, I wouldn’t have made it past the first 100 pages. But, after my recent reading in the compressed tragi-comedies of Penelope Fitzgerald and the metaphysical heaviness of Dostoevsky, long, detailed (we’re talking pages and pages at a time) descriptions of orbital mechanics were apparently just what the doctor ordered. Good fun (unfortunately, it falters in the final far-future section).

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Theology in Outline (Goodreads notes)

A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? by Robert W. Jenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A book that accomplishes what it sets out to do: provide a “taste” of theology, as Jenson puts it in his foreword. Jenson’s confidence and economy of expression serve him well in this sort of endeavor. My only complaint is that it would have been helpful to have a set of endnotes or bibliography after each chapter providing resources that go into more depth for the topics covered (with references to Jenson’s own work on each topic, and/or classical and contemporary sources) – simply because getting a “taste” often prompts a hunger for a full meal.

An enjoyable, energetic book (and how often can you say that about an introduction to theology?).

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