Monday, December 22, 2008

Winter Reading

Neal Stephenson: Anathem. Not quite as much fun as Cryptonomicon or The Diamond Age, and, oddly enough, not as immersive as the Baroque Cycle, but still worth its 900 pages. It takes much longer to get going than anything else by him, but the middle third or so is excellent, especially a fine set-piece covering a frozen journey across the tundra and over a pole to a remote island, a set-piece complete with a last-minute rescue by mathematical ninjas. And, sure, maybe ninjas are a bit played out at the moment, but, c'mon, they're like Platonic math ninjas, y'all. Not even Raekwon had a mythology like that.

Jessica Anya Blau: The Summer of Naked Swim Parties. She can write, yes. And her 14-year-old narrator is likable, intelligent but not overly-precocious. And I guess I know more about wealthy adolescents in California in 1976 than I did before I read the novel. And I wasn't in any danger of not finishing it. And Stephen Dixon blurbed it. And John Barth blurbed it. But beyond that? I dunno. Once the story arrived at its tipping point, its moment of significance, it felt rushed, surface-y, and, surprisingly, I started to care a lot less about the narrator. She binged and I didn't care. She got drunk and I didn't care. She went to group therapy with her parents and that was funny but then there was a bizarre run-in with the therapist's daughter and I didn't care. Maybe I'm not the audience. Maybe I needed the phrase "fifth freedom." Maybe the Barth and Dixon blurbs are more about Johns Hopkins' writing program and less about Frog and The Sot-Weed Factor.

Jim Harrison: The English Major. This was much funnier in the first half and much more moving in the second half than I expected. I don't think it's going to stand next to True North or the three pieces of The Woman Lit by Fireflies, and if it's a little reminiscent of Warlock, which left me cold, it also has a much more interesting narrator and a more natural structure. What Nick Hornby would call a Good Book That Isn't Boring? Maybe. I certainly won't begrudge the time spent reading it.

Moore + Gibbons: Watchmen. It had been a long time. Still works, though. Still captivating and, even with (or maybe because of) lines like "You argued that human life was more significant than this excellent desolation, and I was not convinced. You attempted to compare the mere uncertainty in your existence with the chaos of the world beneath us. But where are the pinnacles to rival this Olympus? Where are the depths to match those of... the Valles Marineris?" still managing to rise above its time and place and the cultural baggage it has accumulated in the last two decades.

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