The powerful ideas of this weirdly compelling novel were expressed in an almost telegraphic narrative style, blowing my thoughts in so many different directions that I felt like a wind vane in a tornado. There are multiple principle characters, each with a completely different world view, cultural background, and plot line. One minute you’re inside the head of a Nazi racist (in this alt-history novel, the Axis powers won WWII), the next you’re following a Jew who is hiding his identity and trying to live a normal life in the Japanese-controlled western U.S. Another character is an antiquities dealer making a living off his wealthy Japanese clientele, which requires him to outwardly adopt their mannerisms if not understand what really makes them tick. I thought of him as the “Vichy” collaborator, the Captain Renault of this story. Following these and other characters through their lives gives the author, Philip K. Dick, multiple opportunities to throw out marvelous observations on everything from bigotry to craftsmanship to women’s clothing.
These characters are placed in a setting that allows for critiques of current events, and Dick is clearly concerned with the major events of his day (1962), particularly the Cold War. He skewers the space race as a political smokescreen meant to distract the public from real problems. The annihilation of all humankind courtesy of nuclear weapons is also clearly on his mind.
But this novel is also oh-so-meta. It seems that nowadays every book, movie and TV show (especially the TV shows) are constantly breaking the fourth wall and winking at the fact that it knows it is a TV show and it knows you know it is a TV show. But back in the early ‘60s this must have been a very strange, almost revolutionary concept. I suppose this is one of the major reasons the book won a Hugo. The eponymous man in the high castle is the author of an alt-history novel in which the Allies won WWII and all of the characters are reading the book and interpreting it in their own way. This sort of self-aware writing creates in me a not unpleasant sensation of looking over my own shoulder, watching myself read, feeling myself actively thinking about how Dick managed to create this complex hall of mirrors and keep it all from shattering.
But alongside the many brilliant ideas and passages in this novel, there were some notable failures as well. Many times I felt like the characters’ reactions to things were very unrealistic. This kept me from empathizing very much with any of them. But a bigger problem for me was the pervasive referencing of the I Ching throughout the narrative. Nearly every character consults the I Ching in order to decide what to do next. This reminded me strongly of Nova by Samuel R. Delany, in which characters were constantly consulting Tarot cards. I have heard anecdotally that Dick consulted the I Ching while he wrote this book. I didn’t know that at the time I was reading, but for this reader the frequent I Ching references felt like an intrusion from the outside world, possibly an obsession of Dick’s, into the narrative. In other words, breaking the fourth wall in an unpleasant way that didn’t add anything to the story. Instead, these references now feel anachronistic and ultimately led me to give the novel four, rather than five, stars. [I listened to this as an audio book narrated by Tom Weiner, who did a credible job of reproducing the affectless voices of the characters along with all their various accents—Japanese, German, Italian.]
I found this novella mostly incomprehensible. Oh, there is clearly a critique of imperialism, as many reviewers point out. But it seems to me, the critique is not that the colonizers (in this case, Belgians) are raping Africa of its natural resources (ivory) and enslaving its people. Rather, the book seems to be lamenting that good, white Europeans become tainted upon encountering Africa. The Africans are all depicted as sub-human, and the continent as a malevolent entity. I understand that attitudes were far different when Conrad wrote this in 1898 than they are today. Reading novels from other time periods allows one to better understand how thinking has changed . . . or not changed. However, I fail to understand the attention this novella has attracted . . . most of what happens just makes no sense at all. Reviews from readers who appear to be deeper thinkers than myself indicate that Kurtz is somehow the embodiment of Evil, but whatever it is he did is never explained. Characters go on and on about how eloquent he is, how smart he is, how he has a Grand Plan . . . but we are never shown any evidence that these things are the case. The viewpoint character, Marlow, alternates between admiration of the evil Kurtz, and abhorrence of . . . whatever horrible unnamed thing Kurtz has done. The most overrated 200 pages I have ever read. The only thing that made me finish it was the fact that I was listening to it as an audiobook performed by Kenneth Branagh, and I just didn’t want to turn off his fabulous voice.
For those of us who were just the right age when the first astronauts stepped onto the moon, who have never stopped being spellbound by the thought of setting foot on other worlds, who still believe humanity will make it to the stars . . . this book is for us.
Bova is at his best when describing the scientific and technological aspects of a lunar colony, such as nanotechnology and the very real dangers of living on an atmosphereless rock. But he can also wax poetic when describing the lunar landscape, the hard-edged horizon, the Earth hanging overhead, the scoured rock below.
The characters and plot lines were a bit thin, and if you want a really compelling take on lunar survival, I would recommend “The Martian” by Andy Weir, but hard-core sci-fi readers will want to add Moonrise to their reading list.
[I listened to this as an audio book read by Stefan Rudnicki. I love Rudnicki’s voice, but I am glad I followed the advice of other listeners—I listened at 1.5 speed and that felt perfect.]
This is the first book I have ever read about Pakistan, and so it was fascinating to get some insight into the history of this country that has loomed so large in the news ever since 9/11. There are brief touches of the colonial era, such as when Malala tells the story of her namesake, Malalai, a young Afghan girl who died in the war her country fought against the British in the late 1800s.
But mainly, the book focuses on the recent history of Pakistan. Anyone deeply interested in Pakistani history will want to find a more academic source, but for the average American reader who doesn’t know much about this part of the world (like me) there is just enough detail here to contextualize Malala’s personal experience.
Of course, the most interesting parts of the book are when Malala describes her own feelings about what it was like to live under the Taliban. Because she was extremely young--in her early teens—during the events she describes, her life revolved around school and family. Therefore it is through these lenses that the reader experiences her struggle, the struggle to keep schooling open and available for girls.
I guess that is the thing I liked most about the book, that it is revolution and resistance told through a young woman’s story. Whether she knew it at the time or not, Malala was using nonviolent methods to defy the Taliban, who were (and are) some of the most violent sects of Islam. They tried to shut her down by killing her, but she survived. I am glad I read Malala’s story. Hopefully, she will continue to work for equal education and other basic human rights for women and girls for decades to come.
[I listened to this as an audio book narrated by Archie Panjabi. There is a short introduction in Malala’s own voice, which is nice to hear, but she does have a pretty strong accent. The narrator is recognizably Pakistani but completely clear and understandable. The reading was a bit slow for my taste; by speeding my player up to 1.25 speed, it felt just right.]
Merely by writing the story of the 460 days she spent in captivity in Somalia, Amanda Lindhout exhibits the strength that allowed her to live through the ordeal. As I read, I quickly lost track of the number of times I caught myself thinking how hard it must have been for her to dwell on those memories in order to get them on paper. She does not make herself out to be a hero, rather the opposite. Beginning with her life pre-kidnapping, she reveals herself as a somewhat vapid twenty-something who did not believe anything bad could ever happen to her. She does not paint a pretty picture of herself, yet beneath the cluelessness, her yearning to expand her horizons and improve her lot in life helped me sympathize with her and understand why she traveled to such a dangerous place as Somalia. It’s really a case of “there but for the grace of God . . .” Readers who want to blame Lindhout for going to Somalia are either people who have never taken a risk in their lives, or haven’t got the good sense to realize that everyone is vulnerable.
Once she is in the hands of her kidnappers, the story is riveting. Here again, Lindhout does not paint a picture of herself as valiant, just an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. That she is able to sympathize with her captors has less to do with “Stockholm Syndrome” and more with Lindhout’s own dawning understanding of the immense privileges most Westerners enjoy when compared to the powerlessness of people living in failed countries such as Somalia. As a result, some of the most heartbreaking sections of the book are not those in which Amanda is being tortured, but those in which her captors reveal their small dreams of getting married or going to school, and the realization that the only way they think they can achieve their dreams is by kidnapping Westerners.
The religious aspects of the book were also very compelling, as Lindhout gives the reader a ground-level view of Jihad by describing her captors and her captivity. Improbably, her story does not paint all Muslims as evil, rather, she manages to show the contradictions that exist within and between Muslims.
[I listened to this as an audio book read by the author, something I usually avoid because authors are seldom trained performers. Ms. Lindhout’s reading was serviceable, and I understand the attraction of hearing a memoir in the voice of the person who wrote it, but I do think the story would have benefitted from the use of a voice actor. Increasing the speed of my player to 1.25 speed made the listening more bearable.]
It’s not often that I like a book so much I want to read it over again. With trilogies, it has only happened once before (Lord of the Rings, of course). With really long books, once is always enough (2666). But this Baroque Cycle was simply so astonishingly good, the characters so real, the story so compelling, that I would begin it again tomorrow if I didn’t have two book club books waiting for me and 50 others on my nightstand.
I don’t know how Stephenson managed to sustain the great writing across the nearly 3,000 pages in this series, but he did, right through to the very end. I will mention just two passages that struck me as the best ever in their category: the best sex scene ever, and the best duel ever.
The seduction of Daniel Waterhouse on the Roman chariot in the shadow of the fake volcano is surely the best sex scene ever written. Here is a short excerpt:
“Tilt your pelvis the other way, if you please, sir. There, much better, you’ll admit! Now, leave the rest to me, sir. The balance of this chariot can be a bit tricky. The ride a bit rough.” Indeed, the axle bearings of the chariot of Vulcan presently began to creak as it got to rocking forward and back, forward and back on its wheels. Daniel was old and the ride was correspondingly long but the primo mobile—the body of Miss Barton—was young and as everyone in London agreed, in the most superb condition, and more than equal to the work.
The duel using cannons between Charles White and Dappa, written in Stephenson’s typical hyper-detailed mode, poked a hole the size of a howitzer in the swashbuckling genre and drove right through it. I have seldom laughed so hard while reading. Sheer genius!!
I cannot fail to once again note the SUPERB narration provided by Simon Prebble on the audio book. He gave each character a distinct voice and allowed all the humor to shine through. Listening to Mr. Prebble’s performance is undoubtedly the best way to experience the Baroque Cycle.
It was a real struggle to finish this meandering novel full of annoying characters. Karen Lord set up an interesting premise and then seemed to forget what she was supposed to be writing about. None of the characters, except perhaps Dllenahkh, is compelling enough for the reader to care about. I found the protagonist, Delarua, uninteresting mostly because she was completely devoid of opinions or direction. Most of the book is written from her first-person perspective as she follows along the adventures of a group of aliens who scope out different towns on her planet. It seems each town pulls the author off of her purported thesis as she explores different social problems in each town. It ended up feeling like a series of bad Star Trek episodes, each one with a different ax to grind. But then suddenly and without a reason I could discern, we would get a scene in third person showing how other characters were reacting to whatever the dilemma of the day was. If Lord meant to write an anthropological scifi novel examining what it would be like to integrate a new population of telepaths into an existing social order, she got off track early and never got her groove back.
[I listened to this as an audio book. The reader was not the best, and since I wasn’t enjoying the story much, but had to finish for my book club, I ended up listening at 1.5 speed, which seemed just about right.]
I loved, loved, loved this installment in the Baroque cycle. Action, intrigue, science, royal succession, Jesuits, slavery, the creation of money, alchemy . . . this book has it all. It is nearly impossible to categorize this series of novels except to say that they are unlike any other books I have ever listened to. I can’t wait to listen to the final installment. The writing is phenomenal. One of the things I absolutely love is the way Stephenson describes people. Here are three quotes displaying this talent.
"These women stared out from the canvases with arched brows, enormous eyes and tiny mouths, seeing much, and saying little."
"He is flitting and hopping about in the lobby like a sparrow whose nest had just been blown down in a windstorm."
"[The thief-taker] was conspicuous by his age, I should estimate he is in his middle fifties, and by a bearing, I am tempted to call it dignity, wanting in the others. He has a good head of hair, only a bit thin on top, blond going grey, and sea green eyes. He has an excellently carved set of teeth, but displays them rarely. He has a trim figure, unusual in a profession that consists largely of loitering around taverns, but any illusion that he is especially fit is dispelled when he begins to move, for he is a little bit halt, and a little bit lame, stiff in the joints and given to frequent sighs and grimaces that hint at pains internal."
Cannot leave off saying the audio performance by Simon Prebble is outstanding. He gives each character a distinct voice to the point where I can listen to bookmarks I made several days ago and immediately know which character is speaking. Simply an amazing performance. I can't imagine having read these books, his performance brings out all the humor and nuance.
Each book in this series just gets better and better. That is saying something since I gave the first book four stars and the middle one five stars. Others have summarized the plot and sidewindings of the book better than I could, so I will limit this review to two things. 1) The narrator of the audio book, Simon Prebble, is the perfect match for the material, and I highly suspect listening is the BEST way to experience the Baroque Cycle. 2) Neal Stephenson’s writing is simply unequaled. Below is just one quote to exemplify why I say this.
"If you were strolling in the gardens of Versailles you might one day hear sudden noises and turn around to see, some distance away, one fellow, let’s call him Arnault, going after another, call him Blaise, with a drawn blade, from which, if you were a careless observer, you might think that Arno had just snapped without warning, like an ice-covered bough falling from the tree. But in truth, the Arnaults of the world were rarely so reckless. A careful observer watching Arnault for two or three minutes prior to the onset of violence would see some sort of exchange between him and Blaise, a calculated insult from Blaise, let us say, such as a refusal to let Arnault through a door ahead of him, or a witticism about Arnault’s wig which had been so very fashionable three months ago. If Blaise were a polished wit, he would then move on, blithe, humming an air, and giving every appearance of forgetting the event. But Arnault would become a living exhibit, symptoms would set in that were so obvious and dramatic as to furnish a topic of study for the Royal Society. Why, a whole jury of English savants could stand around poor Arnault with their magnifying lenses and their notebooks, observing the changes in his physiognomy, noting them down in Latin, and rendering them in labored woodcuts. Most of these symptoms had to do with the humor of passion. For a few moments, Arnault would stand fast, as the insult sank in. His face would turn red as the vessels in his skin went flaccid and consequently ballooned with blood from a heart that had begun to pound like a Turkish kettle drum signaling the onset of battle. But this was not when the attack came, because Arnault during this stage was physically unable to move. All of his activity was mental. Once he got over the first shock, Arnault’s first thought would be to convince himself that he had reigned in his emotions now, got himself under control, was ready to consider matters judiciously. The next few minutes, then, would be devoted to a rehearsal of the recent encounter with Blaise. Affecting a rational, methodical approach, Arnault would marshal whatever evidence he might need to convict Blaise of being a scoundrel, and sentence him to death. After that, the attack would not be long in following, but to one who had not been there with the fellows of the Royal Society to observe all that had led up to it, it would seem like the spontaneous explosion of an infernal device."
I certainly learned a lot about the Vietnam War through this book, but I found its focus on one person—John Paul Vann—a bit constricting. I constantly wanted to know more about the larger scope of the war, what was happening back in the US at the time, what was on the minds of the President, Congress, etc. For the reader who is already very familiar with the overall war, this is probably an excellent book, but for me it was just so-so.
[I listened to this as an audio book read by Robertson Dean. This VERY LONG book (35 hours) was not an easy listen. The performer speaks quite slowly; I would recommend listening at 1.25 speed. But also the nature of the book, which goes back and forth in time and references myriad unfamiliar places and people made it hard to follow. Probably better as a hard-cover read.]
There is nothing remarkable about this short novel except that it kept my Minecraft-obsessed nieces (8 and 12 years old) interested throughout a long car ride. We did have to stop the book frequently so that they could explain what was going on ("see, the green slimy monsters live in such-and-such, and only the whatchamajiggy can kill them"). Adults with any video game or role-playing game experience will easily understand what is going on. Kids might find this boring unless they have played Minecraft. Listen to it at 1.25 speed if you want it to end more quickly.
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