I loved her We Need to Talk about Kevin for its sharpness and laconic cynicism. Now I can't say I exactly loved Big Brother, but I did like it a lot. It's just as sharp and diamond-clear in its sparse style, and ** minor spoiler alert ** there is a twist at the end. It does explain away a lot of the stuff that seemed off-key along the way. And it is, again, a book of and for the times.
Jodi Picoult fans will love it. I'm not a Jodi Picoult fan, so I didn't love it, or even like it, really. But I did finish it, and admit it may possibly be a bit better than Picoult's tearjerkers. It does have a few insights - not on a grand scale, not when it comes to the thick threads of the novel - which are woven in with a very heavy hand, maddeningly predictable coincidences and plot lines and all - but small ones, on a small scale. Other than that, everyone is doing well at home, in school, in bed, at their jobs - except for their own private hybris which must be expunged, on a smaller or larger scale. Who knew it was so simple.
There is no reward to reading this silly, silly book. It has the intellectual depth of a puddle of water. I can't begin to explain the ways it fails its readers. Imagine someone with very little understanding of society, the human mind, civilization or technology (something like a cross between a 12 year-old boy raised by overbearing aunts and an 80 year-old recluse who reads fringe American socialist newsletters in a dingy kitchen) take up the Google scare and run away with it. Then turn it into a novel.
I could not believe this novel was written by the guy who wrote A Heartbreaking Work. And I didn't even like that one that much. But it sure was not a uni-dimensional piece of silliness.
Here's the gist of it: Dave Eggers is building a straw man (Mae) in order to make a point about the dangers of interconnectedness and visibility in the digital age.
The problem is, you can't build an argument by using a straw man. Why is Mae special? Why is she, despite consistent proof of silliness, singled out for anything - climbing through the ranks, having millions of followers, doing presentations of programs to which she did not contribute, being a sex object, being the potential cog in the wheel, being a point of interest for anyone inside the novel, let alone outside? The answer is, she is singled out because Dave Eggers had just one silly idea for this novel, and this was it.
The story of how, in the early 15th century, former papal secretary Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini found the lost text of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura might not seem like a riveting read. I hesitated before buying it, thinking that I knew how it was going to go: Lucretius's text would be lost for about 1450 years, then Poggio would find it and then the poem would be influential in promoting non-Christian, perhaps even atheist thinking in the very Christian Western world.
That's pretty much how it does go, too. The only thing is, it's still very interesting. Poggio himself is just an instrument with little actual importance, though Greenblatt makes much of his origins and career. This bit is, to be honest, fluff - but it does give some ingisht into the period. More interesting, though somewhat shoved in through the back door, were the stories of Bruno and Galileo and their face-offs with the Inquisition. Also very interesting is the discussion of ancient philosophy and the Epicurean tradition and Lucretius himself, though there is so very little to say about him that not even Greenblatt manages to summon up a plausible, flesh-and-bone historical figure.
However, the most interesting bit is the actual applied discussion of the actual text. I haven't read De Rerum Natura, except perhaps a couple of lines in high school or college when discussing world literature or something. Now I'm discovering an amazing poet.
I'm not buying Greenblatt's thesis wholesale (that the world was "made modern" through the discovery of this one poem), but I was compelled by his obvious pleasure in the text (and I'm still moved by his love for Shakespeare, which I absolutely share, but that's by the way). And so, no regrets: this little book is absolutely worth reading.
Quite a good intro. Heavy on some topics, rather light on others, but overall very enjoyable. Except for the last chapter, where all the philosophizing on the meaning of civilization left me cold.
Other than that, and up to that point, it does the job very well.
**some spoilers ahead**
It's a rather flimsy, but thoroughly enjoyable little incursion into the story of William Chester Minor, one of the most important contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary. The relevant arc starts with him as a surgeon in the Union Army and ends with his death back in the States.
I call it flimsy because it's only interesting or important in the sense that we all like to pry into the hidden lives of celebrities, and this touches that exact chord.
It is, nevertheless, fascinating. Minor served during the Civil War and, the theory goes, had a crucial moment when he was forced to brand an Irish deserter. We don't know that this is what caused his sexual obsessions (wouldn't it be weird if it did), but it was almost certainly what caused his belief that Irish men were constantly after him, invading his room at night and performing strange rituals on him. Increasingly erratic, sexually obsessed and paranoid, he was admitted to a lunatic asylum, which - as happened more often than not in those days - did nothing to cure or improve his condition. He left for England, where, one might almost say "in due course", he shot a man and was then incarcerated, in a modern move, at the Broadmoor asylum. And here he was to stay for over 30 years, settling into very comfortable quarters and carrying on with the exact same paranoid delusions about Irish men springing up from the floorboards at night and taking him to various brothels where he was forced to perform shameful sexual acts on girls. Nighttime delusions notwithstanding, he also managed to accumulate an impressive collection of books and contribute a huge number of entries and quotations to the OED, while at some point also cutting off his penis to punish himself for compulsive masturbation.
The book is also interesting in its tangential details about Broadmoor and the making of the OED. All in all, as I said, flimsy but interesting.
The Dinner is a spectacular book about family and society, among other things as well. This is not a cute book. It's heavy because it's about heavy things, and because it doesn't take heavy things lightly.
I liked the progression from bland dinner table conversation, pigmented with hints of a couple of mysterious incidents (something found in the phone of Paul's teenage son; Paul's sister-in-law arriving for dinner with traces of tears in her eyes), to the unfolding of the drama behind the dinner. The drama that started years before with instances of personal drama and of parenting; the drama that spikes in a horrific incident, then again in discussing it at home, then again at the dinner table.
The fact that this is a Dutch novel is extremely relevant, since Dutch society struggles with a very tolerant front which sometimes comes up to kick itself in the teeth. It is amazing what torments hide behind the blandness of equality and tolerance - not that they always turn violent, but that fear of speaking up against indiscriminate equality becomes oppressive in itself.
"The Dinner" is a painful analysis of society and family, delivered not from a high moral standpoint, but with a subtle understanding of nuances, of small things that make up or break up lives and relationships.
Informative and easy to read, indeed. Little in-depth analysis, but with the sheer amount of data, no wonder. I felt it failed to tie a few knots, but overall a good read.
I've read the previous Tey novels and will read the new one soon, but here's the thing. I keep thinking I'm going to give each of them five stars as I read, and then, once I'm done, I can't in full honesty give them more than four.
I got to Nicola Upson by searching for Agatha Christie-like novels. Someone recommended her as similar on some forum. With Fear in the Sunlight, it all started like a Christie mystery - not the "later" part of the '50s, but the setting, the hotel, the guests, the two parties being gathered together. But what Christie does schematically, in twenty-five pages, Upson does in - well, it was an audiobook so I don't know exactly how many, but it felt like half of the book. She does it extremely well, no question: the people and circumstances come alive, and it does capture your attention.
The problem is what happens afterwards: so much energy is spent on creating the backdrop of the murders, that very little is left for the actual mystery. And the solutions to her mysteries, though not bad, are never quite as clever or plausible as everything else in the book. Other than that, they're great, and the narrator is excellent.
I got on to the Josephine Tey series because, somewhere online, someone recommended it as a good follow-up to Agatha Christie. I first tried something else by someone else, so undistinguished that I didn't finish it and can't remember anymore. Then I slowly grew into Upson.
As mysteries go, this one had pretty much all the ingredients you can think of, plus a few more things going for it: good writing, a solid build-up, pretty solid characters in the good old Golden Age style (by which I mean solid and recognizable, but not begging for sympathy, not attempting to sound out all the pop psychology textbooks).
I read the first three, I'll probably read the rest, too. And a thumbs-up for the excellent reader.
Not having read the story when I was 12, I found it completely engrossing now. I'll have to read another account as well, just to make sure that Huntford is not unduly harsh on Scott. But if his account is even remotely true, then he - umm, spoiler alert - was a selfish, self-indulgent s.o.b. with half a brain, who pretty much effed up a serious expedition killed his companions through his moronic inability to prepare, learn his lessons, take advice and generally display intelligence at every stage of the journey. By contrast, Amundsen was careful, alert, a great planner etc etc. It might be just that the story is told in contrasting scenes and that Huntford was biased, but whatever the case, I found it a fascinating read.
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