It pains me greatly to be giving this book only 2 stars, because I think Herman Koch is a brilliant writer. In the first several chapters alone, I found dozens of passages that were flat-out genius, such as the section where he lampoons the myriad abuses to which Shakespeare’s plays are subjected by small theater companies. But I have decided to give up reading this novel after Chapter 13 for a highly personal reason: too many nitty gritty, nasty details about the human body and medical conditions. As in his previous novel, “The Dinner,” the author treats the reader to a stream-of-consciousness from within the head of the protagonist. In “Summer House,” the main character is a doctor, and when his mind goes off-topic, he nearly always reflects on the gross things a doctor has to see and do during the course of a day seeing patients. Because Koch is such a good writer, the descriptions are quite realistic and cringe-inducing, which I surmise is exactly the reaction Koch is looking for, but it is too creepy for me. If you can get beyond this “ick” factor, you may enjoy the book, but if you, like me, can barely watch an episode of “CSI” without getting grossed out, you may want to skip this book.
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.
I cannot remember enjoying a series this much since I read Lord of the Rings! Although, to be clear, the Baroque Cycle is nothing like Lord of the Rings. It does have men with swords, and a hero born of lowly stock who assembles a group of unlikely companions, and they fight bad guys together. And it also has kings and queens, lords and ladies, who are trying to influence the course of history. But that is only the barest outline of a small portion of the plot of this complex book, the second in the trilogy. It also describes how to make potassium (boil a lot of piss), how to organize a library (how did they do that before the Dewey Decimal system?), how to create a modern banking system, and other little things like that.
Two things particularly astonished me about this book. The first was that it was even better than the first novel in the series. This hardly ever happens, as I have found the middle books in many trilogies are just place-holders until you get to the real action in the third and final book. Not so here. Many new and interesting characters are introduced and get complete story arcs. The action never stops and everything ties together. Even though this is a long book, I did not feel anything was padded or superfluous.
The second thing that astonished me was what an incredible writer Neal Stephenson is. There is so much good writing here that I cannot even begin to catalog all the ways he demonstrates his mastery of his craft. One thing that definitely stood out for me was his way of describing things. I am often bothered by books (and movies, too) that purport to transport me back to another age, but use language that is totally modern. Not so here. As examples, I transcribed two quotes that I particularly liked [transcribed because I listened to the book]. Each is an example of the amazing way in which Stephenson describes things using similes that would make sense in the time and place of the story. In the first example, he compares the sight of a lit candelabra being carried by someone in the dark to a horde of fireflies . . . in the second, he compares someone writing with a quill pen to a dancer and then to a fencing master. This is simply brilliant writing.
“The stables of Versailles in December were not renowned for illumination, but Eliza could hear the gentleman’s satins hissing and his linens creaking as he bowed. She made curtseying noises in return. This was answered by a short burst of scratching and rasping as the gentleman adjusted his wig. She cleared her throat. He called for a candle and got a whole silver candelabra, a chevron of flames bobbing and banking like a formation of fireflies through the ambient miasma of horse breath, manure gas and wig powder.”
“The quill swirled and lunged over the page, in a slow but relentless three steps forward, two steps back sort of process and finally came to a full stop in a tiny pool of its own ink. Then, Louis Phelypeaux, First Compte de Pontchartrain, raised the nib, let it hover for an instant, as if gathering his forces, and hurled it backwards along the sentence, tiptoing over “i’s” and slashing through “t’s” and “x’s” nearly tripping over an umlaut, building speed and confidence while veering through a slalom course of acute and grave accents, pirouetting through cedillas and carving vicious snap-turns through circumflexes. It was like watching the world’s greatest fencing master dispatch twenty opponents with a single continuous series of maneuvers.”
[I highly recommend listening to this as an audio book read by Simon Prebble. He is completely amazing, switching accents and voices for the literally dozens of characters in this series. He also allows the humor in the book to shine through. Simply an amazing performance. I did speed up my player to listen at 1.25 speed and enjoyed it thoroughly—and a bit more quickly than the 34-hour running time.]
I think listening to this as an audio book is probably the very best way to experience it. There are long stretches that are letters written by Eliza, which by their nature involved long explanations of things Eliza had done. I wish the author had simply shown Eliza interacting with people and her environment, since she is such an unusual and compelling female protagonist. Seeing her primarily through her letters made her feel more distant, although she does explain lots of interesting things about early commerce, such as how insurance began (Lloyd's was originally a coffee shop!), how to be an effective spy, and how to use binary code encrypted in needlepoint to send coded messages. Still, I found my mind drifting at times, and thought more than once that if I had been reading this as a hard copy book, I probably would have given up. But the audio performers do a lovely job of pulling the listener along on this fantastic voyage, in much the same way that a really good Shakespearean actor can make you understand the meaning of what is being said, even if you don't comprehend every word.
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