Thursday, June 04, 2009

BooksFirst - May 2009

Books Bought
Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman
Spanking Watson by Kinky Friedman
Heyday by Kurt Andersen
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Books Heard
An Utterly Impartial History of Britain by John O'Farrell (abridged and read by the author)

Books Read
Odalisque by Neal Stephenson

The first two books on the "bought" list were actually carryovers from April I had forgotten about. My wife and I had taken a spur of the moment weekend getaway (you can do that when you are empty nesters) to Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. There we found From My Shelf Books in the basement of another store right on the main street of Wellsboro. They were doing pretty brisk business. It's good to see small bookstores in business. It must help to be way in remote northern Pennsyltucky with no BigBoxOfBooks around.

The other two books were bought at Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe in Greenwich Village. It seems to be affiliated with some sort of non-profit organization but it is cleaner, better organized and better stocked than many commercial bookstores around.

On the flight back from Italy, my wife was listening to the audiobook of An Utterly Impartial History of Britain by John O'Farrell. Because of technical difficulties, it kept repeating the same thing over and over again. When we got home she went on the interwebs and ordered both the audiobook and paperback from the British version of BigWebPageOfBooks.

We took to listening to the audiobook while roadtripping. It's abridged, but read by the author is his rather droll British accent, so it makes it even funnier. The subtitle is "Or 20,000 Years of Upper Class Idiots In Charge" which is a big clue as to both the humor content and the general thesis. It starts at Stonehenge and goes through to the end of World War II when presumably the idiots running Britain were no longer upper class.

The problem with British history is that there is so much of it. When we were in Britain we got earfuls of history. Many of England's royal families had quite colorful and entertaining pasts. This books hits a lot of those anecdotes as well and they are beginning to sink in slowly. I still don't remember which king was assassinated by a red hot poker shoved into him from below while in the privy, but it is an amusing tale, unless you are the butt of that joke, as it were.

The only problem with the abridgement is that it really zooms along and it is hard to keep up with who is fighting who and shy sometimes. We do have the full version in print so I might have to read the full version.

In a good bit of serendipity, the few bits of British history I did manage to retain came in handy as I finally read Odalisque, the third part of the first book of The System Of The World series by Neal Stephenson. If you followed the math there, that means that I am now one third of the way through this epic history of the founding of the modern financial system.

The title refers to a virgin harem slave, which is what Eliza was when Jack Shaftoe rescued her in the second book. I hope it is not a spoiler to reveal that Eliza does not stay that way through the whole book, particularly given how the book ends. This portion of the novel alternates between Eliza and Daniel Waterhouse navigate the realms of the nobility as they keep up with all the machinations of those around them.

Where the British history became valuable was that the time period of the Glorious Revolution is a major part of the plot of this segment. It helps to know who William of Orange is and why the Stuarts were not very popular. Even then, the names of all the old duchys and territories is tough to keep up with. I kept referrring to the cast of characters in the back which wasn't always helpful.

A good part of the books is epistolary as Eliza corresponds with Leibniz and others. I think Stephenson does this so he can write in the stilted faux-seventeenth century patois that he likes. It wears thin pretty quickly and makes following the storyline even more difficult.

I'm proud that I finally made it through the first volume of this trilogy. At the end of this particular paperback there was and excerpt from The Confusion with the return of Jack Shaftoe who was completely absent from this section. It kind of whets my appetite. I have all three books in hardback, but I like these subdivided paperbacks better since the average person can actually hold them.

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