Thursday, November 25, 2010

Virtual Thanks

This year I am most grateful for all the friends I have met through the internet. As unlikely a method as it is, I love that there are so many interesting people I would never have the chance to become friends with if we were restricted to mere spatial proximity. It's a large, large world and anything which can connect people in so many ways is something worth cherishing.

Most surprising to me is the wide of variety of people I have met. Rather than just finding shodows om my own interests and tastes, I have met people with an infinite variety of backgrounds and perspectives. I want to thank each and every one of you for enriching my life and broadening my horizon.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

BooksFirst - September-October 2010

Books Bought
Zero History by William Gibson
Star Island by Carl Hiaasen
Don't Vote by P. J. O'Rourke

Books Read
The System of the World by Neal Stephenson
Hella Nation by Evan Wright
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen


There may only be three books on the listfor the past two months, but they fill be with a huge sense of accomplishment. I have been nibbling away at Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver Cycle for nearly two years now and I got determined to finish it off. The final volume, The System of the World, takes place in 1714, a few years after the events that end Confusion. All the players are in and around London where most of the action takes place, if by action you mean endless set-pieces about currency and wealth and philosophy. The focus of the book is on Daniel Waterhouse, now and old man dragged into intrigue concerning destabilizing England's currency. This takes him into contact with his old roommate Isaac Newton, guardian of the Mint by day and mad alchemist at night. Also involved are Jack Shaftoe and Eliza and the dozens of minor characters they have accumulated, including future kings and queens.

Stephenson is playing a long game here. While there are certain phantastical elements at play, much of it is swashbuckling historical fiction. The slightly anachronistic style is tough to keep up with for over 2000 pages and certain verbal twitches just become annoying after a while. While any historical era can be seen as pivotal when viewed in the right light, the case for the early 18th century is made subtly but very strongly. There were a lot of different elements at work in that time.

Overall, the trilogy is to tour de force but Stephenson is a writer seriously in need of an editor. The exciting parts are amazingly gripping but the meanderings can be tedious. This is all just churlish nitpicking on a work which truly earns the word 'epic'.

Hella Nation is a book which came highly recommended by my dad and our tastes don't always overlap much, but he raved so much about this book I had to move it to the top of the to-read pile. Evan Wright got his start in 'journalism' as the movie reviewer for Hustler magazine and it flavors a lot of the book. Perhaps a third of it relates directly or indirectly to his years on the fringes of the adult entertainment industry. What is clearly a sleazy industry at all levels is captured with just a hint of winsome affection.

But the stronger pieces are the pure character studies where Wright captures the some of some peculiarly American subculture whether it be professional skateboarders or white supremacists or combat soldiers. The subjects are never patronized or ridiculed but always shown full-figure, warts and all.

The writing has a slightly Hunter Thompsonesque gonzo feel but seems to be more in line with the early writing of Tom Wolfe before he became an old man telling kids to quit hooking up on his lawn. There is a passion and compassion found in each of the rather oddball subjects he features.

Perhaps no book not involving precocious British wizards has gotten as much hype as Freedom. Jonathon Franzen even made the cover of Time as if he were a politician or rock star. The book itself is very good even if nothing could possibly live up to the rather elevated expectations. Like his earlier near-Oprah selection The Corrections it focuses on a rather dysfunctional family with widely divergent personalities. And while the characters and situations in Freedom are completely different from the ones in The Corrections, there is a certain familiarity and lots of easily drawn parallels.

I checked this book out of the library where it had a rather long waiting list meaning that I had exactly three weeks to get through all 560 pages. I set myself a pace of 30 pages a night and easily rolled through it. And while the plot and timeline do meander, by the end there is a clear concise satisfying if not wholly happy ending. In this respect, Franzen has more in common with Stephenson than most people would notice. Franzen works at a much closer level, but much of what they both do is the same. Small points have large meanings and everything connects to everything.

There is a lot of sex in Freedom. Underage sex, non-consensual sex, adulterous sex, make-up sex, even passionless sex. But none of it is prurient. There is always something else going on. The sex is always about more than just sex. Indeed, everything is about something else whether it be a bird sanctuary or a rock song or a war profiteering business deal. As for 'Freedom', well, let's just say that it means having nothing left to lose.