Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Book Reports

Though it's been a short summer, I've had the opportunity to read a bit. For one thing, with my house interior being painted last week ("malted milk", but honestly pink), that was all I could do at home. Anyhow:

A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories, Flannery O'Connor

The Flannery O'Connor bug finally bit me, and I checked out this short story collection. For me, it varied quite a bit in impact. Perhaps her best-known, the title story, didn't leave me with much, but I was really moved by "A Temple of the Holy Ghost". I just don't have much to say, as the format of short story is less one of intellectual concepts than what St. Ignatius would call "movements". Anyhow, I give the collection seven out of ten.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco

I started this one, then put it down about 150 pages in. Cnytr's review gets it pretty much right. With all his expertise on the Middle Ages and impressive imitation of medieval style, Eco misses a great chance to write a truly medieval novel (which was, I think, his aim). He just keeps everything at arm's length, far enough to scoff at ancient superstition with modern irony. This distance made it impossible for me to truly enter the story. That, and his characters barely rise to the level of stereotypes (good and bad ones). It's like reading an Isaac Asimov novel: the ideas (science-fiction speculation or Middle Ages knowledge) are great, but if those particular subjects aren't your thing, it's just not a great read for any other reason. Those who love medieval history and culture have every right to love this book, but I just lost interest. (Ditto with Baudolino, though Foucault's Pendulum is still one of my favorite novels; it's a far different book in setting and scope than the other two, though.) Two out of ten.

The Riemann Hypothesis, Karl Sabbagh

A pretty good report on the history of the problem, with a lot of good stories and amusing mathematician anecdotes, and an intriguing portrayal of a clever but flawed professor who has presented several mistaken proofs to the conjecture. It's obvious that Sabbagh knows quite little about mathematics (it's particularly funny for me to watch him throw his hands up in the air at taking complex powers), but he does well at observing the culture of mathematicians. I liked it. Six out of ten.

The Advent of the Algorithm, David Berlinski

Oh man, we come to the worst of all the books I read. Nonfiction books on the history of mathematics most emphatically do not need postmodern gimmicks sprinkled throughout. You can't tell what facts actually happened, and what Berlinski just made up, except that the latter aren't very interesting at all. I put it down in disgust at about the point where Berlinski's cats were attacking Liebnitz's wig. A big fat zero.

Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot

Wow. My friend James introduced me to Eliot by having me read "Little Giddy", but I hadn't revisited the Quartets since until the last eve of the retreat. Simply staggering. It's probably useless for me to try writing about poetry (it's been compared to "dancing about architecture"), and for once I won't try. Ten out of ten.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Ah, now The Brothers K has some real competition for best novel of my life. Really, the English and Americans need to do some catching up to the Russian novelists. Even in translation, this book is absolutely profound, authentic, rapturous, and even funny (and this particular translation, by Constance Garnett, was superb). Even if the most famous particular of the ending has been spoiled for you in advance (as it was for me), the book is suspenseful and more engrossing than books a third its length.

One thing that I loved about it was that Tolstoy gets the tiniest details of human interaction precisely right. Dostoyevsky, for all of his greatness, has the habit of abandoning the form of real conversations so as to get the concepts presented just right. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy never loses track of his characters' limitations, habits and views, and he takes note of the difference between how they appear to themselves and how they appear to others. Characters do the little human things, like convincing themselves that they "always knew" something that they just discovered, or getting caught up in one grand Idea after another because they abandon each one at the first failure, or letting the decisions that mark their lives be altered by simple embarrassment in conversation. His characters are real human beings with lives of their own: no major character can be "summed up" in a paragraph. And what questions they struggle with! I can't imagine a novel more ambitious (though I haven't read War and Peace), and this book delivers on it.

If you read one novel this lifetime, Anna Karenina would not be a bad choice. Eleven out of ten.

The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace

From the sublime, we finally descend to the strange and fascinating. This is less a novel than a game (the game being, unquestionably, Chutes and Ladders), but it's an intriguing and disturbing game of fiction and metafiction. (I caught hold of one of the ladders in Chapter 8a. Yes, 8a.) Neurosis is what David Foster Wallace does best, and he portrays/exhibits a lot of it here. All things considered, I liked his essay collection (A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) better than this, but it still makes me want to read his Infinite Jest. Seven out of ten.

Boy, I think I like doing criticism a bit too much for my own good.

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