December 2nd, 2007


What I've Been Reading Lately

61. The Sunne in Splendour (Sharon Kay Penman)
A historical epic rehabilitaring Richard III of England, and presenting his life story with him as the good guy rather than the villain. I don't know my British history well enough to judge if the background's accurate, but there's quite a bit of detailed research evident in this novel. It's not generally too overt (although extraneous detail does slip in from time to time), and the historical figures are given well-developped personalities, making this a good read as a novel. My only real complaint would be that, even with 800 pages to work with, Penman still does a fair bit of jumping forward in time, selecting Significant Moments without always linking them. There are a few occasions, too, where a character is introduced just for the sake of viewing a Significant Moment, and that's a little problematic when you're already dealing with a massive historical cast. That said, this novel pulls of the Grand Historical Story remarkably well. ****

62. The Passion (Jeanette Winterson)
Jeanette Winterson and the Napoleonic Wars don't make an intuitively natural match, but the book actually carries it off relatively well. The prose, naturally, is beautiful and evocative, and the romantic imagery is lovely. My one complaint would be that the plot doesn't really hang together -- it's almost more of a series of images than a proper story. It leaves out huge swathes of time in order to focus on beautiful moments separated by years. I suppose that's part of what makes it literary fiction rather than anything else, but I refuse to see why I have to sacrifice plot for textual beauty. I want it all! ****

63. A Splendor of Letters: the Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World (Nicholas A. Basbanes)
This is a curious book. It's full of anecdotes and interviews, many of them very interesting, on the subject of preservation and destruction of the written word. It seems, at times, to be groping towards some kind of argument, but it never quite gets there. Instead, it meanders off into other anecdotes and discussions. It's tied together by the common theme of book preservation, and it examines the benefits of papyrus versus parchment as well as microfilm versus hard copy and digital versus paper books. It avoids dealing with any specific technical issues, perhaps in order to maintain a broad accessibility to the general public. I can't help but feel that it would have been a stronger book if it had embraced a point of view and been willing to make a concrete argument. Nicely written and enjoyable, but ultimately rather fluffy. ***

64. Howl's Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones)
I understand now why some people were so upset about the Miyazaki adaptation of this novel. This is a very different work from the film. I really did love the film, but I think I may love the book even better. And I do consider them to be largely separate things, sharing only a few broad outlines and inspirations. Diana Wynne Jones is a wonderful writer, with a vivid imagination and enjoyable prose. This is a YA book, but it doesn't pander; it's eminently readable for adults as well. *****

65. Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media (Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky)
It's always interesting to actually read a book that you've heard a lot about over the years. Herman and Chomsky's argument here is relatively simple: the conglomeration of the media means that media outlets are pretty much entirely owned by people who have a vested interest in supporting the existing political order. As a result, similar events are treated very differently depending on whether they take place in a "U.S. client state" or in an official enemy state. The book tries very hard to present itself as an objective sociological study, full of facts and figures, and tables listing counted numbers of articles and so on. But at the same time, there's an awful lot of snark for something supposedly "objective". Chomsky and Herman take all kinds of pot-shots at the press, as if they simply can't resist. I think it may weaken their argument a bit. ****

66. Use of Weapons (Iain M. Banks)
This is a fascinating book that gets more and more disturbing the more you read. It's (in part) about one of the dark sides of Banks' utopian Culture -- the ways in which the Culture meddles with other civilizations in order to try to make them 'better' (which translates into, more like the Culture). It's also, more immediately, the story of a man's neverending attempts to atone and find forgiveness, and to learn to live with himself. There are two parallel storylines, told in alternating chapters. The primary 'current' story works its way forward while the other works its way backward getting ever closer to the origin of the protagonist's angst. The revelations get creepier the further back you get in his history, and by the end it's hard to know what to think. It's an unsettling read, which is not unusual for a Banks novel. ****

67. Testament (Nino Ricci)
This is a very interesting book. Ricci's Jesus is emphatically human, both in his origins and in his miracles, not to mention his attitude throughout his ministry. At the same time, he's unquestionably an extraordinary and unusual human being. This book tries to get at what it might have been like to be there 'way back at the origins of a religion. The political and religious environment was fascinating and well-drawn. Unfortunately, I didn't think the book quite succeeded as a story. The viewpoint-switching left me hanging a couple of times, and I would have liked a little more fiction in with my rewriting of religion. But that's a quibble. Ricci took on an enormous challenge, and largely succeeded. ****

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