I took a moment to look back at the books I read in 2011. I figured I'd make a short list and give my opinions of each. I was surprised to find that I had read 46 books. So what was to be a short list turned into a series.
Anathem (2008) by Neal Stephenson
On a planet that may or may not be a future Earth religion has replaced science. The monks hide away in monasteries that are essentially closed fortresses. The arrival of aliens breaks apart the society. A lot of long winded passages on ancient Greek philosophy ensue. They are broken up by two amazing action packed set pieces that kept me trudging through this 928 page novel. I almost put it down several times. I kept hoping for more of the monks in the wilderness and less of the Jim Jarmusch-esque talking head nonsense.
Stephenson is a great writer. The characters and set pieces are grand and vivid. He is Philip K. Dick with more literary and scholarly ambitions. I would compare him to Margaret Atwood. That he convinced a publisher to print 928 pages says more then I could about his writing. That said, I think a good 200 of those pages could have been chopped. His new book REAMDE has been called 'his most accessible'. I will give him a second shot, but I don't recommend this unless you have a lot of free time and are into Greek philosophy and long monologues.
Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson
Ruth and Lucile are young girls on the edge of puberty. They get passed between family members until their aunt hobo Sylvie comes to live with them permanently. What ensues is a study in different lifestyles. Ruth slowly becomes her aunt. Ephemeral, transient, dreaming. Lucile abandons them for the world of 'normality'. The final breaking between the sisters is a literal flooding of their home that leaves them wading for weeks, using the couches as boats.
Robinson wrote her debut novel in 1980. Her second novel, Gilead, came out in 2004 and won a Pulitzer. In between are two short collections of essays. Her style is dreamy, magical realist to an extreme. She lightly sketches place and time but you are never lost. At only 219 pages, the book is fast paced and leaves you wanting more. The end is a stripping down of reality that sticks with you long after. One of the best books I read in 2011. Ruth is a magical creation, read this book then see the film version directed by Bill Forsyth and staring Christine Lahti.
The Waves (1931) by Virginia Woolf
Woolf is difficult. I love/hate her. This book is a 300 page soliloquy. It is arguably one of the most experimental books I have read that still manages to be readable. There is only dialogue present and characters are conveyed through conversation and loose inferences. A group of friends are traced from school to death. We are left at the end with one voice retracing the paths we have all trodden together.
Beautiful and maddening. The closest comparison in terms of audacity would be The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. This book is very similar to The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin, which will come up later. Read To The Lighthouse first, then The Waves.
Sheppard Lee (1836) by Robert Montgomery Bird
I like to read books in a sort of methodical order. I pick what book I am going to read next based on what I just finished. Sheppard Lee was picked because it is essentially about a man who leaves his body and wonders around exploring what other lives would be like. It is a physical version of The Waves. It isn't the voices that muddle, it is the bodies and lives. Sheppard Lee starts life as a down and out land owner and ends up a slave. Along the way he explores being a Samaritan and a skin-flint loan shark. For a book written 180 years ago it reads like it was written today.
The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco
I wanted to read another book with monks. Something simple. Umberto Eco's classic Sherlock Holmes-esque was the obvious choice.
William and his novice Adso travel to a monastery in Northern Italy. Once there the bodies start to pile up and a series of secrets and conspiracies unravel. Along the way the novice meets a lovely lady, the Inquisition rears its head, and a labyrinthine library is explored. And at the heart is a great secret. Wonderful novel. Go read it now. There is a beautifully filmed 1986 movie staring Sean Connery and a very young Christian Slater (who gets naked!). It's worth a viewing but read the book first. They turn it into a comedy.
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