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Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘reading’

Books I Haven’t Read (part six)

In which we fail to read “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson

As I said last time this series popped up, it was originally supposed to be a bit more regular than this. This entry, too, feels slightly like I’m repeating what I’ve said before. Not only is it a science fiction book like the last one, it’s by an author who has cropped up previously. Today’s Book I Haven’t Read is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

I’m not sure what it is about Stephenson books that makes them hard to get through on the first attempt. I certainly didn’t have any problem with the first one I read, Cryptonomicon, but for some reason the others have gone past much more slowly.

It’s not that it isn’t a good book; it’s just that it demands to be read slowly. The terminology, the language, the realised world, all demand effort on the reader’s part. I’m a lazy reader, especially if I’m reading last thing at night; the book was too difficult to make me care about it.

Now, I’m reading it again, as a lunchbreak book instead of an evening book. And, I’m appreciating the start of it much more on second reading. There are awkward passages; but not enough to distract a SF almost-novice. It’s a fast-moving book; which conflicts with its density. It’s still not an easy read, but this time I think I’m going to finish it.

Books I Haven’t Read (part five)

In which we fail to complete Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross

Books I Haven’t Read was supposed to be a regular sequence of articles, but has been on pause since – ooh, last November, by the look of things. It fell by the wayside because of a post I never wrote, about a book I couldn’t finish because I came across a passage in it which seemed to have been blatantly lifted from an obscure Victorian memoir. I’ll manage to write about it, one day. In the meantime, here’s another book I haven’t read. Iron Sunrise by Charlie Charles Stross.

I’m not someone who reads much SF, but I do read some selected things. Iain M Banks, for example, because I liked his Iain Banks books* and wanted to expand. Neal Stephenson, because I liked his historical novels and, well, ditto. And Charlie Stross, because – although I don’t know him – we used to drink in the same pubs.

So, last July, I was heading down to London for work, for a week. Planning it all in advance, I bought an unread Stross book – Iron Sunrise – to read on the train. I was catching the train down to Kings Cross on Sunday, July 10th.

I got onboard my train at Doncaster and opened the book, hoping that it would distract me from worry. Unfortunately, it opens with a mass terrorism attack, one which destroys an entire planet. I struggled to read it until Peterborough, and gave up. I haven’t looked at it since then.

At the time, I didn’t even make the connection as to why I couldn’t read it. The planet-destroying opening was distressing for me to read, with characters in the midst of planning their lives, suddenly realising that their world is being completely destroyed. I didn’t draw the parallel, though, between the characters in the book, and the friend I was worried about.*** The thought would have been too raw at the time. Looking back, though, the connection is obvious.

I’m planning to go down to London again in a few weeks, and I’ve bought a different Stross book to read this time. Hopefully, I’ll be able to. Hopefully, too, I’ll be able to finish Iron Sunrise one day. I’m not sure I’m ready to try reading it again, though.

* in case you’ve never heard of him: he writes his SF books with his middle initial,** and his “literary” ones without.

** although you might think it would be easier to write them with a word-processor.

*** The characters in the book – at least, the ones who were worth writing about – realised exactly what was happening to them. I still hope, whenever I think about her, that the friend I’m talking about here didn’t know what was happening to her. Back on that train, it seemed certain that she must be still alive and in hospital unidentified somewhere.

Unrelated things

In which there is both good and bad

Two small things today, because I’m too sleepy to write more.

Firstly, some lovely photos of the dying Glasgow Subway in the 1970s.*

Secondly, reading the paper at lunchtime, I turned to the obituaries to find that one of my favourite writers, Jan Mark, died recently. Although she was known as a children’s writer, her “adult novel” Zeno Was Here is a lovely novel, and one of my favourite books. I’ll write more about it soon.

* Link via qwghlm.co.uk

Crystal balls

In which Mario Reading tries to predict the future, and fails

Today, author Mario Reading is in the news. Lucky for Mario Reading, because it gives him a chance to plug advertise his new book, a new translation and interpretation of Nostradamus. It’s the book, in fact, that’s newsworthy. It claims that in a couple of years’ time, someone will try to assassinate George Bush, and if they are successful he will be succeeded by his brother, who will take revenge with terrible results. Reading’s American distributors are rather upset about the prophecy – you’d think he would have seen the fuss coming.*

Reading himself seems very concerned that people should realise that you can’t blame him for what Nostradamus wrote. Interviewed on More4 News about the death of George Bush, he said:

This is Nostradamus predicting this, not me, I hasten to add.

See, I can spot a possible flaw here right away. I haven’t read his book,** but there’s a long, proud history of reinterpreting Nostradamus. Most could be summarised as:

This is me predicting this, based on a wild reinterpretation of a rather vague stanza of verse.

Given that many people have gone before him and failed, I’m rather doubtful as to what Reading’s prediction hit rate will be. However, given the timescale here, we don’t have to wait too long. In three years’ time, hopefully I’ll remember writing this. And if nobody’s tried to kill George Bush by then, I’ll try to remember to post an update. A rather sardonic one.

* Sorry, that joke is compulsary in any piece of writing that mentions Nostradamus. If I hadn’t made it, I would have been tied down and spanked.

** Well, obviously: it hasn’t been published yet

Update, three years later: hah, when I wrote this, I almost certainly didn’t realise that the next presidential inauguration ceremony would be three years later to the day.

The long arm of coincidence

In which something obscure keeps popping up

Have you ever noticed that sometimes one little thing seems to be popping up all over the place?

Earlier today, browsing the interweb, I read a short Freaky Trigger item about Uncle, a series of children’s books from the 1960s that I’d never ever heard of before. Which is a shame, because – according to this Economist article about them* – they sounded to be exactly the sort of children’s books that I’d have loved if I had known about them when they were still in print.

So then, later on, I’m browsing an internet dating site, and reading the profile of an attractive-looking person. And, what do they list among the 100 things they couldn’t live without? The Uncle books, of course.

I’m on the lookout now. The slightest mention of J P Martin’s Uncle books anywhere, and I’m going to jump up and shout: “Aha! A third coincidence!” before running off to my nearest second-hand bookstore** to search frantically for copies. Because they must be significant somehow. Right?

* I have to say, the Economist isn’t my usual reading.

** As the nearest decent one I can think of quickly is about 40 miles away, this might take a while. I might not run all the way there.

Books I Haven’t Read (part four)

In which we have trouble reading a catalogue

This week’s Book I Haven’t Managed To Finish Reading is something I don’t actually have a copy of myself. I bought it for my dad, a few years back, as a birthday present. He didn’t manage to finish it. I tried myself, and didn’t manage either. This week’s book is Revolution In The Head: The Beatles’ Records And The Sixties by Ian MacDonald.

My dad turned 18 in 1970; being of that generation, he’s always liked the Beatles. He’s not really much of a music fan, but he does like listening to a lot of bands from his teenage days, so I thought, naturally, that he’d enjoy this book. What stumped both of us, though, was its structure. Rather than being a normal biography, it lists every song the band ever recorded, in chronological order, with a few paragraphs about each one. There’s a great wealth of information, and I’m glad he’s now got a copy on the shelf as a reference book, but it’s not something that’s an easy or a light read. I might be a bit of a music geek sometimes, but, when you come right down to it it’s really just a list of songs. And even I’m not that geeky.

Books I Haven’t Read (part three)

In which we haven't read “The System Of The World” by Neal Stephenson

Update, August 20th 2020: A number of posts on this site have a minor update at the bottom, but not many have an update at the top.

It’s now 2020, nearly fifteen years since I first wrote this post, and I’m going through the archives doing a few updates. Tidying things up, fixing now-broken stale links and ancient typos, and excising anything that, at fifteen years distance, feels slightly too pointless or humiliating. And then, I come to this. And I’m not entirely sure what to do with it.

Posts that can be tidied up stylistically, they’re easy to deal with. Posts that are just too maudlin or self-obsessive: they can get right out of here. But posts and series of posts that I quite like, they’re staying, and I quite like the whole “Books I Haven’t Read” series. The problem is: how to deal with a post which openly admits that I used to enjoy reading Neal Stephenson?

At some point I will write a proper post for this site about why I used to enjoy reading Stephenson, why now I don’t any more, and what I actually think about his writing. There could well be another Books I Haven’t Read about a Stephenson book: Anathem, which arrived onto my bookshelves and then departed off my bookshelves several years later without me even managing to open it. But rewriting this post to take that into account would turn it into something entirely different now to what it originally was then, which goes rather against the idea that this is just a minor tidying-up exercise. I’ve decided, therefore, to keep this post pretty much as it originally was back in 2005, but with this great disclaimer at the start, a disclaimer that may well be larger than the post itself by the time I have finished writing it. This post is a museum piece. Read it, but please don’t believe it reflects my views now. Well, apart from what I think of the ridiculous implausible zipwire scene in The System Of The World, which is one of the few things I can actually remember being in the book.

Now, shaky back-in-time dissolve effect, read on…

This week’s Book I Haven’t Managed To Finish Reading is both a book, and a series of books, and also something that follows on neatly from the previous Book I Haven’t Read. It’s The System Of The World by Neal Stephenson, the final part of his Baroque Cycle trilogy.

Now, the trilogy is in itself a sequel to the earlier, 20th-century book Cryptonomicon, which I read and loved. The Baroque Cycle is set in the 17th and 18th centuries, filled with real-world characters such as Isaac Newton and Sam Pepys, and is somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 pages long. The length isn’t a problem, though;* I seem to have a problem with the way the style of the books changes through the series, even though that change isn’t itself something I can put into words.

The first book, Quicksilver, I read and, again, loved. The second book, The Confusion, took two goes to get to the end. It’s not any longer, its intertwined-but-unrelated plotlines aren’t any denser or more complex, but for some reason it was a lot harder to finish. The System Of The World I’ve tried to read three times, and each time I haven’t got very far at all.

If there is anything I can put my finger on, it’s that somehow The System Of The World feels slightly cartoonish compared to the other books. The main characters swoop into the Tower Of London in a Spiderman style, or are suddenly faced with a ticking timebomb that needs to be defused. The complex political intrigues of the earlier books are still there; and in the earlier books they were mixed with action too. However, the action sequences in the third book are somehow much less plausible. Because of this, the disparate plotlines don’t feel as connected; and the whole thing is much more difficult to finish.

* Cryptonomicon is a similar length to each of the later books, and felt too short in parts, as if large amounts of exposition had been excised by the editor. Or maybe I’m just slow at spotting plot points.

Books I *have* managed to read

In which I finish something for once

This week’s Book I Haven’t Managed To Read was going to be about a Neal Stephenson novel, The System Of The World. However, that’s been postponed, just because I wanted to brag about finishing another Book I Haven’t Managed To Read.

The book was one many, many people have read with no trouble at all. Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. However, the first time I read it, in a hurry, I’d just tried to read two other Harry Potter books very quickly too. I got as far as Chapter Three of Goblet Of Fire, stopped, and didn’t pick any J K Rowling books up for a few years.

Anyway, last week, Colleague M said: “what? You’ve only read three Harry Potter books?” So, I picked up Goblet of Fire again, and read it. I didn’t get stuck. I didn’t forget where I was. I read it and I finished it. Hurrah!

Books I Haven’t Read (part two)

In which we discuss An Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin

On Friday, I took the morning off work to take the car for its service. I’d told the garage I’d stop and wait there, in the hope that it would get done a bit quicker. Expecting to be stuck in one place for a couple of hours, I took a book with me in the hope that I’d continue reading it once I was at home. This week’s Book I Haven’t Managed To Finish Reading: Samuel Pepys: An Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin.

When I was small, I had a children’s biography of Pepys;* second-hand, falling apart, probably from the ’60s and probably about 50 pages long. It was an intriguing introduction to the great journal-writer, but was really just about everyday life; very little of it specifically about the diarist himself. He lived in such interesting times that it didn’t need to be. When PepysDiary.com started serialising the diary in real-time – over two years ago, now – I intended to read it daily, but soon didn’t manage to keep up. It still left me knowing little about him.

An Unequalled Self is a very good book, it has to be said. It’s also a large, complex book; and to do justice to its subject, it has to go into seventeenth-century politics in-depth. That’s vital, because – especially around the start of the Diary – Pepys’ life was affected so much by the changing politics of the period; but it was also my undoing. So many events and figures blur together that I start getting to the bottom of the page without having taken any of it in. That’s always a sign that I’m going to give up reading before long, if only because on picking the book up again I can’t work out where I am.

The common thread here, between this and our last book, is that my downfall is Too Much Information. If it’s something I know about: no problem. If it’s a new subject, and the information is packed too densely: that’s when I stop paying attention.

* Well, I almost certainly still have it somewhere.

Books I Haven’t Read (part one)

In which we discuss Karen Armstrong’s “A History Of God”

Following on from Thursday’s post, here’s the first Book I Haven’t Managed To Finish Reading Yet.

I’ve always been interested – in an academic kind of way – in trying to understand what other people believe;* partly because I can rarely understand why they believe it. That’s why I wanted to read A History of God by Karen Armstrong. I’ve started it three times now, but it’s still a book I haven’t managed to finish reading yet.

It’s a very good book, but the problem I have is that it’s very information-dense. As I was brought up as a good little Anglican, I still know a lot about basic Christian theology and a fair amount about the Bible itself. Because of that, I already had a fairly good grounding in the Christian side of the history of God, and the early Jewish part too. The problem comes with the development of Islam, which I know relatively little about, and the later developments in Deist philosophy. It just goes right over my head, and I get stuck in a thicket of theologians’ names and hair-splitting beliefs. Every time I try to read the book, I slow down but plod on when I get to Islam, then get stuck somewhere in the medieval philosophers. I’m hoping that if I make it past that section we’ll eventually get to the growth of fundamentalism. I know a bit about that, mostly from an apocalyptic viewpoint,** and it should hopefully start to be an easier read again after that point.

* although I have to admit to a certain amount of point-and-laugh too.

** but then, the apocalypse is the most important aspect of most Christian Fundamentalist theology, not to mention all the other 19th-century and later Christian sects, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and so on. The next time a Jehovah’s Witness comes to your door, remind them that for many years they taught that Armageddon would occur during the lifetime of members who were alive in 1914.