A Sunday Miscellany

I fancy trying this, a blog post format I re-remembered when I went back and read the archives of one of my favourite book blogs (now, alas, defunct/moved to vlogging, which I cannot get into no matter how much I’d like to, and therefore more or less lost to me). It’s just a little weekly reading catch-up, not high stakes, and hopefully more tenable than long review posts.

This week’s largely been consumed with a re-read of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which I first (and last) read back in 2015. Cryptonomicon is extremely hard to summarize but is essentially a novel in two strands: the first concerns the development of modern cryptography, cryptanalysis, and digital computing during World War II, while the second (which follows descendants of characters from the first) is set in the ’90s and concerns an attempt by a bunch of hackers-cum-entrepreneurs to create a data haven on a tiny island in Southeast Asia, during which they discover some secrets that have lain dormant since the WWII plot strand. It has been criticized for its style, which involves a considerable amount of info-dumping on subjects like modular arithmetic, Van Eck phreaking, and other such technical concerns. I’m certainly much more alive to the potential irritation of those info-dumps now than I was in 2015, although they don’t personally bother me. I think Stephenson succeeds in creating an authorial voice that, Thackeray-like, sits you down and natters knowingly in your ear, so that the info-dumps feel more like the point in that sort of conversation where the guy at the bar gets excited and starts drawing diagrams on cocktail napkins. (It’s also slightly addictive; most of this paragraph is written in a diluted version of that tone.) But the book is also 810 pages long in paperback, so I can see how this sort of thing might start to pall after a while. It’s certainly murder on the wrists, but I’ve long since given up caring much about that.

I also started Sophie Haydock’s debut novel The Flames, which gives voice to the four women who loved artist Egon Schiele: his sister, sister-in-law, wife, and model. I…did not finish it. I wanted to like it so much, I really did. It was mostly a problem with the pacing, which feels both rushed and dragged out. This is a common issue in contemporary historical novels written in the present tense. That’s a huge generalization, I know (and is not to be taken as being anti-present-tense; the problem is never tense per se, but its method of employment). Still, I have observed it repeatedly. In The Flames, the pacing in each scene, and between scenes, creates disorientation: we are dashed through moments which are clearly meant to have great emotional weight, then pivot to several months in the future for a scene which seems not to advance the plot at all. The book also suffers from a certain flatness of delivery. For instance: Ada, Schiele’s sister-in-law, believes herself to be pregnant and goes to obtain an abortion, for which Schiele (though not in the frame for paternity) pays. At the abortionist’s, her pregnancy is discovered to be illusory, but she doesn’t accept this and runs screaming through the dark and dingy house. In the hands of someone like, let’s say, Malcolm Lowry, this would have been a scene of hallucinatory power and horror; in Haydock’s, unfortunately, it feels dutiful and rote. Oh, the emotion’s all where it’s meant to be; that’s the problem. It’s all very “‘No’, she whispers”. No surprises here. It’s a perfectly readable novel, and many will enjoy it immensely, but I put it down. There are books in the world I haven’t read yet that could take the top of my head off.

I’m currently reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. I’ve avoided it til now, unsure of whether DiAngelo’s centering of white people in the antiracism struggle is useful or problematic. However, I’ve just moved to a borough that is both deep-dyed Tory and a historical bastion of British white flight, and I keep having conversations with people where the sentence “I don’t think this is about race” is uttered by the not-me party. So actually I think DiAngelo’s focus on framing racism in a way that will get past white defensiveness is going to provide me with some useful conversational tools. There’s not a lot here that I haven’t already learned some way or other, but the reinforcement is handy.*

*edited to add: 3/4 of the way through the DiAngelo, I notice that she cites a belief that one “already knows” about racism as an assumption that many white people make in order to excuse themselves from further engagement! So consider me chastened. I never get to stop learning, and trying to do better.

12 thoughts on “A Sunday Miscellany

  1. Ah, what a shame about the Schiele book – I had high hopes for that one! (I will read any book about Vienna and its artists/writers/intellectuals). Despite some of the problems with Robin DiAngelo’s work (after all, she is trying to sell her own courses, so she may overstate some things), I have found the book a useful tool in understanding and talking to those hugely defensive ‘but I have no privilege’ kind of people.

    1. I know, I’m pretty bummed about The Flames, too. I so wanted it to be better. It is, I think, a solid three-star-er: perfectly functional, a story with characters and a plot and a structure, but lacking a spark.

      I’m reading the DiAngelo with the knowledge that she works as a trainer, so most of her anecdata is based on the people she’s hired to work with. Finding it useful, though!

  2. Eve’s Alexandria was the first blog I ever followed! I loved it, and sadly I can’t get into vlogs either.

    ‘It’s all very “‘No’, she whispers”. ‘ Haha, I know exactly what you mean! Sounds like one to avoid 🙂

    1. Me too! I started reading it in mid-2016, just as it was about to go off the air 😦 I follow Victoria on Twitter and watched some of the YouTube vlogs (they’re the only book vlogs I’ve managed!) but it just isn’t the medium for me in terms of either producing or absorbing meaningful criticism.

      It seemed like the best way to put it–I’m glad it makes sense to someone other than me!

  3. Nice ‘hand holding up books’ shot! I don’t know how Simon and Eric do it when they’ve got a whole longlist or month’s worth of reading to photograph at once.

    I’d seen The Flames a couple of places online so requested it from my library but, don’t you worry, I’ll be quick to DNF it if I find it as annoying as you did.

    1. If the stack were even a tiny bit heavier, I couldn’t have done the splayed fingers; I’d have had to do a full hand support! (Suspect Simon and Eric are both brawnier than I am. Perhaps it would help to hold up more books.)

      I wouldn’t say The Flames is awful, just that it didn’t resonate with me as I’d hoped it would and that I’m now in a position where I feel able to let go of such books – I totally trust your DNFing abilities!

  4. Hmmm. Cryptonomicon. For years I’ve sidestepped the book, due to intimidating bulk and some of the science-y themes; but maybe, if I can pick up a cheapie. Or maybe take it out of the Library on a 6 month loan. A kindly Librarian once gave me a 3 month loan on Proust’s whopper; after about 5 weeks and a few 100 pages, I hoisted a white flag and returned it. You gotta quit while you are ahead!

    1. Wow, a 3-month loan is impressive! I mean, I am a big fan of Cryptonomicon (not necessarily of all of Stephenson’s other novels; I get on best with this and the Baroque Cycle). It’s bulky, but I do think the science/maths themes are well explained (and you really just need to be able to grab the gist, not to be able to program it all yourself!) If you have the time and the inclination, I’d certainly recommend giving it a go.

  5. Love that comparison to the guy in the bar drawing diagrams on a napkin! There is something so endearing about that. I have avoided DiAngelo’s work for the same reasons so I’d be interested in your opinions on the book when you’ve read it.

    1. It is quite endearing, at least in this book – I’m not sure I’d enjoy Anathem, for example, but here it seems to work.

      Thought the DiAngelo very useful, actually, for precisely the reasons I imagined it would be: it gives me scripts for breaking white solidarity.

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