The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

January 4, 2010 at 4:51 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction | Leave a comment

This short and engaging work is subtitled a “a story of detection” and indeed it follows a detective solving a mystery in 1944. The main character is never named but it is clear from the start that he is Sherlock Holmes, an extremely old Sherlock Holmes who has long since outlived his few friends and retired to the countryside. But although as the title implies Holmes comes briefly out of retirement to solve one last mystery, the novel is not too concerned with the mystery. The situation Holmes unravels is a clever enough little construction, but it’s straightforward and not especially interesting. Although published as a standalone book, this is really a novella not a novel, so there’s not enough space to spin a more typically convoluted web.

While the author isn’t particularly interested in the mystery, the “story of detection” label remains accurate. Holmes was defined, both for us and in his own mind, by his mental powers, but he feels these slipping away. The aches and pains of his joints are unwelcome reminders of the more subtle decay of his mind. Meanwhile he finds himself in a world that has moved on from the one he knew. He may be able to solve one last mystery, but he no longer can fully understand what happened and why.

As a premise for a novel this is a little thin, so it’s fortunate that Chabon stuck with a shorter format. The Final Solution makes its points and gets out before it outstays its welcome. It makes me wish more prominent authors were willing to aim for brevity.

House of Niccolo by Dorothy Dunnett

March 18, 2007 at 12:00 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction | 1 Comment

Dorothy Dunnett is considered, in some quarters, to be the finest writer of historical fiction, ever. I have only read a handful of such books so I certainly can’t make that statement, but I can definitely believe that it might be true. Dunnett is a formidable writer. While not nearly as opaque as Gene Wolfe, her work is if anything even more labyrinthine. As in her earlier six book Lymond series, this tells the story of a fictitious man living in a meticulously researched historical milieu mostly populated by real historical figures. Dunnett takes no liberties with history, instead allowing her story to take place in the margins of the history books. The stories she chooses to tell are both epic and personal, for House of Niccolo‘s main character, like the hero of the eponymous Lymond books, is something of an epic person. Dunnett has been accused of having Mary Sue protagonists (a term for characters whose traits are chosen with wish fulfillment in mind) but that was more true of Lymond. In both series, though, the protagonist is more or less another species in terms of his intellect and abilities. Sometimes Nicholas is so ridiculously smart (and his life so ridiculously complicated) that I was tempted to throw up my hands at how outlandish it all seemed. But it never quite happened, for Dunnett’s studied prose makes everything sound so reasonable. Other times I started to flag from the sheer bulk of the series and its unrelenting detail, but after taking a break from reading I would always find myself coming back, eager for more.

Although Dunnett is nothing if not a plot-heavy writer, ultimately her books are centered on characters. Fortunately her writing is up to the task in this respect, too. The characters are very finely drawn, very real, not just the protagonist but also the wide array of supporting characters that orbit Nicholas’ life. Like all great fiction this is ultimately about more than who wins or loses…it takes a while for the themes to manifest but ultimately Dunnett explores just what responsibility man has to family, friends, and society…especially a man of such great talents as Nicholas. If you are at all interested in historical fiction you must try Dunnett. Most (including Dunnett herself before she died) recommend starting with the Lymond Chronicles and I agree. I think the Niccolo books are superior and normally I say start with the best, but in this case an exception must be made for the Niccolo books are so overwhelming in scope it is best to start with the more manageable series. Note, there are some connections between the two series, but there is absolutely no harm done to either narrative if you read one or the other first.

The Count of Monte Cristo

November 27, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction | Leave a comment

I decided to read the Count of Monte Cristo because I was traveling and it seemed to have two attributes that would make it ideal for keeping me occupied: First, it was really, really long. Second, despite being 480,000 words the book was relatively compact. I hadn’t read anything by Dumas since Three Musketeers ten years ago, so I didn’t exactly know what to expect. Turns out, the book is quite good. If the idea of a 1200 page, small type book makes you nervous, then forget about it, there’s plenty more for you to read. However, if you aren’t scared off by the length, the long format (and let’s not beat around the bush, it’s that long because Dumas was paid by the line and had ghostwriters helping him) turns out to have some advantages. Unlike Dickens, Dumas uses the padding for conversations instead of tedious or obscure descriptions, and he has both the wit and the ear for dialogue to make it work. The cast of this novel is large (though by modern standards perhaps not exceptionally so) and each character is carefully drawn. It’s this detail…plus the almost philosophical introspection that Dumas isn’t afraid to work in…that makes the book rise above its rather adolescent revenge fantasy plot and become something that is actually worth reading. I should also mention that unlike Three Musketeers (which if memory serves is adventure) is more of a story about intrigue, plotting, and manipulation. Recommended to anyone interested in the period (France after the second Restoration) or the genre.

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

July 17, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction | Leave a comment

Note: The purpose of this site is to quickly summarize my feelings about a book while it is still fresh on my mind: i.e. after I have read it. Because of this I have not gone back to write reviews for the many books that I have rated but not reviewed…it’s not fair to the books. The ones I like a lot, I will review after rereading them. Recently though some people have wondered about my low rating for Quicksilver, and since I don’t intend to read it again my recall of the book (which I read a little less than two years ago) will never be better, so I thought I would go ahead and explain my problems with the book. Additionally, though it is lengthy, there are no spoilers in this review. In fact, few books have been written that are more impossible to spoil than Quicksilver.

I really, really was looking forward to Quicksilver. Having watched Neal Stephenson grow as a writer from Zodiac through Snow Crash to Cryptonomicon, I had high hopes that he had finally developed into the great author he always seemed on the cusp of being. Certainly he has raised his aim significantly since Crytonomicon. Where Cryptonomicon was, boiled down, a witty celebration of information theory, Stephenson clearly wants the Baroque Cycle to be a witty celebration of the European enlightenment. It is almost a propoganda document for what today are called “western values” (though, hopefully, many Asians would disagree): rationality, individualism, and meritocracy.

I am certainly deeply in favor of everything Stephenson is advocating, so what problem could I possibly have with the book? Alas, the execution is unfortunate. More than unfortunate, perplexing.

Quicksilver is historical fiction. Hopefully there was no disagreement on this score, but even today there are still people who insist on defining Cryptonomicon as science fiction when it is clearly a hybrid technothriller / historical fiction novel (the only reason Cryptonomicon, to these people, must be SF is because they like the book and they hate technothrillers…yet these same people complain that critics have stripped 1984, Brave New World, etc. from science fiction’s account for precisely the same reason). The reason Quicksilver‘s genre is important is that the very qualities that make Stephenson such an amazing author of science fiction (and technothrillers) completely sabotage the basis of historical fiction. After all, most historical fiction, and Quicksilver is undoubtably in this category as well, seeks to present an accurate picture of life in the given time period. Yet Stephenson’s humor and wit pervades his writing and he is always on the lookout for a good joke or clever turn of phrase. While this makes the book engaging (I would have never finished Quicksilver without it) it also means it is impossible to know whether a given detail is present because it is accurate or because it is working in service to Stephenson’s humor. To a small extent all historical fiction has this problem: what is fiction and what is history? Yet in Master and Commander this is easy enough to parse: the setting, technology, and politics are ruthlessly researched and accurate while the characters and events are fictitious. This division does not exist in Quicksilver because Stephenson’s wit operates on so many levels: puns, one liners, the written equivalent of sight gags, situational comedy, satire, and absurdism are all at work on every part of the story, from the dialogue to the characters to the setting to the events to the footnotes. What then are we to believe?

Of course, one solution to this problem is to read Quicksilver as straight fiction (leaving aside, temporarily, the fact this leaves Stephenson’s defense of western tradition, the book’s raison d’etre, twisting in the wind). But even as such, the fiction is stretched incredibly thin across a deluge of historical trivia. I may not be able to evaluate the history to know what is true and what Stephenson is making up, but I’m sure the vast majority of it is true. The amount of research that must have gone into the book is disturbing to contemplate. The trouble is, I just am not that interested. This is clearly a matter of taste. I’m well aware that many people are interested in the history on display in Quicksilver. Nevertheless, I am not interested enough to read a whole book on it, and I think I am very much not alone.

This problem carries over when we consider Stephenson’s mission. He wants to show people just how important science is in changing the face of the world, but by drenching his novel in detail he is ensuring he is only preaching to the converted. It is my opinion that very few people not already quite interested in history will get through Quicksilver and, of these, most will already have an appreciation for the role of the enlightment.

Still, despite the tedious stretches of detail, Stephenson’s humorous writing is in full effect and he is unquestionably more skilled now than he was when he wrote Snow Crash, which frequently made me laugh out loud. Unfortunately, as part of his quest to show the reader just how privledged they are to have been born after these brave men reformed their primitive civilization into the science enabled jewel it is today, Stephenson spends a great deal of time in a very cruel type of humor. The best way to put it is that much of Quicksilver‘s humor is about making fun of the people in the 1600s for being irrational, barbaric, and, most importantly, extremely dirty. I don’t debate that they bathed rarely if at all, had very mistaken ideas about the transmission of disease, etc., but I found it poor taste to constantly laugh at them for it. If it had been one joke, or a couple hundred, I wouldn’t have noticed. Instead, practically every page somehow refers to how deplorably wretched their condition is. Again, the reason this is so prominent is Stephenson is showing the horrors that science has saved us from. And while I am glad I am living in a more enlightened age, I’m well aware of the fact had I been born in that time I wouldn’t realize anything was amiss. Humanity changes, if at all, much slower than technology, and it is odd that such a talented futurist would lose sight of this. I played along with the narrative on this for a while, but my breaking point was when someone dies of plague and the whole scene is played for laughs. A few weeks earlier I had read a book whose name escapes me where the process of dying of the plague was outlined in excruciating detail. That story brought home the heartbreak of watching your family die, and not just die, but die in fear and pain. I understand that Stephenson is not writing in that tone, but surely he had better options that to have a laugh at someone inconveniencing people by up and dying of the plague in a public place. In fact I think he misses a lot of power by never being serious, never showing the very real pain and suffering that science (particularly medical science) has saved all of us from having to face. That would be a lot more effective than just talking about how dirty it was back then, or how even the enlightened scientists keep dissecting dogs and getting the guts all over themselves.

Plenty of people love Quicksilver and the rest of the books in the Baroque Cycle. They’re welcome to it, but count me out. If I want to learn about the enlightenment, I’ll read a history book. If I want to read excellent historical fiction, I’ll read something by Dorothy Dunnett. If I want to read a really engaging narrative, well, there are many, many choices. If you haven’t read Stephenson’s other work, start with Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon. If you have, then give Quicksilver a try, but don’t be surprised if you find your patience being sorely tested.

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