Books Archives

April 8, 2007

Airport Bookstore Success Stories: Kite Runner and Pendragon Legend

Airport bookstores are usually heavy on Brown and Crichton, so there is no risk to mistake them for beacons of literature. Still, I end up in these book stores (in particular when I'm out of reading material for a particular trip), and often get desperate.

Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised by my latest two rounds of airport book shopping.

In Schiphol, I bought Khaled Hosseini's Kite Runner, which I had seen recommended. The story takes up all the classical motives: Betrayal between fathers and sons and among friends and brothers, masters and servants; the quest for redemption that leads to more tragedy; exile; love; foreign countries and countries that become foreign. The background for that is Afghanistan from the 1970s (where a seemingly untroubled childhood ends suddenly) through today; Kabul's upper class back then (where unwritten rules lead to cruel lies) and the Afghani exile community in the US (where links within that community provide help when Western society turns into inhumane bureaucracy). The novel is brilliantly written and thought-provoking; go read it if you haven't.

In Budapest, I stumbled over a shelf dedicated to Hungarian authors. There, I found Antal Szerb's 1934 "Pendragon Legend", which has recently come out in a new English translation. That novel tells of a Hungarian private scholar in early 1930s London, who spends an inherited fortune to fund a life spent on research in libraries. Jan�s B�tky, as that apparently autobiographic hero is called, is drawn into the somewhat mystifying family history of certain Welsh earls, and soon finds himself in the middle of a maelstrom of alchemy, Rosacrucians, old Welsh legends, (courtly?) love for the Lady of the Castle, and temptations of all kinds; not to forget nightly expeditions to haunted lakes, castles, and forests. On its surface, this novel is a bit detective story and a bit mystic thriller - but it doesn't take itself seriously; instead, Szerb gives a uniquely ironic rendering of his motives, of the genres he takes up, and of his characters. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

May 20, 2007

Antal Szerb: The Queen's Necklace

The story of the tastelessly overloaded diamond necklace that had been allegedly ordered by Marie Antoinette (and subsequently led to a major public scandal in 1780s France) can be found at Wikipedia. Antal Szerb's version, written in 1943, however, goes far beyond just telling this particular bit of history: In his uniquely ironic tone, we get an extraordinarily vivid introduction to the institutional and social history of the highest echelons of the ancien régime, right before its fall.

Szerb brings this time to life brilliantly. Historical characters become tangible, among them Marie Antoinette, Jeanne de Saint-Rémy de Valois (impoverished descendant of the royal Valois family, and chief villain of the story), Cagliostro (about whom Szerb notes that he didn't know much less about medicine than any other physician of his time), the Cardinal Rohan (whose boundless naiveté contributed greatly to the general debacle), and finally the Count of Haga (also known as Gustav III of Sweden; his political aptitude serves as a stark contrast to the French royals' political talent). Tangible, too, the court's customs, the functions these customs had (many of them obsolete at the time), the reaction when Marie Antoinette (daughter of Empress Maria Theresia) comes in and stages a fashion rebellion -- and the ways in which the Comtesse de Saint-Rémy social engineers her way through all that.

Interesting, Szerb's observations how the court attempted to get closer to the ordinary citizens, and at the same time demystified itself, thereby maybe helping the revolution along -- a theme, incidentally, that resonates in The Queen's recent rendition of British monarchy's crisis around the death of Lady Diana. "The ancien régime didn't perish so much for its vices, but for its virtues," Szerb writes.

This book is a true treasure trove for the historically interested, but never boring or dry, but always fun, entertaining, ironic, colorful. If you know to read Hungarian or German or one of the other languages it has been translated to (I've been unable to find an English translation), go read it.

October 13, 2007

Douglas Adams, Last Chance To See

Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine is an extensive late-1980s trip report: Adams and Carwardine traveled around the world to find species that were about to be extinct, and the people trying to preserve them.

The book is a snapshot of the late 1980s, and interesting alone for the things that have changed (or not!) since then. Consider a Shanghai whose soundtrack consists of Richard Clayderman mixed with bicycle bells (as opposed to Volkswagen clones' horns, and construction noise -- but even that was 5 years ago), at a time when the Baiji is the subject of conservation efforts further up the river, and a favorite local brand for all things from beer to hotels (to fund the conservation effort). Today, the Baiji is functionally extinct, and the conservation efforts focus on the finless porpoise which is only mentioned in passing in "Last Chance to See."

Consider New Zealand's obsession with clean shoes at immigration (no change there as of last year), and the threatened Kakapo -- a species whose entire population is indeed catalogued on Wikipedia, by name; yet, that population has actually doubled since the book was written.

Adams was a master story teller. The stories he tells here -- many of them hilarious, despite the sad subject matter -- are worth being read and remembered.

William Gibson, Spook Country

I got William Gibson's Spook Country at 20% off, in Palo Alto, in the middle of a recent business trip. It provided good entertainment when, later on during that trip, seat pitch was too tight to even open a laptop.

The story that Gibson tells in this book is a fun tale of intricate, expensive, and illegal pranks, spiced with technology, pop culture, politics, and geotagging taken to the extreme ("locative art"). It's an entertaining story well-told.

Gibson knows enough about today's technology (and is a good enough writer) to get away with talking a lot about MacGuffins without making me wince. Unfortunately, however, his prose is ridden with trademark and technology babble: The security guard has one ear Bluetoothed. Hollis hauls around her PowerBook. Tito is told to escape through the restaurant of the W. Bobby doesn't bother to WEP his wi-fi. The cool characters fly Virgin. While all that is preferable to Stephenson's sometimes ridiculous name obfuscation in Cryptonomicon ("Finux", anyone?), it's still annoying this reader. As Joe Gregor puts it, it's like a year of boing-boing, with a plot.

I'd have preferred the plot with a somewhat smaller dose of boing-boing, I guess.

October 15, 2007

Alex von Tunzelmann, Indian Summer

Alex von Tunzelmann's "Indian Summer. The Secret History of the End of an Empire" is a captivating read -- I didn't do much else this Sunday but read it.

This is not a novel: It's an extraordinarily well-written historic narrative of the tragedy, drama, and, yes, farce that surrounded the end of the British Raj and the creation of India and Pakistan as independent states.

Tunzelmann tells this piece of history by often focusing on some of its key players.

There's Gandhi's struggle between political judgment and his personal spirituality, there's Jinnah's career from being a champion of Hindu-Muslim unity to being the father and first governor-general of Pakistan (which Tunzelmann suggests might have been a bargaining chip that Jinnah didn't actually aim to get). There's Nehru, who starts out as a young English gentleman (and English native speaker), to become the country's first Prime Minister -- and who sometimes excels as the author of scathing political polemics against himself, published anonymously.

And there are the Mountbattens: Louis, a gentleman of impeccable courtly manners, high intelligence, but sometimes questionable judgment, known as the "Master of Disaster" in Royal Navy circles during World War II, cousin of the King, last viceroy of the Raj and first governor-general of the Dominion of India, oscillating between political achievements (notably, the accession of the princely states to India), and petty distractions. Edwina, socialite, heiress of an immense fortune, turned into a skilled organizer of humanitarian aid during World War II and in the midst of the catastrophe that the India/Pakistan split was - and, in a politically explosive ménage à trois, Nehru's close friend (and lover?) within weeks of the (often adulterous, never divorced) couple's arrival in Delhi; a political force in her own right.

Despite this colorful cast of historic characters, and despite Tunzelmann's interest in their motives, the personal stories and portraits remain a tool for telling the bigger story and painting the historical picture of Britain, India, and Pakistan. This book is not court reporting, but serious, yet eminently readable historical work.

Don't start "Indian Summer" if you have other plans for the day. It's near impossible to put down.

November 18, 2007

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End

A close friend recently gave me Vernor Vinge's "Rainbows End"; in case you wonder about the spelling, there's a chapter called "the missing apostrophe". The book's subtitle is "a novel with one foot in the future", and as with most science-fiction, the foot in the present is the one that matters most.

Vinge introduces his reader to a not-too-distant future (2025). To build it, he does not need to break any laws of physics -- (almost) all he describes is built on some plausible and incremental advances over today's technological state of the art, and then some choices that societies might make (or rather, are making) about dealing with it. This world is, in some ways, post-apocalyptic: The next big California quake is a thing of the past, and (though the reader isn't bothered with the details) it's a great success that no major city has been lost for five years. 9/11 is really just a prelude to this world. Weapons of mass destruction are available to "anyone who has a bad hair day", and so this future is one of surveillance and an almost almighty security apparatus. Constraints on technology paired with surveillance are not just a matter of the Great Powers, though: Ubiquitous wearable computing comes with the possibility to subvert others' wearable computers; and there is broad and wide information sharing and use. Forget privacy. Also, right holders' wildest dreams seem to have come true: Microroyalty payments are built into the infrastructures.

How does one live in that society? Writes Vinge:

In the modern world, success came from having the largest possible educated population and providing those hundreds of millions of creative people with credible freedom.

The society that we encounter in this book, then, is focusing on all things creative and playful -- though some of that gets across as shallow, in particular to Robert Gu, one of the book's main characters, who has "lost his marbles" when returning from a decade of Alzheimer after application of a successful cure; meaning that he's lost both his world-class poetic talent and the ability to hit people where it hurts them most. In the cast of characters, Robert is joined by his grand-daughter Miri, his son Bob, and his dauther-in-law Alice -- along with the somewhat obscure (but key) Rabbit, and a number of security aparatchiks.

With the novel's always interesting and at times scarily plausible future society as a backdrop, these players engage into a tangled game of manipulation, hacks, and adventures, with nothing less at stake than freedom of thought. That story itself makes for an amusing and good read. It's merely serving as a tool, though, to explore the consequences of technological and social choices that we face today.

Overall, an excellent book, and a thought-provoking read.

Update 2007-11-29: The book is available as a free download now. (via BoingBoing)

January 4, 2008

Jack Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency

Lessig's blog entry about Jack Goldsmith's "Terror Presidency" made me curious enough to get and read the book.

Goldsmith - a staunch conservative, who ultimately believes that most of the things that the Bush government actually does are right and appropriate - was propelled from academia first into the Pentagon, then to heading the Office of Legal Counsel, a position in which he was effectively the chief legal arbiter of what the executive branch is allowed to do by law, and what it isn't. There, he found himself revoking a set of legal opinions (the torture memos) that asserted quasi-absolute presidential power, in order to authorize practices that Goldsmith believes were appropriate under applicable law. This revocation put him at the center of a struggle within the Bush administration, where the fear of the next attack meets arrogance and a desire to not consult.

The book, then, has two main threads of discussion: On the one hand, the mentality and working environment within the Bush government; on the other, the comparison of Bush's political strategy with Roosevelt's during World War II: In Goldsmith's view, Roosevelt, like Bush, had to step to the edges of what was legal, and sometimes beyond. But where Bush's asserted presidential authority is often based on shoddy legal reasoning, Roosevelt's authority was based on building broad political and public support for his actions. Where Roosevelt strengthened the presidency by building authority, not asserting it, Bush weakens it, by asserting authority, and deliberately not building broad support.

Overall, an illuminating (though chilly) read, in particular to this reader who is neither American, nor a lawyer.

January 6, 2008

Robert Harris, The Ghost

Robert Harris' "Ghost" reminded me a lot of the anonymously published "Primary Colors", at least during the first few chapters: Where Primary Colors is obviously a roman a clef about the Clintons, the Ghost as obviously deals with the Blairs. Where Primary Colors is told from the perspective of a political aide who gets suddenly drawn into the maelstrom of primary politics, the Ghost is told from the perspective of a ghostwriter who is called in to finish the former prime minister's memoirs (for a premium), after the previous ghost (formerly a political aide to the prime minister) has mysteriously deceased.

In both novels, the narrator emerges on a journey that brings him closer to his political couple of choice than he'd ever have dreamed. But where Primary Colors tells of mostly credible abysses and explores personalities, Harris' thriller takes its reader on a different trip, along with the ghostwriter who tries to understand his "author": Just how far, you believe, does the special partnership between the US and the UK go? Just how little do you trust that former prime minister to have served his own country's interests? And, just what kind of motives are you willing to accept for that?

In other words, where precisely do you think Harris crosses the line from a fairly plausible roman a clef into pure, James Bond like fiction?

Besides being a well-written, captivating, and entertaining thriller, the Ghost also leaves its reader with quite a bit of uneasiness. It's a book of our times.

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This page contains an archive of all entries posted to No Such Weblog in the Books category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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