Monday, July 16, 2012

gone baroque


If anyone has wondered about my slightly longer than usual recent absence, I present the above photograph as a perfectly reasonable excuse, and one instantly to be recognized by any reader who has found him/her self caught up in Neal Stephenson's 'Baroque Cycle'. The three volumes, at about 900 pages each, were originally published in 2003 and 2004, and that was when I read them last. I've always intended to repeat the experience, thinking they'd come in handy for some long, dark winter evenings, but a few weeks ago at the beginning of our current heatwave I found myself drawn to the shelf where they've been sitting, picked up 'Quicksilver', and dove in. What a refreshing treat it was.

Taking place roughly between 1660 and 1715, The Baroque Cycle covers a period in which many of the foundations of our world are laid down. Things we take for granted now, like science, mathematics and currency weren’t obvious as our culture stepped away from the dark ages. What Stephenson did  is to take us through a period rich in intrigue, discoveries and innovation to show where the system of our world comes from.

There are three main fictional characters who drive the novel - all of whom could well be described as larger than life personalities. The first one we meet is Daniel Waterhouse, an eminent Natural Philosopher, member of the recently established Royal Society, and close friend of Isaac Newton. As the story begins we find him at his recently established Massachusetts Bay Colony of Technologickal Arts (circa 1714, in a log cabin). The second main character is Jack Shaftoe, (known as Half-Cocked Jack - you must read to find out why) an English vagabond who by chance takes up with the Polish army at the siege of Vienna, meets and kills a Janissary, and in the process rescues the third character, a young slave girl from the oddly named island of Qwghlm, a fictional place that resembles the Outer Hebrides of Great Britain.

Through the course of the books, these fictional characters interact with all sorts of famous historical figures, from Newton and Leibniz to Kings (James II, William III, Louis XIV), Queens, Electors, a young Ben Franklin, Peter the Great and John Locke, just to name a few. Their extraordinary adventures take them across Europe, the Middle East, India, the Americas, and Japan. There are thrilling pirate, naval and ground battles, political intrigues, poisonings, and sword fights. Amazingly enough, the history described is extremely accurate as I discovered while doing follow-up searches about specific topics that interested me as I read.

I admit I have a few nerd-like tendencies but even more I love to be entertained while being educated. I read an interview done by the Guardian shortly after the novel was first published and it appears Neal Stephenson has views about teaching that would be nice to see enacted:

'History is dull unless there's a yarn in it. A yarn by definition has to be about a small number of individuals who are in some kind of an interesting situation. It is, therefore, a rather fine-grained kind of history. But history teachers in schools are not allowed to teach that way. Instead they are told to teach a class called something like "The Ancient World" or (in this country) "American History." And this makes it impossible for them to teach at the fine-grained level of individual yarns; it filters out all the interesting content and leaves only the dull stuff. If I were running a school I would begin by chucking all of those courses into the dustbin. In place of "American History" I'd have the kids read Cabeza de Vaca, or a biography of Jim Bowie.'


You may have noticed there's another of his books in the photo, 'The Cryptonomicon'. It was written before 'The Baroque Cycle' and takes place during WWII and our era but the research done for it inspired the larger book. This time I'll read it second.

.. and I'll try not to be gone so long.

Have you read anything interesting this summer?

20 comments:

  1. Oooh, I love historical fiction and these sound right up my alley - will look for these in the library. With our heat wave, I've been reading more, nothing that exceptional yet enjoyable: my late father's collection of Reader's Digest Condensed Books (remember those, is that embarrassing or what?). There are a few jewels in them that I pick out, including some historical fiction. I then pass them on to charity to clear out some shelf space. I must read the Finnish books but have become so rusty and slow...

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    1. Yes, I like historical fiction too as it really does seem to be the best way to gain an understanding of an era. Of course, reading fiction written by authors from other countries is also very rewarding. Amitav Ghosh is another of my favorite authors - Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke are a pair of amazing novels. They are historical but called literature. Sometimes these distinctions can be very confusing.

      I remember having Reader's Digest Condensed Books at home and also the Harvard Classics.

      It's good you've maintained your Finnish well enough to still be able to read it. I never got beyond reading what was required in French and Latin classes.

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  2. If I were to read fiction, I would prefer historical fiction.

    Instead, I've been reading non-fiction, particularly Martha Nussbaum's book, The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age. It's about fear, and what it does to people, and how to overcome it. It deals significantly, but not entirely, with the use of fear to control peoples' lives. An apt book for this time in our world.

    Happy reading. Will comment when you write.

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    1. After just looking up 'The New Religious Intolerance' I can see why you'd find it so interesting. The information Ms. Nussbaum provides and the conclusions about tolerance and open-heartedness that were discussed in the reviews sound to be what our world needs much more of. I'm glad to know you're in a position to spread these words of wisdom along with your own. Yes, I know you're not actively ministering now but I'm sure you're still close enough for consultation.

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  3. I have become interested in the time of Henry VIII because of the books by C.J.Sanson. I am now reading The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky.) I could not stand Crime and Punishment: what a poorly written piece of crap literature that was - but this is much better.
    the Ol'Buzzard

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    1. C.J. Sanson is another author who sounds quite interesting. Did you ever read Umberto Eco's 'Name of the Rose'? You'd probably really enjoy it. I loved 'The Brothers Karamazov' when I read it long ago. That just proves I need to do so again but I promise to avoid 'Crime and Punishment'. My husband agrees with your take on that one.

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  4. Ah I'll have to give him a try. Enjoy your reading!

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    1. Shall I mention Neal Stephenson read everything Ned Ward ever wrote? There are sections that are enormously funny with frequent very pointed commentary.

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  5. I love to be entertained while being educated.

    I'll second that for sure! I finally got around to reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Oh boy could I relate ;) And then I've read a lot of self help books which I'm not going to brag about. It is just that those kinds of books are what I need right now.

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    1. Oh I can well understand why you'd like that book. Any book that talks about Italian food, meditation, and falling in love for the fun of it is fine with me. The wonderful thing about books is they can be counted on to provide what we need when we need it.

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  6. Oh yeah. I love love love history, but in 98% of classroom settings, it's so bloody formulaic. I think I read some liner notes in a few CDs.

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    1. and we all know there are no liner notes on i-tunes..

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  7. You've asked if I've read anything interesting? I'm trying to read a historical fiction about Wallis Simpson and the king's abdication. Surprisingly enough, it's called Abdication. I can't tell you yet if it lives up to its promise.

    Now about those books you're reading. I could see getting hooked. I'm going to see if they're available on audio because they could make the commute something to look forward to.

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    1. A King abdicating? It sounds like a pretty unbelievable plot device, doesn't it. Let me know how it turns out.

      I know you'd probably really enjoy them but I'm of the opinion it's one of those narratives that require reading - just to be fair to yourself.

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  8. Your book reviews are amazing, Susan. This series sounds fantastic. I'm a bit confused about the one you are going to read second this time around, but trust you have the course well planned.

    When Borders went out of business and the Salem store had its closing I picked up a short stack. Recently finished One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez (loved it). I purchased his Love in the Time of Cholera at the same time, but am holding it for later. In that bit of shopping I found Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons and realized I'd heard of her for ages and had not read her. so that's what I began last week. I almost gave up on it after the first ten pages, as I found it too "girly" and seemingly vapid. But I hung in there and it's good I did because the characters are becoming interesting. I still think the book is too "girly" though and highly doubt it will be a memorable read, in spite of Tyler having won a Pulitzer.

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    1. Neal Stephenson wrote 'The Cryptonomicon' first as two separate stories set during WWII and the mid-90's; the fact it has characters who are descendants of the fictional main characters in 'The Baroque Cycle' make it equally easy to read before or after the larger work.

      Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of my favorite novelists. I loved both those novels but the one that really hit me hardest was 'Love in the Time of Cholera'. His understanding of what strange forces motivate individuals is unsurpassed in my opinion. Yet as we can't read the same book over and over we have to find others that touch us similarly. Happily, there are many that fit the bill. Arundhati Roy's 'God of Small Things' is another treasure and not girly at all.

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  9. my local library is closed till september for renovations.... i'm borrowing and reading anything that is available from friends and family. just started a good book 'Farewell to the East End', Jenniffer Worth, think its based on fact about a midwives experienc in 1950's London. makes a good read anyway. been reading lots of detective type stories as thats whats available.

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    1. That's too bad about your library being closed for so long. When you're a reader it's hard not to have a good selection to choose from. At least there are some very well written mysteries so hopefully you aren't suffering too much.

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  10. as i said over on my blog in our lovely meandering comments, i must read all these books. this is exactly the type of novel i most adore reading tho my reading has lessened in recent years thanks to this stupid little white box on my lap. i really must get back to it, i had a better vocabulary when i read more... ur and r and bbs just doesn't quite do it. this is also my favorite time in history and of course, a good story about the "royals" is always right up my alley. :)
    xoxox

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    1. I'm pretty sure you'd have a good time with this book(s). He imparts a whole lot of fascinating information while being extremely entertaining.

      Yeah, I know what you mean about the box. I can only take just so much too.
      I'll be over again soon.
      xoxo

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