Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Marianne Wiggins, Evidence of Things Unseen

Marianne Wiggins, Evidence of Things Unseen. A strange and lovely book. Maybe a little too luminous; such beautiful language, but at times it seemed overwrought, too delicate and elaborate. Opal and Ray (the names are not an accident in a book whose principle obsession is light) are the two quietly elusive people whose romance and lives the main story arc follows. Ray Foster's scientific (or phenomenological) passions didn't really convince me, but the scientific optimism of the early part of the last century did; overall the place and times came through more strongly than the people - it's hard to have two such non-verbal people as your focus, I think. That may be why last portion of the book, dealing with the son Ray Jr (or lightfoot - see what I mean about the light vocabulary?) was a simpler story - more direct, maybe a little stock, but lightfoot and Flash (again!) were so much more transparent or accessible. Or less opaque? I'm being infected by the language of light... But a beautiful phosphorescent story.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost

Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost. This was a total riot - I actually had to hide it for a week so I'd study. It's four separate narrations of the same events, with, of course, each teller reaching different conclusions and in their own ways unreliable. But it's not one of those annoying post-modern non-mystery novels that you are supposed to make your own conclusions on and are frustratingly inconclusive; it's an old fashioned mystery that ties up quite nicely at the end. Set in Restoration England, and with a few Natural Philosophers as characters spouting great debate and experimenting away, it might remind you of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, although it reminded me more of the historical thriller The Name of the Rose (by Umberto Eco), or maybe Possession: A Romance (by A. S. Byatt). A nice fat book, the kind of book you wish was longer, not shorter, with tons of detail about Oxford in 1663 - even some experiments in Robert Boyle's elaboratory as well as boundless political intrigue. Of course, I wished there was more of the deciphering and experiments, but we do have the above mentioned trilogy for that. The story has an odd heretical conclusion that is really pretty interesting; I also might have liked even more on the religious sects. I suppose that's the advantage of using in-character narration, you're limited on how many discursive asides you can make without breaking role, or the temptation would definitely be to show off the research and you'd end up with several thousand pages instead of merely 685.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Atul Gawande, Complications

Atul Gawande, Complications: a surgeon's notes on an imperfect science. Another book for class, but I greatly enjoyed it. It's very straightforward, almost simplistic in delivery, but truly thoughtful and interesting. Good thought on medical decision making, mistakes, complications, balance between judgement and science, and the limits of knowledge. The perspective of a surgical resident is unique. The pieces on surgery and diagnosis were frightening and reassuring at the same time. Gawande's most original thinking was his honest analysis of medical training and the evasion that surrounds it. 1) training leads to mistakes, 2) training and practice are necessary to make good doctors, 3) The choices about who is practiced upon are partly chance, but mostly the disadvantaged are used for practice.

It's a hard book to categorize - it's similar to Oliver Sacks's, in that it's a series of case studies expanded and digressed upon, but without the intellectual and literary pretension (also perhaps not quite as nice to read; sacks writes like a novelist). It's better than most medically oriented nonfiction - more humble and chatty - think Stephen Jay Gould rather than the new england journal of medicine.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies

John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies. This book makes me wonder again, precisely what it is about Updike that I love so much. Because I do - I love reading his books, I love his easy beauty of language, the way everything is said perfectly without strain or effort. But so often I heartily detest his characters. I actually liked the family in this book (it's one of those multi-generational sweeping American epic sort of books), but I like them less down the generations. Clarence Wilmot was a Presbeterian minister around the turn of the century who lost his faith and couldn't continue - he didn't have a plan for an alternate career path and his family drifted into poverty as he succumbed to Tb. I liked Clarence, and empathized with his anemic and hopeless loss of faith, and I also liked his wife and her sturdy toughness. I liked their children, and wish he focused a bit more on Esther. I liked the very different relations with god and faith through the generations - it wasn't clich├ęd or insincere, although the doubters were more convincing than the pious. Alma DeMott, or Essie, I liked less, and wasn't really rooting for her film career. Her son could have been a great character, a modern anti-hero, but he wasn't quite fleshed out enough to please me. I almost had the feeling that Updike chose religion and cinema as two "great American themes" and set out to write a "great American novel"; that might be unjust, but I also never felt that the cinematic parts of the book were terribly compelling - they reminded me of example essays in an English 101 text. Sometimes with Updike I get this sense of unfulfilled promise - of something intangible lacking - of insufficient passion, perhaps. But I think it is only because I am so infatuated with him as an author, I have very high expectations. So it was a good, even grand, book; but not one of the best or his best.