08 February 2011

The week in romance. (And an unavoidable hiatus.)

I flew through THREE books last week--which is great, because I've got some other must-reads clogging up the ol' spare time, on which more later. Some thoughts on each:

When Beauty Tamed the Beast, Eloisa James: Gosh, this was just great. A heroine with her rep in ruins because of an unfortunately pleated dress, a hero based on Gregory House (muscle infarction, "everybody lies," and all, though it's his father who was the opium addict), a castle in Wales!! Followed it up with An Affair Before Christmas, another James with an altogether different trope: it's about an already-married couple made miserable by her awful, awful mother's having taught her that sex was horrible and disgusting and not be enjoyed at any cost, and their gradually getting to know each other as people, leaving aside the physical aspect until their love is based on a firmer foundation. So sweet.

A thorough James convert I; not as blown away by the central romance in Courtney Milan's debut,Proof by Seduction, but still liked the book's exploration of the pathetic economic options available to women of "uncertain birth" in early Victorian England. The heroine has supported herself as a fortune-teller for 12 years; the hero's the cousin of one of her clients and a reluctant marquess who'd rather be studying macaws in Brazil. Their cross-class attraction strains her wishes for independence--how to be his lover without becoming his mistress?--and makes her ashamed of a profession based on lies. What I liked best about the book was the dynamism of the characters, all of whom are troubled and unhappy--Jenny's ambivalence, Lord Blakely's social awkwardness and passion subsumed to duty, and especially the cousin-client, Ned Carhart, a painfully sweet naif prone to depression and self-loathing. For their happy ending, all of these people have to create different visions of themselves, and Milan doesn't pretend it's easy.

I'm going to have to take a brief break, howevs, due to two factors: first, I have a couple of library books due in three days that can't be renewed--An Evening of Long Goodbyes and Graham Greene's Haiti novel The Comedians. Second, Freebird Books' Post-Apocalyptic Book Club (yes, that is the greatest book club idea ever) is discussing Neal Stephenson's 2008 tour de force Anathem next week! I am not entirely optimistic about my being able to reread the entire 1000-page tome by the 17th, but I'd like to reread it anyway. Here's my original review from the first go-round:

AnathemAnathem by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Plato, Saint Augustine, Leibniz, Kant, Mach, Husserl, and Godel make up Anathem’s metaphysical backbone,” Neal Stephenson tells us in his acknowledgments. It’s a wise assertion to make up front, warning the reader, in effect, Ideas Ahead; while he may lose some of his audience, those of us who think to ourselves “Ooh, I love Saint Augustine and Leibniz and Kant!” know right off we’re in for a treat.

Anathem is less science fiction than philosophy fiction (to coin a phrase and a genre). Set on the Earthlike planet of Arbre, it’s told in the voice of young Fraa Erasmas of the Concent of Saunt Edhar, part of a worldwide network of sequestered intellectuals called avout. These men and women have for millenia lived a cloistered existence, cut off from contact with the outside world except during certain festivals. And what do they do within their walls? They think: about numbers, geometry, astronomy, physics; they study the ideas of their forebears; they form squabbling philosophical orders; they relentlessly discuss and examine every notion they have in formal Socratic dialogue, chasing down illogic and ferreting out bits of truth. Around them, civilizations and religions rise and fall—but the avout stick to their discipline, and keep knowledge safe.

And then, something appears in the sky, and everything changes.

The high point of Stephenson’s talent, as should be obvious from all the neologisms in this review, is world creation. Fifty pages in, he can reel off a sentence that, out of context, makes no sense at all—but without resorting to clumsy exposition, he’s immersed the reader in this familiar/unfamiliar world so completely that its vocabulary becomes second nature. This is helped along by frequent entries from the avout’s most recent Dictionary, which go so far as to provide etymology. He’s also phenomenal at explaining difficult concepts, the great concepts, in fact: the nature of consciousness, the objective truth of plane geometry, the quantum possibilities of multiple universes.

If all this makes Anathem sound dry, that’s my fault entirely. In Stephenson’s hands, all of these heady concepts and hypotheses are part of a grand adventure. The novel is funny and weird and action-packed and even romantic. Just when I’d think I knew what was going on, he’d throw me a curve that upped the stakes. You’ll know, just from the acknowledgments, whether you’ll love Anathem. And if you do, I’d be happy to talk about it—because, as the avout and philosophy majors like me well know, it’s sharing ideas that make them true.


  1. I'm sorry to say that I thought Anathem was flat-out terrible. I say this as a huge fan of philosophy and of Stephenson. I thought the Baroque Cycle was great, to the dismay of some of my friends. But Anathem struck me as a big stinky mess: bad (at least, to me, uninteresting) world-building, dull and unconvincing characters, trite plot, and, worst of all, shallow shallow shallow philosophy. I was deeply disappointed.

  2. Ok, I love the combination of things you've been reading this week. I've never really read Stephenson--I tried Quicksilver but just didn't get into it. Which of his books would you recommend I read first (as a non-philosophy major)?

    Re: EJ--glad you are liking her Duchesses so far! The last two in the sextet were my favorites; This Duchess of Mine most of all. Rarely does a romance novel take on issues of mortality, especially with such poignancy.

    Courtney Milan's newest, Unveiled, has broken my brain with its awesomeness. Try that one if you can find it. The tone is more consistent than Proof (her debut). Plus she takes on Parliament, bigamy, and family love-hate relationships. We live in a good era for genre fiction.

  3. Sullivan: Very, very interesting that we would have such different reactions! Esp. coming from similar backgrounds re philosophy/Catholicism...although you have gone much further than I in that regard, as I've read little of the former since St. John's--in fact, all that I can recall is an intensive Lady-Doctors-of-the-Church + Hildegard of Bingen reading period in perhaps '05? I recall hearing at the time that others had the same reaction to Anathem--clearly I didn't, and I sadly do not have a particularly rigorous reason for such.

    Theresa: I'd say read Snow Crash--dizzying cyberpunk fun. Also, it is not 1000 pages. And Unveiled is the one Sarah from Smart Bitches is going to eat, right? Will check it out!


  5. Sorry I didn't check back in for your response until now. I guess I thought google would notify me or something! Dummy.

    I'm a little afraid that Anathem disappointed so much mostly because, as you point out, I'm very familiar with the source material for the ideas. This makes me worried that I only liked Cryptonomincon etc. as much as I did because I don't know as much about math and computers, but know enough to feel smart when I read Stephenson. I hope that's not the case because there aren't that many living writers I'm too crazy about and I had high hopes for him. I'm definitely going to give his next book an open mind willing to be pleased.

    Lady Doctors? That's pretty cool. I've never got around to reading Catherine of Siena or St Teresa of Avila (except the Autobiography). One of these days . . . Recently I picked up some Edith Stein, who could conceivably become a Doctor of the Church one of these days (she's more qualified than St Therese!).

  6. Dialogue of a Seraphic Virgin (St. Cath) is great, as is The Interior Castle (St. T of A...ooh, that's not a good abbreviation, is it).


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