Reading Notes October 2018

Finished in October

1. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

I originally read this book ages ago. Maybe when I was in high school or college? I don’t think I liked it very much. So for years whenever anyone recommends it or it comes up in conversation I’ve remembered that I didn’t like it but thought: well, maybe that’s because I was younger and didn’t understand it. I’ve enjoyed other Stephenson books so much in my 30s and 40s, maybe it’s time to revisit Snow Crash.

Well, that was optimistic, but misplaced. I still don’t like the novel very much and getting through it has been a bit of a slog. There are things I like. I like the main characters. I like the setting. I’m fascinated and irked by the proto-internet. The physicality of it I find baffling, how they have to “physically” move through virtual space and cannot jump around, constrained by having to go through points B, C, and D in order to go from A to E. But I can get over that.

What I really dislike is the brain as computer extended analogy and the metavirus. The brain as computer metaphor was probably a new and exciting when the novel was written, but I’ve been reading convincing articles about the basic wrongness and fundamental limitations of the metaphor and they really rub against the book in a way that takes me out of the narrative. And I especially detest the eisegesis* of the Bible and ancient Sumerian myths. Eisegesis is interpreting a text in such a way that the reader introduces his own presuppositions, agendas, or biases into and onto the text. Stephenson’s bias are against anything supernatural or divine. The ideas of good and evil are human constructs introduced by human agents to control human behavior. His reading interprets the Resurrection as being a foreign element introduced later in the NT text rather than a historical event. It’s just too jarring. My belief in the divine origin and eternal truths of the Bible are too fundamental to my worldview to be able to easily set them aside— I don’t *want* to set it aside for the sake of a story. I guess the bottom line is I didn’t find the notion of the metavirus interesting enough to suspend my disbelief, especially to put aside my most fundamental beliefs for it.

I think there was something interesting in Stephenson’s idea of the me— proto-memes?— as self replicating ideas, as a sort of virus. But ultimately my response is mostly akin to Han’s in The Force Awakens: “That’s not how the Force works!”

As usual with Stephenson’s work I felt like the book just ended abruptly without a satisfying conclusion. He doesn’t feel any need to tie up loose ends. The pace is frenetic right up to the last page and then suddenly it’s over. I guess Uncle Enzo died killing Raven? I wanted to have a bit more time with him. I guess Hiro survived and got together with Juanita? Again, it would have been nice to say goodbye. And I wanted to know more about YT’s mother and their relationship. Simply calling her mother to pick her up just didn’t seem to be enough to carry the weight of the lack of resolution. Stephenson’s novels are like the guy who slips out of the party before it’s over so that he doesn’t have to say goodbye. It’s a jolt when you look around and realize he’s gone and you never got a chance to finish your conversation or ask him that question or introduce him to your friend. All that unfinished business just left hanging….





2. Recursion: Wearing the Cape #7 by Marion Harmon.

Sometimes I really prefer to read all the volumes in a series back to back in one go. When I’m reading each volume in a series as it comes out, it’s will have been too long since I’ve read the previous books and I lose track of the storyline, the names the places, the nuances. And even if the author tries to provide some background info as the story unfolds, and prompts to jog your memory. . . sometimes it’s not really enough.

And now I feel like I’m at that point with the Wearing the Cape series. I enjoy the characters and the universe. I’ve always liked the world building. And this plot was interesting, but I had a hard time following all the names, the events. Especially as this novel revolves around the main character somehow going back in time to relive events from her past. I think someday soon maybe I’ll re-read the series again and hopefully that time I’ll enjoy this one as much as it deserves.

3. The King’s Achievement by Robert Hugh Benson (free on Kindle!)

This is the story of two brothers in the time of King Henry VIII. The younger brother, Chris, discerns a vocation and becomes a Benedictine monk. The older brother is right hand man to Thomas Cromwell and is assigned to be a Visitor the the monasteries to help find or manufacture reasons to close them. It’s a dark time in history and while I thoroughly enjoyed Benson’s other books about the English Recusants, Come Rack Come Rope and By What Authority?, I found it easy in the first half of the book to put it down and harder to pick it back up again, being filled with a sort of dread about what was coming and not sure I wanted to read more about the stripping of the altars right now. But after the first climax when the monastery is finally closed, the final chapters of the book, while tense, were a quick rush to the end, which wasn’t quite as bleak as I’d feared.

I’m looking forward to re-reading By What Authority, which is set much later in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, but which has some of the same characters. I’m terribly fascinated by the period of the Reformation in England. Never having learned the Catholic side of it, it’s been quite a revelation. Maybe when I’m finished with that I’ll try to pick up Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars once more. I was reading it several years ago and got sidetracked.

In Progress

1. Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery

This story of the first woman to hike the full length of the Appalachian Trail also tells about the trail’s history. I was hoping to read it to the kids, and I’ll probably still read them some excerpts, but there’s quite a bit about Emma Gatewood’s terribly abusive marriage, which makes for a dark reading for adults. Though it’s an interesting counterpoint to the narrative of her journey. it’s definitely not kid-friendly. I rather wish the publisher would print a young reader edition which leaves out the dark, abusive stuff and just tells the fascinating story of the hike and the Trail.

2. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

I’d dropped this one for quite a while, just got sidetracked and it wasn’t what I was in the mood for somehow. But Dom and I got to see Hamilton in Boston at the beginning of the month and that kicked me back into the book. Now I’m gaining some momentum, having finally got to the the winter at Morristown and the courtship with Eliza— and the beginnings of Hamilton’s interest in financial matters with an anonymous letter to a member of Congress about the problems of inflation and untrustworthy currency.

3. By What Authority? by Robert Hugh Benson

Set a generation after The King’s Achievement, during the later part of Elizabeth’s reign. There are minor characters who were in the previous work and it’s interesting to see them from that perspective. I read this book some years ago, but had not previously read the sequel and so those characters didn’t have the same resonances at the time. I really like that the protagonist is a Puritan girl and that at the beginning of the novel she’s the one with the highly developed inner life, not her Catholic love interest. The story is definitely told from a Catholic worldview, but does try to be fair to the Puritans and the Church of England rector and his wife and depicts them as being Christ-loving and well-intentioned, real people.

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