Reality Conditions

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Book Reviewing

I have finished reading all the books I mentioned in this post, along with several others. Reviews of varying length and detail follow:

1) Richard Dawkins, The Ancestors' Tale. I had bought it because I reckoned a complete story of the evolution of all major life forms on Earth written by Dawkins to be unmissable, but at the same time I feared that the level of detail about particular animals and plants could well bore me; that is what putted me off about biology in high school. I should have known better; Dawkins never writes a dull paragraph and can explain in exciting ways how the evolution of a particular creature exemplifies general biological principles. A must read.

2, 3) Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. The second and third part of Pullman's fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, hooked me as no book had done in a very long time -a little surprising because the first volume, Northern Lights, had failed to impress me, and in retrospect I can't point to any definite things making the other volumes better than it. I just couldn't stop reading them! They take place in a "multiverse", moving between our universe and many other parallel ones whose description displays a rich imagination, following the adventures of children Lyra and Will as they become unwittingly the centerpieces of a Miltonian cosmic drama -nothing less than the rebellion of an alliance of men, angels and other creatures from many universes against a tyrannical God. There are many clever details that make the story less "fantastic" and more "science-fictional", adding realism to it; among them references to dark matter and quantum entanglement, and a wonderful description of alien creatures in another universe that shows such insight into symbiotical evolution that Dawkins cites it approvingly in The Ancestors' Tale. As criticism I could say that the ending is a bit unsatisfactory, leaving many things unexplained and adding many others "out of nowhere" just to create a tragic dilemma that looks artificially contrived, and also that the anti-religious rethoric is too heavy-handed at points and detracts from the narration (although no more than the pro-religious rethoric in Chronicles of Narnia by Pullman's bĂȘte noire C.S. Lewis, which show also much less imagination in my opinion).

4) Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This one took me over a week to read, in contrast to three days for Pullman's books. It is a strange book, delightful and hugely enjoyable by parts, but also very maddengly long and digressive at others, and perhaps suffers from trying to be too many things at the same time. It is set in an England in an early 19th century much like the one we know -the Duke of Wellington is fighting Napoleon, King George is in a madhouse, and Lord Byron is writing his poems- but with the difference that the past of this England is one in which in medieval times Magic existed and worked, roads communicated England with Faery were open, and a magician called the Raven King had reigned over Northern England for 300 years. All that is now in the past, and magic has become only a scholarly and theoretical matter -until one Mr Norrell discovers how to make "practical magic" again, soon followed by another magician called Jonathan Strange. Norrell is middle-aged, cautious, selfish, and petty; Strange is young, daring, and romantic. Together they start using Magic for the practical matters the Government commands them to -mostly aiding in the war against the French- but soon the re-awaking of magic breaks out of control as the clash between both magicians becomes inevitable, while a mischevious fairy begins playing tricks of his own...

The novel is written in a very 19th century style, reminiscent of Jane Austen, but with many amusingly digressive and scholarly footnotes on details of magical history. The characters are well-drawn, the universe of the story is extremly well concieved and described, succeeding in making its alternate past believable, and many incidents are really very funny -I laughed out loud at a couple of times. But the novel is also very long, has too many storylines that are barely kept together (particularly in the second half). I found myself liking the parts the were Austenian comedy of manners and comical application of magic to pedestrian uses, and disliking the parts related to the fairy king and his magical world; his actions were too arbitrary to be interesting.

5) Frederick Forsythe, The Day of the Jackal. A classic thriller that was my choice for plane-reading in my trip to Buenos Aires. The gripping tale of the attempted murder of president de Gaulle served well its purpose of keeping me well-entretained during the flight. Forsythe is a favourite author for me in the thriller genre, although in his latest books right-wing ranting mixes too often with the narration.

6) Fernando Savater, La infancia recuperada. The story of my relation with this book, called Childhood Regained in English, is a strange one. It is a collection of essays by a Spanish philosopher on the favourite books and authors of his childhood, that combine nostalgic indulgence with mature critical reading. I read it borrowed from a friend at age 15, and was amazed to see a philosopher discuss all my favourite authors: Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Emilio Salgari*, Daniel Defoe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, J.R.R. Tolkien... It felt like discovering a kindred soul. I had never forgotten the book, and my posts on Alexandre Dumas may be a weak and distant attempt of imitation. So now when I found it in a secondhand bookshop in Buenos Aires I bought it immediately, and read it again enjoying now not only the nostalgic aspect but also the often sharp and insightful philosophical reflections. (Savater is very well known in the Spanish-speaking world, but many of his other books seem overrated to me. He is at his best in this kind of short-scaled critical essay).

(*) If you are a reader from an Anglo-Saxon country chances are you have heard of and perhaps read all these authors except Salgari. His adventure tales are inmensly popular among Italian and Spanish speakers and almost unknown in the rest of the world. I promise to post something on him some other day.

7) Huw Price, Time's Arrow and Archimedes' Point. An excellent example of well-done philosophy of physics, discussing the fascinating problem of time asymmetry. I will post separetly on this one shortly, after rereading it and digesting its arguments and conclusions, because there is much in it of interest to readers of this blog.


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