random thoughts to oil the mind

Month: September 2010


CryptonomiconThis is a book with much promise. Neal Stephenson is a very decent writer; his prose can be both engaging and exciting, without pandering to the reader in the way many techno-thriller authors choose. Unfortunately, this is also a book that seems to have been written in an ecstasy of authorship, without enough time and consideration given to making the book a reader’s choice. My copy weighed in at over 1100 pages, which is a very long expanse for Stephenson to ultimately say very little.

Cryptonomicon is essentially several smaller storylines all rolled into one. There are two distinct timeframes, and several major/minor characters all pursuing their own goals, occasionally overlapping along the way. The problem is that all the hopping backwards and forwards simply adds pages, as Stephenson has to constantly remind us who we’re reading about, where they are and what they’re doing. By which point, we’ve moved back 50 years and half-way around the world to another thread in the story. If you put the book down for a few days, you’ll probably find yourself reading a few chapters just to get your head around what all the various characters are currently up to, before you can continue on to something fresh.

All of which isn’t to say the book doesn’t have its moments. There’s clearly a lot of time, effort and research gone into this book, and this shows, particularly in the historical timeframe and the bits dealing with cryptography. Isoroku Yamamoto’s death, for instance, is featured as a nice allusion to the importance of what the main characters are up to. Yet for all its breadth, this novel is a pure geek’s heaven, and despite the oodles of space given over to something like Van Eck phreaking, there’s little space to give the characters anything more than a lick of paint. Others have commented that the female characters are wooden objects in a male-dominated world: I’d go as far as to say the entire piece is being played out by marionettes.

Whilst I wasn’t exactly expecting inner drama from a book like this, and could have suspended my disbelief for a few lack-lustre characters, there’s only so much fantasy I can take whilst reading a book gushing with technical detail. I’ve no doubt many readers would be quite satisfied with the defence of ‘artistic license’ but I found myself confusedly shaking my head a number of times reading Cryptonomicon, trying to work out quite whether I was supposed to be taking what I was reading seriously. Not satisfied with creating characters and events, Stephenson creates new countries and languages.

After a few hundred pages I was already getting a bit weary of some of the characters, and a number of far-fetched/unbelievable events and entirely fictitious ‘facts’ had strained my enjoyment of the plot. But persisting for several hundred more pages didn’t produce much in the way of a reward. The picture that gradually gets revealed over this meandering epic really isn’t equal to the effort that the author (and reader!) put into it.

This book has been described elsewhere as “the ultimate geek novel.” You’ll either love the book–for the winding journey, the nauseating detail, the multi-page descriptions, possibly even the cardboard-cutout characters–or like me you’ll find the whole escapade rather tedious, unbelievable, unnecessarily long, and ultimately disappointing.

The BBC Proms Pocket Guide to Great Symphonies

BBC Proms Pocket Guide to Great SymphoniesI should first of all declare: I am musically illiterate. Though I do enjoy listening to classical music and have on occasion been to a concert or two, my understanding of and ability to talk about the music itself is virtually non-existent.

Which is precisely why I picked up this book when it was on offer. Purporting to be “an accessible guide” and advertising itself as “the place to start” when wishing to learn a bit more about the symphonic form, this book seemed perfect for someone like me, who would be likely to listen in to the BBC Proms but very unlikely to turn up and get his hands on the programme. In the introduction, Nicholas Kenyon explains that this book was designed to provide the information prepared for the programme notes produced for the Proms to a much wider audience of music lovers.

As a first volume (Kenyon hints there might be more) they have stuck to the more mainstream pieces in the repertory, and the choices are perfectly reasonable: whilst the selection won’t please everyone, the usual suspects are all present and correct, no doubt covering most of the bases for a typical Proms season. Each symphony summary is designed to be read on its own, with each composer given a little introduction beforehand. On the whole, the form works nicely, with the majority of the nearly three dozen contributors producing very concise pieces packed with historical details, personal motivations and an overview of the music itself. There are just over 100 symphonies from nearly 30 composers described here, which should mean a little something for everyone’s tastes.

Sadly, there are some things which detract from making this guide wholly recommendable. The composers are listed alphabetically, which I couldn’t help but feel was the least helpful order they could have chosen. The introduction could have been a little longer, and given more of an overview of the development of the symphony as a recognised form, though this is just a personal gripe. Whilst the introduction admits that there may be some repetition, each summary designed to be readable independently, it nevertheless made skimming through the book rather tedious at times. As I decided to read the full section on Haydn, for example, I think I read the history and reasoning behind the naming of his London symphonies 3-4 times, and given that this introduction might take up half a page out of a 2-3 page summary, it’s clear just how much space is almost tangibly wasted.

Far more of a blot on the book, however, was the fact that some summaries were probably more dense to read than the music itself is to listen to. Whilst the best contributors could condense a short history of the composer and his period, as well as an elucidation of a symphony’s movements and peculiarities all within a couple of pages, others might ramble on for four or five pages of what I found to be unfathomable description riddled with unexplained musical terminology. Particularly galling if that happens to be a favoured piece. And whilst the German time-markings of Mahler’s symphonies, for example, would be helpfully translated, all Italian was reproduced verbatim without even a glossary for us illiterati.

In summary, a bit hit and miss. For casual listeners and people interested in the history and workings of the symphonies and their composers, it certainly is a reasonable place to start, at least if you don’t buy the book for those symphonies finding themselves in particularly sticky chapters. I imagine that my feelings about the book have been coloured somewhat by their inclusion, and that there are in fact many more ‘good’ summaries than ‘bad’ ones, but they do sadly leave the book only recommendable with reservation. For a guide to the composers themselves, however, I can wholeheartedly recommend The Lives of the Great Composers. Whilst not at all focussed on their symphonies, the book does give a excellent introduction to many if not all of the great composers on that list, placing them in historical context and describing their contributions to the great classical music lineage.

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