Friday, August 01, 2008

What I read on my holidays...

For the last seven days of camping in Cornwall (or Kernow, in the sense that Burma should be called Myanmar) I aimed to clear up a huge chunk of my to read list.

As usual I overestimated how fast I could read. I managed the last two-hundred pages of Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full and the entire 730 pages of The Bonfire of the Vanities, as well as the first one-hundred pages of The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

In my copy the eye in "Tom" is part of an image on the inside cover

That's 284, 700 words in The Bonfire of the Vanities, plus 78, 000 of A Man in Full, bringing the total number of words by Tom Wolfe I read over the holidays to 362, 700. Then another 33, 000 words of Michael Chabon's brilliant The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

As to Wolfe - he writes superb prose, and is characterisation is excellent. The sense of reality that underpins the text makes his style even more compelling. The description of prison life in Santa Rita and the political machinations of the mayor in A Man in Full have a kind of real-world grittiness which, even if completely false, at least discourages me from ever trying to ascertain their truth for myself.

Spoiler alert:

As an aside, it is extraordinary how much of the plot of The Bonfire the Vanities would be implausible were the novel set in 2007 rather than 1987 (the date it was first published). The key event of the book involves a wealthy Wall Street bond trader getting lost in the Bronx in his luxury Mercedes. With satellite navigation built in to most luxury coupes this is an unlikely proposition in this century.

A narrative solution?

Another event is the selfsame Wall Street bond trader inadvertently dialling his home-number rather than that of his mistress from a pay phone outside his house.

Again, with ubiquitous mobile phones equipped with speed dial this is unlikely (the narrative equivalent would be the wife looking through her husband's text messages).

End of spoilers.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is rather superb. It's written in a present-tense, sing-song style that (according to Cory Doctorow) evokes the unique qualities of Yiddish speech.

As with Tom Wolfe's reporting-style nonfiction novels there is something reassuringly real about how Michael Chabon writes.
Nice cover art as well

There is a problem in a lot of classic or hard SF (I'm thinking specifically of most of what Arthur C. Clarke wrote, Stephen Baxter's Xeelee and Manifold series of books and pretty much everything written by Isaac Asimov) where the fantastic nature of the surroundings overwhelms any attempt at creating strong characters or building "reality" into the text.

Chabon creates an alternate world but rather than indulge in gratuitous info-dumping he drives the plot via a murder mystery and political intrigue.

[images from Unhindered by Talent,, and]

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