Brief reviews of books I've read.

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John Culshaw, "Ring Resounding"

2014-10-05 · in Books · 315 words

To get an effectively frightening sound for Fafner, Gordon had rigged up a huge bank of about twenty fifteen-inch speakers each with its own power amplifier, and installed the lot in the Blaue Saal, which is a very resonant hall attached to the Sofiensaal. […]

Böhme did not greatly like the result. I sound awful, he said.

You're meant to, I told him. You're a dragon.

He thought about that for a moment. Yes, he said I know. But I'd like to be a beautiful dragon.

Decca Records producer John Culshaw tells the story of the first complete stereo recording of Wagner's Ring cycle, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti — a project that Culshaw and his musicians completed in 1965 after nearly ten years' work. Culshaw notes early on that had he been producing 78 RPM records rather than LPs, the project would have occupied 224 sides; and later he describes a radio station that spent an entire broadcasting day playing the completed recordings.

There are plenty of amusing anecdotes here about the problems of employing and recording opera singers and instrumental soloists. However, I found the most interesting material to be about Culshaw's philosophical and practical approaches to producing the Ring as a studio rather than live recording, taking advantage of the then-new stereo LP format to do things that weren't practical in a theatre performance, while not straying too far from conventional performance techniques. It's a bit light on technical detail for my taste — but when this was written in 1968, I imagine Culshaw was keen not to give too many of his secrets away!

Thoroughly recommended. While I have some of the other LPs Culshaw talks about in this book, I don't actually have any of the Decca Ring series; time to visit my local second-hand record store, I think…

Neal Stephenson, "The Confusion" (reread)

2014-10-03 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 132 words

The sun rose. What a moment ago had been glowing pools of spilled fire on the black velvet ground, were revealed as damp patches on khaki dirt. The bubbler ripped loose, hurtled away, and impacted on the roof of a monastery half a mile downrange. The chimney and dunce-cap shot into the air, spiraling and pinwheeling through the night sky as if the Big Dipper had scooped up a load of the sun's own fire.

See my previous review; and we're now moving into Newton and the Counterfeiter territory.

Rather more action-oriented than Quicksilver, although with occasional interesting alchemical interludes; I'd remembered the bit about steel but forgotten the striking description of phosphorus production. The epistolary approach to Eliza's sections works effectively.

Neal Stephenson, "Quicksilver" (reread)

2014-09-02 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 176 words

Forgive an ignorant Vagabond, but I am used to men of action—so when the Doctor spends all day, every day, talking to people, it seems to me as if he's doing nothing.

He's accomplishing nothing—that's very different from doing nothing. Enoch said gravely.

Continuing my programme of rereading books I last enjoyed ten years ago, this is the first volume in Neal Stephenson's 3000-odd-page Baroque Cycle series. The series is a prequel to Cryptonomicon, and explores some of the same themes: cryptography, the history of computing, and most importantly the nature of money. As the founders of the Royal Society are key characters, it also sort of works as a sequel to An Instance of the Fingerpost — although Stephenson's characterisation of John Wilkins is rather different!

While this is an impressive and wide-ranging piece of work, with a number of Good Bits (my favourites generally being the Eliza-and-Jack sections), it's not as tightly-written as Cryptonomicon. Recommended if meticulously-researched, extremely long novels are your kind of thing.

Neal Stephenson, "Cryptonomicon" (reread)

2014-08-08 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 205 words

My second favourite Neal Stephenson novel; just beaten by Anathem.

When this first came out, it was partly set in the present day and partly during the United States' involvement in World War 2 — so now, of course, it's partly a historical novel set in 1999 (pagers! GSM phones! BeOS!), involving a bunch of cypherpunks attempting to set up a slightly-shady digital currency. Which has, of course, happened in the meantime.

In general, this has aged pretty well. It's structurally very neat, being written as an ordered set of standalone vignettes (many of which would make decent short stories) rather than as continuous narrative. It's a long work but not an overpadded one, and maintains an even pace throughout. There's certainly enough complexity here to reward rereading several times, especially if you've gone away and read more of the relevant history in the meantime…

(The typesetting in this paperback edition leaves quite a bit to be desired, though, especially the maths near the start and anything set in a monospace font. It's not unreadable, but it is jarring. Other editions may be better; I've certainly not had the same problem with Stephenson's more recent books.)

Michael Chabon, "The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist, Volume 3"

2014-08-03 · in Books, The Escapist · 52 words

Third anthology of Escapist comics, and the final one to date — the best of the three, I think. I particularly liked Another Man's Escape and The Final Curtain, but all the stories are strong and there's a range of interesting art styles.

Michael Chabon, "The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist, Volume 2"

2014-08-02 · in Books, The Escapist · 48 words

Second collection of Escapist stories; not as much to my taste as the first. The Boy Who Would Be The Escapist by Kevin McCarthy and C. Scott Morse is my favourite here; the cigarette-cards cover is also nicely done.

Iain Pears, "An Instance of the Fingerpost" (reread)

2014-08-01 · in Books · 135 words

A bumptious man who works in the Navy Office, forever discoursing on subjects he knows nothing about, but very enthusiastic, and quite likeable in his simplicity. His name, as I recall, is…

I do not wish to know his name, Mr Aubrey.

Oxford, 1663, in the aftermath of the Restoration: an academic is found murdered in his college rooms. The story is related by a visiting Italian medical student — and then it's told again by another of the participants, who has read the previous account but puts quite a different interpretation on events — and similarly twice more, with the true solution being revealed by the final narrator.

This is a well-written, elegant mystery story with excellent characterisation and a detailed, plausible historical setting. Highly recommended.

Michael Chabon, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" (reread)

2014-07-25 · in Books · 95 words

I enjoyed this enough the first time that I lent it to several other people to read. And then when I wanted to read it again, I couldn't find my copy...

This is an alt-history detective novel, set in a Yiddish-speaking Jewish state in Alaska. The world's well-crafted and the writing's excellent, with Chabon's usual sensitivity to genre, character and speech. I would have liked to see a more ordinary solution to the mystery — but that's not really Chabon's style, I guess!

Good stuff, anyway.

Henry Mayhew, "London Labour and the London Poor, Volume 1"

2014-07-24 · in Books, London Labour and the London Poor · 130 words

Henry Mayhew wrote a comprehensive series of articles for the Morning Chronicle in the 1840s about the poor in London, interviewing hundreds of Londoners about their lives and livings. He collected and summarised his articles in three volumes in 1851, of which this is the first.

Some of the analysis has dated badly, but the raw information is fascinating: his interviews are extremely impressive both in breadth and depth. This is a key source for anyone who wants to write about — or in the voices of — 19th-century London. Well worth reading — or at least flicking through for the bits that interest you.

Available from the Internet Archive. The copy they've scanned belonged to Edward Healy Thompson; I imagine he found the sections describing Irish Catholic life in London particularly interesting.

Charles Palliser, "The Quincunx" (reread)

2014-07-17 · in Books · 206 words

I was rather intrigued by the idea of writing a Victorian novel on a computer. One of the unforeseen consequences of this, however, was that I didn't notice how long the book was becoming.

From the author's comments at the end — in paperback form, it's nearly 1200 pages.

At the surface level, this is a pastiche Dickensian thriller, giving a whirlwind tour of the seamier side of London in the 1820s — but it's really a ferociously complicated multiple-viewpoints mystery along the lines of An Instance of the Fingerpost, and it's written using a mathematically-constrained structure in the same way as Life A User's Manual. This is an extremely impressive piece of work, designed to reward rereading, and there's a lot that I didn't pick up the first time through. I was particularly struck this time by John's behaviour in the final chapter; not one to read, bleary-eyed, late at night!

Many of the mysteries are discussed (but not necessarily solved) in a long discussion thread about The Quincunx on Simon Morris's blog — don't read it until you've completed the novel at least once, though. If ever there was a book that needed a wiki for annotations…