December Selections

Here are the three books I have chosen at random to read and comment upon in December. Congratulations to those of you whose books I selected!

You may recall that I asked for recommendations of non-fiction books that you had read within the last five years which you found inspiring, or thought-provoking, or otherwise interesting. Hopefully my commentary on the selected books will contribute to their inspirational or thought-provoking quality.

I am still (still!) waiting for Room to become available at the library, so my marginal commentary on it will be postponed until whenever I get my hands on it. I am going to honour having selected it in order to write a marginal commentary on it, but it looks like I will have to think of an ad hoc rule to apply in situations in which I cannot hope to reasonably acquire a book in the timeframe in which I hope to write for it.

The books chosen are:
The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell & Thomas M. Campbell.

The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls.

The Rebel Sell, by Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter.
My thanks to all of you who made recommendations for December: Alison, Christopher, Deborah, Jen, Kathy, and May!

The books recommended that weren't selected have been put on the back burner, and at some point I'll be choosing books from that list, so if your recommendation wasn't selected this time, never fear! It will have at least one more opportunity to be chosen.



Weighing in at over 1100 pages, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is now the longest book I have read for The Marginal Virtues to date, outpacing Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind and Gregory David Roberts's Shantaram.

My thanks to Graham for recommending this book!

Cryptonomicon is effectively four stories in one book, although the stories are closely linked, as you might imagine. As it is hard to look in-depth at any particular subject in a book of this length, I will mainly show one of the excellences of Stephenson's style, which is his ability to write distinctly when narrating for each of the main protagonists. In this regard Stephenson outdoes Terry Pratchett (himself no slouch when it comes to style), whose writing I find Stephenson's most resembles, for Pratchett tends toward stylistic uniformity, although unlike some of the other authors whose books I have written commentaries for here on The Marginal Virtues, Pratchett's singular style is excellent.

But back to Cryptonomicon. The edition I am using for this commentary was published in 1999 by Avon Books (an imprint of HarperCollins). It is impossible for me to treat the book's plot with the kind of consideration it deserves, so I will generally try to choose passages which are representative of the distinct styles in which Stephenson writes with respect to the protagonists, but which are not necessarily crucial to the movement of the plot. If time and space permit, I would also like to briefly compare Cryptonomicon to, of all things, The Lord of the Rings. Such a comparison is not inapt; indeed, one of the protagonists, Randy Waterhouse, occasionally interprets what is going on around him in Tolkienian imagery, and there is one passage (which I hope to quote at length) which displays a striking coherence to an idea much more briefly elucidated in Tolkien's work. I won't go into any more detail here, nor do I promise that such a comparison will, in fact, take place. If you like, it's something for you to think about, should you get your hands on a copy of Cryptonomicon.

Finally, Cryptonomicon is true to life, and about two-thirds of it, on the whole, is set during the Second World War. I have included the labels 'profanity' and 'sex' because there is a fair amount of swearing, and not only sex, but also moments where characters are thinking about sex (or about people with whom they would like to have sex) and have, shall we say, appropriate physiological reactions to these thoughts. Actually, the distinction between Stephenson's various 'narrative dialects' (you might call them) is nowhere more evident than in the various sexual encounters in which three of the four protagonists engage. All that said, Cryptonomicon is not a smutty book, simply realistic, in that people in the book swear (some more than others), and either have or think about having sex with other people. In terms of what I will be citing, I won't be quoting anything from sex scenes (unless it is suitably suggestive, rather than explicit), but I won't be able to help quoting profane utterances, as there are, after all, quite a few of those in Cryptonomicon. You have been warned.

Well, enough of all that rigomarole. Let's get on with Cryptonomicon.


Reader Recommendations: December

With my marginal commentary on Cryptonomicon in progress, and waiting for Room to become available, I am ready to receive recommendations for books to read in December!

The guidelines for recommending books may be found here. The list of books I have completed for The Marginal Virtues may be found here; you can also see both pages listed on the sidebar on the right-hand side of the page.

As always, I'll open the floor for suggestions for about a week, and then choose three recommended books at random to read for December - or, if my experience with trying to get my hands on some of the books is any indication, whenever I have the chance to finish them. Oh, well.

For December, please recommend a non-fiction book you've read in the past five years, or so, that affected you. Perhaps it was inspiring, informative, or funny. Perhaps it was disturbing, calling into question things you thought were true. In any case, I want to have the chance to read it.

I am, as always, looking forward to receiving your recommendations!



Another long book, this one courtesy of Martha & May, both of whom recommended it. Thank you both!

Shantaram reminded me of Rudyard Kipling's classic, Kim, although obviously it has little in common with that twentieth-century masterpiece, other than being set in the Indian sub-continent. Another point of contact between the two works is that the protagonists of both take part in a spiritual quest.

The edition of Shantaram from which I am quoting was published by St. Martin's Press in 2003. Its author is Gregory David Roberts, the first Australian whose work I have written a commentary for on The Marginal Virtues. If you haven't read the book, you might want to turn to it first before reading this commentary, as I will reveal details about the plot and the like as I deem it necessary.

I think it could be fairly said that Shantaram does for Bombay, to a certain extent, what The Lord of the Rings did for Middle-earth, which is provide an aesthetic structure in which the 'world' in which the novel takes place takes on a life and character of its own. We shall see whether this is the case. Meanwhile I found that because the entirety of the work is written from the perspective of the first-person, semi-authobiographical narrator, Lin, it lacked a distinct prose style. On the other hand, I feel that Roberts does do a good job of writing distinct styles of dialogue, as we shall see.

'He was never free.'

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows being the final book of the Potter septet, is perhaps Rowling's finest work, written at the peak of her literary power.

In this post, my aim will be to contrast what I see as the dramatic success of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows as a book, and the dramatic failure of the film adaptation. Chiefly I shall focus on what I should like to call the 'quiet climaxes' of The Deathly Hallows; three moments in the book the importance of which to the plot are pivotal, but which are not spectacular, so to speak.

Of course The Deathly Hallows is a book the pacing of which is excellent, and which is also tense, exciting, and literally spectacular; the menace of Voldemort and of death leavens the whole work. Critics who disparage the part of the book in which Harry, Ron and Hermione travel fruitlessly across Britain seem to forget that it consists of but two chapters and just over thirty pages, just over one-twentieth of the book; this suggests that, far from the pace flagging, Rowling's use of pacing is masterly given that she is able to create such an impression with so small a segment of the work.

To return to the 'quiet climaxes', there are, I believe, three such moments in the book; I shall describe them in greater detail below. As I said above, these three moments are pivotal to the plot of the book, and, what is more, are immensely important in terms of developing or representing the character of the agents. They are also, in addition, aesthetically excellent. The film version, on the whole, does not adapt all of them uniformly well, and it is my contention that the films suffer dramatically as a result. I should note that I will be providing any details I deem necessary to explicate my point, so you may wish to avoid reading this post if you have not read The Deathly Hallows in its entirety.

On we go! Or, as Dumbledore said in The Half-Blood Prince (HBP3, 59), 'let us... pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.'


November Update

This update is just to let you know that I am still working on the reader recommendations for October. I am still waiting for a copy of Room to become available. Both Shantaram and Cryptonomicon were each about as long as, say, three books I might normally have read for The Marginal Virtues, and I had to wait until October to get my hands on a copy of Lamb (a book I had selected for September) in any event. There were other circumstances in late September and early October which made it difficult to write or read consistently, so I fell behind. In any case, having recently finished the marginal commentary on Lamb, I am working on marginal commentaries for the other two works.

Obviously I have foregone requesting books for November, but I am planning on calling for books for December. Look for a request for books in a week or so.



First, my thanks to Chris for recommending this book!

Lamb, by Christopher Moore, is a popular book - at least at the Ottawa Public Library. Its subtitle is The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. As you probably know, it is a comic look at the 'lost years' between Jesus' nativity and the beginning of his ministry in Galillee.

The edition from which I shall be citing passages was published in 2007 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book was originally published in 2002. The edition I got a hold of was a special edition with that faux-leather cover that you find on Bibles, a red ribbon to mark your page, and gold (or gold-coloured) edging. Its appearance was droll.

I found it hard to find a common theme to focus on in this marginal commentary. Indeed, from my perspective, what was most consistent about Lamb was its theological 'offness' (on coining or using such a term, may I say faute de mieux). This 'offness' is odd, particularly considering, as Moore writes in his afterword (written for the new edition of the book), that he 'made certain assumptions about who Jesus was, mainly that he was who the Gospels say he was'. But I don't intend to write a dissertation about Moore's 'Christology' (so to speak). Rather, better to focus on the kind of 'important question[s]' Moore 'felt needed to be addressed,' such as '"What if Jesus had known kung fu?"' [p. 405]

For the most part Moore's take on Jesus' 'missing years' is witty, with a dose of charm, some juvenile hijinks, a bit of 'buddy movie' and a little Pratchett. It ends, as all good stories about Jesus outside the Gospels do, with tragedy, of course. (There is, I find, something about the Resurrection which is impossible to communicate effectively in accounts of Jesus' life other than the Gospels.)

So let's look at some of Moore's good stuff, and maybe take in an oddity or two.