Cryptonomicon (1999) by Neal Stephenson
This is one of those novels that you don’t want to read while you’re lying down, cause if it falls on your face it’ll be 1100+ pages of hurt. But what a wild ride it is. You’ve got your cryptography and proto-computers, your WWII submarines and stacks of gold bars, your Alan Turing and General MacArthur (yes, you read that right). Cryptonomicon swings back and forth between the 1940s and the 1990s, between brilliant mathematicians building complex computing machines and the building of a data haven in the Philippines, and between two generations of Waterhouse men involved in these projects. It’s not until the last third of the novel that the three story lines converge, and larger questions of security, bureaucracy, and world finance become clearer. Even with the many characters packed into the book, Stephenson managed to make me care about them all. A fun and intelligent read.
Verdict: Borrow because you’ll know about 50 pages in if you want to keep going or not. If you’re really digging it by page 50, then by all means, go and buy it!
Suite Francaise (1942; 2004) by Irène Némirovsky
My birthday is in October and I want ALL THE NEMIROVSKY delivered to my door on the big day. ALL OF IT. Even the book written by her daughter, Elisabeth Gille, about learning who her mother was through her writings (since Némirovsky died at Auschwitz when Elisabeth was very little). Why am I adding a ton of books to my TBR shelf all at once? you ask. Well, it’s because I finally got around to reading Suite Française and when you read a book that wasn’t even finished or polished or heavily revised and it still picks you up and spins you around with its brilliance, you know you’ve found something good. Suite Française was supposed to comprise five novellas, but Némirovsky was only able to write two (“Storm in June” and “Dolce”) before she was arrested and taken to Auschwitz because she was Jewish, even though she and her family had become Roman Catholic at the end of the 1930s. By the time she died, Némirovsky was one of France’s most respected novelists, and this book shows us why. “Storm in June” depicts the raw terror and confusion of Parisians fleeing their homes before the invading German army, while “Dolce” reveals what happens when conqueror and conquered live together and get to know one another. In both texts, Némirovsky insists on the immutability of human nature- how wars or natural disasters do not make people good or evil. In fact, as one of her characters says,
Important events- whether serious, happy or unfortunate- do not change a man’s soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves.
Verdict: Buy because this is like no other WWII novel you’ve ever read.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013) by Karen Russell
There are some books that knock you down because they are so hilarious or quirky or strange. And then there are books that you love because you recognize in them the kind of stories you always wanted to write. My experience with Vampires falls into the latter category. Russell regales us with tales so unlikely and yet so believable they defy categorization. For now, though, I’m calling them “magical realism fantasy.” I also find myself making connections to Stephen King and Ray Bradbury (specifically The October Country), both of whom also drift back and forth across the invisible line separating “reality” from “fantasy” until it’s difficult to tell which is which. Russell offers up such a diverse group of stories, each one a work of stunning detail and perspective. “Reeling for the Empire,” a story about Japanese women being turned into silkworms, is haunting and beautiful;” “Proving Up” is a terrifying exploration of death personified felling 19th-century pioneer families on the prairie. I’m particularly fond of two pieces in this collection: “The Barn at the End of Our Term” and “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating.” In “The Barn,” former U. S. presidents are reincarnated as horses, but with their memories and personalities intact. It took everything I had not to throw my head back and howwwwl with laughter while reading this (I didn’t want to scare the neighbors) but when, for instance, the Rutherford B. Hayes horse shacks up with a sheep cause he thinks the sheep is his reincarnated wife, I just couldn’t, you know? And when the former-president horses gather around the back of the barn to have “meetings,” oh my god. “Dougbert Shackleton” is a hilarious take on the extreme sport of tailgating, only this time you’re in subzero temperatures and the teams you’re rooting for are not human (krills and whales) and Team Whale always wins. I know!
Verdict: Buy, and then thank Rebecca Schinsky for recommending Karen Russell so much that she made me run out and read Karen Russell and then recommend her to you 🙂