As I previously wrote, I established the modest goal for 2013 to read 25 books. So far, I am more or less on pace having finished reading two by the end of January: Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. I have to keep things in perspective, however, as I read about 90% of Netherland on our flight to and from Seattle.
Anathem was something I started and stopped a couple of times in the past and read in fits and starts during the second half of 2012. It’s a book of big ideas but mediocre and often very tedious execution. The first two thirds of the book alternate between being rather boring and vaguely fascinating. So much of the book consists of people sitting around talking about ideas. The world Stephenson creates is fascinating and it speaks to his genius that he fashions such an intricate world.
Unfortunately, the last third of the book is dull dull dull. We find out about the climax of the action when one character tells the main character what happens. Stephenson’s writing style is quite bland, which doesn’t help either. Most of the book feels like him explaining to someone what his book would be and what theories would inform it. I can’t say for sure that the good parts are good enough to warrant slogging through all the boring parts.
Netherland, on the other hand, had me riveted right from the start. O’Neill’s subtly artful style reads quickly but is packed with intelligence and suggestive details. It’s the story of Hans van den Brock, a wealthy banker–Dutch via London to NY–and Chuck Ramikissoon a Trinidadian who works several schemes at once. Set in the aftermath of 9/11, Hans’ wife goes back to London leaving him to navigate is way in an unfamiliar culture.
What makes Netherland so brilliant is O’Neill’s unique exploration of otherness in the context of terrorism and suspicion. He deftly avoids any major connections or descriptions of 9/11 but the reader is made acutely aware of what it means to be an immigrant in a culture more at ease than ever of foreignness. O’Neill eschews any heavy-handedness by focusing on the relationships between Hans and Chuck and Hans and his wife all the while hinting at bigger issues and deeper meanings. Netherland is a rich, rewarding and timely book.
2013 so far:
- Anathem, Neal Stephenson
- Netherland, Joseph O’Neill