Tag Archives: Anathem


Pronounced AN-uh-thum or uh-NATH-um, either way's okay by Stephenson.Author Neal Stephenson was kind enough to write this 937 page novel just for me. Or, rather, if he had decided to write a novel for me and me alone, Stephenson could hardly have come up with something more perfect than Anathem.

Anathem was my pal as I lugged the mighty volume with me on my epic 3-cat car-trip from Chicago to L.A.. As we plowed our sleep-deprived way across the plains, over the Great Divide, and through the desert, and as we stretched out in a Calabasas motel room awaiting our furniture, the planet Arbre, spinning in its parallel universe, became my private decompression chamber. Too much of this world sometimes calls for a little bit of another.

I enjoyed it so much, I reread it less than six months after the first reading. Liked it even more.

The story: Imagine a world in which people whom we’d call mathematicians and physicists had retreated to cloisters as did the religious of Europe (I mean Earth’s Europe) during the middle ages. They are called “avouts” or “mathics” — intellectuals living in monklike austerity in dedication to purely theoretical scientific research. The applied sort — technology — is rigorously restricted to a “Praxic” class of the outside world, the “Saecular” world.

Imagine these avouts abiding as best they can by the severe restrictions on their lives and studies — on even the plants they’re allowed to cultivate! — that have been imposed on them by the suspicious extramural world of the Saeculars (in the majority by far). The avouts are motivated to cooperate: Numerous “sacks” of the mathic “Concents” by fearful Saeculars have recurred over the millennia. At the time of Anathem‘s events, the Mathic and Saecular worlds are living in a fairly stable, centuries-old relationship of mutual mistrust.

Now imagine that world impinged upon by an extra-universal phenomenon that urgently requires their close alliance.

Our protagonist is a youngish avaut named Erasmas — “Raz.” After his beloved mentor is booted from their walled community — anathematized, hence the title — Erasmas and a group of friends risk their own ouster by continuing to pursue the mentor’s proscribed investigations. Forbidden to use astronomical tools, they improvise, turning an unused empty room into a camera obscura — Newton-like, they poke a hole in the wall to let a thin beam of light project onto a black wall — and thereby discover something out in space made visible only by its brief orbit-changing bursts of rocket-fire.

Analemma is your Word for the Day.At that point — page 283 — the story has just begun. I’ll say no more. Only this: If you liked Name of the Rose and can imagine a young Web Age Umberto Eco writing something like a mashup of Cryptonomicon and Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy, then don’t wait for the paperback edition — get yourself an enormous copy of Anathem immediately and forget about your terrestrial woes.

by Neal Stephenson
(William Morrow & Company, Hardcover, 937 pages)


Anathem is now out in mass market paperback. So, if price held you back from purchasing this great novel, let that no longer be an obstruction. Here below is the link to the frugal person’s version:

by Neal Stephenson
(Harper, Mass Market Paperback, 1008 pp.)

From last September 12


Portrait of a Bookstore

Come in! Come in! And bring your mother!

After all the moaning about the demise of the beloved Milwaukee institution, Harry W. Schwartz Bookstores, in yesterday’s lamentation, I owe it to you to lift your spirits with a glad post. Here’s a bookstore which seems to be thriving. Maybe because they’ve hit the right formula. Remember how the St. Charles indy bookstore, Townhouse Books, was described in these scrolling pages? A bookstore with a cafe? Well, Portrait of a Bookstore inverts that: it’s a bustling cafe with a bookstore attached.

Waiter, there's a flyleaf in my soup!Aroma Cafe wraps the tiny bookstore on three sides, so you have to wend your way around tables and diners — we wound up lost in the alley before we unlocked the secret of the labyrinth: you must look for the sign above the door.

A Jamesian allusion? And if so, then huh???

Put the door to its proper use: enter. Oh cool, look: there’s Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Anathem! I love that book.

Hey, look! Neal Stephenson's *Anathem*! Man, I love that book!The bookstore itself is small and crowded, but not cramped: it’s more like jumbly. Books abound, as you’d expect, but so do all kinds of tchotchkes, bric-a-brac, whatnots and funsies. Me, I bought a copy of Bill Buford’s Heat for Madame Nicework. For Daughtergirl, a lizard ring:

The herpetalogical spirit burns brightly in our household.

Purchases in hand — or in Daughtergirl’s case, on hand, ho ho — we put the door to use once more, only pausing to stare insolently at the diners who gave us no mind.

You may buy a toy here if that is where you heart lies.

Could I have found this charming, secret, little bookstore without the aid of the maps at Indiebound Books? A preposterous notion! That fine Web tool exactly pinpointed the store’s location — Studio City; The last gasp of Valley civilization before the grim passage over Mulholland into the degraded depths of Hollywood. Portrait of a Bookstore is hidden behind the Aroma Cafe at 4360 Tujunga Avenue. Tujunga runs north/south, and 4360 is about, oh, halfway between Ventura Boulevard (to the south) and Ventura Freeway (to the north). If you go there, you will experience joy. If you fail to go there, sorrow will follow you all your days and your children will curse your name.

Appaloosa: The Lil Book

'We'll kill you and Hitch,' Vince said. Cole said, 'You'll try.'

The new Neal Stephenson gargantuan novel, Anathem, was so absolutely satisfying that it sort of left me high and dry in the reading-for-pleasure department. I mean, what could possibly follow such a tour de force? First I turned to Captains Courageous to keep the reading high going by means of the verbal surprises (e.g. “…they laughed themselves hungry.”) that Kipling scatters by the handful on every page. Next, García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude was so thick with wonderous invention that turning the final page was like waking from a dream.

Rudyard and Gabriel had done their jobs well: I was ready to return to reading trash.

A random movie choice pointed the way. Ed Harris’s snazzy cowboy flick, Appaloosa, awoke my curiosity about novelist Robert B. Parker. The guy knocks out about fifty books a year, mostly private eye yarns starring Spenser the Detective. I admit to having harbored a slight prejudice against the blameless fellow because he seemed to be in good odor with the sort of New York Times reviewers who lionize Elmore Leonard to prove they aren’t snobs. But, then, I figured a mystery series featuring a guy whose favorite comic strip is Arlo and Janis, had to have something going for it. So when I learned that Mr. Parker had jumped genres to write the western novel, Appaloosa, on which the movie was based, I bit. Actually bought a paperback copy, I did.

And I’m glad: laconic dialogue so dense with unspoken meaning it’s almost poetic. Action all the more actiony for the dry way it’s related. Not one single wasted word. What I wished Louis L’Amour was but isn’t. Wallace Stegner without all that goldarned literary respectability. It’s cowboys. Cowboys. They shoot bad guys, ride horses, and scratch their heads trying to figger out those women folks.

Appaloosa cheerfully did the job I paid it to do. And look: there are about 3,000 more Robert B. Parker novels standing in line, each one anxious to please.

Appaloosa by Robert B. Parker
(Berkley Publishing Group, Mass Market Paperback, 305pp.)

Anathem by Neal Stephenson
(William Morrow & Company, Hardcover, 960pp.)

One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; translated by a swell fellow by the name of Gregory Rabassa
(HarperCollins Publishers, Paperback, 417pp.)

Nice Work Review of Books: Anathem

First the bad news: Neal Stephenson’s eagerly awaited new novel, Anathem, is only 937 pages long.

Stephenson’s fans, among whom I count myself, hoped for twice that, but, to be fair, the fellow’s got to eat and sleep and whatnot. We must be satisfied.

Are we? Does Anathem meet the high expectations raised by Stephenson’s previous works, Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle? This is a tricky question for me to address, not yet having read the book. I bought it only yesterday. And the Nice Work editorial policy is strict on this point. Before opining on a book the reviewer is required to have read it, or read about it, or at least read the jacket blurb or, in a pinch, heard someone mention it on a podcast. In the case of Anathem, this reviewer fails every test.

Yet I still give Anathem all praise and honor: Four Stars, Four Forks, a chorus of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow and a muscular banging of a four foot brass gong.

How now? you protest. How can this be? Easy: I’m a fan.

It’s not that Neal Stephenson can do no wrong. He can do plenty wrong, but I don’t care. No matter what, I will enjoy the novel with perfect pleasure. I will shape my mind to absorb any defects. Call it fannishness if you like; call it denial. Call it silly monkey Bozo. I dismiss such invective with an airy wave. Even if the book has been rigged with a boxing glove on a spring that punches the reader midway through, I know I’m in for a Good Read, and so are you.

UPDATE (2/20/09): I loved Anathem. Loved it. I look forward to the day when enough time has passed for a second reading.

by Neal Stephenson
(William Morrow & Company, Hardcover, 960pp.)