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What I’ve been reading

August 21st, 2005

The Da Vinci code by Dan Brown. Long after everyone else, I’ve finally got around to this publishing phenomenon. It kept me turning the pages reasonably steadily, which I suppose is the crucial test for a best-seller. But I found the code and the hero’s efforts to solve it pretty annoying. At one moment, he’s performing incredible feats of reasoning, worthy of a Harvard professor and world-leading symbologist. The next he’s stumped by the most simple-minded of anagrams[1] and unable to recognise mirror-writing. And when the readers need information, we either get presented with slabs of facts directly from the author or, even worse, one character lecturing another about things both should know. Couldn’t we just have links to Wikipedia inserted at appropriate points.

fn1. The contorted plot machinery required to justify the whole thing being in English, despite the setter and intended solver being French, are also fairly annoying.

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  1. Glenn Condell
    August 21st, 2005 at 13:24 | #1

    I must have been the second last person in Australia to read it. I found it compulsively page-turning too, but it did have a very high groan quotient. The little lectures and asides about various Parisian landmarks were deployed more for the intended audience than the novel itself.

    But clunkiness aside, what lets it down is the cardboard quality of the characters. Having never read a Mills and Boon I suppose I can’t say, but the leads struck me as the sort of people you’d meet in books like those. They never went close to being convincing as real people.

    I picked up Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion (for the 2nd time) straight after and it was a balm; the difference between a talented hack and a great writer, with characters you can laugh and cry with; people you can care about, or hate with a passion.

    Now on to Hoban’s Riddley Walker, again for the 2nd time. You’re a spec-fic man John, have you read it? Helluva book.

  2. paul
    August 21st, 2005 at 15:22 | #2

    Check out The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova). Another page turner

  3. Derick Cullen
    August 21st, 2005 at 16:19 | #3

    Amongst the members of the chattering class and usual suspects with whom I associate, it is bad form to admit to having read the Da Vinci Code, or any other Dan Brown book. The grounds for this is that any book or author so popular for so long MUST be bad!

    Setting aside such anti-democratic notions I read it last year because it came in a two-for-one deal with a Le Carre novel. What struck me was how poorly Brown writes, and how much of that was down to an editor who must have nodded off.

    By contrast the Le Carre book was so well written the prose did not intrude on the depressing tale told so brilliantly about cold-war idealism being inapproriate after S11.

  4. Bill Cushing
    August 21st, 2005 at 16:57 | #4

    Brown is not a writer.

    He is a word processor.

    Proof? Check out his other ‘novels’.

    Trouble is, once you start it is damned hard to stop turning those pages!

  5. August 21st, 2005 at 17:31 | #5

    I also just got around to reading TdVC. Yes, it is readable, but the ending was underwhelming (her brother is alive! Or her cousin. Or someone) and the only person I really cared about was that poor albino assassin. But it’s better than Digital Fortress, which mixes crap cryptography and writing.

    Perhaps I dislike DF more because I know the author doesn’t know shit, rather that suspect it as I did with TdVC.

    (Derick: was that “Absolute Friends”? Good one. Sound like a 2 for 1 deal indeed, with le Carre making up 1.6 of the total.)

  6. jt
    August 21st, 2005 at 17:40 | #6

    I’ve avoided TdVC thus far, but have read Angels & Demons. It really doesn’t sound too far removed anyway, so somehow I don’t think I’m missing much. A glaring inconsistency within the first few (~30) pages didn’t install much hope that I’d picked up a gem of a novel, but yes…I did turn the pages.

    Absolute Friends. Now that’s a great book. Incredible to see le Carre declaring so strong a statement on, as Derick mentions, the inappropriateness of cold-war idealism post S11.

  7. August 21st, 2005 at 19:07 | #7

    Come on John, its not an e-book!

    I did quite enjoy it. The Characters are pretty stock-standard, but the characterisation isnt really particularly important, its the plot that really drives the book and keeps you turning the pages, thats what it is for. I actually liked a lot of the academic information that I hadnt heard of before because it was interesting, but I guess it was ladled into the book if a rather disjointed fashion.

    Read Angels and Demons. I actually think it’s better.

  8. August 21st, 2005 at 22:08 | #8

    I liked the Da Vinci Code however after researching the subject a bit realised it is really just a dramatisation of Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

    When I read Angels and Demons I just got sick of the indestructable nature of the hero. You just can’t kill the bloke.

  9. Nabakov
    August 21st, 2005 at 23:52 | #9

    I picked up TdVC at a friend’s holiday house and read the first sentence.

    “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.”

    I immediately put it right down again. Life’s too short to waste time on a 450+ page film treatment that should have been done in 450+ words.

  10. Nabakov
    August 22nd, 2005 at 00:09 | #10

    Don’t get me wrong though. I like a good trashy sex ‘n power, thrills and chills holiday read as much as the next person and have spent many an hour by the seaside snacking on sunscreen stained copies of Harold Robbins, Suetonius or Stephen King. But folks like them are readable ‘cos they’ve got gusto and some measure of their craft. Just judging from his opening sentence Dan Brown’s a bloodless word processor. And from what I hear, one with only one plot template installed.

  11. cp
    August 22nd, 2005 at 00:57 | #11

    I’ve only read Digital Fortress. Utter, utter crap… indescribably bad writing, as well as other things too numerous (and tedious) to go into here. It’s possibly useful a page at a time as a firestarter, but not much else. Oh those poor trees…

    Just don’t go there, and it certainly doesn’t encourage me to read TdVC.

  12. Tom Davies
    August 22nd, 2005 at 07:44 | #12

    A much better ‘conspiracy through the ages’ read is Foucalt’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco. I still can’t believe how badly written and how popular TdVC is. It does contain an interesting idea, but everything else about the book is disappointing.

  13. wilful
    August 22nd, 2005 at 10:16 | #13

    I wonder which is actually the less bad read, something by Dan Brown or by J K Rowling (ignoring the trivial difference in the demographic pitched at)? I finished the sixth instalment of Harry Potter last week, and at first I was groaning over the woeful dialogue, but by the end I was racing through it, quite enjoying myself.

  14. still working it out
    August 22nd, 2005 at 12:43 | #14

    My suspicion is that Google is not really about the search engine at all, but rather about the underlying technology. They have a demonstrated ability to store and process vast amounts of information relatively cheaply.

    The IT needs of companies today are met by using Mainframe and Mid-Range systems that are not really very effective. They have limited storage and slow searching facilities. You can google up the date and place of birth of a complete stranger in seconds. But try asking the call centre rep at your bank to do a search for the date of a transaction at a restaurant you vaguely remember the name of. Your bank probably cannot do it.

    The reason for the performance difference between Google and your bank is Google’s really cool distributed technology. Traditionally, the only thing that can handle really large amounts of information is some sort of Mainframe. But Mainframes have limits too and they could not possibly handle what Google does. Google instead has a completely distributed architecture based on PC cluster’s running Linux. Its a major technical acheivement and I believe has the potential to transform the way large companies do IT.

    You see, the revolution of the PC has not really reached the backend IT systems of large companies. Sure Mainframes are faster and bigger today, but not staggeringly so. For example. Say a large bank like NAB wanted to store a photo of all of its customer’s that would automatically popup on the screen whenever someone at the bank looked up that customer’s records. This would probably be impossible, or at least prohibitively expensive on traditional Mainframes. Yet its a fairly simple thing when you think about it. At some point the ancient mainframes running all of the worlds large companies are going to be replaced by some sort of distributed system. The problem is that no-one has built it yet.

    Enter Google.

    Google’s demonstrated track record in this area gives them the head start and the chance to make staggering amounts of money replacing ALL the world’s mainframe systems and the IT needs of ALL the world’s large companies with systems designed and written by Google.

    Companies that switch over to Google based back ends will be able to offer services that are unthinkable at the moment. Imagine banking customer’s having the ability to do Google like searches on their statements going back years? Or allowing shops to have their logo appear on statements next to transactions at that shop? Or being able to specify what types of shops your childs supplementary credit card can be used at just by specifying a few banned shops and having the back end IT systems ban similar ones? Or imagine the kind of marketing information that would be available to banks that can Google their customer’s transaction history. Imagine how pleased banks would be to send offers for products along with statements that are pesonalised to each customer?

    The possibilities are endless, and big companies have lots of money they would be very happy to spend obtaining these capabilities.

  15. still working it out
    August 22nd, 2005 at 12:44 | #15

    I’m such an idiot. Please ignore/delete the above post. It should be on the “Google Growing” thread.

  16. what the
    August 22nd, 2005 at 17:47 | #16

    Second that on Riddley Walker – astonishing book.
    Haven’t read TdVC, not starting soon.
    For history and mystery I think “Possession” by AS Byatt was brilliant despite being fictitious.

    I thought the recent Potter started off well but then went really slowly with pointless boring sub-plots. And, as with all of the previous tomes, all the girls shrieked, wept and screamed and all the boys yelled, made faces and groaned; and everybody did everything with an adverb, adverbially.

    Worth re-reading is The Quiet American by Graham Greene, I picked it up after the film came out and reminded myself of his wonderful, sparse prose.

  17. Razor
    August 22nd, 2005 at 21:50 | #17

    Tom Davies – maybe there is something wrong with me but I’ve started Focault’s Pendulum about 5 times and never got more than 50 pages into it. Never understood the acclaim.

    I enjoyed TDC but didn’t think it deserves the huge succes it has had. Tom Clancy and LeCarre generally grip me up much tighter, so to speak.

  18. zoot
    August 23rd, 2005 at 22:50 | #18

    Add me to the list of “never read TdVC and not likely to”. I read Holy Blood Holy Grail twenty or so years ago and enjoyed the echoes in Foucault’s Pendulum (which was a struggle at times), but I don’t feel the need to revisit the story.
    Really just wanted to record my admiration of LeCarre’s skills.

  19. August 27th, 2005 at 00:44 | #19

    Leonardo was fairly clueless when it came to mathematics so with all the wordage wasted on Fibonacci series and the Golden Means, I’m amazed that Brown never once mentions his Leonardo’s association with mathematician Luca Pacioli who actually cared about this stuff.

    btw you can read the whole thing online here.

  20. Derick Cullen
    August 27th, 2005 at 16:03 | #20

    Down and out in saigon said

    (Derick: was that “Absolute Friends�? Good one. Sound like a 2 for 1 deal indeed, with le Carre making up 1.6 of the total.)

    I just checked: Absolute Friends it was and I reckon it was at least 1.8 of the 2 for 1 deal.

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