Monday, May 26, 2008

The Plot to Save Socrates

by Paul Levinson, 2006, 266 pages

This book was recommended to me by someone who said it reminded them a bit of To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. As this is one of my favorite books, I promptly checked it out of the library. I can say that yes, there was time travel and some sleuthing involved, but it wasn't humorous in the same way as Willis can be. The novel was at times a bit ponderous and loosely based on philosophic ideas rather than relying on wit and plot to draw the reader in (which was the case with To Say Nothing of the Dog).

The book opens with Sierra Waters, a grad student in New York City in 2042. Her specialty is ancient Athens, which turns out to be just ideal because she ends up becoming embroiled in a time travel quest which goal is to save Socrates from his fatal poisoning in ancient Athens.

The plot begins when her teacher finds an old lost dialog involving Socrates and his conversation with Andros, a visitor to his cell trying to convince Socrates to escape. Andros claims to be from another time, and can provide a DNA-complete replica of Socrates to leave in the cell, so no one will ever know the difference. So the mystery becomes: who is Andros? Did/will Andros succeed? What will the impact be on modern society to suddenly have Socrates living among us again?

To answer these questions, Sierra and her teacher, and a few friends they make along the way, begin traveling through time, assuming different names and roles as events roll along. This gets a bit confusing as the narration shifts from character to character, so the reader never has one character to cling to in all of the adventure. The reader is left to straggle along behind all of the adventurers and try to pick up what is happening. For a long part in the middle of the book, it almost threatens to unravel completely, but then things start to come back together. By the end of the book most things are resolved, but the reader is still left feeling a bit uncertain.

Besides the storytelling method outlined above, another technique used by the author was to tie in parts of the newly-discovered Socratic dialog as the book moves on. At the beginning, our characters had found only a page or two; by the end of the book the reader has finally been exposed to the entire discovered dialog. As the characters find the pages, they often seem to ramble on a bit in their own kind of Platonic dialog amongst themselves (especially when they get to talk to Socrates himself!). I found myself struggling a bit as this happened more and more often. If I see another character simply replying "yes" to a long question from another character, I will scream.

Last Night at the Lobster

by Stewart O'Nan, 2007, 146 pages

The scene is the last day of operation at one Red Lobster location in a run down corner of a New England mall. Manny DeLeon, the manager here for years, has come to feel the restaurant is his, and the loss of it weighs deeply on him. He takes pride in his work and cares for the employees under his supervision.

The book opens as Manny arrives for the last day of work at the Red Lobster, which is complicated by the huge snowstorm on the way, the last minute no-shows of some key employees, and Manny's lingering feelings for his ex-girlfriend -- the waitress Jacquie. Also causing distraction is the fact that Christmas is only 4 days away and he still doesn't know what to get his pregnant girlfriend. He wants to find that one gift that will make their relationship better, and in a larger sense, Manny is looking for the one perfect thing that will make everything better. Despite his best intentions, the day winds to a close much the way it opened, and the book ends.

This novel is extremely poetic in its sparse way. There is a whirlwind of character and emotion in the short 146 page book. The reader comes to care for Manny and his restaurant, despite the fact that they are both, in some ways, losers.