I'm switching between three books right now, all of which I feel obliged to read and all of which need to be placed aside for various reasons.
I began with Milton's Paradise Lost, the version annotated by the skeptical Issac Asimov. The reading text itself would be more of a chore if Mr. Asimov weren't cheekily pointing out how Lucifer is the most textured and complex character in the book, and the Almighty is (despite Milton's religious fervor) looking like an autocratic blowhard.
Nonetheless a classic is a classic, and one can only take so much finely crafted poetry before it starts to grate. So then I picked up Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. Yes, it is the cyberpunk Bible. Yes, as a self-respecting Techer I should have read it long ago. But dear heaven, would someone teach the man to write real women? By "real" I mean something other than a flawless geek-goddess, or a shrewish post-modern ivory-tower "feminazi" stereotype, or an attractive vessel introduced to bear the fruit of the loins of a male protagonist. He did fine with Nell in The Diamond Age, probably because she was introduced as an eight-year-old and remained identified as the "child looking for a mother" uptil the end. And it's not just Stephenson. Heinlein does it grossly. Spider Robinson does it, and then defends Heinlein in an essay. Asimov does it. To paraphrase what a reviewer said about Stephenson, they are writing the women they'd want to date and the women they'd hate to date. And it really does seem as though the female characters are decreed heroines or villians based on their datability.
I should thank Neil Gaiman for not pulling the same shit. And China Mieville.
To recover from the wordy Cryptonomicon, I took up Ian McEwan's Atonement. This is way on the opposite end of the scale - a thickly nuanced psychological drama in which the characters are hurtling, trainwreck fashion, into a chaos wherein miscelleneous lives are ruined. The last chapter I read ended with the fall of the first domino: the wrong letter is dispatched to a recipient. Do dramatically convenient disasters like this happen in real life, or do sadistic authors have to pull the puppet strings?
So yes, the stress of reading Atonement has gotten overwhelming and now I'm trying to decide between the exhausting Milton and the annoying Stephenson. Or maybe I should go into lab and try to wash some glass plates.