Recent Reading


Because Derek Walcott died, I started carrying Omeros in by satchel and reading from it, though not, necessarily, reading the book length (history? digression? epic) poem on the Caribbean in systematic fashion.

I finished Patrick Modiano’s In the Cafe of Lost Youth, my first stab at the Nobel Prize winner (as was Walcott, by the way). Similar to the next book on the list, I felt an immediate stab of disappointment at the ending, but then came around to it (coming around more fervently, though, than with the next book). The ending seemed too abrupt and unearned, but I came around to an understanding that the book itself was about the unknowability of others.

I finished the final book of the Tearling trilogy, Fate of the Tearling. I’m still not sure if this isn’t actually a young adult book. I’m still not sure if that statement says more about me than about young adult literature. But actually, I’m pretty sure that it says more about me. And, even more than it says more about me, it says a lot about the fantasy genre (and not in an entirely good way, however much I love it). I came around to the deux ex machina ending, but that didn’t make it earned and the book lost much of the goodwill earned from the first two, but credit where credit is due: this was a genuinely feminist series, with serious advocacy for birth control and female sexual agency. The final book also become decidedly anti-religious. Earlier books had posited the fantasy world’s church leaders as enemies, but now it got pretty anti-religious. Meh. Not going to argue that point.

Finally, I really loved The Dragonbone Chair, the first book in a series I had long heard about (and mentioned as a precursor to Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, though this series has more magic in it, though it’s not necessarily hugely heavy on magic). Tad Williams hooked me pretty quickly (though he also takes his time, with something like half the book taken up with careful world building, done through the eyes of an awkward kitchen boy in his early adolescence) and as soon as I was done, I immediately downloaded the second book (sadly, not available at the library). My one quibble is that some of the world building uses some lazy thievery from the ‘real’ world. The great king, whose death opens the way for the turmoil that makes up the plot, is Prester John. Some of the cultures and their naming customs are too obviously taken from Western Europe. Not a major issue (and the world itself is quite unique), but just felt lazy.

Reading


I’m always reading several books at a time. Sometimes, too many. They pile up beside the bed in the dozens (to the consternation of my better half).

But I like to vary my reading based on moods (though lately, they have all been linked by classical Greece and Rome). I have a copy of some works of Cicero nearby and I finished On Duties but can’t seem to get into On Friendship nor On Old Age, but they’re all in the same tome and I feel like I should just finish the physical book.

I just finished reading though Stone’s The Trial of Socrates (not in the least because it vocalizes some of my nagging complaints about the Socrates of the Platonic dialogues, namely, that he’s a bit of a flat track bully; it’s also got some wonderful sounding close reading of the original Greek texts; I saw wonderful sounding because I don’t read Ancient Greek and have, really, no idea if his translations and interpretations of individual words is better or worse than others). If I have one criticism, it’s that he closes weakly, by going into a discussion of the etymology of terms for ‘freedom of speech.’ Not that it’s not interesting, but like the ending of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, it brings the (for lack of a better term) ‘narrative’ momentum to a crashing halt.

I finished the second volume of the sci-fi/space opera quartet, The Hyperion Cantos (the names of this one is The Fall of Hyperion). It’s not nearly so pretentious as the word ‘cantos’ implies. I’d compare it to some of Samuel Delaney’s wild space operas, but less formally complex and also less lyrical (even though the reconstructed personality of John Keats is a major character in The Fall of Hyperion). Shouldn’t keep you away from these books, if you like good sci fi. It’s a well thought out, well realized universe with some excellent literary flourishes.

Sally Wen Mao’s Mad Honey Symposium lies beside my bed and the title would have drawn me in, even if the poetry weren’t excellent (which it is).

Holiday Reading…


…has so far been weighted more towards trashy than classy.

Trashy has included Deryni Rising, by Katherine Kurtz, who is a name I’ve seen a lot, as a fan of fantasy, but have never read. It’s high fantasy in western medieval setting. A first novel (though written and published before I was born) and it shows. Characters are thinly sketched, but the potential is there. The entire novel takes place in a small geographic area and at least half of it takes place over thirty-six hours or so, which I as good sign – an attempt to do something a little different, as well as something focused on internal politics. That said, still needed some ‘seasoning.’ Also, there were characters known merely as ‘Moors’ who all work for bad guys and get exactly zero additional characterization, which I would suggest is borderline racist, if it weren’t so obviously fully racist.

Michael Moorcock has earned some literary cred, but he also wrote a lot of trash. Fun trash, but trash. Of his interlocking, slightly revisionist, high fantasy novels, the original Elric stories are, without doubt, the best. And the novels of Dorian Hawkmoon are, beyond a doubt, among the worst. Which makes the number of times I have read those novels inexplicable. And makes reading the original tetralogy again, during my holiday, incomprehensible. Hawkmoon, as a character, is boring (though on his companions, Huillam D’Averc, is, if thinly drawn, at least interesting and fun), the post-apocalyptic world of science and sorcery is not nearly as clever nor as relevant as Moorcock clearly believes.


But, at least I read the latest edition of Foreign Affairs. Too bad it was about how Trump is going to blow up the liberal order of progress and justice-based structures. So, um… yay! I read something worthwhile!

‘Hyperion’ By Dan Simmons


I swear that I didn’t know it was part of a series. I knew he wrote other books about the planet Hyperion, but I really thought this was a self-contained story. Feeling a little betrayed.

But it’s an excellent and intelligent space opera. Keats comes up a lot and he plays with Chaucer’s pilgrims (though much grimmer and with less sex and comedy).

The world is well realized (though it’s actually a vast universe) and the layers and multiplying plots are exciting rather than frustrating, overdone, or contrived. Really, if it didn’t require me to read a second book, I’d call it an unmitigated success.

I’m Back, I’m Not Back


I’ve been away, first thinking only about the election and then contemplating the aftermath.

It’s not a happy aftermath. My wife is an immigrant and a person of color. I have low income family members who depend on Obamacare. All reasons to fear for the well being of people I love.

So, in what do we take solace?

I’ve been reading Cicero’s De Officiis in a lovely little miniature hardback edition. I love those books, on a tactile level, like the original Modern Library editions from the teens, twenties and thirties. This isn’t one of those, but the same principle. Also, just reading a literate account of how to be decent person in society. While some is specific to the society of the late Republican/early Imperial Rome, most is not. And in a post-Trump world, it seems both relevant and terribly sad. But perhaps Cicero, who wrote this after being forced into a sort of exile for his support for the norms of the Republic would relate. Though I still don’t see this as the end of democracy in America. A touch of class, too, in Cicero. Not that kind of class (though he’s very classy), but socio-economic class. And jealousy. On my part. Cicero can retire to his villa, send his son to study abroad (he’s learning from a Greek philosopher in Athens), and spend his days writing awesome things like De Officiis.

I was in my study the other day. Actually, if I’m being honest, I was video chatting my way through a Dungeons & Dragons game (thankfully, we’re meeting in person next week; sometimes, technology is a hindrance to play, a statement that you should take several ways). While waiting for technology to right itself or else during lulls in the action, I found my eyes wandering around to all my books. Honestly, I’ve got some pretty awesome books.

Among them, James Lasdun’s The Horned Man, I book that I read many years and deeply enjoyed and I felt compelled to reread upon seeing it on my shelf. Like Cicero, maybe I’m looking for parallels. In this case, an unreliable narrator who quickly constructs a strange and inexplicable conspiracy. So how does this relate? Trump, the unreliable narrator spinning his improbable narratives? Me, trapped in a world created by people who see conspiracies in the quotidià of modern life? Or am I the narrator, feeling a strange noose tighten for reasons I can’t understand (bear to understand?)?

Wordworth’s The Prelude which is one of the highlights of western civilization, but which, thankfully, has nothing to with Trump. Or does it? I just called it one of the highlights of western civilization and doesn’t that relate to Trump making his closest presidential adviser a man tied to a racist, separatist, apartheidist, ethno-european nationalist movement? That doesn’t make Wordsworth particularly racist (though I’m sure he was, being a man of his erea), but am I merely taking a more highbrow kind of comfort in the same white mythologies as Trump’s supporters?

I picked up Kenneth Rexroth and Ikoko Atsumi’s translated text, Women Poets of Japan and found myself less enthralled than I remember. While waiting in line to vote, I was reading The Book Genji and the titular Prince Genji and the beau monde in which moved frequently communicated via poems, but a quick, returning glance at that once favored collection of Japanese poetry left me itchy for something else. If that something else was a white, male poet (Wordsworth), does it make my reaction more fraught?

 

 

Chessmen Of Mars


book-chessmenofmarsI’ll admit, I’ve been reading free copies of these novels on my Nook, but I think that Chessmen of Mars is the last of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars (or Barsoom) novels that’s in the public domain and while I’m sure it’s possible to find a free copy anyway, it’s a moral point no to, though that seems shallow, since I took advantage to read the others for free, isn’t it? But let’s not make the perfect be the enemy of the good, now shall we?

Like many of his novels set on the dying planet of Barsoom (known to us, as Mars), Chessmen feels like two long, connected short stories. The daughter of John Carter and Dejah Thoris runs away and her airship crashes among yet another previously unknown subset of Martians, the kaldane and their rykor… well, it’s complicated. The kaldane are oversized human heads that walk on little  spiders and who mount themselves on headless human bodies called rykor, seize hold of the spinal column, and use them as their bodies. Burroughs doesn’t have Lovecraft nor Carter’s feel for imparting the horror felt by a character, but he does a decent job of showing how horrified the princess is (and her lovesick rescuer who is, naturally, also a fierce and chivalrous warrior).

When the two more or less human protagonists escape (along with their new friend, one of the walking heads and his stolen rykor), they wind up in a sort of lost and primitive kingdom where a game similar to chess is played, only with… well, you can guess. Yes, the pieces are actually people, fighting on a giant board.

Will Tara of Heliun and Gahan of Gathol escape? Will they find true love together? Will the villainous king (or jeddak) be replaced by his much nicer and braver vassal? Will there be an addendum explaining the (non-fatal) rules of Martian chess?

Well, um, yeah.

‘Invasion Of The Tearling’ By Erika Johansen


9780062290410Maybe not as good as the first book in the trilogy, but still very good. The world building is nicely realized and it’s both good and important that it’s a book with a female protagonist that was written by a female author. It shouldn’t be, but I hope we can all agree that full gender equality hasn’t been reached yet, so anything that breaks up the boys club is positive.

The other week, I was visiting my new grandniece (yes, I’m old; I can already feel the icy hand of death clutching at my still, but barely beating heart; I can only pray that when the reaper comes for me, he finds wearing nothing but a pair of ruby encrusted spurs and listening to Jefferson Airplane’s classic album, Surrealistic Pillow), and my nephew-in-law showed me one of the books the infant had been given. It was an ABCs of famous American women and ‘U’ was for Ursula K. Le Guin. I explained that she was a famous and great feminist writer, best (though not exclusively) known for writing very thoughtful fantasy and science fiction.

That has nothing to do with The Invasion of the Tearling, but feminism in the genre had been on mind and that’s why.

We are in a fantasy world, with an invasion and a young queen, but the most interesting part are visions/flashbacks to how people from ‘our’ world wound up in this fantasy landscape. There’s a messianic revolutionary named William Tear and a world of corporate control created by a former president – a far right ideologue. It’s tempting to read Donald Trump into him, but he’s actually more of a Reagan-era figure. More Christian right than meandering, narcissistic fascism. The revolutionary movement grew out of the Occupy movement and it does feel real enough, but the Calvinistic, ‘chosen ones’ nature of the people who will escape to the new world (better world, they call it) is disquieting. There’s a single mention that they are not actually moving in place, but in time (to the future? the past?).

Our heroine fends off the evil queen (actually, she gets a three year truce), but quite clearly releases some more horrible evil into the world, so there’s that. I’ll check the library to see if they have the third book available.