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I really enjoyed Herodotus' The Histories, about the background and main events of the epic wars between the ancient Persians and Greeks (translated by George Rawlinson). I was hooked by "the Father of History's" enthusiastic accounts of interesting historical and cultural information and impressed by his appealing balance of objectivity and subjectivity. And I savored his many digressions amplifying the historical context, as well as his detailed accounts of the different ancient exotic cultures (like the Egyptians shaving their eyebrows when their housecats died or the Scythians making capes from the scalps of their fallen enemies), which were in a sense all similar in their violence, heroism, treachery, brutality, ethnocentrism, and superstitious following of prodigies and omens and oracles. We haven't changed so much in 2000 plus years???
Despite some listeners complaining about the reader, Bernard Mayes, I quickly came to enjoy his handling of The Histories, easily imagining myself listening to an elderly, experienced, and decent Herodotus. I appreciated Mayes' subtle changes in tone to express a variety of moods, from Xerxes' waxing wroth at some unpleasant advice and the Athenians getting peeved by the Spartans worrying that they would ally with the Persians, to the suspenseful accounts of battles like those at Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis that helped decide the course of world history. I found Mayes always to be right on task, always speaking with effective clarity and rhythm, always perfectly expressing Herodotus' humor, disbelief, admiration, and criticism of his historical subjects.
The only flaw in the audiobook is the too frequent, sudden flash of a kind of static, which distracts from the overall experience to the point that I'm giving what should be a five star audiobook four stars. I highly recommend it.
When Dan Torrence was a five-year-old boy in The Shining (1977), his wannabe writer father succumbed to alcoholism and to the malign influence of the haunted Overlook Hotel and tried to kill him and his mother. (I still remember being terrorized by Stephen King's book when I read it back then in high school by a pool in broad daylight.) Fast forward to the present era in King's Doctor Sleep (2013), and 40-year-old Dan is still struggling to survive. For most of his life, he has been afflicted by the shining (the psychic ability to dream future events, to mentally receive and send thoughts, and to see dead people up and about, etc.), fearing that the gift was a curse that would drive him insane and believing that the only way to handle it was to drink it away: "The mind was a blackboard. Booze was the eraser." But the more he drank, the more he unleashed his inner feral dog and the more people he hurt and jobs and towns he lost. Luckily, in the opening chapters of this sequel to The Shining, Dan seems to find his home and calling in Frazier, New Hampshire, living and working at the small town's hospice, where, with a stray cat named Azzie, he helps terminally ill patients peacefully fall asleep into whatever comes next. Unluckily, the Overlook isn't finished with him.
Into Danny's life King interweaves two more story strands. The first features the True Knot, a "family" of self-proclaimed "Chosen Ones" who travel around America feeding on the "steam" emitted by the shining-gifted kids they torture to death. By feeding on steam, the True Knot members attain near immortality, not unlike vampires, though of an ironically all-American type, for, far from the usual sophisticated European aristocrat look, the True Knot adopt a "harmless RV folks" one, sporting tacky tourist t-shirts and driving gas guzzling campers and sporting conservative bumper stickers. Then there is Abra Stone, a precocious girl born just before 9/11 with a prodigious amount of the shining, much to the consternation of her parents. Despite hiding her gift to ease her parents' minds, Abra comes to the loving attention of Dan and to the scary attention of the True Knot. With exquisite suspense, King brings the three sets of characters ever closer together.
King writes great action set pieces that are exciting, scary, funny, unpredictable, inevitable, and inventive fusions of the physical and the paranormal. One of the reasons his work is so suspenseful and moving is that he's so good at writing three-dimensional characters we care about. Dan is fragile, brave, caring, and witty, Abra immature, sweet, vindictive, and powerful. The supporting characters are mostly convincing. And True Knott members like Rose the Hat, are scary and vulnerable, inhuman and all too human.
One of King's great insights is that perhaps the most terrifying thing of all is the possibility that our closest family members may harm us, especially when we are children. Just in the novel's "Prefatory Matters" he introduces a father who rapes his eight-year-old daughter, a grandfather who molests and torments his grandson, an uncle who beats his toddler nephew, not to mention Dan's own abusive father. King also of course taps more typical horror reflexes: our fear of pain and death and of powerful people who may do with us what they will. And he depicts the disease of alcoholism with harrowing realism (Dan's struggle against it and his AA organization feature prominently in the novel).
The novel is about families (dysfunctional and functional, biological and relational), about death (and life), about the way in which our childhoods, genes, and environments shape our adult selves, about power and responsibility, and about culture and horror. Despite depicting harrowing psychic and physical violence and potent evil, King maintains faith in some higher power balancing things out in our mysterious and mortal universe: "Life was a wheel, and it always came back around."
King is a pro with a keen ear for memorable lines, whether vivid descriptions ("His smiling, predatory face was the damp whitish-green of a spoiled avocado"), cool similes ("He felt like some breakable object that has skittered to the edge of a high shelf but hasn't quite fallen off"), quirky humor ("The hungover eye had a weird ability to find the ugliest thing in any given landscape"), frisky frissons ("At some point, as she had been concentrating, a corpse had joined her in the tool shed"), philosophical nuggets ("Death was no less a miracle than life"), and personal epiphanies ("I am not my father").
Another fun virtue of this book is King's keen eye for American culture, as in his pithy descriptions of recent presidents by their renowned identifying features, his understanding of how small towns function and feel, his depiction of highways as the arteries of the body of America, and of course his many cultural references, which range from the popular (Shrek, Twilight, Catching Fire, Facebook, etc.) to the literary (Moby-Dick, East of Eden, Ezra Pound, etc.) and cult (Pink Flamingos). The most intense action scenes occur in spots redolent of Americana: a mini-railroad picnic area, a highway, a campground.
Will Patton gives a stellar reading of Doctor Sleep. His voice is scratchy, tender, masculine, clear, and flexible. He is convincing as a child, adult, or old person of either gender in any mood. His scary characters become even scarier in proportion to his voice becoming softer. He enhances King's contextual humor and horror. The audiobook features an opening dedication and closing author's note, both read by King.
People who like The Shining should enjoy Doctor Sleep (though it's not necessary to have read the earlier book to appreciate the sequel), and anyone who likes character-driven, theme-laden, page-turning, well-written paranormal horror should like it, too.
After foolishly watching Jack Black's abominable Gulliver's Travels movie on TV, I had to purge myself of the experience by re-reading Jonathan Swift's original novel. The imaginative, humorous, and scathing depiction of human nature and civilization in Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) set me right with the world. Ah, it's salutary to be reminded that we are all Yahoos! The novel uses the device of an Everyman traveling to imaginary cultures and living among their fantastic denizens to reflect back on our own cultures and selves in quite humbling ways. Swift's first person narrator and alter-ego, Lemuel Gulliver, is an English ship's surgeon who likes his country but can't resist traveling. Over sixteen years, by chance he ends up in various lands hitherto unknown to Europeans, among them Lilliput (whose people are about six inches tall and have accordingly tiny flora, fauna, and things), Brobdingnag (whose people are about sixty feet tall and have accordingly giant flora, fauna, and things), Laputa (whose people live on an adamantine island that floats in the sky), Luggnagg (among whose people are a handful of senile immortals), and the country of the Houyhnhnms (whose people are a race of wise, reasonable, and clean-living horses).
Swift makes the major places and peoples feel "real" and interesting on their own terms. He imagines neat details about what it would be like to be a giant among the Lilliputians (e.g., extinguishing a palatial fire by urinating on it) and a small animal among the Brobdingnagians (e.g., climbing up and down ladders to read giant books). He entertainingly extrapolates to absurd extremes the Laputians' excessive pursuit of mathematics, music, and innovation, rendering the learned men so engrossed in their speculations that servants must "flap" them on the eyes or ears or mouth to get them to attend when something vital to see or hear or say turns up. And he presents the Houyhnhnms as perfectly reason-based beings, with obvious merits (health, chastity, honesty, loyalty, etc.) and less obvious demerits (a lack of sympathy for the presence of a certain Yahoo from abroad).
At the same time, Swift uses all those places to critique 18th-century England and Europe in such a way that applies to our own 21st century world, because, after all people are people no matter when or where they live. He satirizes our political factions (the Lilliputian court is divided between High-Heel and Low-Heel wearing men), ambitious gymnastics (Lilliputians who want high positions in court must dance on a tight rope), and religious disputes (Lilliputians who break an egg at the small end persecute those who break it at the big end and both sides invoke their holy book). He satirizes our complicated law system and career military system through the Brobdingnagian law against the interpretation of laws (which may be no longer than the 22 letters in their alphabet) and custom of fielding an army as needed without pay. And he satirizes our dysfunctional governments by having a learned man suggest that because the human body and the body politic are equivalent, all Senators should be dosed with Palliatives, Laxatives, and the like, which would beget unanimity and shorten debates. After Gulliver interviews spirits of the dead raised for him by a necromancer of Glubdugdribgub, he condemns "modern History," by which "the World had been misled by prostitute Writers" who have made cowards, fools, and traitors appear to be heroic leaders and obscured the fact that the only successful "great Enterprizes and Revolutions" in human history have arisen from "contemptible Accidents."
When among the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver discourses on the unworthy causes of war among European nations and lists the weapons devised by humans to kill and maim as many people and destroy as many cities as possible. He tells his equine master about lawyers, "a Society of men" paid to "wholly confound. . . the very Essence of Truth and Falsehood, or Right and Wrong." In explaining money, he points out "that the Bulk of our People were forced to live miserably, by labouring every Day for small Wages, to make a few live plentifully." One of the funniest moments in the novel is when Gulliver lists the many civilized Yahoo vices and crimes he is free from while living among the Houyhnhnms, of which the following is a small sample: "here were no Gibers, Censurers, Backbiters, Pickpockets, Highwaymen, House-breakers, Attorneys, Bawds, Buffoons, Gamesters, Politicians, Wits, Splenetics, tedious Talkers, Controvertists, Ravishers, Murderers, Robbers, Virtuosos . . . no Lords, Fiddlers, Judges, or Dancing-Masters." His master's conclusion is that we use our small share of reason "to aggravate our natural Corruptions, and to acquire new ones, which Nature had not given us."
So urgent is Swift's need to puncture our pride that excrement and urine play comically gross roles in each of the Four Parts of his novel, from embarrassing accounts of how he "discharged the Necessities of Nature" in Lilliput and Brobdingnag to moments like meeting a scientist who is obsessively researching a way to return human ordure to its original food content.
I found David Hyde Pierce to be a capable but not wonderful reader with one exception: he pronounces Houyhnhnm words with a charming hint of a neigh.
Readers who want plenty of suspenseful and exciting action and adventure might do well to read a different book. But readers who love the English language beautifully, bitterly, imaginatively, and humorously employed by a keen (if misanthropic) observer of humankind would like Gulliver's Travels. Gulliver explains that he could overlook human vices and follies if only people would not be so proud of themselves. If you feel proud to be human ("the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin" according to the Brobdingnag king), reading this book ought to take you down a peg or two.
Is Bartimaeus of Uruk, as he claims, a swashbuckling, debonair, and clever djinni renowned over the millennia for numerous magnificent achievements in architecture and war on behalf of various notable magician masters, including Gilgamesh, Ramses, and Nefertiti? Or is he really a wicked, duplicitous, and cheeky demon, as many of his masters complain? Jonathan Stroud's fourth novel featuring Bartimaeus, The Ring of Solomon (2010), reveals that the djinni and his detractors are both right, for although he can perform great feats (despite being but a middle-ranking spirit), he also remains ever eager to eat abusive magicians who mistake the wording of their spells or the drawing of their pentacles. Readers familiar with Bartimaeus from Stroud's earlier trilogy, The Amulet of Samarkand (2003), The Golem's Eye (2004), and Ptolemy's Gate (2005), will be happy to spend more time with the djinni in this stand-alone prequel, while readers new to Stroud's work will enjoy getting to know Bartimaeus, who is in fine form here, both as a witty, egotistical, and discursive narrator and as a resourceful, guileful, and plucky fantastic being.
The story involves the titular ring, which is a portal to the Other Place (where the djinn and other spirits live as pure and free essences) and which is interestingly similar to and different from Tolkien's Ring of Power; King Solomon, ruler thanks to the ring of Israel, the most powerful nation in the known world; Khaba the Cruel, one of Solomon's seventeen magicians with something of the crypt about him; Asmira, the loyal seventeen-year-old top bodyguard of the Queen of Sheba; and, of course, Bartimaeus. Although it is not difficult to guess early on whose machinations are causing trouble in Israel and environs, resulting in Asmira being sent on a suicide assassination mission and Bartimaeus becoming caught up in the affairs of the humans he purports to loathe but secretly enjoys, Stroud does unpredictably play with our perceptions of Solomon and write an entertaining novel.
One reason for the popularity of Stroud's Bartimaeus books is that they are so funny. Kids must enjoy the occasional body-humor, as when Khaba, he of the vicious essence flail and cruel essence cages, bends over at a temple work site, and Bartimaeus makes a farting noise that echoes "off the valley walls like a thunder clap," while adults must enjoy the in-jokes, as when Bartimaeus picks up a crumpled ball of parchment on which Solomon has written some songs, and says, "they were unlikely to be much good."
Stroud's writing is replete with wit, as in many of his similes, like "Avarice shimmered on [his eye] like a film of oil," and "With the eager energy of two criminals shuffling to the gallows, [we] set off downstairs," and "The voice was soft as tomb dust shifting." And Bartimaeus' many notes humorously interrupt his suspenseful tale, as when he explains the units of measurements used by djinn: "a rat's arse, a camel's thigh, a leper's stretch, and the length of a Philistine's beard."
Stroud writes many well-turned phrases and evocative descriptions, of which the following are but a snack:
--"A cadaver would have crossed the street to avoid him."
--"All around was a land of desolation and absence, of bleached hills fading to the edge of vision. The sun was a white hole in an iron sky. It warped the air into slices that danced and shimmered and were never still. "
--"Ripped from the infinite, plucked back down time's corridor... I dropped like a shower of gold down an endless well. I funneled inward to a point and landed... at the center of a pentacle."
--"Her eyes retained that glassy fixity that humans get when they are the self-appointed agent of a higher cause, and their own personality, such as it is, has faded out altogether."
--"And all at once, as if an unseen barrier had been penetrated, there broke upon her a rush of sound like a sea of sand poured down upon the earth. It was the whispering of the demons' wings."
In addition to being a well-written, humorous, suspenseful, and imaginative historical fantasy, The Ring of Solomon is a dramatic exploration of the nature of servitude that champions personal freedom and integrity against the selfish or zealous pursuit of wealth and power: "Gods and nations, what are they but words?" says a spirit at one point. Moreover, because Bartimaeus has been enslaved by so many amoral magicians and has witnessed so many flawed kings and queens, destroyed cities, and fallen empires, he has acquired a jaundiced opinion of human nature and civilization. He regularly describes human beings as selfish, greedy, cruel, and false, and enjoys mentioning things like the fact that while spirits like him can see all seven planes of existence, fleas, tapeworms, and humans can only view one. Interestingly, however, his fellow djinni Faquarl is perhaps not incorrect when he accuses Bartimaeus of being soft on people (and not only because he likes their fresh and seasoned bone marrow).
Simon Jones relishes reading the novel, giving Bartimaeus an urbane, snide, and camp British drawl that even Tim Curry or Oscar Wilde might envy. His other character voices, like for the quietly malevolent Khaba, the attenuated but strong-willed Solomon, and the naïve and committed Asmira, are fine, too.
The Ring of Solomon is not without flaws. I like Asmira and accept that some third person chapters from her point of view are necessary for the story, but I enjoy Bartimaeus so much that I wish the entire novel were narrated in his first person voice. I also felt that in the climax Stroud has some characters do or not do some things they normally would not do or do and is probably hoping that we'll be too caught up in the exciting action to notice. But the resolution is neat, and fans of the Bartimaeus trilogy, as well as fans of savory, satirical, comical, and page-turning young adult historical fantasy should enjoy this novel.
The first book in Mira Grant's Newsflesh Trilogy, Feed (2010), begins in Northern California in 2039, twenty-five years after the Rising, when a super virus infected all mammals weighing at least 40 pounds, wiping out 35% of the human population in the summer of 2014 and leaving behind pockets of hungry undead. The first chapter seems to be standard zombie fare: a mob of infected surround a pair of astonishingly reckless heroes, the 22-year-old first person narrator Georgia Mason and her thrill-seeking brother Shaun. (Like many other post-2014 kids, Georgia was named for George Romero, who became a national hero after the Rising because people realized that his films were useful survival guides rather than bad horror movies.) I couldn't believe that someone as savvy as Georgia would let her brother and herself get into such a fix, or that they'd be able to escape it the way they do.
But the second chapter explains the siblings' behavior: they are bloggers who leave the relative safety of their community to enter infected danger zones to make, become, and report the news about all matters zombie so as to spread the "truth" and increase the market share of their blogs. Indeed, in 2039 bloggers are the most entertaining, popular, and accurate news source: "Newsies" like Georgia who report the truth without spin or opinion, "Irwins" like Shaun who record sensational close zombie encounters, and "Fictionals" like their partner Buffy who write gothic stories and poems. Georgia and Shaun are each other's best friends, colleagues, and confidants, because they were born a few weeks apart to different families, orphaned during the Rising, and adopted by parents who love their own blog ratings more than their kids.
The novel takes an unexpected turn when Georgia, Shaun, and Buffy become the "pet-bloggers" embedded in the presidential campaign of the Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Peter Ryman. Georgia believes that he represents the best hope for improving the difficult economic, political, and social world of the virus, because he would rather improve the lives of the living than wage war on the undead, while his opponents want to exterminate all zombies and to reassert faith and family in America to convince God to stop plaguing us with plagues.
Feed is neither like Walking Dead, in which pockets of humans try to survive in a post-zombie-apocalypse world, nor like Raising Stony Mayhall, in which the protagonist is a sympathetic zombie. Nor is it a non-stop zombie action story, having few set piece attack scenes. Instead, Feed is a science fiction zombie novel. It features a scientific explanation and behavior for the virus, which derives from a mixture of cold and cancer cures, lies dormant inside everyone in the world, and is at any moment ready to undergo "amplification," destroying its host's consciousness and turning the host into a ravenous meat eater (the virus needs protein) and dangerous virus spreader (the virus needs new hosts). The novel then carefully extrapolates the resulting future world. Feed is also a political zombie novel, condemning hate- and fear-mongers who wield national security and religion to deny others the freedom to learn and tell the truth with which to draw accurate conclusions and make informed decisions. I like the message, but I don't believe that journalists can objectively tell the truth once embedded in an organization, whether a political campaign or a US military unit.
I'm also unsure about other things in the novel. First, although I enjoy the banter between Shaun and Georgia ("Behold the bitchiness of George when she hasn't had her beauty sleep") and am moved by their close relationship, I also find Shaun irritating when he talks like a 22-year-old surfer Bart Simpson.
Second, despite interesting virus-driven changes in the world of 2039, some things too closely resemble our world now, as in the important politicians, bodyguards, scientists, and campaign staff all being men. At the same time, some of Grant's 2039 USA feels outdated, as in same-sex marriage still being a controversial issue, whereas in our 2014 USA it's already legal in 26 states.
Third, despite the scientific approach to zombies, and despite the neat touch that everyone already has the virus, the amplified infected could after all be extras from a George Romero movie.
Fourth, there are some inconsistent points in the story and characters: in the first chapter, for example, Georgia had to bribe daredevil Shaun into wearing a Kevlar vest in the Santa Cruz danger zone, whereas later she twice notes him in safer situations carefully tightening or checking the links in his chain mail armor.
Fifth, the novel wants pruning. Georgia twice tells us that Shaun only calls her Georgia when he's upset or concerned and twice that the Apple blood testing kit is the top of the line model, and repeatedly depicts getting blood-tested and using high-tech elevators. And her pursuit of the truth would be more powerful were she to mention it less often.
To be sure, there are plenty of neat lines like these:
"He was a journalist after all, and we're all incurably insane."
"Most girls learn to accessorize for dinner parties and dates; I learned to do it for hazard zones."
"I am a god among men and a poker into unpokable places."
“Social norms can bite me.”
The readers enhance the book. Paula Christensen's Georgia is spot on (intelligent, passionate, ironic), and she's good with southern accents and even a British one. Jesse Bernstein is fine with Shaun and other male characters.
But although I enjoyed Feed, and admire its unsparing climax, I won't be in a hurry to finish the trilogy.
The preface of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980) explains that "as an act of love" and "For sheer narrative pleasure gloriously lacking any relevance to our world today" (because "it is about books"), the "author" is publishing his "Italian version of an obscure neo-gothic French version of a seventeenth-century Latin edition of a work written in Latin by a German monk toward the end of the fourteenth century." (And the Italian version has been translated into English by William Weaver!)
The German Monk is Adso of Melk, who, as an old man wrote a chronicle about his time in 1327 as the novice disciple of the Franciscan Brother William of Baskerville, when the pair traveled to an Italian Benedictine abbey whose name must remain secret due to the terrible events that happened there. William was on a mission to represent the separation of church and state views of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis to the Papal legates of Pope John, as well as to try to arrange a meeting of the minds between the Franciscan monks who embraced the poverty of Christ and the Papal authorities who denied it (to avoid calling into question their great worldly possessions and powers). No sooner do William and Adso arrive at the abbey than they learn that a talented young illuminator has fallen to his death from a high window, and William, a former inquisitor (a post he resigned because he could no longer distinguish between heretics and holy men or stomach the use of torture to obtain confession), is asked by the Abbot to investigate. Thus begins a murder mystery lasting seven days and involving the abbey library (both the greatest in Christendom and a labyrinth), a dangerous book, the Apocalypse, and a motley set of monkish suspects.
In addition to being an absorbing mystery, The Name of the Rose is such a vivid and detailed historical novel that it becomes both an encyclopedic window into the past and a distorted mirror of the present. The ethos of the Catholic monks, how they felt about science, love, women, animals, infidels, class, authority, heresy, piety, art, books, the Word, the world, the hereafter, Christ, God, Satan, and the antichrist, is fascinating. They earnestly argued about things like the laughter and poverty or lack thereof of Jesus, and lived in a chaotic era marked by feuding Emperors and Popes, starving peasants, and ravening vagabonds. The abbey feels like a real place, including the Church, Dormitory, Infirmary, Stables, Smithy, and Aedificium (the building with library, scriptorium, kitchen, and crypt). While vividly depicting all of the above, the novel treats themes about epistemology, semiotics, truth, and love, and explores matters like the preservation, pursuit, and sharing of knowledge, the uses and abuses of fantasy, nonsense, and humor, and the difficult attempt to find design, pattern, and meaning in a world that possesses either many or none of such things.
William is a medieval Sherlock Holmes, hailing from Baskerville and sharing with the great detective a faith in deductive reasoning, intervals of torpor, occasional "drug" use, a tall and thin body, and a desire to find the truth by reading the world like a book. His deductive method is opposed to that of Catholic inquisitors, who use torture to prove the guilt of the accused. The relationship between William and Adso, his naïve and earnest Watson, is entertaining and moving. Adso feels hero-worship for his master, punctuated by moments of incomprehension or disappointment.
The novel is replete with great lines, from descriptions (as when Adso sees the "glabrous face" and "bony skull, to which the skin clung like that of a mummy preserved in milk," of the revered monk Ubertino and feels that "He resembled a maiden withered by premature death") to statements about books, life, and the world:
"Books speak of books."
"A dream is a scripture."
"Inquisitors create heretics."
"True love wants the good of the beloved."
"Formulating hypotheses made me nervous."
"Madmen and children always speak the truth."
"The devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith never seized by doubt."
Adso, who believes that "There is nothing more wonderful than a list," lengthily lists infernal animals (manticores, vultures, octopi, incubi, etc.), rascals (cardsharps, tatterdemalions, false paralytics, pardoners, etc.), relics (lace from the Virgin Mary's wedding dress, a portion of the crown of thorns, a shred of the table cloth from the last supper, a piece of the manna that fell from heaven, etc.), and more. The lists pleasurably express William's belief that "the beauty of the cosmos derives not only from unity in variety, but also from variety in unity."
The novel is often quite funny, as when a lovesick Adso reads various erudite texts about his condition: "How can a young monk be healed of love?"
Sean Barrett reads the chronicle, Nicholas Rowe the preface, and Neville Jason the chapter titles and headings. All three are excellent. Barrett has the perfect voice for this kind of book, sensitive, scratchy, and flexible. He's particularly good with senile, holy, or evil old men, scary inquisitors, wise, humble, and humane men (like William), and innocent, easily inspired or crushed young men (like Adso). His Salvatore, the ex-vagabond monk who speaks the language of Babel, is inspired. The only drawbacks of the audiobook are that it lacks the useful map of the abbey provided in the physical book, and if you don't know Latin (like me) you might at times feel left out without the printed text to aid you.
People who want to read an expeditious history or a tight mystery might mutter, "Adso, get on with the story already!" But patient readers interested in fourteenth-century Europe and the history of the Church and open to the pleasures of words, images, signs, lists, and ideas, must enjoy this book. It made me slow down to savor everything and to delay the end for as long as possible.
The first chapter of Charles de Lint's Memory and Dream (1994), one of his many urban fantasy works set in the big fictional city of Newford, consists of a magical description of a painting in which a woman is reading a glowing book, while around her hover or perch myriad fairy-like figures. Are they real? "Or perhaps they are shadows only, and the summer's night that lies outside her window belongs not to memory, but to dream?"
The story itself begins with the great opening line of the second chapter: "Catharine Mulley had been dead five years and two months the morning Isabelle received the letter from her." Isabelle Copley is an artist of abstract paintings inspired by cityscapes, though she is seemingly living alone on wild Wren Island. She has much buried traumatic unfinished past business involving Cathy and their former mutual friend, the small literary local press editor Alan Grant, as well as her former Jekyll and Hyde "troll" of a genius artist teacher, Vincent Rushkin, her enigmatic Native American ex-boyfriend John Sweetgrass, and a fire that ended a lot of things. Cathy's letter, which she sent two days before her death by cancer, has arrived with a key to a locker in the Newford bus station. The letter and key, along with Alan's request for Isabelle to illustrate an omnibus collection of Cathy's urban faerie stories, set in motion a chain of events that thrust the artist into "the untidy tangle of dreams and memories." Into that story in the present of the early 1990s, de Lint suspensefully works the past story of the traumatic events in the 1970s that cut Isabelle off from Alan and Rushkin and John.
The first two thirds of the novel caught me. The conceit of the book, that a select number of gifted artists are able to paint into our world benign or malignant "numena" (spirits) who cannot bleed or dream but are real nonetheless, is fresh, the relationships between Isabelle and Cathy, Rushkin, and John are compelling, the mystery behind the fire that changed everything is potent, the revelations stun, and the speech and actions of the characters (though often irritating) feel right. Too, the themes about student-mentor and victim-abuser relationships, love, the impossibility of knowing what another person is thinking, the presence or absence of magic in the everyday world, the nature of being real and being human, and the roles of technique, talent, inspiration, passion, and responsibility in artistic creation, are all passionately treated. Throughout, de Lint sprinkles numinous descriptions, as when Alan thinks an underdressed gamine who visits him at night was "a vivid dream, the kind that seems so real it's like a memory," as well as moments of epiphany in which suddenly everything changes and anything becomes possible: "It was as though the carpet underfoot had suddenly dropped a few inches, settling like an elevator at a new floor." There are quietly moving scenes, too, as when Alan tells Isabelle that he thought that she had modeled all her female figures in paintings on Cathy.
Approaching and enduring the climax in the last third of the novel, however, de Lint tries too hard to generate suspense by writing too many manipulative cliffhanger point of view shifts and scene changes, even to the extent of abusing his neat numena concept, all of which decreases suspense and increases critical awareness. For in the last part of the novel his writing loses authenticity. The worst cases involve supporting characters whose points of view are excrescent, like Detective Davis, who talks like a sheriff or cop on a soon to be canceled TV show: "The only reason I'm going along with you is because I know you folks are straight shooters, but if you're dicking me around we're going to be playing twenty questions down at the precinct. Take that as a serious promise, lady." Necessary supporting characters like Marisa perform abrupt changes from irritating skepticism and weakness ("We're talking real life, not fairy tales") to unbelievable belief and strength ("Alan . . . For god's sake, go to her"). And while de Lint is excellent at getting in the heads of artist types, especially when depicting their theories and processes of creation, not to mention their non-action-hero qualities (as when Alan feebly picks up a rusty tire iron without knowing what to do with it), his main characters lose plausibility when pushed too far (nearly to absurdity), as when Alan feels "a savagery he hadn't known he possessed" or Isabelle dives at a monster. Action scenes yank de Lint out of his comfort zone, reflected by the fact that most of the bad lines and unconvincing things happen in the latter third of the novel, as when some teen gang members, sporting hoodies and spouting "homeys," make a cameo appearance rendered unnecessary by subsequent events.
Kate Reading reads the novel with her usual flavor, clarity, and sensitivity, doing fine with female and male characters alike--apart from some uncomfortable moments as with Detective Davis and the "gangbangers."
Be all that as it may, Memory and Dream is often rich and moving, often a heady pleasure. If you are interested in the mental and emotional and physical workings of artists and writers et al, as well as in socio-political matters like child abuse, gender, class, poverty, and charity, all mixed in a modern city in which magic lies just around the corner, this book would probably work for you.
Marc Morris' The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England (2012) is an absorbing book, demonstrating how the "new set of [Norman] attitudes and morals, which impinged on everything from warfare to politics to religion to law, . . . altered what it meant to be English." Morris begins with a concise overview of Anglo-Saxon history in England and of Norman history in Normandy up to the time of the conquest, introducing key cultural factors (including English ships, earls, and political murders, Norman castles, counts, and religious reforms, and chaotic succession conflicts in both lands) and figures (including AEthelred the Ill-Advised, King Canute, Emma, wife to both kings, Earl Godwine, Edward the Confessor, Robert Duke of Normandy, and his son William the Bastard). Morris sets up the context of William's conquest (including fraught matters like whether Edward had really named him his heir and whether Harold had really later confirmed it), then depicts the famous battle (including fraught matters like whether the Normans fled in route or in ruse, pulling the English out of their impregnable shield wall to chase them, and whether Harold was killed by a chance arrow to the eye or hacked apart by a death squad). He then covers the aftermath of the battle, when William struggled to solidify and legitimize his reign in the face of numerous rebellions and invasions, and the aftermath of the conquest, balancing the positive actions and effects of Norman rule (the end of the slave trade and political murder system and the dawn of a new age of architecture, etc.) with the negative ones (the removal of the "middle class," the Harrying of the North, and the consolidation of land in the hands of a small and powerful aristocracy, etc.). Finally, although the Anglo-Saxon tree of England fell, its deep roots never died, and the tree survived by becoming a hybrid with rising Anglo-Norman sap, as exemplified by modern English.
Throughout, Morris is open about the many insoluble questions caused by the limited, compromised, contradictory, and biased sources (one of which is "a horrendous Frankenstein's monster of a text, stitched together from bits and pieces of other chronicles, wrenched from their original texts"). Indeed, his book is nearly as much about the writing as the making of history, for he effectively works into it his historical sources, letting us know where the old quasi-historians were coming from when they wrote their chronicles. He does interesting things with the Bayeux Tapestry, more a long embroidered picture book than a tapestry, positing a likely candidate for its commission, marveling at its miraculous survival through the centuries, demonstrating the ambiguity of its images and words, and using it to supplement information from other sources. In short, he discloses the biases and limitations of each of his sources, sets them up against one another, and explains why one version is more likely than another, or how we may usefully combine two versions to get a composite "truth," and so on, as when he concludes a "debate" with the following sharp comment: "For once, William of Poitiers appears to have given us the unvarnished truth."
The book is never dull. Everywhere Morris conveys his enthusiasm for his material: "Against such nonsense we also have the magnificent testimony of the Bayeux Tapestry, almost certainly commissioned by Odo himself, which shows the bellicose bishop charging into battle on a black horse, rallying the Normans at the crucial moment. Whatever reservations others may have had about his behaviour, Odo clearly had no problems with the dual nature of his role."
Morris' chapters on the post-battle era of painful adjustment, as Normans steadily replaced Anglo-Saxons in nearly all positions of power, tried to reshape English culture in their own Norman image, replaced English with Latin as the language for official documents, and officially recognized their radical redistribution of land via the Domesday Book, are fascinating. And throughout Morris sprinkles "juicy bits," information that illuminates and stimulates, like the nickname William gave his eldest son Robert (with whom he literally came to blows in internecine battles for Normandy), translated into English as "Shorty-Pants." And like William's funeral, when his body was so fat and bloated that as it was being jammed into his stone sarcophagus, his bowels burst, and "No amount of frankincense and spices could hide the resultant stench, and the clergy therefore raced through the rest of the funeral rite before rushing back to their houses." Ah, indeed, as William's biographer Orderic Vitalis put it, "death deals with rich and poor alike."
About the reader, Frazer Douglas, I do sympathize with the reviewer who gave him two stars and said, "He has a pleasing enough voice but he reads the entire book in the same monotone sing-song." Douglas does tend to insert his own brief pauses so as to emphasize certain words, nearly making a rhythm that's not always in Morris' text: "Our [brief pause] first instinct might be to [brief pause] believe [brief pause] Poitiers." But once you get used to his manner, he's quite pleasing to listen to, and I really like his reading of quotations from Morris' old sources, because he enjoys imbuing the old historians with a dusty and biased enthusiasm, as when he reads this line from The Life of King Edward: "He lived in the squalor of the world like an angel."
Finally, Morris' material is of such great interest and is so tightly and spicily written that I bet that most people interested in the history of England and France would enjoy his book.
It is 1871, and twenty-eight-year-old Jane Withersteen has been single-handedly managing the extensive ranch lands, massive herds of cattle and horses, and vital water supply, Amber Spring, her father left her when he died by the village he founded, Cottonwoods, the remotest Mormon border settlement in southern Utah. Due to an “invasion of Gentile settlers and forays of rustlers,” the Mormon communities have become more aggressive and “hard” towards the non-Mormons. "Mormon-born" Jane "was a friend to poor and unfortunate Gentiles" and "wished only to go on doing good and being happy" on her beloved ranch, but in the beginning of the novel Elder Tull, lusting after Jane's beautiful person and rich land and wanting to add her to his harem of wives, has his men punish Bern Venters, a young Gentile rider (cowboy) with whom she is rumored to have formed an engagement. To make Jane see Mormon reason, Tull is about to have his men whip Venters to within an inch of his life and dump him in the wastelands, when her prayer for providential intervention is answered by the timely arrival of Lassiter, the infamous, black-clad Mormon killer.
Can Jane stand strong against the increasingly underhanded efforts of Tull and company to break her and make her obey her church's male leaders ("There'll be a way to teach you what you've never learned")? What will happen to the impossible relationship between Jane and Venters? For what dread purpose has Lassiter come to Cottonwoods? Will Jane be able to seduce his big black guns from him in her quest for peace and love for all men? Can she be true to herself and her heart without being false to her religion and her church? Why does she almost never think or talk about her father? Just what, if any, relationship obtains between the infamous cattle rustling Oldring gang and the Mormon men? And what is the identity of Oldring's lieutenant, the fell Masked Rider?
The novel is better written than the pulp fare I expected. Grey has a good eye and ear for prose. He writes sublime descriptions of glorious sunrises and sunsets in the sage-clad prairies, an Edenic hidden valley, a terrifying storm, a suspenseful horse chase. His characters move through vivid and majestic landscapes: "The sage about him was breast-high to his horse, oversweet with its warm, fragrant breath, gray where it waved to the light, darker where the wind left it still, and beyond the wonderful haze-purple lent by distance." And he's good at laconic cowboy speech, as when Lassiter explains what happened when a Mormon tried to draw a gun on him: "I told him he'd introduced himself sufficient, and to please move out of my vicinity." Grey vividly expresses the sublimity of time via Venters' speculations in a ruined city of ancient cliff-dwellers and dramatically condemns masculine violence via Jane's realization that "Men were blood-spillers. . . . On sea, on land, everywhere--shooting, stabbing, cursing, clashing, fighting men! Greed, power, oppression, fanaticism, love, hate, revenge, justice, freedom--for these, men killed one another." He even plays interesting narrative tricks, leading right up to exciting scenes (like a stampede or a showdown) and then building suspense by having characters recount the action they witnessed rather than showing it happen real time on screen.
For its genre and era, the novel's take on gender and race is intriguing. In the hell of the Utah border country, Jane's promotion of peace and desperate faith in her churchmen reveal her feminine "blindness," but she is, finally, a strong woman (a daughter of Vikings!). Although Bess is an unbelievably innocent girl, she is also "a supreme horseman." If Indians are not demonic villains here, it is because they are present only as 1000-year-old powdery bones and ruins and as similes describing the tracking skills of the white heroes. But although Lassiter groups Indians with children and dogs for being more able to "see things as they appear on the face" than adult whites like Jane, he also recognizes that whites "can't be any higher [than Indians] in the things for which life is lived at all…. Relationship, friendship--love."
Grey's depiction of 19th century Mormonism is less benign. His Mormon men abuse their religious authority to tyrannize their submissive women and do such devious and devilish acts to increase the power and wealth of their church (and of themselves within it) that they make notorious rustlers seem like square-dealing men.
The novel is not without flaws. At times Grey waxes, ahem, purple ("Slumbering, fading purple fire burned over the undulating sage ridges. Long streaks and bars and shafts and spears fringed the far western slope. Drifting, golden veils mingled with low, purple shadows. Colors and shades changed in slow, wondrous transformation) or overwrought ("Would all his labor and his love be for naught? Would he lose her, after all? What did the dark shadow around her portend? Did calamity lurk on that long upland trail through the sage? Why should his heart swell and throb with nameless fear?"), and the "prattle" of little Fay is atrocious ("Why don't oo marry my new mower an' be my favver?"). Despite being emotionally satisfying, the climactic last few chapters upon reflection contain much that is implausible. And Grey stage-manages things so that his heroes are superior gunslingers who only shoot morally reprehensible people who draw on them first.
The reader Mark Bramhall has appealing gravel and emotion in his voice, and all his male characters are just right, but sometimes his women (Jane and Bess) sound too tremulous and sobby (though that is also what Zane Grey's text does to them), and his little Fay is appalling (though that is also what Grey's text does to her).
Finally, Riders of the Purple Sage is absorbing, and people interested in the Western genre should try it, for it is an interesting proto-Shane, with stronger religious and romantic angles.
J. M. McDermott's Last Dragon (2008) is told by the empress Zahn Immur as she writes letters to her absent lover Esumi in which she recounts the story of the quest on which she embarked as a "violent fool" of a girl with her shaman uncle Seth, leaving their northern tundra steppe homeland for the southern island city-state Proliux, following in the footsteps of her murderer grandfather. In some ways, the book is a typical heroic fantasy genre novel: pseudo-medieval world marked by different cultures in conflict for empires; quests featuring a varied set of companions (paladin, shaman, gypsy, mercenary, golem, simpleton, warrior); hardship and trials beyond human endurance; graphic violence; master-apprentice relationships; the maturing of a youthful protagonist; and--in a way--dragons.
However, Last Dragon feels so much different from usual heroic fantasy fare that it almost belongs in its own genre. For one thing, it tweaks usual genre elements like golems, paladins, dragonslayers, and dragons. It also interestingly depicts real world things like spiders, ants, and language. Epic battles, if any, occur off-screen. Furthermore, the novel is dramatically, psychologically, and philosophically dense and bracingly short and self-contained (no 1000-page first installment in a ten-book series this!). It is also much better written than typical heroic fantasy: lovers of vivid, poetic, and spare prose would appreciate McDermott's style: "I was numb like a sleeping limb. I felt something vague rumbling underneath my skin. It was a harsh tingle like cold and death and bitter sex all at once. It left me in stillness. I held still and felt that emptiness echoing inside my own empty body." And the book is much more bleak, unsettling, and ambiguous than most heroic fantasy: Was the paladin a savior saint or a monstrous manipulator? Was the shaman a selfish murderer or a self-sacrificing leader? Was the mercenary a slave or a free man? Is the warrior destined for her culture's equivalent of heaven or for hell? What kind of victory involves such loss, grief, and guilt? Etc.
Perhaps the most atypical and challenging thing about Last Dragon is McDermott's strategy of having Zahn tell the story of her painful maturing through her youthful quests in the letters to Esumi she is writing as a white-haired, terminally ill empress. Because of her old age and the tricky nature of memory, she is not always a reliable or easy narrator to follow. As she says in the first paragraph, "My fingers are like spiders drifting over memories in my webbed brain. The husks of the dead gaze up at me, and my teeth sink in and I speak their ghosts. But it's all mixed up in my head. I can't separate lines from lines, or people from people. Everything is in this web, Esumi." Her early memories mix in a non-chronological stream of consciousness Sound and Fury way, making for provocative foreshadowing of future past scenes, as well as for multiple revisitings of key events, each time with a little more detail revealed than in the previous ones. Moreover, Zahn is recounting to Esumi the forging of their empire from before she first met him and eliding shared things he'd know about, like the death of their daughter and their forced separation. In short, to appreciate McDermott's careful crafting of his novel and to understand its plot, it helps to experience the first few chapters and then to start the book again.
One of the other neat things about Last Dragon is how the interactions between the characters on their quests reveal their different cultures and worldviews. Thus, in Almedan every creature that sings (bird, cricket, or frog) is called "bird" and there is no word for "slave," while the desert language of the mercenaries has a word for "tribe" but none for "family." Proliux people believe that you become whatever you kill, while Almedan people believe you stay the same person you always were no matter how many dead you leave behind you. Alamedans sing lullabies to babies and corpses. And McDermott writes a broken English when people try to talk to each other in foreign languages: "Hand heal, angry heal. Pride--I know not your word, but it never heal. Kill yourself your own pride, and live yourself long."
A few times the text of Last Dragon made the grammarian in me wince, as when characters who otherwise speak good grammar say, “Lay down” or “You who does not answer.” And I wonder about names in the novel. Alamedan culture has Japanese-esque names (Esumi), real world names (Seth), and fantasy-world names (Kyquil). Proliuxian culture has names from our world like Adel, Bosch, and Tycho. And if McDermott can make up names for cool concepts like the "mardar" (wind demons) of his African-esque desert-oasis people, you would think that he could make up cool names for the Proluxian proconsuls and the Alamedan senseis, skalds, and shamans.
Cori Samuel is a clear reader with an appealing British accent, but I sometimes found her rhythm and inflection to be a little monotonous.
Minor kvetching aside, I found Last Dragon to be remarkable: beautiful, terrible, funny, sad, and rich. It compellingly explores themes about memory, love, longing, duty, free will, justice, power, and communication. If you like reading a book in which the narrator says something like, "Grandfather's golem listened to us silently from his place beside the flame," and you have no idea what a golem is, how it belongs to Grandfather, why he has a place by the fire, why he listens to the others, and who they are and what they are doing, and if you enjoy finding out the answers to such questions little by little by continuing to read, you should give Last Dragon a try.
Faceless Killers (1991), Henning Mankell's first Kurt Wallander detective/police novel, opens with an aged Swedish farmer waking up in the middle of the night on January 7, 1990 trying to dismiss his feeling that something dreadful has just happened: “After all, what could happen here? In the little town of Lenarp, just north of Kade Lake, on the way to beautiful Krageholm Lake, right in the heart of Skane? Nothing ever happens here." He knows that "People like us don't have any enemies." Alas, as he soon learns, his neighbors have just been savagely attacked, the husband bashed and cut to death and the wife beaten and noosed. Who could do something like that? And why? And why did the attackers feed couple's horse before vacating the scene of the crime? And can veteran detective Kurt Wallander apprehend the criminals?
At forty-two, Wallander is not in great shape. His wife left him three months ago, his once suicidal daughter is now estranged, his demanding and resentful father is going senile, he's visited by a black woman in lonely erotic dreams, he is overweight, and he is not pretty when he drinks. The only thing that gives him pleasure (albeit mixed with melancholy) is listening to opera. For the rest of the novel, Wallander wrestles with (or ignores or exacerbates) his personal problems as he marshals his policeman techniques, colleagues, and instincts to try to solve the brutal mystery.
Mankell efficiently and compellingly fulfills the mystery-police-procedural genre requirements: brutal murders, red herrings, dead ends, epiphanies, media leaks, social problems, ineffectual government officials, unpredictable action scenes, believable supporting characters, and a flawed but good protagonist. And it feels interesting and fresh enough, perhaps partly because it takes place in Sweden, land of exotic names, bitter winters, and police who don't carry guns. Small touches in the novel hold up an interesting mirror to America, as when a policeman says about a "slaughterhouse" of a crime scene, "It was worse than you could imagine . . . Like an American movie." And through Wallander's point of view Mankell captures the dramatic and unsettling changes going on in Sweden in the 1990s: disorganized multi-ethnic refugee camps, organized nationalist neo-Nazis groups, increased drug and violent gang activity in previously quiet rural areas, and so on. At one point Wallander thinks, “A new world had emerged, and he hadn’t even noticed it. As a policeman, he still lived in another, older world. How was he going to learn to live in the new?” For "We're living in the age of the noose," a new age of senseless violence and fear.
Despite the barren and silent Swedish autumn and winter, despite moments when Wallander does something “unforgivable and dangerous,” despite moments when he thinks, “Somewhere in the dark a vast meaninglessness was beckoning. A sneering face that laughed scornfully at every attempt he made to manage his life,” the novel is not a downer. There is the appealing grim humor. The human characters. The neat lines sprinkled throughout. (E.g., “Every time he stepped into someone’s home, he felt as though he were looking at the cover of a book he’d just bought.” And “There’s no such thing as a murderer’s face.”) And, after all, Wallander is "a policeman to the core."
It is not a perfect novel. At one point, for instance, Wallander receives a call from a woman who whispers, “They’re here!” and he with unbelievable obtuseness says, “Who?” If the reader immediately knows "their" identity, surely Wallander, a veteran policeman with great instincts who's been living the case for months, would surely know it at the same time, if not first.
Sean Barrett gives a professional and appealing reading of Faceless Killers. I've listened to him read Kafka on the Shore, Waiting for Godot, and The Silver Sword, and each time he's been great. I appreciate that his women sound like people, not like a man striving to sound like women. He enhances the book. I am curious, though, why the Swedish original lasts 9+ hours, the Dick Hill read version about 9 hours, and Barrett's only about 8 hours. . .
Since the realistic contemporary detective-mystery-police-procedural is not my favorite genre, I'm unsure whether or not I'll continue the Wallander series, especially because the remaining books available are not read by Sean Barrett, but fans of that genre (especially examples set in an exotic country) should enjoy Faceless Killers.
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