Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Books Read in September

This was one crappy month for reading. Autumn has arrived in PA. The weather is cold, damp, and miserable: perfect for reading. A hot cup of coffee, a soft chair next to the radiator, and I'm back in business.

-Fables 4: March of the Wooden Soldiers, Bill Willingham, graphic novel
-Druss the Legend, David Gemmell, heroic fantasy novel, 334 pages
-Fables 5: The Mean Seasons, Bill Willingham, graphic novel
-Fables 6: Homelands, Bill Willingham, graphic novel
-Shame and Necessity, Bernard Williams, classical studies, philosophy, essays, 164 pages
-Frontier Wolf, Rosemary Sutcliff, YA historical novel, 254 pages
-Odd and the Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman, children's fantasy novel, 117 pages
-The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Susanna Clarke, fantasy short story collection, 235 pages
-Fables 7: Arabian Nights (and Days), Bill Willingham, graphic novel

Best fiction: Frontier Wolf
Best Comic/Graphic Novel: Fables 6. I will finish the series this month.
Most intriguing read: Shame and Necessity.
Biggest Disappointment: The Ladies of Grace Adieu

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Review of The Ladies of Grace Adieu, by Susanna Clarke

For a long time I wasn't a fan of short stories. I felt when I read them they were just sketches for novels and that the writer was either lazy or trying to make a quick buck. The stories I read as an English major were painfully boring and perhaps scarred me. Anyone who has ever suffered through an O Henry story knows my pain.

Over the years I did develop an appreciation and respect for several masters of the craft: Borges, Joyce, Chekov, Turgeniev. But in fantasy lit I generally wasn't interested. If the writer had a world to show me via fantasy, I didn't want a sample via a short story. I preferred a world painted on a vast canvas.

But since reading The Hedge Knight in Legends I revised my opinions on what a fantasy short story is capable of. The Hedge Knight, though brief, conveyed enough about the world of A Song of Ice and Fire that I was moved to read the whole series. Here was a story that hinted at worlds within worlds. Characters who were real portraits. Like a master painter who uses a few brushtrokes to convey a lot, GRRM conveyed much in telling detail and brought the story to a convincing conclusion. I read it in a Borders fueled by three café' mochas. After finishing the story I found all four volumes of the series and purchased them on the spot. I also purchased the copy of Legends and resolved to read more short stories.

I first read Susanna Clarke's Jonathon Strange and Mr Norell two years ago. It was a sheer delight. The copious notes, the Regency setting, and most of all the magic system swept me up. I remember it was one of the few books I actually limited the amount of pages I would read a day so I could savor the experience.

The creation of the Raven King was brilliant, as were the very human themes she explored in that book: courtship, love, war, madness, and figuring out what one is supposed to do with one's life.

When I discovered there wasn't a sequel, and there wasn't likely to be one in the near future I grew despondent. So despondent I considered rereading harry potter. I discovered he short story collection and dutifully bought it but it sat on my shelf for years. Until of course the Hedge Knight experience.

The world of the collection is the world of Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell. That is, an imaginary northern England where magic works and the fey folk are every bit as dangerous and real as cold winter. Strange even makes an appearance, as does the raven king. There are many new characters and surprising turns and events.

Overall the book did not astound me in the way the novel did. The stories were well constructed, and there were a few surprises, but for the most part I wished she had just written another novel, or expanded on a story to make a novel.

A few of the pieces are just sketches and would not be served in a longer format: The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse, Anticks and Frets, and John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner. In these cases she is clearly imitating fable form, and keeps her narrative compressed. No long witty laugh out loud drawing room conversations or extended narratives concering the internal lives of characters, both of which I felt were the strong features of the novel. She can set up a drawing room and map out it conversational progressions and all the while still make you feel surprise at the turns, twists and revelations. But in these stories I felt she was contributing to the mythology of the world she was creating. It was a feeling much like reading the appendices of the Lord of the Rings(but written SO much better), she was filling in the corners of her world.

The longer stories, though, seemed to be incomplete or rushed. I thought Mrs Mabb, Mr Simonelli, and Tom Brightwind each could have benefitted from a longer treatment. Tom Brightwind especially seems trapped between the compressed narrative of fable, and the narrative format of a novel in which events unfold and are followed. Mr Simonelli is the strongest story in the book, filled with twists and turns similar to the novel but the main character was not described in enough detail. His history, ancestry, and how he came to be in that place and that time were all touched upon, but I had the sense there was more she could have done. His career at Cambridge, his history, his life as scholar and the other lives he touched while there. I felt that was one of the big let downs of the book. Here was a character as interesting as Strange yet at the end of the story I felt I hardly knew him.

All in all I enjoyed the book because I enjoyed the novel. But if her task was to somehow make a form that was an intersection between fable and a modern style narrative(which she does do brilliantly in Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell) then I don’t think she succeeded. The longer stories that were concerned with manners and morals seemed hindered by the fable like elements she tried to interweave in them. The stories that were simply fables and had here and there a touch of the drawing room she was more successful with.

Still, I'd recommend the book for the pleasure of the company of the characters.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review of Frontier Wolf, by Rosemary Sutcliff

I like to keep reading rituals.

One of them is every year on or around my birthday(september 17) I read or reread a novel by Rosemary Sutcliff.

Sutcliff was a writer of YA historical novels mostly set in Roman Occupied England, or right before. What distinguishes her novels is not so much the amount of historical detail that she manages to convey without being tiresome, as the tribal/mythic/mindset of the characters in that mieliu.

Frontier Wolf is the story of a Roman commanding officer, Alexios, of mixed heritage(Greek, Italian, and native British stock) who has through family influence achieved a high ranking post in Germania defending the frontier. In the first section of the book Alexios makes several judgemental errors that cause his men and fort to be wiped out by attacking barbarians, with only a handful surviving. Through family connections he is spared execution, but is also cast out by his family. As punishment he is sent to the Antonine Wall(north of Hadrian's wall and not so well defended) to preside over a group of auxiliary cavalry scouts known as the Frontier Wolves.

They are a rough group. Recrited from native tribal stock as well as Roman soldiers throughout the empire they have a history of killing off whatever commanders they don't like. The wolves also have their own traditions and rituals and Alexios, cosmopolitan Roman that he is, at first looks down upon such barbarism, but later comes to appreciate and share in their love for the worldview and its connection to the land.

He grows to see the tribesmen as defenders of their land and customs and also participates in their rituals. The rituals are the most fascinating aspects of the book. Sutcliff has done her homework and writes about tribal customs in such a way that the reader is taken in and made to feel they are participating. At the end of one ritual I recalled thinking that made perfect sense, but how in the hell would you recreate that in today's world. What experience could you possibly have that would reaffirm your belief in the stability of the cosmos and the unification of all things.

She does the job of putting a reader in touch with the ancient world. Or, to steal a Wallace Stevens phrase: "An ancient thought touching a modern mind." And when I say that she incorporates the tribal I mean the tribal. There are sacrifices, it gets pagan. She doesn't shy away from the bloody. It was a violent dangerous era and the characters all live it.

But the use of Alexios as an outsider who learns to love the strange yet familiar world was a brilliant narrative technique. Alexios is Roman through and through. Though he was born in the south, near Londinium, he is an alien in that northern land. A wonderful detail Sutcliff uses is how she describes his olive skin as standing out against the pale skins of tribesmen at a feast. But the Romans are not irreligious. They have their own customs and beliefs. Alexios daily sacrifices to Mithras in an underground temple(and this is a YA book, how freaking cool is that?).

When I first read Sutcliff's novels I was jarred by the tribal practices on both sides. The Romans, obsessed as they were with order, were every bit as superstitious as the barbarians they conquered. It was this side by side pairing of reason and myth that so moved me. Being an American and good student of the age of enlightenment I assumed the two were incompatible. But the more I read on the subject the more I realized that she had really captured the worldview of both sides.

The reason I read or reread her books once a year: Her books are very much about rebirth. Very much about personal loss, surviving it, and finding wholeness again. Granted there is something of the Four Feathers going on in Frontier Wolf, but the same basic themes dominate in all the books: surviving tragedy, the need for belonging and the place of ritual and myth in life.

Friday, September 11, 2009

On Bitchness

I've wanted to write this one for a while. However, you don’t just wake up one day and decide to elaborate on the likes of Neil Gaiman. On the other hand after much thought and anxiety I decided it might not be a bad thing to fill in one of the corners on this discussion.

The title of this blog of course refers to the now famous post Gaiman put up in response to a fan's whining about how he wished GRRM would just hurry the hell up and finish Dance and the rest of ASOIAF. He was tired of waiting and couldn't understand why Martin was being so lazy.

Gaiman's response was the now famous "GRRM is not your bitch." In essence he said he didn’t sign a contract with you personally to write the rest of the series so that it would be available at your convenience. He is producing art and that takes time. Get a life, read another author, reread the series but do something other than complain. He hasn’t let anyone down. He hasn’t violated any contracts. He is trying to make the work the best he can.

After reading the initial post I agreed and I still do. Some fans try and translate the consumer culture out there to the world of books. Afraid it doesn't work that way. Liking an authors work is a compliment but expecting them to produce on demand is another thing entirely. That is expecting someone to be your bitch. And it is wrong. Anyone who has ever tried to write seriously knows just how hard it is to produce day after day after day. Salute George R R Martin for continuing to work in the face of such misunderstanding. He has been described as an incredibly nice man. I'm sure that is true, and furthermore I am sure he would have to be in the face of fans that think that writing novels is a form of pay per view.

But there is an aspect to the discussion I have wanted to address. Gaiman touched on it when he said "Hope that the author is writing the book you want to read, and not dying, or something equally as dramatic."

And of course I thought of Robert Jordan. As I believe that was Gaiman's intent.

As I understood it Gaiman's message was that if the writer is dying and can't write the book you want then think about how bad it is for him as a human being. Don't selfishly think about how bad its going to be for you because you can't read the rest of the series.

But when Robert Jordan died I did think about the series, as did his legions of fans. I remember feeling the loss of the individual, though I did not know him. Everything I read pointed to how devoted he was to his family and friends. And the private loss of those people I could empathize with though I could not share because I had not known him in that capacity. I had lost loved ones to cancer and could empathize with what the family went through. His death saddened me and I did pray for them.

But what authors do is a tricky thing. Through their writings they can make you feel as if you know the people in their books as well as you've known any individual in the "real" world. In a sense when Robert Jordan died he took a lot of "people" with him. Characters in a book yes. Not real people yes. But still something that we as readers and fans have invested time and energy in. And as Freud said anything one invests time and energy in, whether professionally or as a hobby, becomes a "loved object." The loss of a the loved object triggers psychological responses. Some of them very deep.

Look at the behavior of individuals who have lost something they have invested time and energy in: a kind of depression and sadness sets in that through time the individual works through. And so becomes stronger for the next time.

Many of my generation, when we started reading Jordan, had cut our teeth on the lord of the rings, the shannarra books, the Earthsea and Narnia series, and others. Most of them complete by the time we read them. The sheer scope of Jordan's project both thrilled and amazed us. "Twelve books! R U Serious!" is what I remember emailing a friend. I remember once in a journal entry where I marked off where I was when each book came out. The completion of such a project in all its infinite complexity was something we eagerly awaited. One of those moments we all wanted to stand around together and say we were here when he did it. We followed along, and watched. An "I was there " moment.

And now we wont have it. We will have Brandon Sanderson's completion of it.

Brandon Sanderson, a writer I genuinely admire and whose career I have eagerly followed since Elantris(for sheer magic systems, he is hard to top, as well as pacing and characterizations, the fight scenes in the mistborn series are like a matrix movie fight for the mind's eye, I hope somone films them someday), is more than capable of finishing the series. I am going to buy the books when they come out, devour them and enjoy the hell out of myself in sheer thankfulness that we have them. I am entirely certain that Sanderson will follow the notes and instructions Jordan left behind, and will complete Jordan's vision of the series.

What I will also be thinking is it’s a shame the author couldn't be the one to have completed it. Some would say that we will have the author's book. Sanderson is writing as Jordan would have.

There's the rub. He is, but he isn't.

He's completing Jordan's outline and descriptions. He is finishing the book as the author originally imagined it and left instructions for its completion. But it isn't Jordan completing the book, and that is a difference. Not better, or worse, but it would have been good to see the final book and say, this is the author's complete work.

Some fans are greedy and just want to be entertained. Most of us though genuinely feel that anxiety that an author may not stick around to complete the works we enjoy and admire them for. That latter feeling, that anxiety is natural and a sign of how well the author has done his/her job. We have our own lives: if the work isn't completed we will move on and do other things, read other books, live our lives. But there will be a sense of loss there. Not personal, but a sense of loss nonetheless.

That is why sometimes I find myself thinking come on George get on with it, even though I know I'm not being fair, or understanding. I know art can't be rushed but still, part of me inside is chewing my fingernails. I'm not being a crass consumer, I would just rather not lose another thing I've invested time and energy in. And I think that is the way some fans feel. Its not bitchness, its an anxiety.

As Chaucer said "The life so short, the arte so long to learne." All authors are working against the clock. There is never enough time to finish, make the book as good as you want it. As fans I think the majority of us understand that. But we would hate to lose that sense of completion also.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

New book in the mail

I know, its not exactly speculative fiction. But I will be reading this off and on for the next few weeks. I feel like I owe a debt to football and its kind of a shame I never understood or followed it: family legend has it my great grandfather played for the Pottsville Maroons, and my dad was an all state fullback(though not athletic I took up powerlifting so my dad wouldn't have to hide at family reunions). I should at least learn and learn to appreciate the game. And in a way it will remind me of my dad, who I do miss.

Besides, now I'll understand what GRRM is talking about on his blog.

Now that I think about it, my dad's favorite team was the Giants too. Hm. If I ever am fortunate enough to meet GRRM at least I can open with something that may not bore him.

As far as favorite team: the Bills. I dont know about T.O. but the happiest I've ever been has been when I lived upstate. Besides, I like underdogs and almost rans.

Friday, September 4, 2009

My Life As Literature

This one has been appearing all over the blogosphere so I thought I'd chime in(as I have nothing better to do right now). The idea is to answer the question only with the books you have read so far this year.

Describe Yourself: A Feast for Crows

How do you feel: The Burning Man

Describe where you currently live: The Graveyard Book

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Ysabel

Your favorite form of transportation: Old Man's War

Your best friend is: The Silent Blade

You and your friends are: The Black Company

What’s the weather like: Mistborn

Favorite time of day: Passage to Dawn

If your life was a: Well of Ascension

What is life to you: Last Argument of Kings

Your fear: Batman: Arkham Asylum

What is the best advice you have to give: The Lie that Tells a Truth

Thought for the Day: Shadows Linger

How I would like to die: Before they are Hanged

My soul’s present condition: The Blade Itself

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Books Read August 09

-Fables 1: Legends in Exile, Bill Willingham, graphic novel

-Foundling, D M Cornish, YA fantasy novel

-Fables 2: Animal Farm, Bill Willingham, graphic novel

-The Magicians, Lev Grossman, fantasy novel

-Old Man's War, John Scalzi, science fiction novel

-Fables 3: Storybook Love, Bill Willingham, graphic novel

-Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, Bill Willingham, graphic novel

-"New Spring," in Legends, by Robert Jordan, fantasy short novel

-"Dragonfly", in Legends, by Ursula K. Leguin, fantasy short novel

-"The Burning Man" , in Legends, by Tad Williams, fantasy short novel

Thanks to the Adventures in Reading blog for clueing me into Fables. By far the best graphic novel series I've read in a long time. Best book of the month: can't really say. Both Old Man's War and The Magicians were exceptionally good. Most dissapointing was Foundling. Started out with great ideas but the writing felt lacking. He created this complicated intriguing world but it felt like we were ushered through rather hurriedly instead of being allowed to explore. Sometimes info dumping is ok in fantasy novel. Legends was a bolt from the blue: now I have to go get all the Earthsea and Memory Sorrow and Thorn books. Jordan I've already read up to book ten where I stalled out. Scheduled for September: Winterbirth, Best Served Cold, The Stranger and parts 4,5 and 6 of Fables. I dont think I'm going to review Fables until I at least get to at least the half way point, say after book six.
Good month. New work schedule allows for more reading time. Having a four day workweek is doing wonders for my intellectual aspirations.