Wednesday, August 29, 2012

100 Books #81 - Chuck Wendig's MOCKINGBIRD

Sometimes, I think Chuck Wendig has been spying on my own inner dialogue as I scowl and huff and sigh my way through my meatspace life. Yes, my little chickadees, it's true: Miriam Black's outside voice sounds a lot like my inside voice. And I bet I'm not alone.

I really, really loved Wendig's first Miriam Black novel, Blackbirds in all of it's cursing, seedy, desperate glory. I've been sort of obsessively peeking at my inbox lately that I might pounce the second September's drop of Angry Robot eBook goodness was available to load onto my gadgets. And, probably because of WorldCon, those books dropped early. Hooray for WorldCon (which I didn't think I'd be saying since I can't be there)!

This second installment picks off perhaps a year after the events of Blackbirds. Miriam is trying to do the Ruby in Paradise thing (except on the Jersey Shore instead of in Florida) and failing spectacularly. She and her trucker sweetheart/frienemy share an Airstream in a seriously crappy trailer park near the the tourist dustcatcher store where she works selling "tampons and hermit crabs" and he's gone a lot on runs. And one day, as you know it will, this hard-won bit of flimsy white trash happiness (?) goes all to hell. And the "batshit highway witch" is set loose on the world again. Hooray!

This time her secret, that physical contact with another person shows her the exact manner and time of that person's death, is less of a secret: a malign supernatural entity she has named the Tresspasser that mocked and threatened her in interludes in Blackbirds is back, her trucker friend knows, and so do select people that he decides to tell, people who would pay good money to learn what Miriam can tell them.

It all seems so innocuous at first, but this is Chuck Wendig, who loves to torment his most famous creation to date, and who might just appear to have a bone or two to pick with a certain fringe element of a certain political party that has been accused of waging a war on a certain gender. Think Red State meets every shocksploitation bad girls in prison/school film ever made. But with psychic powers.

Yeah, it gets pretty icky and uncomfortable, and may just warrant a trigger warning. But don't let that stop you unless it's really, really, really a problem for you, because it would cause you to miss out on some quality stuff. Wendig can freaking write, delivering a potent mix of philosophical speculations on free will versus destiny, backbred inwoods shenanigans, kickass action, and moments of surprising tenderness that last just long enough for the reader to catch her breath before plunging back into the ick. Knowing full well that the plunge is what she wants, because what happens neeeeeeeext?!?

There is also one of the most effective red herring gotchas I've encountered in a book in a long time. Well done.

My only complaint about Mockingbird is not really the fault of the author or the book solely, but I still have it: with all of the amazing poetry out there (and there is a lot, just ask me about it sometime), why do genre novelists always have to quote from, if not build a whole book around, the same poem all the time? I'm talking, of course, about T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland". Yes, it's a fine poem, allusive and elusive, full of portentous lines and strangeness and passages that make you shiver. But so are lots and lots and lots of other poems. And no, I'm not talking about Yeats' "Second Coming" either (and yeah, that gets a nod, as does Poe's "The Raven" though the latter gets not so much a nod as a dig-in-your-ribs, whistle and point. Because the birds are a motif, dontcha know). That's possibly even more overused. Fictioneers, if  you want to show off your erudition, or just lend depth to  your work, find something new to quote from, would you? Like, say, Hart Crane? Check out some Hart Crane. And he didn't even muck around with free verse. Just a thought.

OK, rant over. But think about it, okay? And you, dear readers go read some poetry. Or at least, if you're not offended by cascading waterfalls of profanity, go look Chuck Wendig's book trailer (of sorts) for these books can be found here at his blog. He's taken all of the hilarious profanity from Blackbirds and Mockingbird and turned them into a sort of poetry recitation of his very own. Because he could.

And you know what else he could do? Write another Miriam Black novel or two. Ahem.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

100 Books #80 - Chris F. Holm's DEAD HARVEST

Stop me if you've heard this one. Boy meets girl. Boy tries to collect girl's soul for the Devil. Boy can't collect girl's soul because girl is blindingly pure (and a hottie). Boy chucks his assignment and steals girl away to try to protect her from all the Hell (and Heaven) that's about to break loose.

Yeah, I didn't think so. And I haven't even gotten to the really novel pleasures this book has to offer. Like the slapstick horror potential of a reanimated cadaver trying to escape Bellvue hospital with an unconscious teenager who all but made the Most Wanted list before blacking out. Like pieces of an ubiquitous lucky money cat being wielded as a powerful supernatural weapon. Like a hero who can possess any body he chooses but tends to choose newly dead ones because fighting off the soul of a living body is a huge hassle.

Some of these elements are used to better effect than others, but even if underexploited, they come together into a seamlessly enjoyable whole due to a strong crime noir-flavored plot and a weirdly engaging hero, our man Sam, who was originally an unemployed nebbish on Staten Island in 1944 but who made the wrong deal with the wrong people. His past, alluded to in carefully placed vignettes throughout the story, strongly colors his reactions to his present, as is strikingly reflected in the book's amazing cover art (even if you have your AdBlockers turned on and don't usually see my Amazon Affiliate links that I place at the beginning of these posts, shut 'em off for a second and make with the clicky and bask in the perfection of yet another amazing Angry Robot Books cover design. The book looks just like a mass market paperback did back in Sam's original day, when mass market paperbacks were the new and terrible Thing That Was Going To Destroy Publishing. It's brilliant!), as his mission brings him back to his old original haunts over 60 years since he himself was Collected.

The plot itself is interesting enough, but what I really found fascinating was the way Holm depicts Sam's experiences. A first person narrator, Sam loads his account of himself with sensations as experienced through his varied host bodies, relying on the superb physical fitness and muscle memory of one, on the suave good looks and body language of another. It makes the storytelling quite visceral and alive. I go back and forth on one niggling point, though: how often Sam should have been allowed to get away with calling it his own heartbeat, pulse, breath, blush response, versus calling it that of his host body. Sometimes he does one, sometimes another, and I'm not sure if this is meant to be taken as a way of tracking how deeply he is immersed in the experiences of a body, or if it's just something the narrator-writer slips to out of habit and narrative convention. This distracted me sometimes and yanked me out of that happy reading trance you guys know I like, but at least this time I was being yanked out by something interesting rather than a lot of verbal tics and typos (though I think Sam released a breath he didn't know he was holding a few too many times; ditto with setting fire to a cigarette instead of smoking one...).

At any rate, it was infinitely preferable than, say, Stephen King's version of possession as depicted quite a lot in The Drawing of the Three, in which a host body is pretty much just treated as a robot-cum-walking database after a token brief struggle.

And but so, here's the thing. I was not originally prepared to like this book very much, because it's pretty obvious from the early blurbs that Sam's decision to run away with the girl is likely to trigger all out war between Heaven and Hell, which really hasn't ever been my thing. For example, I only went to see that damned movie Legion because I love Paul Bettany, and boy was that a waste of my ticket money and his talent. Dogma is my least favorite Kevin Smith film. Et cetera. Plus I couldn't figure out the relationship of that neato vintage cover to what was pretty obviously a modern urban fantasy. So yeah, I fully intended to read it at some point, because Angry Robot has yet to truly let me down, but it never, you know, leaped out at me and said Read Me, Read Me Now... until my friend EssJay (yes, I know, we're like brainlocked or something. Hush) got her hands on it and devoured it and flagged down Angry Robot for an advance review copy of its sequel, The Wrong Goodbye, and gushed about that even more. And finally Dead Harvest started doing the Read Me Now Hula.

I'm very glad it did. It's a perfect example of what Angry Robot seems to be better than anybody at finding: a genre fusion that will please fans of any/all of the genres it's mashing up. There's a nice heroic protection/rescue plot (though sometimes it's a real question of who is rescuing/protecting whom; the young girl, Kate, is plenty resourceful and feisty all on her own), with plenty of exciting action scenes*; there are plenty of crime/noir elements; there is the much-mentioned War Between Heaven and Hell. There are shades of what I still consider Piers Anthony's finest book, On a Pale Horse -- but only of the good elements thereof.

It could all have gotten very, very corny, but it didn't. Though sometimes it came close:

He was a mountain of a cop, with dark deep-set eyes peering outward from a fleshy face, the features of which were twisted into an angry frown around a mustache the size of a small woodland creature. His barrel chest strained the button of his uniform blues as he approached, nightstick in hand... When he gave my bum leg a good thwack, I made my move. And by made my move, I mean fell down.

Hee hee. So you can kind of see this is also often a very funny book. But not long after one laughs, one cringes. Sam is as attuned to the moral crises as the physical sensations he and his fellows experience while possessing unwilling "vessels", and Holm makes sure that we feel them, too. Yikes.

At bottom, Dead Harvest is a perfectly fine whodunnit in the classic mode. It's just the howdunnit and whydunnit that are so very, very strange. And I like that.

I'm looking forward to the sequel.

*Especially an OMG sequence on board a hijacked helicopter, which, OMG.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

100 Books #79 - Stephen King's THE WASTE LANDS

More Dark Tower? Well, why not. I've got lots of other wonderful books on deck to take me into autumn and beyond, as well as lots of writing projects, but wondering what was going to happen next in this series (or, more accurately, still looking for what it is that has inspired such passionate devotion among so many of my friends) kept nagging at me. There are two ways to deal with something like this: bring all your force of will and energy to bear on shutting up the nagging, or just go with the flow and give in.

I gave in. I just wanted to know what this weird trio King has ginned up, a half-deranged gunslinger who has been tricked into tipping himself a little further towards all-deranged, an ex-junkie who is maybe poised to become a Big Damn Hero, and a crippled former schizophrenic who has decided to call herself the BDH's wife (and is herself possessed of plenty of BDH qualities), were going to do now that they're a team.

Well, first of all, they're going to travel some more. Big surprise. I can sort of picture Randall doing an impersonation of this trio similar to his impression of the plot of the Lord of the Rings in Clerks 2 (warning: f-bombs, which, duh, Clerks).*

And tell me he isn't right? A lot of both Lord of the Rings and this series so far has been walking. Dark Tower less so, though. Walking and shooting and taking over people's bodies by means of weird stand-alone hoodoo doors in the sand, let's say. But mostly walking.

But on their travels, ah, on their travels, such wonders do they encounter. Like Shardik, a seventy foot tall robot bear with a satellite dish sticking out of his head, who sneezes parasites and sets ex-junkie Eddie to wondering why the hell he's suddenly thinking of talking rabbits (the answer is, of course, Richard Adams). Two-headed bison grazing on the outskirts of an ailing town. Billy bumblers, which are sort of like badgers and sort of like mockingbirds and sort of like dachsunds. Melanin-deprived white bees bumbling around and building a deformed hive in a tree. And those are just the strange animals.

As an interlude, we also get to spend some time with Jake, an 11-year-old boy in the "real" world, specifically New York City in 1977, who is going mad for pretty much the same reason gunslinger Roland is. They met in the first novel, Jake and Roland, in unforgettable and haunting circumstances. Then in the second novel, Roland was tricked into preventing their meeting from ever happening; time travel is tricky that way. But now both are tormented by dual consciousnesses, sure on the one hand that they met and parted tragically, equally sure on the other that their story together never happened. Roland both has and does not have Jake on his conscience; Jake is Schroedinger's Kid.

And once the full team is at last gathered (I wonder how many times I'll say that through these seven or either novels? Because oh yes, one of the billy bumblers, rejoicing in the name of Oy, becomes a member of the party, too), which takes half the book, things stall out for a little while but then get going as the ka-tet** discovers the Beam, basically a ley line that will lead them straight to the Dark Tower if they keep on following it, and find themselves faced with one whopper of an obstacle: a giant city, which Roland calls Lud, that may or may not be deserted. The sound of drums rumbling in a specific rock'n'roll backbeat rhythm every night strongly suggests that it is not deserted, as do the rumors of war helpfully imparted by a village of very old people. And how can I not think of Ballard's High Rise here, with its characters' descent into madness and violence enacted almost exclusively at night? Ho ho!

But from there it all kind of devolves into a bog-standard post-apocalyptic obstacle course through the ruined city, dodging a murderous band here, discovering the "real world" history behind a "Roland world" ritual there, with a sideline in rescuing. I won't lie: I yawned a bit. But that might just be because I stayed up too late reading. Again. Because, fortunately, as the rescue plot spun out, so did a puzzle plot, one that felt straight out of a Benoit Sokal game. And I love Benoit Sokal games, you guys. Love.

Only, you know, instead of finding a way to drive off the birds and solve all the other puzzles in order to get the train going like Kate in Syberia, Eddie and Susannah have to feed riddles to their malevolent pink train to keep it from electrocuting them to death.

Bonus points to King for mathiness there, by the way.

As always, though, it's Roland who makes the novel. A lot of the time, when I read Stephen King, my mind drifts off into a sort of speculation along the lines of how much it would suck to be a King character, goaded along mercilessly to serve the demands of the plot, haunted even in sleep by the remorseless and unavoidable promptings of his or her god, who is, of course, King himself. I am always at least half-conscious of the strings attached, can look above the stage and watch King yanking at them gleefully. It's all part of the fun of reading him, of course, watching him yank and twist and wiggle at the manipulator. But sometimes, one wonders what it would be like if his characters just got to be themselves, do what they would do, instead of always having to jump to respond to constant prophecies and visions, compulsions they "just have" and things they "just know."***

But then there's Roland, a most un-King-like figure, so tough and sere and scary I sometimes think that King himself is intimidated by him. Oh sure, Roland suffers and has suffered, but he suffers with gritted teeth, not giving an inch, not giving a flinch, ready to spit in King's eye, even when he has to give up his famous guns. He is, in other words, the only character I have encountered in these or any of King's books who seems capable of greeting King's dawn with a breath of fire and a raised middle finger. Of course, it would have to be on his left hand, since King took away his right middle finger, index finger, and thumb, right? Begging the question.

I must confess to a certain sort of psychic disconnect about him, though, because I keep expecting him to be the Roland of the Chanson rather than Shakespeare/Browning's Childe Roland, but that's my own problem. Stupid liberal arts education.

But so anyway, because I love Roland and the discomfiture he seems to elicit from his creator, and I love Eddie and Susannah and their weird romance and budding badassery, and sometimes even love Jake and Oy (I keep picturing the wee Jack Gleason that made his film debut in Batman Begins, and now graces us with his teenaged asshattery in Game of Thrones, as Jake), I am onboard for the next book wholeheartedly -- especially since it seems to offer the promise of lots of Roland backstory, which I do so long for.

I hope he's not plagued with too many burning bushes, though.

*But of course, Peter Jackson is unlikely to be tapped for the honor of adapting these books, if such a project ever actually comes to fruition, so it is equally unlikely that Randall will ever have cause to mock The Dark Tower. Somewhere, right now, EssJay is foaming at the mouth and screaming and cursing me like Gollum cursing Baggins at the very thought.

**Roland's word for his team; ka being more or less his version of karma, with an extra helping of necessity/destiny (because King seems unable to trust his characters to go where he wants them to go, do what he wants them to do, without such helpful little prompts), ka-tet invoking notions of a quartet as well as the Vonnegut-ian karass.

***Which is not to say at all that King writes unbelievable or one-dimensional or cardboard characters, because he totally does not. That's the thing. He creates these fully-fleshed out human beings out of his mind, something he has an honest-to-Bob gift for, but then, like a bad Greek god he  keeps sending them messages in dreams and other unsubtle nudge-shoves. Augh!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

100 Books #78 - Stephen King's THE DRAWING OF THE THREE

This one wasn't quite what I was expecting the second Dark Tower novel to be, but really? That's a good thing. I wasn't sure I could endure another whole novel's worth of Old Testament desert trekking with Roland.

There's still plenty of moralizing to be had here anyway, of course, mostly about drug addiction, pushers and junkies and gangsters, oh my. For Roland, who confronted his nemesis (or at least the mouthpiece of his nemesis) at the end of The Gunslinger only to find his encounter took years, rather than hours, has won through to the beach with a slightly clearer understanding of his purpose, or at least the next task he has to complete in his quest to reach the titular tower. He has to gather allies. Or more Jack-type sacrifices. Or something.

So a decent chunk of this novel is spent coming and going between our own world and a weird interstitial wood between the worlds sort of place, the beach through to which Roland won at the end of the last book. Except the danger on this beach is not that he is going to fall asleep and forget what he was supposed to be doing. No, it's much cooler.

Damn, but I love the lobstrosities. Giant mutant crustaceans that creep forth from the waves at nightfall and pursue anything that moves with bizarre nonsense questions "Dod-a-chuck? Did-a-chum?" and can snap through anything with their claws and beaks. And yes, that includes people.

I think I could have read a whole (short) novel of just Roland versus the Lobstrosities, but that wouldn't advance the quest plot of the Dark Tower very much, would it? And so after pretty much losing to them, barely alive and minus some of the parts he was born with, Roland finds a door in the sand that opens into the mind and senses of someone in our world. First a junkie, Eddie, muling drugs back to New York City from the Caribbean: then a legless (and not in the sense of drunk) heiress and civil rights activist (another of Stephen King's oracular black women) with two personalities in one skull, Odetta/Detta; and then a man who brings a hilarious new literality to the term "pusher", Jack. These three figures' lives were bizarrely intertwined even before Roland came along to suck them out of their worlds (and times; Eddie comes from the 80s, Odetta from the 60s and Jack from the 70s) and into his.

There are shoot-'em-ups (Eddie's arc), struggles with multiple personality disorder in which one personality (Odetta) falls more or less in love with, and the other (Detta) keeps trying to kill, Eddie, and an elaborate improvised heist (Jack's arc). There is, to my delight, plenty of lobstrosity action. And there is an abundance of word play. The title is evoked several times in several ways, as is the idea of pushing and pushers, all very elegantly and slyly handled.

Overall, though, while the interlocking plots are all plenty interesting (especially the last, in which the question of how Roland is going to keep going after proflagate ammo expenditure and loss is answered) keeps all this interesting for me is the same as what keeps it interesting for everybody, I think: the figure of Roland, lean and tough, scrawny and scary, the crackest shot that ever drew a gun, the hero of every epic quest narrative stripped down to his barest essence and armed with some exquisite and powerful weapons. I've joined the Twitter game of arguing over who should play him if this series ever makes it to the big or small screen. Currently the favorite seems to be Daniel Craig, but Craig would have to pull a Christian-Bale-in-the-Machinist to do it, and that seems to have done lasting harm to Bale. But after what I've seen of that insane new IFC series Bullet in the Face, I think I have the best candidate yet: Max Williams, who wouldn't have to starve himself much to achieve the scrawniness and has just the right kind of menacing presence (when he's not chewing the scenery and firing off ridiculous one-liners, anyway). Your mileage will doubtless vary.*

*And I fully stipulate that my notion is simply born of the coincidence in time that had me watching this series while waiting for my Kindle to recharge so I could finish reading this book.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

100 Books #77 - Gene Wolfe's THERE ARE DOORS

Well, if anyone was going to pull off a third person unreliable narrator right, it was going to have to be Gene Wolfe, and yes, he did it, brilliantly. Which is to say that my brain hurts kind of a lot right now from being turned inside out, marked with chalk, tried on by a crazy man to see if it will fit, altered by a seamstress and worn in a blizzard by... well, is it the same crazy man? Most likely. But then, is it the same crazy man in the same crazy world?

There Are Doors' protagonist, occasionally known as A.C. Pine or Mr. Green but most often simply as "He"* is either a mental patient in the sweetly harmless tradition of the guy in the bunny slippers in Twelve Monkeys, or a voyager between only slightly dissimilar dimensions via the titular doors, or both. Nor is his love interest, Lara/Laura/Lora a woman with a reliable nature and identity. Nor is the maternal owner of the Italian restaurant they frequent -- a place that, incidentally, seems to be in both worlds, as he demonstrates with a cash register experiment: when he breaks a bill, his change is in the "real" world's currency, while his lunch companion gets change native to that other world.

And, in that other world, it is apparently possible to get fat sheafs of high denomination real world currency, sold for spirit money in a Chinese junk shop for pennies on the dollar. And buildings and places are similar in that world, but have the heavy analog quality of the 1950s, with the exception of the cars. And, most importantly (or not), men do not long survive after having sex, dying off like drone bees; Lara, we are told, left the sort-of-named protagonist behind after living with him for just a few days because she couldn't bear to watch him die.

And the pronouns get confusing, because there is a he protagonist and she object whom he chases, neither named very often, interacting with other, pronoun-denominated hes and shes, lending a funky extra layer of ambiguity to a novel that, let's face it, didn't really need one. But that's Gene Wolfe for you. Really, the man drives me mad.

For my part I imagine Gene Wolfe having obsessively read Doctor Zhivago and Confessions of a Crap Artist and watched Invasion, that fantastic old Argentinian film written by Jorge Luis Borges and Aldolfo Bioy Cesares, just as I imagine China Mieville, decades later (There Are Doors dates back to the 1980s), poring obsessively over this novel as he wrote The City & The City. I'm probably very wrong in both notions, but they did keep occurring to me as I read.

I wonder what I'll think of next time -- for there will be a next time. There must, always, with Gene Wolfe.

*But not in that H.P. Lovecraft way.

Monday, August 20, 2012

100 Books #76 - Jeff Noon's CHANNEL SK1N

I suspect I am not alone in having become a compulsive highlighter in my Kindle books. I try to curtail this because I'm a little creeped out by Amazon's eagerness to harvest data from my habit, but sometimes, sometimes the prose in a book is so good, so lyrical, so trippy, so marvelous that I can't help myself.

"My"* digital copy of Channel Sk1n, Jeff Noon's first novel in a good ten years, would pretty much just be 100% highlight, I realized pretty quickly. Which surprises me not at all. My copies of all of his other books are well-worn, dog-eared thumbed through, loved. Noon writes science fiction prose poetry of the highest order, not as long on narrative logic as some would like, but so lovely and stirring (if Pollen doesn't pretty much literally turn you on, see an endocrinologist) as to just swamp the need for narrative logic in dreamy deliciousness. I'm gushing, I'm oversharing, I'm overhyping, and I don't care.

This time, though... this time...

This time Noon is taking us somewhere else. Someplace with sharper edges, disjointed and sometimes terrible. We begin with even less narrative than we usually get from him, a series of jagged sentences and sentence fragments conveying fleeting impressions of popstar Nola Blue's disintegrating world, which is breaking apart just the way all of our lives are breaking apart, into slivers of attention, half-formed thoughts and hallucinations and maybe-facts that might just be delusions, but whose delusions are they? "The Bliss Machine lives on" some unknown interlocutor observes, but is it really producing any bliss?

But then the Jeff Noon to whom I am accustomed, to whom I am devoted, with whom I fell in love when first I encountered the worlds of Pollen and Vurt and of Automated Alice, takes over:

Imagine a sphere. Imagine a garden that grows on the surface of a sphere, the flowers moving freely, blossoming and dying, blossoming again in high-speed motion, their petals changing colour in a shifting array of patterns. Imagine now that each flower is seeded from within, from inside the Dome. Imagine these flowers changing one by one into insects, these insects changing en masse into swirls of mist, into doorways opening and closing, into a red sun setting over a housing estate, into stars.

Is that the text of a novel, or a hypnotist's patter? Is there a difference? How much does the experience of reading it change once you know it's actually the description of a TV show that captivates and absorbs our heroine into an attempt at Videodrome-style fusion with her screen, singing along with Robyn Hitchcock's scathing-soothing anthem "Television"?**

And what if that fusion has already taken place, and her new flesh is already transforming?

But where Cronenberg goes for seduction and body horror, and Hitchcock into passive, if weirdly rapturous, subjugation, Noon goes for a real fusion between the media and the self. Nola's skin slowly transforms into a screen; she begins picking up and displaying television signals. And when people watch, she feels complete; she feels the glow of giving and of loss of self in bisensual bliss.

It's goddamn freaky and utterly compelling and beautiful and terrifying all in one moment.

Paralleling Nola's story is that of Melissa Gold, the ultimate reallity TV star, living in deranged isolation beneath a vast dome and implanted with brain-scanning technology that turns her thoughts into imagery the dome displays to the world. One thinks of Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World and how a camera meant to help blind people see turns into a dream-displaying addiction. This is that writ large.

The women's lives intersect historically via Nola's manager, who is Melissa's father, but where they meet is in the aether. First Melissa's "show" starts playing across Nola's body and then -- what?

More than any of his books yet, Channel Sk1n feels more like a book-length poem than a conventional novel, an updating of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland or perhaps Algernon Charles Swinburne's incantatory Dolores for the hyperconnected modern age. Like all good poetry, it leaves inviting gaps for the reader's mind to fit into and fill in.

And it tickles, this book, tickles the brain with stretches of what at first seem like ebook formatting errors (when read as an ebook) but even before the reader consciously realizes are deliberate start to feel like a signal, like programming; tickles the body with its sensuous descriptions of the images flickering across Nola Blue's skin.

Watch your abdomens, but know that we need nothing so crude and obvious as videotape slots nowadays.

*I am painfully aware that I am not really buying books when I grab them for my Kindle; I am, at most, leasing them.

**A snatch of the lyrics of which are slyly quoted in Channel Sk1n.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

100 Books #75 - Stephen King's THE GUNSLINGER

I suppose it's always been lurking there at the back of my mind, this notion that what Stephen King writes isn't so much genre fiction as very old-fashioned morality plays with genre fiction trappings. It's there in the way his characters speak, so often in phrasings, if not phrases, that feel ripped right out of the Old Testament, and while yes, it is often his evil characters who speak the most like the old school Puritans of yesteryear, even that turning inside-out of the morality play's conventions doesn't change its essential nature.

I can absolutely picture King wandering around the desert landscapes and small towns of this and so many of his other books, accompanied by a small band, putting on these tales as shows, medieval style, his wife Tabitha banging on a tambourine somewhere in the background as he and their children cavort and caper and enact broad and simple narratives of judgment and redemption, exhortation and condemnation.

I don't know why I haven't really noticed this before now, though truth be told it has been many years since I read a Stephen King novel*; I prefer generally his short fiction, which, coincidentally (or maybe not) has a whole lot less of this feel to it on the whole. At any rate, the notion is inescapable in the pages of this first of his Dark Tower series, taking place as it does in a sort of afterlife of the entire world, thinly populated and despairing, through which our hero Roland strides pursuing the man in black and falling into his adversary's traps, traps that always seem to set Roland up as, and force him to be, the bad guy in order to defend himself and his mission.

And yes, everyone in it talks like a character out of 17th or 18th century New England, home of the Puritans, descendants of the people who were the most likely creators, performers and audiences for those original medieval and Tudor morality plays.

This would be a lot more tiresome than it is but for King's skill as a crafter of prose, at which he is simply nonpareil. "The wood seemed old, fragile to the point of elvishness; it was wood being transmogrified into sand," for instance. It's like a Marty Stupich photograph** made verbal, this stuff.

And then there's the last section of the novel, where our hero confronts his nemesis/mentor/foil/thing, the Man in Black, whom yes I buy as Randall Flagg from The Stand though I have as yet only seen the fun, fun (M-O-O-N My Life For You Oh Matt Frewer) miniseries of that book. But so, finally, I see what Stephen King has going on with his morality play. He's blowing his morality play apart here. He's writing his own personal version of Last Call***, wherein he invokes all the archetypes. All the archetypes, you guys. And no, I'm not just talking about the sacrifice and the tarot cards, although yes, I am talking about them somewhat.

Because really, the Man in Black is the Mandelbrot Man and I'm scared of him in a very existential way. Which is to say I get it, I get why my friends love this series so and why they urge me to keep on reading even through the annoying Puritan bits...

And so yes, I will be doing that soonish. But first I've got some beta-reading to do.

*And I'm only reading this one because my friends Sennydreadful and EssJay love it so.

**Marty Stupich, my dear, dear friend and once preserver of my very sanity, is the best photographer on this planet. The best. I know lots of greats and I retweet their work and love them to pieces but Martin Stupich is their overlord. If there is a god of photography, it is Martin Stupich. Worship him and send him all your remaining Kodachrome and other stock. Sing praise, gaudeaumus that Martin Stupich has blessed this world with his eye and camera. Am I adequately conveying his greatness in this footnote? MARTIN EFFING STUPICH, MOTHERFOLKLORES. Go click on the highlighted link if you haven't already. Oh Marty, you are the original reason I bless the evolution of the eye.

***And if you haven't read this book yet... how do you even understand anything I've ever talked about ever?

Monday, August 13, 2012

100 Books #74 - James Clavell's SHOGUN

I realized, as I started reading this risibly enormous tome, that there has been a lacuna in my omnivorousness, reading-wise. I have relatively little experience with 20th century blockbuster/bestselling fiction generally, and almost no experience with blockbuster fiction of the 1970s/80s, except for maybe a spate of devouring every Robert Ludlum I could get my hands on after seeing the miniseries adaptation of The Bourne Identity on TV as a young'un.*

A lot has changed in the world since this novel's first publication in 1975. Like a whole explosion of cross-pollenization between Japanese and American/Western European pop culture that has also led to a much greater general understanding of Japanese high culture in our hemisphere as well. I spent a lot of the 90s watching all kinds of anime with my friends, for instance, and since my friends were the kind of people who can't just sort of enjoy a thing, we became immersed in all things Japanese: food, language, culture, music, handicrafts, gardening. The Porter Exchange Building in Cambridge, MA was like our second home. We ate Pocky more than candy bars. If it was Japanese, we were all over it.

So a lot of what pads out this giant (over 1100 pages!) novel seems to be stuff that makes me want to scream "I already freaking know that" to James Clavell. Which is woefully unfair. As I said, in 1975, the ubiquity of Japanese pop- and high-culture in our society was still in the future. Most of Clavell's readers then doubtless knew less about Japan than I now know about string theory; even the plethora of Samurai films we take for granted today, including many amazing ones that pre-date this novel, were hard for most of Clavell's readership/audience to come by. A nearby move theater had to be screening them, and foreign films were really only shown in college towns and other hoity-toity places. I know all this. I was alive in 1975. Okay, I was only five years old, but things didn't really change in this regard until I was almost an adult.

So the experience of reading Shogun in the 21st century has been kind of a herky-jerky one; I was divided between the otaku-type who bristles at being subjected to declarative sentences about the obvious, the post-modern moralist who bristles at the fetishization of Asian women that lards so many chapters, and the ordinary happy little reader who just wants to be told a good story. To some degree, this is always the case for an educated reader -- especially a reader who majored in literature -- but for some reason this conflict was profound as I read this book.

Which is a shame, because there is quite a good story here. And Clavell tells it very well indeed, in vivid prose, at a lively pace, and with quite an interesting set of characters, European and Japanese. I especially admire the proxy sectarian struggles, a 17th century culture war with actual stakes!

Too, the extraordinary length is not all condescending culture-translating pandering. This is a big, big story, a first contact tale in which both sides are of the same species and from the same planet, but are alien enough to each other for the plot to be seamlessly transferred to an episode of Star Trek. Which is awesome!

So, as a meditation on the power and value of novelty and on the struggle to exploit it, Shogun is nonpareil.

I mean, it's an Elizabethan Englishman in Japan! Who just happens to also be the best guy ever at improvised sign language. Seriously, the first third or so of the book seems to have something along the lines of "With signs Blackthorne made him comprehend" every few pages. But Clavell is perhaps sparing us the tedious description of the combination of signs-and-blank-stares-and-more-emphatic-signs he probably is really describing, neh? So perhaps I'll just stick to Elizabethan in Japan! Gaudeamus! Except he's a Protestant, so I should avoid Latin. Hooray!

And the flesh is barely back on Blackthorne's bones when he becomes the hottest commodity to hit Japan since the Black Ships first arrived, and maybe even hotter than them, because he has the power to complete -- and completely transform -- the Japanese understanding of the greater world from which he and they came. He quickly realizes his power, as the first non-Iberian visitor to Japan, to poke holes in the tissue of lies and concealed motives that have been presented to the Japanese who welcomed the Spanish and Portuguese as trading partners and missionaries but were ignorant of just how those newcomers had behaved in those roles in other parts of the world (think Conquistadors) and of their essential goal of world domination, with Japan just the latest strategic stepping stone to feel their boots.

All that and he knows all about deep-seafaring, shipbuilding, navigation, and where the Portuguese have stationed forts -- staffed and defended by samurai! -- along the African and Indian coasts. And he's a blonde-haired, blue-eyed giant, packed with DNA that has not ever been combined with the local gene pool, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

Which brings me to the wonderful Mariko, one of the most fascinating heroines I've encountered in some time. She is far more than a love interest, and not just because she's handy with a sword; she is indispensable to the machinations of her liege lord, Toranaga, keeping the plot churning so constantly that the reader only rarely notices that this novel is really just one giant tease for Crimson Sky. Mariko, though, ah, Mariko. She can get more done with a non-committal bit of politeness than a whole army of Brown or Gray samurai bristling with swords -- or muskets. Her continual awareness of how everything is playing out and exactly how much she and her men can get away with make her a complete joy to read. And of course, without her, Blackthorne is a resource no one can exploit, or even understand.

And Toranaga! He lives forever in my head personified by the great Toshiro Mifune. I love his weirdly majestic interpretation of a sailor's hornpipe and wish I could find a clip of him doing it alone on the mountaintop, but this is still pretty good:

In short, I can't remember when the last time was that I so enjoyed being so exhausted by a novel. I approached its end with a mixture of joyous anticipation (because I have so many other interesting books lined up to read) and bittersweet sadness (because I've gotten a great deal of pleasure out of reading this one). There are, of course, four other giant boluses of novel that Clavell set in Asia, and I will definitely read them in time on the strength of this one, but none of them will have Toranaga. Or Mariko. Or Blackthorne. Or Yabu. Or Rodrigues. Or Father Alvito and those wicked, scheming Jesuits. Ah, me.

*Coincidentally, that miniseries starred none other than Richard Chamberlain (and seriously, shut up about Matt Damon. The King of the Miniseries is the only true Jason Bourne), who, of course, also starred in the miniseries adaptation of Shogun. And speaking of the miniseries, I had a delirious moment or two whenever Mariko addressed Blackthorne and calls him "Pilot-Major Blackthorne," because of course the actress exaggerates the famous Asian accent so it sounds like she's calling him "Pirate-Major Brackthorne" and immediately I have Gilbert & Sullivan on the brain. Gilbert & Sullivan are, of course, also famous for "The Mikado" in which Japan is used as an exotic setting for a sharply satirical commentary on English society.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Puttin' the Blog in Balrog XIV: Return of the King VI: 1-4

We last left Samdo in deep, deep kimchee as a co-worker of mine likes to say when there are people who are around who wound be offended by her saying "excrement." Frodo, whom Sam left for dead, has been carried off by Orcs, leaving Sam to trot after the rescue raiding party as best he can, invisible thanks to his desperate decision to put on the Ring, packing Sting, too, and regretting more than ever that he hadn't been able to get the mithril mail off Frodo while he was plundering. Oh, come on, I know it's not like that and he was very torn up over the decision. But I already talked about that.

As Sam stands near the entrance to Shelob's lair (he has had to retrace his steps a bit to pick up the trail to where Frodo has been taken), Tolkien helps us out a bit by explicitly placing this action in temporal context with the other characters' scenes, something he rarely does. We are, as Sam starts thinking about how the Snape he is going to rescue Frodo, concurrent with Denethor's first moments of serious insanity before his attempt at burning himself and his mostly-dead son alive. So while the Steward of Gondor fights with madness and Pippin sort of fights with the Steward, the rival goblins who took Frodo are fighting with each other up in the Tower of Cirith Ungol.

"I'm coming, Mr. Frodo."

Like Gandalf's choice to save Faramir at the expense of many lives on Pelennor Field, Samwise's* choice to rescue Frodo is a bit troublesome. Taking the Ring, whether you're using it or not, invisible or not, into a Tower infested/inhabited by who-knows-how-many Orcs to save his friend, just one friend, even if it is your best friend, puts the whole rest of the world in jeopardy. And while Gandalf has someone (Prince Imrahil of Innsmouth Dol Amroth) to take over command of Gondor's forces and some other someones (Eowyn and Merry) dispatch the


for him, Samwise has nobody waiting to check into the game, as it were. Coach put him in when Shelob fouled Frodo and took him out for a while, but there is no one left on the bench.

Actually, he doesn't even have a coach!

And the basket into which he's gotta shoot? Dude, it's way out of even hail-Mary range. "In such an hour of labour Sam beheld Mount Doom, and the light of it, cut off by the high screen of the Ephel Duath... now glared against the stark rock faces..." and that's even before he gets a load of what's guarding said basket (he's very lucky Mordor plays zone defense instead of man-to-man) (I think. We're really pushing my sporting knowledge here).

But so let's abandon the basketball metaphors and go somewhere I'm more comfortable, because this bit when Samwise first gets a load of the Tower here, the Ring, which he has just recently used for the first time, starts messing with him. Even though it's on a chain around his neck, it starts tempting him "gnawing at his will and reason," like the Adversary with Jesus. Imagining himself as Samwise the Strong with a flaming sword, he starts believing he could lead an army to conquer Mordor altogether, and when that's done he'll make the sun shine and the flowers grow whether they want to or not, by gum! And here Tolkien makes a declarative statement that I can't agree with, claiming it's "the love of his master that most helped to hold him firm." I say its Samwise's thinking of that giant garden he would force into existence. Gardens aren't forced, they're coaxed, by patient people propitiating the elements and caring for the soil. And he is one of those patient, coaxing, propitiating people. What need has someone like that for a Ring?

Although it would be pretty sweet if he could make anything grow...

I always found the next bit, with the Two Watchers, the most uncanny part of the whole epic. Are they made of stone or do they just appear to be? Can they move if someone with a strong enough will makes it through their force field type thingie? We never find out for sure, because Sam busts out the Simaralcrum, which scares them silly, makes them break the field themselves, and gets through, though not without setting them to screaming the alarm.

Luckily, there don't seem to be a lot of Orcs left alive to respond, and the few that are seem easily intimidated by what they have imagined Samwise must be: that mighty warrior who kicked Shelob's ass in the tunnel. Which he is, except hobbit sized; they just see what they want/expect to see when they look at him. So he scares one away, not knowing that Orc bears "a precious burden" and comes to a dead end, where he starts to sing, which annoys another Orc into revealing the trap-door above which may be found Frodo. Samwise follows the Orc up into that top floor, about to whip Samwise's (cough) master, and slices off the Orc's whip-hand. Booyah, Samwise!

By the way, what is it with Orcs insisting on pouring their energy drink down everybody's throats?

If I had an awesome artist like Megiggles, there would totally be a picture of Manoj Bhargava all Orc'd out, right here.

What happens next is probably the scene I'd nominate for the second most amazing/important/pivotal scenes in these novels, after Eowyn and Merry kill the WKoA: Frodo's supposition that the quest has failed because the Orcs took everything, followed by the revelation that actually the only thing that was left to take after Sam left Frodo for dead was the mithril mail, followed by an ugly quarrel that is only saved by Samwise's patience, goodness and strength of will. As soon as Frodo realizes that Samwise has the Ring, he demands to have it back immediately. When Samwise observes that it's an even heavier and more unpleasant burden now that they're in Mordor and offers (out of the best of motives, I think; Samwise is another Faramir, whose true goodness pretty much proofs him against the temptations of the Ring) to share the load if Frodo wishes, Frodo gets seriously nasty and Gollumesque: "No you won't, you thief!" This while Samwise is in the process of handing the Ring back, mind. And after he's risked all there is to risk, all of Middle Earth, to save him.

That Samwise forgives Frodo immediately, and never holds this moment of bitch-faced weakness and malice against him may seem like mere servility on Samwise's fault, but I think this is a demonstration of Samwise's extreme wisdom and compassion. Having borne the Ring a little himself, he realizes that, while he could probably take it to Mount Doom himself, he might not be able to bear it and Frodo, and since he's already risked all for Frodo, he's not going to leave him now. No, if Frodo takes the Ring, Samwise can concentrate on keeping the pair of them alive and get them through, as we'll see shortly when he carries Frodo up the slopes of Orodruin. It's sadly calculating but also shrewd, this decision he makes. It's also totally Samwise.

And now there's nothing for it but to dress the basically naked Frodo up in Orc drag. Oh, if Treebeard could see them; he might rethink his classification of hobbits as not-Orcs, eh?

But UH OH, as Samwise has to use the Similracrum to get past the Watchers again, the alarm they kick up notifies a flying Nazgul! But of course they get away, though they learn of yet another thing that Orc armor is not proof against. Uh. Thorns.

Dudes, why do Orcs even get armor? They might as well just get chainmail bikinis. And that would actually make them fearful to behold. I know if there's one thing no one ever wants to see, it's an Orc in a chainmail bikini.
I have never been more relieved to be right about something in my life.

The next day sees Samwise and Frodo observing a curious thing: a Nazgul passes over them but it's going the other way, shrieking "woe and dismay, ill tidings for the Dark Tower." We have just been told that at this moment Theoden lies dying at Pelennor, so there can only be one piece of bad news a Nazgul can be carrying to Barad Dur: the death of the WKoA. So not only does Eowyn and Merry's feat signal a sea change for our side, but it's a terribly disheartening blow to the Enemy, too. See? Most important single event in this novel!

And the rest of this section, and yes that includes the shocking revelation that Gollum is still on the hobbits' trail, is just foot-tappy time passing for me, until we get to the point so brilliantly depicted in the greatest song ever to grace a cartoon of questionable quality:

True story: that was the first song I ever bought to go on my Mp3 player.

I always snicker a little at their escape. Good thing that whole other army happened along to cause mass pandelerium into which the hobbits could disappear.

Does it seem to anyone else like these two hobbits spend pretty much the entirety of these last two novels mountaineering? For here they go again, but Frodo is too spent to even crawl up the slopes of Orodruin; as he pretty much prophesied earlier, Samwise has to carry him, but is surprised at how light Frodo is. I'm sure lots of the "Ring causes everything" crowd have bounteous theories about this, but I just figure the better part of the year's marching and boating and climbing and getting poisoned by giant creeping evil in spider form have left Frodo rather wasted and insubstantial. He's probably skin and bones and weighs not much more than a rabbit. As for the Ring not adding to the actual weight, well, no. Its burden is psychic, and Samwise, focusing entirely on another's well-being, altruism personified, is pretty much proof against it.

But then comes Gollum, who attacks the pair and has his first real try at just physically taking the Ring. But Frodo grabs the Ring on his chain itself, and even though he's not wearing it, it imparts some extra confidence and authority, perhaps even actual power though I tend to think of it as a magic black feather unless it's actually worn, and Frodo says "Down, you creeping thing, and out of my path. Your time is at an end.

You cannot betray me or slay me now.

And then we suddenly see things from Samwise's perspective. And somehow, these two combatants look somewhat different, metaphorical versions of themselves, or what they could potentially become soon. Gollum is "a crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing" and Frodo appears as a figure in white "stern, untouchable now by pity" who calls out to Gollum that "If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom."

Prophetic much, there, Frodo?

At any rate, they retire into the house with scornful looks exit Frodo, on his way solo to the aforementioned Fire, leaving Gollum to the tender mercies of Samwise. Who suddenly discovers just how extensive his mercies really are; when Gollum cowers, Samwise realizes just how much it really does suck to be Gollum and spares Gollum's life and runs to catch up with Frodo.

Who has decided not to destroy the Ring after all, thank you very much. Instead he puts it on, and suddenly Sauron is very much aware of him for the first time -- Aragorn's big diversion at the Black Gate has been working very well up until this point -- and Sauron freaks the hell out and summons everything, leaving his millions of minions just sort of loitering around with a bad case of the stupids because the mind that has been driving them is suddenly very much occupied with something else. But he's too late. Everybody's too late. All kneel before Zodo.

But wait, there's still Gollum, whom Samwise sees struggling with an invisible foe. Off comes the Ring finger, to the longing breast of Gollum goes the Ring, and down into the fires teeters Gollum, just as Zodo had commanded.

And then Sauron discovers the real extent of his folly. If only he had hired trustworthy contractors who didn't adulterate the foundational concrete with a whole lot of magical crap instead of doing quality work. But no. Down comes pretty much everything, crumbling, melting, shattering, pretty much everything you don't want load-bearing stuff to do.

Meanwhile at the Black Gate, those flying dei ex machinae, the Eagles, have shown up, there to prompt every over-analytic, picky fanboi and fangurl to start wondering for all time why they couldn't have just taken Samdo to the volcano in the first place, but no, their job is to bring the boys back to Ithilien, where all the bigshots await their pleasure.

I love how Samwise just breaks down into wonderful tears when a minstrel announces that he is going to play a song of his own composing, about "Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom" just as Samwise had daydreamed about betimes. Hooray!

Now it's really all just running out the clock from here. There I go with poorly understood sports metaphors again...

*I'm going to call him Samwise from now on; Sam is his slave name.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Diversification -- or possibly disappearing up my very own...

As many of you know, I am a big comics reader, or was before a double bout of tennis and golfer's elbow (double bout as in both arms) laid me low and left me severely restricted in non-job-related activities requiring fine-motor coordination. Turning pages in physical books, or comic books, became a fairly painful proposition, and I had to spare what elbow-grease I had in me for earning my living (yeah, computers).

That was last fall.

But did I stop buying comics? Oh, no. I did cut back severely and I stopped letting those filthy pushers at my Friendly Local Comics Shop, Heroes Only tempt me with the dreaded Preview guide every month, but there were some titles I just could not bear to stop. I'd get to them eventually, right?

Many months have gone by since then, and my arms are as better as they are going to get. I have braces, a nutrition/supplement/exercise regime that is pretty much staving off further damage (Dragon Naturally Speaking plays a big part, there. Not having to type at home is quite a boon. If you're of the kind of age that politely gets suffixed with -ish and you have had a career that's mostly involved computer work, you might consider giving your elbows and wrists a break yourself, before you run into the situation that I did. And yes, I was very attentive to ergonomics. It happened anyway), and prescriptions for gabapentin and lidocaine patches to hold the pain at bay.

I also have more than two shortboxes crammed full of unread comics. And a handful of Twitter followers who tell me they miss the good old days, when once a week I would go through a huge pile of comics and live-tweet my way through them with the hashtag #SundayComics.

I made noises about resuming that now that I'm more or less better, but twinges in the old hinge joints are happening again that make me hesitate to take that on again. So here's my compromise. That I might regret, but anyway...

Once a day, I will read one comic from the giant to-be-read stash, and I will describe/review it in sonnet form. And rather than clutter up this feed or the Suppertime Sonnets feed, I'll post the results on a brand new blog:

Ladies and gentlemen and other allegedly sentient beings, I give you: Comics Time Sonnets. There is, as of today, one entry. Tomorrow there will be other. I make no firm promises that I'll manage to post there every single day; gone are the days when I'll freak the hell out on vacation and make the people I'm with drop everything and help me find a wi-fi signal just so I can post. But most days, I will.

Enjoy! Or something.

Puttin' the Blog in Balrog XIII: The Return of the King V: 6-10

I have written elsewhere this week about the moment in The Lord of the Rings that I find the most pivotal and dramatic. It occurs in these chapters: the death of Theoden and the triumph of Eowyn and Merry against


Rather than rehash things here, I urge you to go check out my guest post over at Snobbery.


It's not like that's the only thing that happens in these chapters; far from it. For one thing, Eowyn barely survives her moment of glory, and is thought dead until Prince Imrahil of R'lyeh Dol Amroth bends over to ogle her and realizes she's breathing. Saved by the Male Gaze, is Eowyn, which makes me want to say harrumph, but you know what? Before that she and Merry killed the biggest actual baddie in these tales, so just this one time... ah, who am I kidding. I give literary sexism a pass all the time.

Good thing Eowyn's pretty, though.

Her near consignment to death along with Theoden King really foreshadows quite a lot, immediately and a bit down the road. Immediately, the Rohirrim, despite the defeat of


are outnumbered, weary, in trouble, and then things look to get even worse. Those Black Ships we've been hearing about since Pippin arrived at Minas Tirith? Here they come, up the Anduin, and the host of Mordor is plenty happy to see the Corsairs of Umbar come to assure victory at Pelennor.

But oh! Just as Eowyn turns out to be only mostly dead, the ships aren't something to mourn and fret over, either: "upon the foremost ship a great standard broke, and the wind displayed it as as turned... There flowered a White Tree, and that was for Gondor; but Seven Stars were about it, and a high crown above it; the signs of Elendil that no lord had borne for years beyond count." This banner I've talked about before in this blog: it's the one Arwen made for Aragorn, asserting his lineage, his claims and his promises in fabric, thread and white gems.

And like all good icons, it communicates a very clear message: the ships do not carry the Corsairs but the gonnabe King of Gondor, who took these ships with the help of his army of oathbreaker ghosts.* Soon Imrahil and the knights of Ulthar (meow) Dol Amroth flank Mordor on one side, the Rohirrim have them blocked from another, and together they channel Mordor towards the waiting Greys and Deads and Elves and Dwarve and Manves, and soon there is victory!

Would there, though, be victory so complete had not Eowyn and Merry stood up to the


and destroyed him? We can't be sure, but really we've already been told, by Tolkien himself, that the watershed moment had occurred. We are told this when the death of Snowmane, who accidentally killed his master, Theoden, is discovered and discussed. Snowmane gets a grave mound at Pelannor Field, and we are told that, while grass grows long and green over that grave, where the foul flying steed of the


died, the ground stays forever black. The fact that land so close to Mordor stays fertile and fair long enough for Snowmane's Howe, as it comes to be known, to become grassy basically tells us right there that Sauron lost.

Unless maybe the long green grass is kudzu. 
It would grow fast, but in doing so would probably prove that Sauron had won, amirite?

I believe this is the first time we're given this retrospective view of Frodo's quest and all of the fights and failures around it as a fait accompli, but I might be wrong.

Anyway, onward, to the other thing Eowyn's near-death foreshadows**: her future fella's own brush with death.

When we last left those anxious souls in Minas Tirith, Pippin was racing to find Gandalf to help prevent a tremendous tragedy: Denethor, not content to give up on Minas Tirith and himself, has also chosen to give up on his only remaining son, wounded but only mostly dead. Denethor has built a pyre for himself and his son, had them wrapped in a shroud and drenched in oil, and is fixin' to "burn like the heathen kings of old."

I find it just a little troubling, this choice that Gandalf makes to abandon what may well be the most important battle in the history of Middle Earth and his secret job of wielding his Elven Ring to keep everyone's spirits up, commanding Gondor's forces, and very likely doing some fighting himself, to ride up to save the life of one Man, even if it is one that happens to be one of my favorites. It just reeks of the kind of feudal elitism that makes me foam at the mouth; you know he wouldn't hesitate to throw, say, Beregond, under the Burn Bus.

But then again, how much does it really matter? We have already come to understand that Gandalf and his ilk are due to fade soon from Middle Earth, and Eowyn and Merry have proved to everyone that you don't need a wizard to destroy a Big Bad, just strategic knowledge of its weak points***, and nothing kindles the hearts of fighting men like scoring big, big points against the enemy. So maybe Gandalf isn't so terribly vital to the battle effort after all. And hey, the Fellowship did kind of all right during the time he was fighting his way out of Joseph of Arimathea's Tomb Zirakzigil and pulling a Lazarus, too, no?

The question, then, may well be, does Gandalf think his presence at Pelannor is so very important? Because if he does, then it's a tiny bit reprehensible, in the grand scheme of things, to desert so many to save so few.

I'm pretty sure he would have stayed at Pelannor.

But then there's the possibility**** that no one else can save Faramir; no one is willing to cross his lunatic father.***** So, Gandalf puts Prince Imrahil of Cykranosh Dol Amroth in charge of directing the battle and up and around he goes.

He finds quite a scene, but is just in time. Revealing himself for a split second to be quite a lot more spry than he looks (sort of like Grand Maester Pycelle, eh?), he leaps onto the heap of wood doused in oil and yanks Faramir off the pyre Denethor has built (or rather, ordered built). Denethor has a last grand round of theatrics, ranting and raving and revealing that he knows about Aragorn in the process, and he refuses to hand over the kingdom to the last son of "a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity." To prove that he means it, he snaps in half the white Rod of the Stewards of Gondor (thus destroying the last heirloom of his house, probably at right around the time that Aragorn revealed his fancy new heirloom that completes his collection) right before he lights the fire.

Faramir is carried down to the Houses of Healing, and soon Eowyn is, too. As for Merry, he has gone all but unnoticed, Bilbo-style, but made it into the city under his own power -- just barely. The reunion he has with Pippin as he comes staggering in is as sweet as can be, both of them still in awe that they've experienced what they have. But Merry, who has lost the use of his right arm to icy numbness following his killing stroke on the


is, like Eowyn and Faramir and many others, overcome by the Black Breath and will surely die of it, unless there's a miracle.

There is a miracle, and her name is Ioreth, who sort of wistfully reminds Gandalf that back in the good old days, when there were kings of Gondor, you could tell the rightful king because "the hands of the king are the hands of a healer." So, while Aragorn has made the humblebraggy decision to wait for the Steward to recover and invite him into the city, he is summoned earlier than that by Gandalf to ply the kingsfoil cure. And so the news breaks and spreads throughout the city.

Then, because so far The Return of the King has come so very, very close to passing the Bechdel test, Tolkien does something weird, seemingly by way of making sure it doesn't. But hey, give him credit for this: he couldn't bring himself to make Eowyn cause the failure directly: he makes her brother and Aragorn her proxies for this as she lies raving in her recovery from the Black Breath. Aragorn gently lectures Eomer about how all of the surprising and saddening things she's muttering aren't really coming out of nowhere, how Wormtongue wasn't just working on Theoden, and for good measure he pretty much implies that her big problem is that she has the hots for him, Aragorn.   Because it's all about Aragorn. Says so in the title. "Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man's heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned."

Nor, actually, is this Aragorn's only cock remark; when he moves to Merry's bedside and speaks to Pippin, he tells Pippin not to worry: "Do not be afraid. I came in time."

And I called him back.

But yeah, I know it's true. But jeeze, look who's starting to believe his own press already. Though yes, he does create a stir as he leaves the House of Healing to go back to his campsite outside the city until Faramir is well enough to perform his duties like making a new Rod of Stewarding, whipping everything into shape for Aragorns big, uh, re-entrance. Meanwhile, Prince Imrahil of Dunwich Dol Amroth, after a meet cute with Gimolas****** is tagged to be the uh, Steward for the Steward.

But meanwhile, there is still the matter of


to be discussed. It's still up to Samdo to save the world from the Ring, but meanwhile it's up to the rest of his friends to keep Sauron distracted while Samdo sneaks through Mordor.

The idea boils down, more or less, to trying to make Sauron think that Aragorn has the Ring and is maybe fixin' to do some things with it. Neener. They're going to leave a crew behind to guard Minas Tirith, sure, but everybody else is going to go knock on Sauron's Gate. Hoo dogies!

Merry is still down, but Pippin gets to go. Of course Gimolas gets to go. Replacing Boromir are Eomer and Imrahil (I've beaten the Lovecraft jokes into the ground now, yes?). Oh, and a thousand calvary and seven thousand infantry. Which kind of sounds like a lot until everybody starts thinking about how many Orcs/Evil Men/Other Icky Things are still waiting for the chance to kill 'em at the Gate.

There follows a long stretch of trashed scenery and heralds yelling, in effect, "Come out, come out, wherever you are, but hey, this is our land again" as we pass through Ithilien, retracing some of Samdo and Smeagollum's (Samsmeagoldo's?) footsteps. Despite the bravado, some of the men chicken out and the host dwindles a bit. I guess the WKoA isn't the only one with trouble finding good help these days.

Anyway, they finally get there and line up outside of the Gate. The Lieutenant of Barad-Dur, also called The Mouth of Sauron, rides up to challenge them.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, God said let there be lips...

And lo wast there a lot of trash talk, followed by the taunting display of some stuff, including a certain coat of mithril, forcibly taken from a certain pair of hobbits that really should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque.

Of course, the Lips of Sauron give away pretty much immediately that Mordor has no idea why Frodo or his stuff are so important and just brags about what a crappy spy he made. But only Gandalf seems to grasp this, and when the Lips start talking terms, Gandalf tells them to shut and go away, which they look to be doing but Ackbar time; while the Lips have been flapping, the Easterlings have been cutting off our heroes' escape route. The Black Gate opens and more bad guys emerge.Complete with Hill Trolls. And I'm sure there are some more Oliphaunts somewhere in there. UH OH.

But before things get completely out of hand, Pippin wounds and likely kills a troll. He's gotten a bit taller from those Ent draughts, maybe, and has a good sword, and manages at least to hamstring it or something! Yay! But then the troll collapses on top of him. Boo! But then... Eagles... eagles again.

And that's it for these chapters, and really, as far as I'm concerned, for me. I'ma finish Book VI, don't worry, but as an adult reader of this trilogy, for me the culminating moment of it all, the watershed moment, is when Merry and Eowyn take out the WKoA. From there, it's all just clean-up, as I said over at the Snobbery.

*Or are they ghost oathbreakers? Oh noes, argument time!

**Narratively, if not historically; it's possible that the future lovers are in their gravest danger at the same time, the way Tolkien has structured these chapters.

***Lo, like unto Bard of Esgaroth. Sure, you can insist that it's all because of magic because how else would anyone have learned to converse with Thrushes, but it still boiled down to skill, courage and strategic intelligence.

****I say "possibility" because, even as Gandalf will soon be heard to all but lament that he could have, e.g., prevented Theoden's and many other deaths if he'd been around to take on the


himself (because we all know nobody else could take him, right?), practically within the same breath he gives credit for saving Faramir to Beregond of the Tower Guard, Pippin's friend, who was the only one who had Manned the Snape up and tried to break into the room where Denethor was whipping up a batch of Steward Roast. Which is it, Gandalf? Only you can kill the Witch King but oh, look, Eowyn and Merry did it (though they couldn't save Theoden, they saved potentially many, many more, including, very possibly, all the Rohirrim), or only you can save Faramir but oh, look, Beregond would have managed all right? Or both? I don't have the answer, just as I don't have the answer to whether or not Gandalf's choice was defensible. Which is marvelous.

*****Who has also, by this time, gazed into the Palantir that remained in Minas Tirith. Now, it's an open question, I think, whether in wresting the Orthanc Palantir from Sauron's control Aragorn also freed all of the Palantir or not. If it was just the one stone he freed, then the Minas Tirith Palantir basically would have made a temporary connection between Denethor and Sauron, doubtless not to Denethor's benefit. But even if Aragorn freed all the stones, Denethor used it to get a look at what his people were facing -- the Orcs, the evil Men, the


and probably the Corsairs for good measure (shades of the fate of Aegeus, there, since the ships' sails were black and Aragorn didn't bother to unfurl his new banner until he arrived at Pelennor) and that burned through all, like, two of his remaining sanity points.

******You know, we never do hear with whom it was he had those children, including the daughter who eventually marries Eomer...

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

100 Books #73 - Amy Durant's OUT OF TRUE

"I will spin stories that make your past disappear."

As someone who is known for having hitched her poetic wagon to formal poetry's star, I am not a fan of free verse, as a rule. It's a form -- or lack thereof -- that tempts too many pretentious yobboes to regard their half-baked lyricism as Art that Must Be Taken Seriously and to rely on half-baked surrealism to stand in for imagery. You know the kind of stuff I'm talking about.

There are poets, though, who I think do free verse well. T.S. Eliot comes to mind, as do Swinburne, Stephen Vincent Benet, Hart Crane, Jorge Luis Borges (in English or Spanish), Paul Valery (in English or French), Sara Teasdale -- my personal favorites.*

I think that Amy Durant could be another that gets past my free verse defenses, at least some of the time.

Disclosure time: Durant and I are internet-friends**, and she supplied me with a free review copy of her book. I'm mighty glad she did.

The poetry in Out of True has a delicate, fragile feel to it overall.*** Written almost entirely in the second person/vocative case, it has the feel sometimes of a wistful note left on a pillow on a lonely morning, but most often of the importuning of an anxious friend or lover who wrote down her thoughts and is standing fretting to one side, gazing out the window, trying not to watch while someone reads them. Sometimes this second effect is overwhelming -- as if the poet is failing in her effort not to peek over one's shoulder -- but this generally adds to the impact of the poetry. This is especially true in some of the later poems in the book, in which the fragility has been broken into sharp, sharp pieces. Ouch. "So listen: I don't love you. My brain's just telling me I do."

My favorite of the entries here is an early one, "Syzygy" in which Durant takes the classic trope of the Sun and the Moon as separated lovers and imagines them finding ingenious ways to communicate with each other. "Eclipses are a ruse," she tells us. This poem is so good it immediately made me channel Emily Dickinson when she tells us her definition of poetry: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Yup, top of my head went clean off. In complete honesty, I suggest that everybody should buy this book for this poem alone.

But also for "Wintergreen: High Summer." You'll understand when you smell it.

But wait, there's more: she has a modernist take on the ravings of Shakespeare's Ophelia (Durant is a professional theater geek in her offline life; I think quite a lot of the great plays have seeped into her head by osmosis), which I hate the very idea of on principle, but actually found pretty compelling with its shades of Virginia Woolf and all the other drowned girls singing "Hey nonny nonny." The hawks and the handsaws have all started to look the same. Well, yes.

Also noteworthy is "Oubliette," a long meditation on how the poet has chosen to forget her high school classmates, couched as a strategy guide for a monster-hunter. "I never took my eyes from my quarry. You don't survive by being stupid."

And sometimes, sometimes the Amy who amuses me so online peeps through, as in "Samson and Delilah," cast as he said/she said accounts of their relationship with bitterly wicked humor. One laughs, then winces, then shudders. And "Apocalypse (Please) Now" is one for all of those whose favorite moment in Serenity was when Kaylee told Simon "I'm gonna live!" Only with zombies.

That's not to say every single poem in Out of True is a burning, polished gem. Some repeated themes, mostly concerning the pain of failed romance, begin to grate and send me rushing back to the "I don't like free verse" camp, but even the poems I like the least contain arresting lines, and never, ever feel contrived.

And should you always like a poem? Shouldn't you sometimes want to run away because it's forcing you to contemplate something painful or icky or frightening? Exhibit A: Swinburne... Exhibit B: "Dissection: What Was Lost"; Exhibit C: "Scapegoat"

Ultimately I glance askance mostly at this collection's title, though, because every poem in it, every single one, is true.

*I certainly do not make any claims, in making this list, to being in any way an expert on free verse. Like I said, it's not my first choice for poetry reading. I like the formal stuff. But sometimes I run across stuff that just speaks to me and I wind up buying volumes of the stuff, just to have that one poem always at hand, even now in the age of the internet.

**And on the internet, she is extremely funny. Go have a look at her hilarious and unfailingly entertaining blog Lucy's Football, for a look at that side of her.

***Caveat lector: almost all of this poetry is romantic (with a small "r"), tinged with longing for love, regret for lost love, fond memories of love, etc. If that's not your bag, you might not like this stuff. But hey, it's not usually my bag, either, and I liked it all just fine, so there you go!

Monday, August 6, 2012

100 Books #72 - Gav Thorpe's CROWN OF THE USURPER

It doesn't happen often enough that the culmination of a series makes you want -- even need -- to read the whole series all over again, not just because the series is good, but because you realize you were completely misreading it from the beginning and need to see what was "really" going on, and are glad about this, because it's pretty clear that the "real" story is every bit as awesome as the wrong one you've been enjoying. I think the only other time this has happened to me was the first time I read that tetralogy-plus-one, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.

Now, before people think I'm saying that Gav Thorpe is another Gene Wolfe, well, no he isn't. But he's pretty damned good nonetheless, and I'm realizing that the series of which Crown of the Usurper is the third and final volume is even better than I had already thought. Which is very good indeed.

Readers of this blog know that I've been rather eagerly waiting for this book since I ripped through Crown of the Conqueror in March, left just as excited and dangling off just as precipitous a cliff as I had been after finishing the first book in this trilogy, Crown of the Blood last year.

I have now spent over 1200 pages immersed in the brutal politics, intricate plotting, dynastic wrangling and battle-smilodon riding awesome of the Empire of Askhor, and I'd happily, very happily spend twice as many pages more there. Alas, this is it.

In this culminating volume, every set of toes our hero, Ullsaard, ever stepped on on his way to the throne of the quasi-Roman empire of Greater Askhor seems lined up now to kick his ass. Thorpe has always shone at depicting the motives and thoughts of Ullsaard's enemies in a way that threatens to divide the reader's loyalties, and this book is no exception. Here, Thorpe has outdone himself: Crown of the Usurper, while quite a Gordian Knot of plots and counter-plots, never loses coherence or lucidity, even as we spend more time following the point of view of the enemies than we do the king himself.

And as in its predecessor novels, it brims over with dark soldierly humor, awkward manly camaraderie, tension emotional outpourings and, best of all, tart and pithy observations, as when one of the more interesting villains, Anglhan, once a rebel provincial governor whose fiefdom Ullsaard utterly destroyed in the prior books* gives lie to the other characters' and the reader's expectations for him: "Anglhan sneered at the sentimentality of revenge. If Ullsaard was to be killed, that was one thing and a pleasurable step on the road back to a superior fate, but Anglhan would not allow such sentiment to drive him." Yeah, that's right: Anglhan is so cold and hard that he's not even out for vengeance. But he's happy to pretend to be. Mu and also ha ha ha.

Meanwhile, most of the empire, including his wives, believes that Ullsaard is dead; even the rather bitchy mother of his usurping younger son, Urikh, wrings her hands a little as she tries to guide him. She was never Ullsaard's favorite wife; she was just one of the strings attached when he married her sister Allenya and their other sister Meliu, as is both tradition and necessity in a society so tough and brutal that soldiers wounded on the battlefield are simply killed by their own side to avoid the burden of tending and transporting them. The faint tang of sibling rivalry among Ullsaard's wives has been an enjoyable side show throughout the stories of his triumphs and conquests, and continues to be wicked good fun through this last novel.**

Speaking of fun, I have to give a nod to a somewhat unlikely set of spies Ullsaard dispatches early in the novel, whose gambits and antics had me looking forward to their bits even more than to the machinations of Ullsaard's enemies. This party includes one Gelthius, whose rise has paralleled Ullsaard's own in the novels, from slave oarsman on a landship (see my post on Crown of the Blood for more of those) to legionnaire to third captain of Ullsaard's beloved Thirteenth. If you think I'm thinking of Richard Sharpe here, you're right. And once again, he has a crucial role to play, in his humble, uncertain way, bringing Ullsaard the necessary intelligence that sends the erstwhile king seriously on his way, with a plan, and woe betide those enemies.

And that misreading I talked about at the beginning of this post? It concerns the other power in this empire, known generally as The Brotherhood, whom I praised in my post about the first book as forming an intriguingly secular priesthood-cum-bureaucracy, but see now as playing a far deeper and even more interesting role in this world and these stories. Wow. Just wow.

If I have a complaint at all its... big surprise... that this book, like a lot of small or small-ish press books, really could have used one more pass under the eyes of a serious proofreader. There are jarring little errors of the kind that spellcheckers don't catch (homophones, wrong prepositions and just plain unfortunate blunders like "wanting to breaking the silence") every, say, 30 pages or so. It's not enough to make it unreadable, but it is enough to make readers like me jerk out of the happy reading trance and sigh and frown for a moment.

But you know what? This time, that's not enough of a reason to take away a star over at GoodReads, because everything else is so damned good. Gav Thorpe, writing here as the mutant offspring of some serious backcrossing of Robert Graves, Bernard Cornwell and H.P. Lovecraft***, saved the best for last.

*Urikh, or the head of the Brotherhood and Ullsaard's many dozen times great-uncle Lakhyri, would be expected to be the big villains, but for me Anglhan is the most interesting to watch.

**Dude. Do not cross Allenya.

***Yes, ever since I had the idea of Saruman sitting around drawing Punnet squares while creating the Uruk Hai, I have had a new obsession with Mendelian genetics. But just go with me on this.