Saturday, December 28, 2013

Philip K. Dick's THE SOLAR LOTTERY

I usually get really, really annoyed by science fiction that posits a return to feudalism in our future -- it's even the bit in Frank Herbert's Dune series that I like the least -- but as I've grown older it's come to seem less ridiculous to me, especially when, as in Philip K. Dick's first published novel, The Solar Lottery, said feudalism is characterized not by dueling aristocrats but by the re-institution of serfs. As our own post-millennial economy continues to collapse and so many millions have been out of work for so long, those of us with jobs are terrified of losing them, however crappy they are, and so cling to them fearfully, and those of us without them grow ever more desperate, we're just steps away from the masses swearing oaths of personal fealty to big shots who promise magnanimously to protect them. I'm pretty sure the Koch Brothers and Donald Trump already have scribbler serfs drafting oaths for the masses, yo.

But the feudalism is just part of what's going on in this one; the socio-economic system of the human-colonized Solar system has devolved into a sort of government by game show/lottery, in which everyone who has managed to hold onto his "power card" has a chance every irregular interval of becoming the Quizmaster and the effective ruler of all nine planets (yes, that's counting Pluto; this book is from the late 1950s).

So of course as our story starts a new Quizmaster is chosen, but he might be a ringer: he's the head of a crackpot society who not only believe that there is a tenth planet out there but that they should colonize it, following their prophet out there. So nobody's happy that absolute power has fallen to him, least of all the former Quizmaster. But the moment has been prepared for: to keep truly unworthy rulers from ruining everything, a Challenge system exists whereby one assassin at a time is specially chosen to try to kill the new Quizmaster -- if the assassin can get past the corps of telepaths and other bodyguard types protecting the new Quizmaster that is.

But just as the new Quizmaster has a strange new agenda, the old one has been working against the day with the bottle spun around to replacing him. His plan is a doozy. Only a disgruntled newb in the ranks could foul things up. But of course there is one. Of course there is.

Meanwhile, an expedition launched to find and settle the tenth planet, Flame Disc, encounters weirdness as its crew tries to escape the insanity of the Solar Lottery. I would have like to have seen more of this subplot, which almost threatened to become a first contact story (and I would so love to see what PKD would do with that hoary old sci-fi chestnut!), but it was underserved, PKD more interested in the assassination and conflicting oaths going on back on good old Mother Earth. The result is still a good read, but not his best. Which is as it should be.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Winston Graham's JEREMY POLDARK

Not since Tristram Shandy has a novel's titular character taken quite such a long time to actually appear -- by which I mean be born -- in his novel as does Jeremy Poldark. And Jeremy Poldark actually takes longer!

He's not a character so much as a placemarker in his book, is Jeremy, second child of Ross and Demelza Poldark, Regency era Cornwall's sudsiest soap opera couple. The year of Jeremy's birth also sees his daddy on trial for his life, accused of attacking revenuers and inciting a riot during the wreck of a pair of ships near his property one tempestuous Cornwall night, his parents somewhat estranged over some behind-the-scenes meddling Demelza seems to have done to ensure a favorable verdict, his family's fortunes threatened by dastardly deeds of business (by which I mean, mostly, the upstart Warleggan clan), and, as always, his daddy making eyes at Cousin Elizabeth, who was originally set to marry Ross but who married Ross's cousin Francis instead back when Ross was given up for dead in the American Revolution (see the first Poldark novel, Ross Poldark).

For added historical flavor, the assizes at which Ross is tried coincide with a local election, and of course the Poldarks live in a rotten borough, so lots of tasty machinations ensue -- by the way, if you don't want to click on that boring old Wikipedia explanation of a rotten borough, you might enjoy one E. Blackadder explaining it to the Prince Regent:



And yes that's House doing the chicken impression

The machinations in Jeremy Poldark aren't quite as hilarious as those in Blackadder the Third, but they're still a pretty entertaining backdrop to the novel's action.

Other subplots include Jeremy's Aunt Verity finally getting to meet the stepchildren that came along with the marriage Jeremy's mother helped make happen in Demelza, and the somewhat hapless Dr. Dwight Enys,  perhaps Ross' best friend, meeting yet another woman who flummoxes him, though admittedly with less disastrous results than the last go-around.

And as I said, Jeremy eventually gets around to getting born, but even his birth is something of a non-event. One hopes this new hero gets more to do in later books...

Monday, December 23, 2013

John Suchet's BEETHOVEN: THE MAN REVEALED

This is a book I reviewed for Insatiable Booksluts. To read it, make with the clicky at that site.

Patrick O'Brian's THE SURGEON'S MATE

The Surgeon's Mate is one of the cleverer titles for an Aubrey/Maturin novel, suggesting that it does that Dr. Maturin is at last going to get some help in keeping Captain Aubrey's crew healthy; larger commands like those Aubrey is entitled to these days not only get to bring along a surgeon but also a surgeon's mate, but that's not even sort of what is going on here.

The title refers to Maturin's lady-love, Diana Villiers, who has at last agreed to marry him as a means to recover her British citizenship after having run away with a rich American several novels ago -- a move she came to regret by the time The Fortune of War brought Aubrey and Maturin to America. Partly with her help, our duo escaped from the clutches of her lover (who turned out to be a major American spy-master) after having killed some important French spies, and made off with some of the lover's very important personal papers to boot.

It's a strange courtship these two have had, and by the time Maturin has found Villiers again, in America, he's mostly out of love with her; she has taken up tobacco smoking and bourbon drinking and a bit of a colonial accent, but she's still a looker and a pretty cool chick, so he's not completely off her, and good thing, because in The Surgeon's Mate it's her turn to save his bacon. Well, sort of. She believes she has done so, and is going to be allowed to believe it, because if the real story of how Stephen escapes France (where he and Aubrey are taken prisoner after their sloop wrecks after assisting in a chase after a mission in the Baltic involving Catalan freedom fighters and a Swedish island battery and other complicated stuff) ever became common knowledge, he would no longer be able to deny being the George Smiley of the Napoleonic wars.

This is not my favorite Aubrey/Maturin by a long shot, choppy and sort of all over the place, but it's still good fun.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Jessica Mitford's THE AMERICAN WAY OF DEATH REVISITED

In 1963, investigative journalist Jessica Mitford, youngest of the amazing brood of literary siblings that includes my beloved "U and Non-U" Nancy, published a tartly observed expose of the American funeral industry that opened a lot of eyes and angered a lot of undertaker funeral director grief therapists and made her a hero to the kind of flinty-eyed, savvy observers and consumers of American culture that I would most like to be myself.

At that time, The American Way of Death focused mostly on the racket of coffin casket sales and marketing and the budding collusion between undertakers and florists and other providers of goods and services used in disposing of honoring the dead during the apex of American civilization. The coming of giant funeral home conglomerates, industrial-scale mausoleum development and aggressive "pre-need" marketing was hinted at but still, in the 1960s, still all just potential. For this newer edition, published in 1998, The American Way of Death Revisited took on those developments with just as jaundiced, as funny, as tartly observed glee as the original work, and while yes, it disgusted me in many ways, it also made me laugh the way Paul "Dumbing of America" Fussell makes me laugh: bitterly but heartily.

I haven't had direct experience with this industry as yet, but sooner or later I will, and I'm already mad at the kind of crap they're going to try to pull. Suggesting, for instance, that cremation is disrespectful but that if I must I still have to buy a casket to cremate someone in (not true). Insisting that the body is required by to be embalmed as a public safety measure (not true). Intimating that I'm a bad, cold, unfeeling person if I don't shell out for embalming and for a big fancy satin lined casket and an open casket funeral so everybody can look at the deceased one last time looking better than he or she ever did in life (!) and a for vault to go over the casket and protect it from the elements and by the way it's really more tasteful to buy a bronze plaque to go over the hole in the ground where you stash the meat than to have a headstone made by a monumental mason. Because the bronze plaque manufacturers are our sort but those headstone people are really not the thing, you know. And don't even talk about scattering ashes, horrors!

By the way, as Mitford confirms (I had long suspected it but never been sure) embalming isn't really preservation at all; it's pretty much just an exercise in human taxidermy, its aim to make the corpse look good for that open casket funeral; its effects start to go to crap almost before the earth hits the coffin lid internment. You're paying to have your loved one (wink at Evelyn Waugh fans) stuffed and mounted like an elk head for display so that your friends and family can admire the taxidermist's embalmer's handiwork* so they'll choose him or her when it's their turn to let someone go.

 But I'm only scratching the surface of what's disinterred here. The Death Industry has, we learn, lobbyists every bit as powerful and persuasive as Wall Street, and they've skewed so many laws and codes in that industry's favor that it's hard to tell what the consumer's rights still even are. I'm sure it's only gotten worse since 1998. I'm waiting for pre-need funeral ads to start showing up in the margins of my Gmail. And the grief therapist marketing spam. And...

And it's all such a horrible mess, really, because the majority of Americans seem to think a big showy expensive open casket funeral is traditional and only decent and anyone who doesn't opt for this must be an unfeeling jerk who hated his deceased; i.e., the marketing has been successful as hell. So now the "conventions" the Death Industry pretty much invented to squeeze more money out of the recently bereaved (preying on their emotional vulnerability unconscionably) really are what's expected. Only the very strong and stubborn are coming out of the experience with their fleeces intact, I suspect.

But, you know, you can't take it with you. Whatever your culture's funeral customs.

*It's impossible not to think of John Waters' gleeful turn as a funeral director in My Name Is Earl, he of the "living tableau." And yes, Six Feet Under too, of course. But I think Waters did it way better. Because John Waters. Der.



Sunday, December 8, 2013

Dorothy Dunnet's NICCOLO RISING

O Claes van der Poel, O Nicolas de St. Pol, O Niccolò, where have you been all my life. Actually, that's a pretty funny question, because as I believe I have previously shared via these pixels, this is not my first time taking up Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolò Rising, the first volume in her even-bigger-at-least-because-more-books-than-Lymond series, The House of Niccolò.

This was a total DNF when I was 16 or so, despite the hilarity of its famous opening three-men-in-a-tub caper, in which our hero, whom I shall refer to simply as Claes because I like that name and that's how he wants people to keep thinking of him through this first novel -- I'll get to that bit in a moment -- his young master Felix de Charetty and "their" tutor Julius hitch a ride in the Duke of Burgundy's bathtub as it is being floated into the great city of Bruges and things go ridiculously wrong and Chekov's cannon* gets accidentally (?) dumped into the canal. Yes! That bit definitely hooked 16-year-old Kate, but the stuff that followed made her eyes glaze over, for while later in the book there are quite a few Shouty Men in Shiny Armour, until those moments it's a lot of early-Renaissance business drama, which try convincing any 16-year-old (except maybe Alex P. Keaton) that the words "business" and "drama" can even go together, go on, I dare you.

Considerably older Kate, though, relatively fresh off the Lymond Chronicles and considerably more attuned to the importance of trade to cultural development and thus to the notion that there can be drama in mercantile doings, found Niccolò Rising to be even more fun than those loftily beloved books, mostly because its hero is more fun. SO much more fun. Not to bag on Lymond, whose adventures and plots and subtleties I heartily enjoyed right up until he made me want to slap him silly in his last volume, but Claes, Claes, Claes!

Though things are revealed about his ancestry towards the end of Niccolò Rising that made me roll my eyes a little because I'm no great respecter of aristocracy and all of the crap ideas that surround it (if you haven't noticed, I tend to root against the queens when I read Jean Plaidy), Claes is poised to become my favorite literary hero, maybe ever. Raised as a dyer's apprentice (which, in 15th century Europe means stained fingers, weird chemical odors and oh yes pretty much the constant smell of urine) and looking like a big dumb lout with absurdly huge round eyes, ridiculous dimples and a profoundly innocent and dopey expression, he's a magnet for trouble and cheerfully accepts all the beatings that seem to be the wages of all of his escapades -- which, yes, include sleeping with girls he shouldn't sleep with along with dumb accidents (?) like the men-in-a-tub/cannon-in-the-canal stunt that opens the novel.

But!

About those escapades. Those who have come to know Claes (short for Nicolas) well have begun to notice things about his pranks and the way things happen in general when he's around. The remarkable woman who owns the Charetty Company (of which the dye works is but one subsidiary), Marian de Charetty, widowed mother of Felix, for instance, agrees with Julius that Claes is maybe smarter than everybody gives him credit for. He only seems passive, does Claes...

Bit of an understatement, that. Before much ink has been consumed in describing his world -- and an unhappy incident involving a serving wench whom an unpleasant Scottish nobleman (who was also present for the tub/cannon affair) had thought was only servicing his noble self  -- he is busy, busy, busy in his head, working out an elaborate scheme to capitalize on a bit of possibly throwaway information a famous Greek prince of industry let slip in Claes' presence concerning a non-Ottoman source of alum, a mineral compound vitally important to many industrial/chemical processes like making dye stick to fabric and thus a vital raw material for his mistress' business. And also military adventure! Except the military adventure is for other people; the Charetty's should just hire and equip them and rent them out to various Italian noblemen fighting over all those wacky things Italian noblemen fought over in the 15th century. And how these two things -- alum and mercenaries -- might come together in one grand coup that might just lift Claes out of the piss vats and into the bourgeoisie.

But again, this is a guy whom nobody takes seriously, except for the Widow and her notary/Felix's tutor. So he has to finesse. Without giving away the fact that he's actually a mathematical/mercantile genius, because being underestimated is his favorite strategy, and not rubbing it in when people realize what brilliance he's pulled off but instead staying humble and passive is his best tactic. Or something like that.

So Claes is someone who could either be seen as a manipulative mastermind who is out to deceive and revenge himself on everybody who ever sneered at him or ordered him beaten, or as a genuinely nice and loving guy who innocently comes up with a lot of really cool ideas that just happen to have staggering worldwide repercussions and make him some epic enemies in the process (his companions have a big long discussion about which version of Claes (whom they start calling Nicolas as his stature elevates, and whom the Italians with whom he has started dealing with on surprisingly high levels insist on calling Niccolò) is the "real" one. They conclude it's best to hope for the latter but be ready for the former as Claes' first round of jaw-droppingly intricate and mostly-successful (ah, but the successes are always bittersweet) schemes come to fruition and he and the Charettys prepare to embark on a brand new round on an even grander scale in the next novel, Spring of the Ram, which I think I'll be reading soon because I AM SO TEAM CLAES YOU GUYS. He's like Lymond, only not at all pretentious and not nearly so self-important (because he's not a nobleman, perhaps?) and he's having to make it on guts and smarts and sheer merit alone...!

People who find this series a let down after Lymond... I don't think I understand them, at all.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S COMPANY

In a lot of ways, Sharpe's Company can feel like Sharpe's Fortress revisited, though in a slightly diminished capacity. Fortress had Sharpe leading the charge and finding the vulnerability in India's awesome mountaintop fortress of Gawilghur where Company has him "merely" having to do so to take the Spanish fortress-town of Badajoz, a much less impressive target, but there are challenges and complications to keep things fresh, oh yes.

Though the fortress angle is not the only parallel with Fortress. Oh no. For Sharpe's Company brings back one of Sharpe's most entertaining enemies, the malevolently cunning Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill -- last seen in Sharpe's Fortress, once again failing to kill our hero, but not for lack of trying.

Here Hakeswill surfaces as a new member of the South Essex, the battalion to whose fortunes Sharpe and his Rifles have been married for several Peninsular novels now, and he arrives just in time to see Sharpe laid somewhat low: his latest field promotion to Captain has finally and formally been rejected by the British army's top brass (over Wellington's objections, to be sure) and Sharpe is just a lieutenant again, though still sort of running his Light Company, at least until its new captain arrives -- a captain who is a proper high-born gentleman of means, and who purchased his commission like you're supposed to.

That system of the hereditary upper-class buying their way into officer-dom has always blown me away, as an American who used to take it for granted that the military is and should be a meritocracy. A lifetime of reading stories proving me wrong, at least in the case of the European military, hasn't robbed me of this basic reaction; I suppose by now it's obvious that I'll never really lose it, no matter how often the injustices of the purchased commission system are exploited for drama.

And speaking of obvious, if it's not by now, continuity, as far as the Sharpe novels are concerned, is a matter for other series, as is driven home anew early on in Sharpe's Company as we learn that his lover Teresa, badass Spanish partisan and beautiful babe, has given birth to a daughter, his daughter, and we see him acting like it's his first an only child even though those of us who are reading his adventures in chronological, rather than publication, order know that he's already got a daughter by one Lady Grace, whom he met on his homeward journey from India. The late Lady Grace having been a lady, her upper-class family would rather not acknowledge Richard's part in the creation of their granddaughter and so have taken the girl away from him, so perhaps he's just done a really, really good job of blotting this real first child from his thoughts?

Anyway, fiction. Which this is. And the Sharpe novels are a special case, there. To the point where I think that from now on, if anyone asks me in what order to read them, I might just say publication order. The discontinuity might jar less that way, even as the adventures leap about in time. Sharpe already spends lots of time in Doctor Who jeopardy; he might as well just be experienced as full on timey-wimey, amirite?

At any rate, Sharpe's Company. As I've mentioned, Sharpe's most enthusiastic (if not always most effective because batdung insane) enemy is back and up to his old tricks, and Sharpe has been put somewhat out to pasture for a while, suddenly in charge of the battalion's "wives and mules and baggage" instead of his Light Company and his beloved Rifles (who themselves are being, cough, strongly encouraged to ditch their threadbare green Rifles jackets for good old British army bright red-and-pipeclay, and to exchange their Baker rifles for plain old muskets, further insulting Sharpe's pride). Which he bitches about to his sub-protector, Major Hogan (who looks after Sharpe for Wellington), and gets shot down with a speech that could come straight from the mouth of his Author trying to keep this swashbuckling bastard under control: ""Just because you've been allowed to swan about like a bloody pirate for years doesn't mean you shouldn't take your turn at the real work." This made me laugh, even though it's precisely Sharpe's swanning around like a bloody pirate that makes him such fun to read, even when his adventures start getting formulaic.

Swan on, Sharpe. Swan on.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

J.R. Rain's SILENT ECHO

I don't even remember what the other offerings from the inaugural "Kindle First" selection were; as soon as I saw this pretty spiffy cover and read the blurb, I knew I wanted to read this, and soon!

Silent Echo is probably going to be marketed as mystery or crime fiction; I gather the other, J.R. Rain, is somewhat an established name in those genres, at any rate, and there is a mystery plot forming the novel's narrative backbone, but really, the mystery is the least interesting thing about the book.

The private eye tracking the killer - who turns out to be something of a serial killer, with signatures and weird motivations and the will to play games with the people trying to catch him and all -- is dying, you see. Of AIDS-related lung cancer. And it's not just a someday sort of dying; as the novel opens, Jimmy Booker has already lived two months beyond his prognosis, and is struggling every day to do basic things like get out of bed. Fortunately -- and this is where Silent Echo really stands out -- he has an amazing, selfless, generous and wise friend to help him through everything.

Numi, a Nigerian artist who has transplanted himself to Los Angeles and met Jimmy many years ago while Jimmy was investigating a case, skirts the "magical negro" trope for the most part, though he has moments. What saves him from just being one is the degree to which he has devoted himself to keeping his friend Jimmy alive; he's not a guru, not an impassive dispenser of wisdom, nor is he merely a helpmeet, though he is that as well. He is a kind and loving friend, who lets Jimmy occasionally act like a selfish jerk, calls him on it only very gently, helps Jimmy with even the most intimate of tasks, and has become the benevolent dictator governing who, in Jimmy's last days, gets to bother him.

A childhood friend of Jimmy's makes the cut, and that's where the murder mystery comes in; Jimmy's specialty is missing persons, and Eddie's wife (a sort of unlit old flame of Jimmy's as well) is missing, under circumstances that echo the missing persons case that started it all for Jimmy back when he was a teenager: the disappearance and murder of Jimmy's kid brother.

The plot, in other words, is dead simple, even a tad predictable, even given the twist of this being the detective's last ever case and one he can't investigate without an extraordinary amount of help. But this book is not to be read for the plot, it's to be read for the relationships, for the honesty and regret and bitterness and extraordinary (platonic) love and the chillingly plausible descriptions of what it feels like to be facing the very end of life, how a person's outlook and priorities change and how one real friend can make all the difference.

Quite a nice little read.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Ford Madox Ford's LAST POST

A lot of people -- including no less a figure than Dorothy Parker -- have bagged on this final novel in Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End quartet, but Last Post might actually be my favorite of the sequence. And largely for the same reasons that Parker et al have found it an unsatisfactory read.

I suspect this is largely because everyone expects this last novel to just wrap up Chrissie and Valentine's love story -- which it does, sort of -- but Last Post throws a bit of a curve ball, if I may use an American baseball metaphor about this veddy veddy British novel. For Last Post is told almost entirely from the points of view of Parade's End's ancillary characters, particularly Chrissie's much older brother, Mark Tietjens. And Mark Tietjens had some kind of stroke or attack or idiopathic something* on Armistice Day, leaving him paralyzed and speechless, communicating with eye blinks alone.

Sharing internal narrative duties are his life-long lady love, the French actress he "took up" in a very businesslike arrangement early in his youth and only married after his idiopathic violent unknown event left her potentially financially vulnerable to the machinations of Chrissie, or, really, Chrissie's estranged wife, the magnificent and malicious Sylvia.
Marie Tietjens has only been obliquely referenced before this novel, but swiftly becomes a character whose experiences and perspectives are a pleasure to share, the only Tietjens-or-Tietjens-by-marriage who actually appreciates the thousand-some acres of Yorkshire, the famously massive cedar tree and the ancient grey house of Groby. Marie has long had her heart set on someday retiring to the French countryside, marrying some nice undemanding landholder, and ending her days as mistress of a nice old agricultural establishment; since the war put paid to that and so Groby becomes her paradise instead, where she does a nice job dealing with the chickens and the cider presses and doesn't seem to mind that she also has to minister to an invalid.

Marie's pleasure is contrasted with the displeasure of Sylvia's life-long tantrum, which in this last book takes the form of renting out Groby (control over which Mark and Chrissie turned over to her earlier in the quartet) to an insufferable rich American woman who entertainingly claims "spiritual descent" from Madame de Maintenon (but who keeps insisting Marie Antionette was mean to her. Um.) and who considers it to be rich Americans' job to take over for the ancien regime, not by replacing it with democracy, but by supplanting Europe's hereditary aristocracy like a brash young understudy edging out the aging prima donna.The fact that the unseen (for the whole novel!) Chrissie is now making his living selling off the prima donna's clunky old unwanted antique furniture to furnish the understudy's homes in America is an enjoyable irony on which no one in the story comments. The hereditary aristocracy, both Tietjens brothers have been seen to observe in these novels, is pretty much played out, exhausted, never really up to the task of governing the simpler pre-War world they ruled, let alone this complicated modern one everybody sees coming.

It all serves to comment somewhat bitterly, perhaps, on how completely things both have and haven't changed as a result of the Great War. Which is really, after all, what these novels are for, pitting as they do "The Last Tory", the "18th Century" Chrissie Tietjens against the 20th century. We don't have to do much thinking to figure out who's going to win that one.

It would thus be easy to dismiss Parade's End as so much reactionary harrumphing, but that would be an error. As I've mentioned, both Tietjens brothers come around to the idea that maybe the existence of a hereditary "administrative class" was never all that great an idea to begin with, so while neither of them is eager to embrace the new world they see coming, unlike the types that nowadays bray about being conservative, the brothers Tietjens are trying neither to hang on to power nor to use what power they do have to thwart progress. The world can go harum scarum if it wants; they're going to stay in their little corner of the 18th century and enjoy it while it lasts; it looks like it can last at least until the next generation is grown up. That, they seem to say as "Last Post"** is blown over the story, will have to do.

*A doctor describes what's wrong with Mark as "fulminant hemiplegia" which is one of those Latin terms that basically just describe what is wrong (in this case, extremely sudden paralysis of half of the body) in Latin and sheds no actual light on what is wrong. Various others in the novel -- including Mark's lover and later wife Marie -- seem mostly to regard this as something Mark chose, as his final withdrawal from the stupidities of early 20th century social life and his responsibilities therein. There may be an actual medical component to Mark's problem, they concede, but it could have been overcome or at least accommodated had he wanted to, but Mark's not even going to try to overcome it, and prefers his new life as someone to be waited on hand and foot and propitiated like a god.

**Sort of the British version of "Taps".

Friday, November 22, 2013

Dorothy Dunnett's CHECKMATE

There was a big part of me that did not ever, ever want to read Checkmate, because that would mean coming to the end of the Lymond Chronicles, and you only get one first read through of things and I didn't want my first read of these books to end, ever.

But... Since about halfway through the third or fourth book I knew I wanted to start the series over again because I obviously had missed some things, or missed the importance of some things, or misinterpreted some things and... look, I can see why some people call Dorothy Dunnett the only author you'll ever need, because it's obvious that many a reader could be perfectly happy just reading these books over and over again over a lifetime. And I might do that, though there's still the House of Niccolo series of which to partake, yet, too.*

In order to engage in either of those reading projects, though, I had to rip off the band-aid and let the Lymond Chronicles end for me.

And I gotta tell you, guys, I kind of wish I hadn't. But not for the reasons one might expect.

I'm not going to say that Checkmate is awful; it's still Dorothy Dunnett, still a Lymond novel, which means it's way, way better than 99.999999% of the books that have yet been, or ever will be written, but...

Gosh, I wasn't ready for this grand and elegant tale to descend into melodrama. And not just melodrama but the kind of melodrama in which the reader fantasizes about slapping the hero (as the hero's amazing mother, Sybilla Crawford, gets to do -- has to do -- at one point late in the novel) and heroine silly. Because both hero and heroine -- but especially the hero -- are being whiny little emo bitches.

Married to the awesome Philippa Somerville, who has been taking no crap from him for five novels now, since the end of the fourth novel (Pawn in Frankincense), Lymond has been sort of half-assedly trying to wiggle his way out of his marriage, assuming, for the most part rightly, that Philippa, who started out the Chronicles hating his guts, would probably rather be married to somebody else; they only tied the knot to preserve her reputation after she spent some considerable time as a (still undeflowered) part of the Ottoman Emperor's harem and had to travel some considerable distance with a lot of men who weren't related to her, but without a suitable female chaperon (unless you count the mysterious Crawford by-blow, Marthe, but you really shouldn't. Ever). As Checkmate opens, he is given an offer he can't refuse by the King of France, who dangles a divorce before Lymond's jaded eyes as an inducement to stick around and put his and his company's martial talents in the service of France against Bloody Mary's dear husband Philip of Spain. So of course he accepts.

But then...

But then circumstances first lead Philippa to realize she's had the hots for him all along, and then lead Lymond to reveal that he has also, at some point, realized that they're perfect for each other, which should be great but isn't because Emo Lymond has decided that passionate love is the worst possible basis for a marriage and is actually the worst and most destructive thing that can happen to two people (which, he has a point there, IMHO) and so he still insists on the divorce. He's got his next bride -- a high-ranking French heiress -- all lined up, and Philippa, in true Ugly-Duckling-to-Swan-by-way-of-Seraglio fashion has more suitors than can fit comfortably into a massive royal audience chamber, so really, they'll both be fine.

Except, of course, they're not fine, because they're in LURVE. And also because there is still all the untidy mess of Lymond's lineage and parentage and all of the enemies he's made around the world that are still alive and people who still insist on willfully misunderstanding him and his motives and gossiping about him and plotting to kill him (and his wife, too -- their escape from a whole passel of murderers early in the novel is one of the best scenes in all of these chronicles, exciting and ridiculous and hilarious and perfect in every way until Pip has to spoil it all by saying something stupid like "Francis, you fool. This is what you should be." Which, durr, but anyway.

But amid all that I'm complaining of, there are still some marvelous bits, like the aforementioned chase, and the reunion with Lymond and his readers of so many of his former sidekicks and helpers and partners in not-quite-crime. Archie Abernathy above all, but also Jerrot Blythe and Adam Blacklock and Alec Guthrie and... the list goes on. We even get to see Lymond's older brother and learn a thing or two about him we weren't expecting. I would not have been surprised at all to finally get another appearance of the entertaining and annoying Lady Agnes from The Game of Kings. Which is to say that narratively and in terms of character arcs, the loose ends mostly get tied up very well.

And there are seriously WTS moments like a visit to a possibly haunted house where the mysterious Dame de Doubtance once lived and told fortunes and collected alchemical and other junk. And so on.

But mostly what there is, is being annoyed at Lymond and Philippa, suddenly acting like teenagers continually inventing new excuses for being unhappy. And let me just say that these are two people who are very, very good at everything they do, so the excuses they generate for their continued misery are staggering, and more than a little icky.

So, like so many readers before me, I have terribly mixed feelings about this last volume of the Lymond Chronicles. Yes, it gives everything a proper and mostly happy ending, but if you're not a reader who gets off on "will they or won't they" "hurry up and make out already" drama, the path to that ending is a bit like, well, like this:




But yes, I still want to go back and re-read these books right from the beginning. Perhaps even more so than before I hit Checkmate, because I am longing quite passionately to hang out with Lymond while he was still awesome and enigmatic. Sigh.

*I actually started the first book of that series as a teenager, but got bored about 20% into it. I might again, but I'm far from being a teenager now; my tastes have changed, my attention span has grown, my knowledge of the period and appreciation of the mercantile/economic side of life have deepened, so I'm thinking maybe I'll actually enjoy it this time. We'll see.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Scott Lynch's THE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES

So, it's pretty well documented now that I really love Locke Lamora, and I've been eager to read more of his adventures. Especially since this new book, The Republic of Thieves, promised finally to let us get a first-hand look at the character whose absence has been such a presence in the first two books, Sabetha, the only female Gentleman Bastard. Or, I guess, the Token Lady Bastard.

Which is to say that this is where a lot could have gone wrong at this point in this series, in which Scott Lynch has so far managed to avoid incorporating anything dumb or cliched or annoying or infuriating; a Token Female could be the worst possible thing to happen in this universe, could deform and warp everything about it -- or, if handled right, could make the series even more awesome.

It's handled right. Oh, is it handled right. Because yes, Sabetha is beautiful. And super-accomplished. And super-smart. And all the male characters pretty much just want to fling themselves at her feet, the better to look up her skirt. But Sabetha deals with it the way a real heroine should. She acknowledges it, occasionally takes advantage of it, but mostly, she calls bullshit on it, clearly and distinctly. Especially where Locke is concerned. The more he declares his undying admiration and devotion, the more she skewers him for not acknowledging that she is a person in her own right who maybe never asked for said admiration and devotion and resents the idea that because he wants to give it to her, she not only has to accept it but has to in some way reciprocate it, or owes him something in exchange for it. Which, it turns out she does reciprocate it, which just makes her angrier at his presumption that his attentions are welcome. It's all very fraught, this Locke/Sabetha business.

We get to see all of this play out in three layers of storytelling. In the novel's present we get a sequel to the first two books, being the further adventures of Locke and Jean after their high seas heartbreak. Intercut with this is another extended flashback to the Gentleman Bastard's teenage years, when Sabetha was a part of their crew and Locke, Jean, Sabetha and the wonderful and much-missed Sanza twins were sent off to do a tour of duty treading the boards in a far-off city, there to perform in a deeply allegorical play called The Republic of Thieves, which, Gene Wolfe-style, forms a third layer of storytelling as bits of its plot and text are doled out at irregular intervals to serve as a sort of meta-commentary on what's going on in the two main plots.

Weirdly, though the stakes are higher in the "present" plot, it's the flashbacks that were my favorite. One could attribute this to the presence of the Sanza twins, but one would be wrong; Calo and Galdo are barely there, hardly even bit players in the theater troop drama that unfolds, as if Lynch having killed them off, can't bear to try to bring them back to life even in flashbacks now. They have some amusing moments, sure, but they're not very Sanza moments. No. The flashback plot is wonderful because of the Locke and Sabetha show, because of the drama attendant on a messed up theatrical troupe and the built-in tension that comes with any theater story: will they pull it off?

Of course, will they pull it off is also the question in the "present" plot. Red Seas Under Red Skies, you may recall, left Locke on the verge of a nasty and painful death by poison, a poison that had been administered by a nasty wizard to both Locke and Jean but for which one antidote existed, so of course Locke trick-forced said antidote on Jean. The Republic of Thieves picks up from there with a representative of the same enemy force that poisoned the Bastards offering to save Locke's life for a price: he and Jean have to come to their city and help fix an election for the amusement of the nasty wizards. With the extra catch being that both sides get help rigging said election, and the other side's mastermind is to be Sabetha, who will once again have to be twice as good as the males because she's actually up against two males.

That the resulting contest, while entertaining, turns out to have even higher stakes than originally appeared the case should come as no surprise to Lynch's readers. Something big has been building through all the books; the Elderglass strewn here and there in his realms is not just set dressing but clues to the destruction or flight (or both) of an ancient and powerful race of somethings that made/built the towers and bridges and walls still standing and usable in Locke's day. The nasty wizards haven't just been pursuing the Bastards for revenge. I now feel the need to re-read the first two books to see what other signs I've been ignoring or discounting as just background color for the Bastards' antics.

But that's going to have to wait. I never thought I'd ever say this, but I'm kind of Bastarded out for a while. Hmm.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Netflix Finds: Bela Tarr's THE WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES



Hungarian filmmaker BélaTarr has made something altogether wonderful in The Werckmeister Harmonies, a film in which a lot is going on but still doesn't have a lot of plot, a film which is meant to be watched and listened to and absorbed and yes, probably argued about, but not necessarily enjoyed for the narrative.

I would undersell it to describe it as a two and a half hour music video, but in some ways that's what it is, and what the title might almost make one expect; the work of Baroque era composer and musical theorist Andreas Werckmesiter is alluded to (negatively) but is not present in the soundtrack, replaced by Strauss' Radetzsky March, Bach's Prelude No. 8 in E-flat minor from The Well Tempered Clavier and, most importantly and thoroughly, a gloriously beautiful and haunting score by Hungarian composer Vig Mihaly, in which a simple and repetitive piano motif is amplified, possibly canonically (I'm no music theorist myself) by beautiful string arrangements that alternately meditate and weep and amplify the film's stateliness (if the film grabs you) or glacial slowness (which you'll complain of if it doesn't).

What story there is concerns a tiny village on the Hungarian plain, the kind that seems suspended in a strange 20th century timelessness until the spell is broken toward the end with the brief appearance of a modern helicopter in a vaguely (and slowed down) North by Northwest-ish chase scene. It's winter, or the start of winter, and the mercury has dropped to way below freezing; the season of "nothing to do but drink and fret" has begun. To liven things up of an evening, our sort-of-hero, Valuska János (Lars Rudolph) takes it upon himself to arrange the drunks in the town's only cafe into a living, staggering orrery to explain an upcoming eclipse (which, violating Chekov's gun rules, does not occur in the film except maybe in a very metaphorical sense).

But soon more interesting entertainments are on offer: a traveling circus! Tarr both does and does not partake of the "sinister carnival" motif we see so often in film with this: the circus consists of just two "acts": a taxidermy whale and a nasty non-character called "The Prince", alluded to but never seen, who allegedly has the "power of magnetism" but seems principally to exercise that power in the form of hate speech that has startlingly violent consequences.

All of this unfolds in 39 long and languid shots, sometimes several minutes long, that will either madden or entrance the viewer. The taxidermy whale arrives slowly in a giant corrugated metal crate and we watch its ponderous arrival in real time with János as the light ripples along the crate's surface. János puts one "uncle" to bed and prepares his house for nighttime, then goes out on a newspaper delivery "run" that's really more of a stroll. He pauses with another "uncle" (I think maybe "uncle" is an honorific for your elders in Hungary?) who expounds on his theories that Andreas Werckmeister's tuning theories have distorted the Music of the Spheres (which idea János sort of demonstrated in the cafe) and are why everything has gone wrong in the world. He meets with the theorist's estranged wife (Hanna Shygulla), who insists on János drafting the old man into doing something about the growing disturbance in the town the circus has touched off. A group of cudgel brandishing men slowly march to the facility they will do their best to destroy. Etc.

Really, for me, it's all about watching the light play on Shygulla's beautifully aging features, on the shadows and hollows created in Rudolph's face, and the rhythm of the film's dancelike movements to Vig Mihaly's amazing, amazing score.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Gene Wolfe's PEACE

On the surface, Peace seems the most quotidian Gene Wolfe novel I've yet read, but the surface is never to be trusted with this guy. Oh, no. This is very likely the most elusive, occlusive and deceptive writer ever.

And this is -- and I say this as a passionate fan of all 12 books of Wolfe's maddening Solar Cycle but especially of the Book of the New Sun -- one of his most remarkably elusive, occlusive and deceptive books. And also, and this is probably because of its quotidian elements, the most tantalizing, because grounded in ordinary reality, mostly, and thus promises a certain possible relative ease of interpretation.

Not that it delivers on same. Or at least, not very much. Ahh, Gene Wolfe.

So on the surface this is just the regretfully nostalgic meanderings of an old man who lived an idyllic and improbable (to the modern reader -- c.f. how I felt reading Philip K. Dick's In Milton Lumky Territory) early 20th century small town in the American midwest, with all the Normal Rockwellian pastoral pleasures and soda shop scenes that implies. Albeit with a slightly sinister flavor, in that there's an awful lot of death and talk of death. And of course there's the way the narrative skips around in time, which may just be a dotty old man free associating but may also be a bit of a Billy Pilgrim-unstuck-in-time thing. And you can totally just stop there and read Peace as Gene Wolfe's Slaughterhouse-Five. But...

But then you notice all these recurring themes. How every single story that our man Alden Dennis Weer (usually called Den, one of the many onomastic clues that led good old Robert "Solar Labyrinth" Borski to spin out a whole involved theory about how Peace is Wolfe's version-cum-inversion of Goethe's Faust, with Den as Mephistopholes) tells or is told has certain repetitive elements that fractally echo other parts of the story that all relate back to Den's childhood sin of pushing a little boy down some very dangerous stairs.

And then there's that ending. Not since I first read Infinite Jest have I felt so compelled to go back to the beginning of a novel and read the beginning again because only now did I finally have the clue I needed to understand what was going on there. Except Peace is not over 1000 pages long. It's not even 300. You can read that in a night.

And Bog help me, I did. Yep. For the first time ever in my life, I read a novel twice in a row, with not so much as a short story, poem or internet article in between. And when I got to the end, even after hours and hours of figurative light bulbs popping and exploding over my head, I was still somewhat tempted to start again from the beginning*. But, as you'll see shortly, I have other reading and blogging obligations in the offing, and none of them allow for re-reading a novel almost as old as I am.

There. I almost read a book three times in a row. If that's not a ringing endorsement, nay, command, to drop everything and go read Peace at your earliest opportunity, what is?

*Neil Gaiman has famously observed that he only realized that Peace is a horror story on his second reading. And while elements of horror and ghost stories were noticeable the first time around -- I was especially seized by the theme of humans slowly turning to stone while they were still alive (there's even a mention of the Cardiff Man hoax! Hooray!) and the whole creepy carnival theme that springs up in the novel's second half -- I still don't read it so much as a horror story in the sense that term is usually used. The horror is that of guilt realized, of atonement rendered as impossible as redemption. Peace is simultaneously the most ironic and most perfect of titles for this book.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky's ROADSIDE PICNIC with remarks on Andrei Tarkovsky's STALKER

I recently and for the first time* saw Andrei Tarkovsky's glorious lo-fi sci-fi (before that was much of a thing) adaptation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic, Stalker, and loved it so much I watched it four times before I could bring myself to send it back to Netflix.** And it turns out that I love the source material just as much, which doesn't always happen with books-adapted-to-films. But then again, this is Tarkovsky doing the adapting.

The film is a stripped down version of the book, its trio of main characters deeply abstracted and Tarkovskified from the cast of Roadside Picnic, partly due to the constraints under which the director was working -- hence the low-fi part of the sci-fi, i.e. nothing near the special effects budget that would be required to render all of the alien artifacts and gadgetry the novel's characters encounter -- and partly because Tarkovsky, as always, had his own things going on. Like creating breathtaking underwater Cornell boxes while contemplating the bitter hilarity of our mortal existence:



But what's this all about, you're probably asking?

Roadside Picnic and its adaptation concern the aftermath of an alien stopover on Earth by beings so incomprehensibly different and presumably advanced that they might not even have realized (or cared) that this planet was inhabited by at least one species that presumes itself sentient. Like careless travelers stopping for a picnic lunch, the aliens left behind a fair amount of crap, to which we humans are drawn as ants are to the wrappers and napkins and food scraps human picnickers might leave.

But what crap it is, glorious and dangerous and mysterious and powerful and did I mention dangerous? As are the Zones themselves that were visited and contain the Alien Crap (a list of which can be perused over at Wikipedia but ware spoilers!), in which the laws of physics, life and death, etc. are profoundly different from those prevailing in the good old ordinary universe as we know it and may also change from time to time.

So of course humanity is studying it (carefully) at very high levels and of course at lower levels there is a black market in Alien Crap and in unauthorized trips to the Zones to acquire more Alien Crap and also to exploit some of its properties like the Golden Sphere (which in Tarkovsky's film is changed into a Room), which grants wishes! Hence the existence of folk like our main character (and the title character of the film), Red, who is a Stalker -- a guide into and smuggler out of the Zones, who starts off his career as an unskilled research assistant, takes up a line in Stalking to make a little beer money, and then, when he gets his girlfriend pregnant, realizes he's got to keep breaking the law to keep his new family in groceries.

So even though the novel has a lot more gee-whiz sci fi elements than the film did, it's still a bottom-up view of a world transformed by an alien visit; Red is a working stiff, not an eminent scientist or astronaut, something which critics have made much of when writing about this book over the years; this book, of course, predates the "high tech/low life" scenarios to which cyberpunk and its spawn have long accustomed us. But just as we never get tired of working stiff stories in other genres, there's still plenty of room for working stiff sci-fi, especially when it's this good.

Roadside Picnic manages to be a slightly farcical (in that dry, dark and Russian way) quest narrative, a meditation on how small and insignificant we very probably are in the universe, a family drama and a cautionary tale. With Alien Crap.

In other words, it's completely wonderful.

But what really keeps it intriguing is the novel-world's central mystery: is there an overall, coherent, logical system behind all the Alien Crap and how it works, as in did the Brothers Strugatsky plan it all out and develop it as a complete puzzle for us to solve -- one with a solution -- or is it just a whole bunch of weird phenomena that they thought would be cool and just brainstormed one night over, say, some mushroom tea a la Babylen and Andrei in the fantastic Generation P (an adaptation of some more amazing Russian science fiction, my beloved Victor Pelevin's Homo Zapiens, and which film contains more than a few visual and narrative homages to Stalker. It's fly agaric all the way down, yo.)? Which might mean it's still weirdly meaningful, but not in a systematic way that one can tease out with mere reason... an exercise all the Alien Crap and Zone Traps which Roadside Picnic offers pretty much irresistibly invites the reader to try.

The film, of course, has other things with which to bake one's noodle, big philosophical and religious questions without which a Tarkovsky film would not be a Tarkovsky film, as well as long, slow, meditative and dreamlike scenes like this travel sequence:
:


This sequence should be required viewing for anyone who thinks he or she could pull some lo-fi sci fi cinema. It's just three guys sitting on a railroad car watching the scenery go by, but Eduard Artemiev's perfect musical accompaniment (which I played on a loop for a while during my reading of Roadside Picnic) and the transition from gritty industrial sepia-toned film stock to full color film*** and a lush green landscape**** makes Tarkovsky's Zone feel just as strange as the Strugatsky's but in a completely different way.

 Wonderful as Stalker is, though, now that I've read the novel from which the film is abstracted, I kind of wish Tarkovsky used more of the source material, not so much the Alien Crap as  the novel's social dimensions: the novel takes us inside the Institute which studies the Alien Crap and has a lot to say about the difficulties being encountered in figuring out how it works, why it works, what some of it might be for; it also spends some time with what must surely be the organization behind the Professor's mad scheme in the film, with those who oppose the exploitation of the Zones and regard them and their products as EVIL. Too, a movement within the Institute charged with policing and shutting down the Stalkers introduces a huge friendship and betrayal plot/theme that adds layers of intrigue to the novel (but also, sadly, winds up not being resolved within its text). But all that would require a different filmmaker altogether to develop. Richard Linklater, say.

It's hard, too, to read this book now without perceiving a lot of Soviet themes and thinking, spotting allegories about the dangers of Western-style materialism, for instance, as well as a certain environmental/pollution-themed cautionary tale. Careless aliens made whole swathes of our planet uninhabitable and hostile. Careless people have the same effect on other species' habitats. Species have evolved that are entirely dependent on our artificial impacts; in Roadside Picnic, we are in danger of adapting irrevocably to the impact of the Visit. Which, for all the novel's cast knows, might just be the whole point!

Oh, so much to think about, when we think about The Other...

*This to my shame, because I do consider myself a fan of Tarkovsky. But I'm a fan of a lot of things, and it takes time to get to them all!

**And no, this was not just so I could keep looking at Anatoliy Solonytsin. No, really!

***This is probably due to another one of the famous Soviet austerity/resource choking constraints that left directors like Tarkovsky having to work with little bits of lots of different kinds of film rather than a deliberate choice to do some Wizard of Oz-ish gimmicky contrast, I'm pretty sure. But that's Tarkovsky, making lemonade. But, you know, the lemonade might transform your digestive tract and eventually your whole body into more lemonade if you drink it.

****And the whole theme of a gorgeous natural landscape transformed into something still beautiful but deadly as hell strongly prefigures/predicts what would become of the environs of Chernobyl as you can observe in Michelle Boganin's 2011 Stalker-esque tour of Terre Outragee.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ford Madox Ford's A MAN COULD STAND UP

I read most of A Man Could Stand Up, the third volume of Ford Madox' Ford's Parade's End, on Armistice Day, which lent a certain extra poignancy to the central image evoked by the title, of a man being able safely to stand up to his full height, above ground, without worrying about thereby meeting instant and violent death. The experiences of trench warfare as evoked in the book's middle third reduce pretty much everybody there to longing for a world in which that simple act, which nearly everyone who has ever lived has probably never even thought about, so ordinary is it, would again be possible.

That the other two thirds of the book take place on Armistice Day itself, the very first one, was interesting too, in a way, but like those sections themselves that fact paled in comparison to the thought of thousands of Tommies dreaming of the day when they could stand up again.

In a similar way, the focus of Parade's End has also narrowed to something simple, elemental, and boring, its core as an (admittedly unconventional) love story. While the newly introduced and the already known subordinate characters -- the Head of the girls' school where Valentine Wannop has spent the war as a games mistress (aka gym teacher), the subalterns and brother officers and members of the battalion over which Christopher Tietjens assumes command -- are all fully realized and get their moments to shine, this book is really all about Valentine and Chrissie. This makes it a leaner and sharper (and yes, shorter) read than Some Do Not or No More Parades, but also, surprisingly for a story that contains all of the tension and drama and horror of the fighting in France during the Great War, rather a pallid one.

I attribute this mostly to its most glaring absence: Sylvia Tietjens. We do not know for certain that she has ceded the field to Valentine, but she is, at any rate, not on it at all; she is barely even mentioned except in passing. We feel her most strongly in another absence: all of the furniture is gone from the flat she shared with Chrissie in London, a plot point on which a lot of Valentine's story turns as Lady MacMaster, once Valentine's close friend but now "siding" with Sylvia out of hatred for the man who kept her husband financially afloat and supplied the idea that got MacMaster his knighthood (it has been observed before that sometimes there is no more hateful figure in one's life than one's benefactor) seizes on it as a way, perhaps, to manipulate Chrissie via Valentine into forgetting that MacMaster owes him pretty much everything. Look at to what a sad state of affairs Chrissie has come home, Lady MacMaster says, none too subtly hinting that Valentine owes it to everyone to be his reward. Ugly stuff, this.

But of course, Valentine doesn't care about the ugliness, even though the possibility looms that the gossip that this news has started could cost her her job. Though there has been no contact at all between Valentine and Chrissie since he returned to France at the end of Some Do Not, though they've never spoken of feelings for each other and have barely even admitted to themselves that they even have feelings, Valentine's thoughts go immediately to the notion that she shall live with Chrissie now that the war is over.*

That Chrissie's thoughts have gone in much the same direction is pretty much just conveniently coincidental. These are neither of them people who air out their feelings to their closest chums or analyze them or think about romance at all; indeed, the way in which they are actually very well matched is that both cherish an idea about couplehood that is very much outside the norm: that domestic and (presumably) sexual intimacy is merely the means to the end of getting to talk to each other whenever they want, to have the kind of long and deeply involved conversations that are impossible to have in public, where any old idiotic acquaintance can interrupt them, where any old busybody can half overhear and misinterpret and blow into a scandal or a misunderstanding with ridiculous consequences (as is pretty much the very nature of the overall story of Parade's End!), where closing time or the end of a party or a car crashing into the horse pulling their cart can put a premature end to things.

Of course, Sylvia might very much have liked to have that, too. As we learned in No More Parades, Chrissie is the only man she's ever talked to who didn't bore her to death. And he was hers by law. But she'd gone about accomplishing this all wrong: Chrissie was probably the only man left in England for whom the first move of jumping his bones in a railway carriage was the worst way to begin the relationship. Had she let her brains show first instead -- and Sylvia, though perhaps not a great Latinist, is no dumb blonde -- she might have gotten all she could wish for. But how was she to know that, in Edwardian England?

Yeah, I'm still Team Sylvia, even though I also find myself kind of happy for Valentine as she stands shyly next to her man, holding his hand for the first time as he toasts the very first Eleven Eleven toast with his army buddies. I missed Mrs. Tietjens terribly, this novel, and hope against hope to see her again in the last volume, The Last Post.

Otherwise, I'm not sure there's any point to finishing this. Hmph.

*Though she does entertain some thoughts against making a move toward him, and they're very good thoughts:  "What was the coming together that was offered her? Nothing... but being dragged again into that man's intolerable worries as machinists are dragged into wheels by belts..." I read that and punched the air, but alas, Valentine gave herself very good advice and didn't follow it. Le sigh.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Edith Wharton's THE DESCENT OF MAN AND OTHER STORIES

I'd read a handful of Edith Wharton's short fiction (the most memorable of which "Xingu" especially prepared me for the title story of this book) before taking up The Descent of Man and Other Stories, so I was pretty sure about what to expect from this collection. Wharton is always a graceful and insightful writer, but in her shorter fiction, she's a bit wicked, in the best possible way.

Take, for example, the title story, "The Descent of Man", which concerns an eminent scientist who has decided to have a bit of a joke on the general public by publishing a perfect parody of the kind of pseudo-scientific nonsense that never goes out of fashion, always needs debunked or at least critically examined, and is often just a little bit too believable to make disproving it an easy task. His book a resounding success and the public clamoring for more, the professor faces a dilemma: let everybody down by exposing his satire, thus earning eternal enmity and likely ostracism, or give in to the public demand for more of the same. The title of the story should give some idea of how this goes. Like I said, a bit wicked, in the best possible way, is Ms. Wharton.

Wharton also explores upper-crust divorces and their exquisite discomforts in "The Other Two" as a man who is happily married to a twice-divorced woman keeps running into her prior husbands as he goes about his business, realizing he sort of has them to thank for her skill at making men happy even as he comes to like one of them and learns to tolerate the other, who is, after all, the father of her child. As this story was originally published in 1904, it also shows us that all of these entanglements are nothing new -- and they've rarely been treated so incisively and with such dispassionate amusement as Wharton, herself to later become a divorced though not remarried woman, gives them here.

Another amusing reflection on "modern" family life, "The Mission of Jane" almost reads like a long and drawn-out joke as a couple, disappointed in their marriage, adopts a child in the hopes of improving matters. Their resulting parenthood winds up being an even bigger disappointment as Jane turns out to be an insufferable know-it-all, but does eventually fulfill her purpose after a fashion. One can almost hear Wharton chuckling, genteelly, to herself as the story moves briskly along.

Other entries are almost farcically romantic, like "The Letter", which concerns a last letter penned by an Italian patriot executed by the Austrian regime, a letter which was never delivered to his grieving wife and sister. The tale is told from the point of view of an English adventurer in love with the sister, who in finding the titular letter finds an advantage he can use to discredit the rival for the sister's affections! One can hear the violins all but screeching in the background; sometimes in the foreground threatening to overpower the narrator's voice! Pass zee smelling salts and steer me towards the fainting couch! This together with the ghostly gothic silliness of "The Lady's Maid's Bell" seem more like pages from Vita Sackville-West's juvenalia than the work of the author of The House of Mirth. But hey, she wanted to stretch herself. I respect that.

Even those stories, though, aren't what one could call bad. Indeed, they might be taken as very delicate and subtle satire, which seems more Wharton's style. I'm just not sure.

What I am sure of, though, is that this collection is still a must-read for Wharton fans or those who are curious about her, if at least for its inclusion of the searingly amazing "Quicksand", in which a woman finds herself struggling to dissuade her prospective daughter-in-law from marrying, not because the girl is not good enough for the woman's son, but because the woman sees herself in the girl and also sees that her son would make it too easy for the girl to lose herself and all the qualities the woman admires, repeating the woman's own experience of marriage. It's exquisitely done, painful and challenging stuff, the story most like an Edith Wharton novel in this collection.

So, The Descent of Man and Other Stories is a bit of a mixed bag, but it shows off Wharton's versatility, talent and, perhaps most importantly, that she refused to take herself too seriously. She would have been fun to know socially, I'm pretty sure.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Ford Madox Ford's NO MORE PARADES

Where the Great War was just a trace element of Some Do Not, the first volume of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End tetralogy, in the second, No More Parades, it's the main event, the setting. From its first pages we are plunged into the tumult and confusion of Christopher "Chrissie" Tietjen's efforts to get a brand new draft of over 2000 Canadian soldiers ready for their posting -- and they've turned up with their uniforms and nothing else. All part of a day's work for Chrissie, pulling tin hats and identification discs and soldiers' wills out of thin air all because some military bureaucrats back in Blighty are earning themselves knighthoods by cutting corners and saving the taxpayers' money.*

Interestingly, for the first several chapters of the novel I found a certain ambiguity as to where these events fit chronologically with those of Some Do Not. From that first novel, we know that Chrissie has gone to the Front at least twice: which time is being depicted here? The ambiguity adds an extra intensity to Chrissie's struggles to outfit soldiers, survive a German air attack, not think about his wife, Sylvia, or about "his girl" (who is not named for quite some time but whom we know is Valentine, but... does he know that? Has he sustained his traumatic brain injury and come through it or is that in his future?) and to write a sonnet in two and a half minutes.** Which his fellow captain is then to render as Latin hexameters in the same amount of time as a sort of friendly competition to divert them a bit from the pressure and the horror. Good God I love this book!

But mere scenes of war and chaos are never enough for writers like Ford Madox Ford, who (quite properly) cannot resist messing with things by introducing his other brilliantly vivid characters into the mix at the worst possible times for them to be introduced. Enter Sylvia Tietjens, beautiful and bored and cruel like a neglected cat, who as a high society beauty, a lady of fashion, a veritable queen in her own right, can pull all sorts of strings (an image that recurs towards the end of No More Parades when Chrissie phrases her actions in terms of her having "pulled the string of a shower-bath", meaning her thinks of them as pranks and nothing worse) and manages to barge in on Tietjen's commanding officer demanding to see her husband.

Oh, Sylvia! I feel for her even more after the second half of this novel, which is mostly told from her point of view. Her respect and admiration for Chrisse have only grown together with a strong sexual desire for him that makes her "tremble" and "vibrate" even when discussing him with the man she once eloped on him with (who is in every way Chrissie's inferior and who, we learned, bored Sylvia to tears almost before they made landfall in France back in 1912 in Some Do Not). Nothing she has managed to do from home seems to have gotten a rise out of her husband, so she'll do her best to achieve that in person, war and duty be damned. This is selfish of her, of course, but the reader has already decided that the surname "Tietjens" is probably the word for "the most stubborn person like ever" in some obscure dialect of medieval Dutch; Chrissie is stubborn in his clinging to his rationality and his outmoded ideals (he tells his C.O. at one point that he took all his public school education on morals and conduct seriously, never outgrew it, and seems to be the only member of his generation so afflicted); Chrissie's brother Mark was stubborn, last novel, in believing the worst of his little brother and in determining to bring Chrissie's imagined shortcomings to their father's attention whatever the cost, and, in this novel, in making all of that up to Chrissie in well-intentioned but unworkable ways that only wind up making things worse for Chrissie; Sylvia is only a Tietjens by marriage but is just as stubborn as the born Tietjens about how her marriage was supposed to be and how she must settle for nothing less than exactly what she wanted, which was a loving and passionate life-long twosome with the most brilliant and capable man she has ever known: her husband.

Sylvia's desires are natural and understandable; her "villainy" if such it must be called lies in her limitations: she is a wealthy, well-born Lady of Fashion; men fall at her feet; her job is simply to keep herself beautiful because her purpose in life is decorative, is as an object of desire. She's more than doing her job, but the rest of society is not living up to the bargain she has always understood to have been struck since someone first noticed she was pretty. The rapt adoration and constant attendance on her of her chosen consort is her due! But having never had to be anything but pretty and fashionable and socially adroit, she's never learned how to actually deserve said adoration and attendance. It's tragic, really.

As is the way things are left at novel's end, which leaves Chrissie with no choice but to go to the front and probably be killed. His marriage is his undoing in every way: the lies he allowed to be spread to protect Sylvia the consequences of her earliest tantrums, the malice and jealousy exercised upon him by her other admirers, and, yes, the feelings he's allowed himself to develop for "the girl" who is his true match -- feelings he's not acted upon, but is believed to have done so by everybody, including his wife, which is what set her on her trajectory to pull the string of the shower bath. Oh, if only what had doused Chrissie had really only been water!

*This puts the current war's ongoing controversy over body armor and lack of toiletries into a certain perspective, doesn't it? Except of course the modern counterparts to Tietjen's faceless adversaries don't get knighthoods; they just get to keep their jobs.

**Of course I love this bit above all others, though I find his methods differ strongly from my own. My own record for speed sonnetry before witnesses is two minutes and about ten seconds, on October 8, 2009 at Chicago's Argo Tea House. But I was among friends only and no one was bleeding out at the time.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Patrick O'Brian's THE FORTUNE OF WAR

Very nearly everything bad, or at least unpleasant, that can happen to an 18th century sailing man happens to Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in The Fortune of War, the sixth in Patrick O'Brian's amazing chronicles of life in England's Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, making this novel perhaps the most aptly titled of the series. Though maybe it should be The Misfortune of War instead?

And they don't just happen for the sake of happening, these misfortunes. Pretty much everything that befalls our splendid duo is in some way a consequence of a prior adventure of theirs, or of suppositions relating to those adventures, to wit the "horrible old Leopard" which they barely survived commanding in Desolation Island and limp into New Holland after having been given up for dead at the beginning of The Fortune of War. The Leopard was an actual and infamous ship due to an incident in 1807 when its crew attacked the USS Chesapeake as part of an effort to capture some deserters from the Royal Navy, causing a diplomatic row and earning the Leopard a bad reputation among Americans*, with which reputation Jack Aubrey is tarnished when a series of calamities land him as a sort of convalescent/prisoner in Boston.

All that, though, is merely prologue to the land-based adventures of Maturin in Boston! For at its heart, The Fortune of War is a spy novel, and Maturin has been a very effective secret agent, even to planting a heap of poisonous misinformation on American spy Aphra Behn Louisa Wogan last novel, a feat that has resulted in serious disruption of the French intelligence effort, who weren't suspecting a pretty American dilettante would be so manipulated until it was too late and several of France's own agents were dead, dismembered, exiled, etc. This and other feats of espionage and counter-espionage render Maturin a marked man once he and Jack Aubrey find themselves prisoners of war in America, and in Boston specifically, which is crawling with French agents now that America, too, is at war with Britain. Yowza.

And of course, this is also the novel in which Maturin sort of half-assedly gets his heart's desire -- meaning the dashing, courageous, graceful and good-looking Diana Villiers, who has broken said heart several times but is now as trapped in America as are Maturin and Aubrey and Needs Stephen's Help. Just as Stephen has sort of decided maybe he's not in love with her anymore. Ah, me.

On to the next Napoleonic War adventure!

*And is also considered by some to be one of the causes of the War of 1812.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Kelly Link's STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN

I started reading this collection quite some time ago, when it landed on my devices via the Humble Bundle, but as I've discussed before on this blog, I've had trouble fitting short fiction into my reading life, to my detriment. At the time Stranger Things Happen came into this life again* I thought, hey, I'll put this on my phone so I have something to entertain me when I'm waiting for things like friends to show up for social engagements or doctor's appointments or oil changes. Yeah!

Only I have discovered that I'm not in those situations very often. All of my current circle of real life friends are as punctual as I am, for instance. I know!

So anyway, I had dawdled to about the 25% mark in this collection when I hit on this whole Bedtime Stories thing. And I couldn't remember any of what I'd read to that point, really, because my bout of waiting around with my phone were too few and far between. I realize I am probably a huge freak in this regard. That's okay.

All this is a roundabout lead in to the fact that I think I am now an unabashed Kelly Link fangirl. What really did it for me was "Travels with the Snow Queen" which re-imagines Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" (possibly my favorite HCA, though it's one I've always felt I've understood the least well. Deliciously enigmatic, is "The Snow Queen") in terms of an autopsy on a failed romance and the idea of a business that capitalizes on the need for these, all while still feeling very true to HCA's original story. This is quite a feat since the narration is in the rare and difficult-to-pull-off second person, a la, say, Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night A Traveler...

Other stand-outs include "Louise's Ghost" which tangles the reader in threads of ambiguity as it tells of not one but two characters named Louise and not one but two ghosts, one a more conventional (yet unconventional) haunting and one a bit more metaphorical that only comes into play halfway through the story. Like a good ghost story should be, this one is creepy as hell, but not necessarily in the way the campfire stories it evokes are; more in the way Margaret Atwood's stories of female friendship and female rivalry tend to be.

And some of the stories are just strange, like "The Girl Detective", a weird juxtaposition of Carolyn Keene (who didn't really exist, which still weirds me out) and the Brothers Grimm, and "Survivor's Ball, or The Donner Party" which threatens to get really terribly over the top creepy but stops short of that and settles for merely uncanny.

Link does have some tics that get cumulatively annoying, though; she loves breaking up her stories into discrete and often non-sequential sub-narratives, leaving the reader to struggle to relate them all together at story's end. Sometimes this winds up being more of a struggle than others, as in "Most of My Friends are Two-Thirds Water" which I'm still pretty sure I just didn't understand at all. I guess it's some kind of will-they-won't-they romance? With a fair amount of sex but not between the two who are framed as gonna-maybe-be-lovers? Meh. Maybe it's just because she tries to cram a Philip K. Dick salute in there where it really doesn't fit? Anyway, the night I read this one, I went to bed frustrated.

After all the others, I went to bed enchanted. So, ten out of eleven are brilliant. Not bad!

*Originally, I received a paperback copy from a friend in a book swap a few years ago, but this was right at the time my octuple elbow tendon trouble started making dead tree books a painful proposition, so yeah.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ford Madox Ford's SOME DO NOT

The first volume of Ford Madox Ford's brilliant tetrology later called Parade's End*, Some Do Not is the story of a deeply rational man living in deeply irrational times and the consequences of his irrational clinging to outmoded standards for proper conduct far more than it is, as generally marketed, that of a love triangle.**

Christopher Tietjens, youngest son of "the" Tietjens, a family who originally came over with William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution, is an unprepossessing figure of a man, fair, doughy, of a "good old family" but otherwise of no real consequence except for that some freak of heredity has left him a mathematical genius. As the novel opens, he is wrestling with the issue of whether it would be correct of him to accede to fudging some numbers for the government that employs him to be a brilliant but pliable mathematician. Which "Chrissie" is not, even when it is in his very best interests possible to be so.

For this is also a guy married to a seriously beautiful woman, the gorgeous and careless Sylvia, who was already pregnant when she jumped his bones in a railway carriage and thereby convinced him to throw in his lot with her for good or ill. When a child is born not quite enough months after the wedding, he claims it anyway and fiercely refuses to care that it might not be his, because that is not rational and it would create unseemly drama were he to do otherwise (and, actually, he loves the boy). Avoiding drama is his highest priority, making him a deeply relate-able figure for this reader.

And so later on when a bored Sylvia, who would, thank you very much, have preferred a row over the child's parentage as a sign that the man she married actually gave a damn about her and their life together, not only cuckholds him but runs off to France with a guy, he is so drama- and gossip-phobic that he lets it be generally believed that he is the cheater and Sylvia recovering from her being so very ill-used on the Continent. Better, he reasons, that the Public thinks him as just another philandering jerk like all the other philandering jerks out there, than for that same Public to regard his wife as a whore.

This pattern of behavior is very much his stock-in-trade, even though it never comes out well (his careless generosity with his inheritance, for example, earns him far more hatred than gratitude; far better, it would seem, if he'd just blown it on whores and coke women and the ponies like a proper entitled douchebalrog). The seeds thus planted bear wicked mutant fruit and flower; once the Public thinks of him as just another philandering idiot, everybody's ready to believe the worst of him in every encounter. Whether it's being caught comforting his best friend's mistress in a train cabin not unlike the one in which Sylvia thrust herself into his life, or driving a young woman home through the fog and having their horse and cart smashed up by an idiot in a motorcar, circumstances always conspire to make Chrissie look like a jackass.

All of this would be drama -- and comedy, for sometimes the piling on of woes and misunderstandings evokes the work of P.G. Wodehouse -- enough, but there's oh so much more going on. Such as the young woman he was driving home when her horse got nearly killed by a car, one Valentine Wannop, whose name gossip has linked with Chrissie's already because Chrissie's father was close friends with Valentine's and has basically supported Valentine and her novelist mother since Professor Wannop died (so naturally some of the gossip is that Valentine could be Chrissie's half-sister). The plot here reminds me a lot of that of Robertson Davies' Leaven of Malice, in which false and malicious rumors of a young woman's engagement have similar results; towards the end of Some Do Not Valentine compares their situation to having been caught in a vice and forced together. It's an apt comparison. But there is, apparently one thing you must never, ever put in a trap vice, and that is Christopher Tietjens, a Good Soldier even before he becomes one.

Where Some Do Not excels the most is in its little scenes -- conversations between Chrissie and Sylvia (who actually is in love with her husband), exquisitely uncomfortable breakfast parties, slow and thoughtful interludes in mid-golf game, philological arguments in a horse-drawn cart -- where the dialogue only tells a tiny bit of what is going on. The plot developments are extraordinarily subtle, revolving around things like bounced checks and the way Sylvia does or does not walk into a room.*** And the simple, ordinary prose style is glorious; if Ford Madox Ford isn't one of your literary heroes, it's gotta just be because you haven't read him.

I haven't even come to the fascinating sub-plots: the stories of Chrissie's best friend and semi-toady MacMaster and Mr. and Mrs. Duchemin; the faint background struggles over the inheritance of the Tietjens' estate since a combination of death and desultoriness bump Chrissie from youngest son to heir (once his father has died) and thus render his own-not-his-own son the heir's heir even though he's not really a Tietjens -- and a Roman Catholic to boot, like his mama, and like the original owners of the Tietjens' estate of Groby before the Glorious Revolution led to some good Protestant Dutchmen taking over the place; Sylvia's own entire life apart from her husband. Trust me: it's all fantastic, though.

Oh, and then there's the Great War.

World War I is really just a backdrop for this first novel in the quartet, but what little of it there is, explodes the plot to an extraordinary degree: Some Do Not and, presumably, its sequels, may call it "shell shock" as that was the contemporary term but what is really being dealt with is, not post-traumatic stress disorder, but traumatic brain injury, giving the whole work a chilling present-day resonance that makes me think Parade's End might be a wonderful candidate for another modern high school update the way Emma became Clueless and The Taming of the Shrew became 10 Things I Hate About You. Say, high school and the years right after, to accommodate Chrissie's going to war.

Which is to say that this book, these books, are truly timeless.

And they're on all those best ___ novels of ____ period or category or whatever for a reason.

*Yes, yes, recently adapted as a television miniseries by HBO, but I found said adaptation a disappointment about which I decline to speak further.

**Which the fact that this very phrase makes me vomit in my mind and yet I love this book to pieces should tell you something right there about marketing and how people who have only skimmed a book cock up trying to describe it to others. Hurl.

***And while we're on the subject of Sylvia, whom I suspect was maybe sort of intended as the villain of the piece but is actually the character who most captured my sympathies, Ford Madox Ford writes women extraordinarily well. By the middle of the novel, the reader understands perfectly everything that Sylvia does and feels she might have done much the same; by novel's end Valentine has gone from annoying diversion with LOVE INTEREST in neon over her head to a person whose struggles feel as real and well-realized as any heroine's ever have.