Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith
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Monthly Bookpost, January 2013

2011 was Greece. 2012 was Rome. This year, my booklist is heavy on bokks written in and about the roughly 1200 years between Marcus Aurelius and the Rennaissance. Unfortunately, that's going to mean a whole lot of church stuff, and so I might as well throw in the Bible while I'm at it.

And while I ponder that the pickings for a period so long appear mighty slim for one year, while the next seven years will give me plenty from a period half as long...

Genesis, Isaiah
The men of Sodom, both old and young, all of the people from every quarter, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot and said to him, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them carnally!’ So Lot went out to them through the doorway and shut the door behind him, saying, ‘Please my brothers, do not do so wickedly! See now, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Please, let me bring them out to you, and you may do with them as you wish, only do nothing to these men, since this is the reason they have come under the shadow of my roof.’
--Genesis, 19: 4-8

And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity, and the water of affliction, yet shall not thy teachers be removed into a corner any more, but thine eyes shall see thy teachers.
And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way! Walk ye in it!, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left.
Ye shall defile also the covering of thy graven images of silver, and the ornament of thy molten images of gold. Thou shalt cast them away like a used tampon. Thou shalt say unto it, Get the hence!

--Isaiah 30: 20-22.

I threw the Bible into the 1200 year period between Rome and the Renaissance because most of what was written in that period comments on the Bible anyhow, and neither Greece nor Rome was much influenced by it until after Aurelius, and so never mind that it was written earlier. Or do notice, if you will. Coming on the heels of two years reading about civilized ancient societies, the Old Testament is definitely much more primitive in subject matter and tone. It’s closer to Gilgamesh than to Homer.

Genesis is the Old Testament book people are most likely to have read in full, because it is the first one and contains many memorable stories. I can only guess how many Christians and other interested parties have picked it up out of a sense of duty, enlightened themselves about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s flood, the Tower of Babel, Abraham and the covenant, the sacrifice of Isaac, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Jacob and Laban, Jacob and his sons, Joseph and the Dreamcoat, maybe moved on halfway through Exodus to the part where Moses leads the Jews out of Egypt, and then got bogged down in the archaic, wordy and senseless rules in the rest of the Pentateuch and never went onward.

Even Genesis has a lot of things people skim over and don’t seem to know, like the detail that the “mark of Cain” is a protection, not a curse. If you see someone with the mark of Cain, you don’t stone him to death, you leave him alone, or God promises to do ninja stuff to you. Or the fact that Onan was not cursed for masturbating; he was cursed because he was commanded to sleep with his deceased brother’s widow and give her a child that would be considered his brother’s offspring. He pulled out early and did not impregnate the widow, and for that he was killed. Or the part where Jacob’s sons somehow slaughter an entire village because the Mayor’s son has slept with and impregnated their sister and then asks for her hand in marriage, which they pretend to agree to before going stabby on everyone in sight (it is ambiguous but possible that the sister was raped, which might justify at least some deadly revenge, and to hell with a rapist wanting to marry his victim; but an entire town?) I was shocked, even on a third reading, at how little emotion Abraham displays when God tells him to kill his son. No protest, no tears, no farewell hug for the boy; just up the mountain to build an altar and raise the knife until God says, “Just kidding!” And Jacob’s actions with Esau and Laban (who have their own problems, yes) seem to originate the whole nasty stereotype of the “greedy, dishonest Jew who will do anything for more material wealth”. There are continuity errors, as when Abraham accompanies Isaac on journeys after he’s supposed to have died, and there’s more sex and sexual misbehavior than you can shake a (cough) at. But definitely something to read at least once, just to know what everyone else is talking about, and what they’ve gotten wrong.

I went to Isaiah next partly because it’s apparently the *second* most popular Old Testamant book and partly because I intend to skip around a bit. Reading all those prophets together is maddening. They run the gamut from “Muppet Opera Box Guys” to “Crazy Unwashed Homeless Guy Screaming At You”. And few of them make any sense, except that they’re furious as all get out.

Isaiah is popular, I assume, because he’s at least partly nice about things. He’s full of swords being beaten into plowshares and lions lying down with lambs and blood-red sins being made white as snow. But in between those parts, he vents as much spleen as Jeremiah, telling everyone who reads how Evil they are and how God will abandon them and it ain’t no use your calling out His name, like you never did before. Except when he doesn’t. The overall effect is one of extreme schizophrenia.

Mixed in with the blessings and curses are a bunch of weird prophecies, only the most vague and abstract of which (There will be fighting. The kingdom will be overthrown) have come close to coming true in 3000 years. There is mention of a virgin giving birth to a son, yes, but the son is supposed to be named Emanuel, not Jesus. Later on, there is reference to God’s servant (not son) who will preach before being beaten and maybe killed to purify the people, but this part comes well after mention of Emanuel (who is also not said to be the son of God), without an indication that they are the same person and without any details that would tie it to the Gospels.

I don’t get Isaiah, and I don’t get the other prophets either. Even translated into English, they read like word salad and conjure up images of crazy-eyed, unhygienic old screamers, worthy of no more from you than some spare change, which you’d likely suspect they would spend on drugs. And that’s my take on it. If you feel like telling me what I’ve missed about this supposedly revered, holy piece of scripture, please do so. ‘Tis charity to teach.

DID YOU KNOW...the reason for Cain and Abel’s quarrel? The brothers made offerings to God, and Cain, apparently a vegetarian, chose “the fruits of the field” as his offering. God rejected it and demanded a blood sacrifice instead. Guess what Cain did next...


The City of God, by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
No longer, then, follow after false and deceitful gods; abjure them rather, and despise them, bursting forth into true liberty. Gods they are not, but malignant spirits, to whom your eternal happiness will be a sore punishment. Juno, from whom you deduce your origin according to the flesh, did not so bitterly grudge Rome’s citadels to the Trojans, as these devils whom ye repute gods grudge an everlasting seat to the race of mankind. And thou thyself hast in no wavering voice passed judgment on them, when thou didst pacify them with games, and yet didst account as infamous the men by whom the plays were acted. Suffer us then to assert thy freedom against the unclean spirits who had imposed on thy neck the yoke of celebrating their own shame and filthiness. The actors of these divine crimes thou hadst removed from offices of honor; supplicate the True God, that He may remove from thee those gods who delight in their crimes—a most disgraceful thing if the crimes are really theirs, and a most malicious invention if the crimes are feigned.

“Saint” Augustine of Hippo is the most scholarly of the early Christian writers (a low bar to clear) and probably the only one I’m going to read much of. Even I can’t slog through the likes of “Saint” Jerome, who was canonized for saying that humans are “born between feces and urine” and being unable to decide whether women have souls.

The City of God is remarkable in that it is the only surviving major work after Plotinus and before Thomas Aquinas to actually make reference to a multitude of the ancient Greeks and Romans I read over the past two years. After Augustine, Christians and other barbarians tended to burn anything pre-Christian. They kept Aristotle, kept Ptolemy, mostly for their errors, and the rest of what we have today was preserved in Arabia, Ireland and other remote corners where the church couldn’t get at them.

Augustine has read Plato, and it shows. The City of God is a textbook on how to disprove any religion. The first half of the book consists of Augustine doing this with the Roman religious system in order to make room for Christianity. His main arguments are that Christianity must be better than Roman paganism because the supernatural myths are ridiculous (which they are); that the Gods are portrayed as indulging in cruelty, treachery and immorality (which they are); that bad things happened to the most pious Pagan worshippers during Rome’s zenith (true), that the worshippers in general were bad people (consult Tacitus, Martial and Juvenal if you doubt this); and that, for all we know, the “gods” were really demons trying to seduce mortals into sin (Ummmm....) fine. Now substitute the Biblical, Islamic, or any other theology for Roman Paganism and tell me with a straight face that the same can’t be said about them. Augustine pretty much refutes himself here.

The second half of the book is the part the clergy still promotes. It consists of an alternative history of the world and the Old Testament, rewritten so that the New Testament is foreshadowed in every chapter and verse, starting with all the favored non-eldest sons in Genesis (there are a lot of them: Abel and Seth over Cain; Shem over Ham; Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau; Joseph and Judah over Ruben and Simeon; Ephraim over Manasseh) as clear, CLEAR signifiers that Christ’s advent will replace the Jews with gentile Christians as God’s most favored children, and never mind the innumerable passages in the Old Testament where God states unequivocally that the covenant with the Jews is forever and that there will be NO changes to the law, ever. The whole section is like that. You get to rewrite all the scripture when you claim to speak for God. Finally, here, and not in the new Testament, is the whole business about dead souls continuing to live, and there being a final judgment where we all rise again to be either welcomed into eternal Paradise (the city of God) or cursed into Hell (The City of Man, which rose parallel with the City of God from Genesis to David to the captivity to the nativity, in approximately equal sections of time).

Best thing I can say about Augustine’s magnum opus is, I’m done with it.


Murder Imperial; Murder’s Immortal Mask, by Paul Doherty
”You will take poor Fortunata’s place..” Helena smiled. “The Chamberlain at the palace, Bessus, is in my pay. He never recruits for my son’s service unless he asks me. I know a little about Bessus which, on the whole, he would prefer I didn’t. So, you will pack your belongings, little mouse, and scamper along to the Palatine Palace. Whatever you find, Anastasius here must know.” Her hand shot out like a claw and gripped Claudia’s arm. “I want to find the true assassin. I want to find out why. I want to see the rogue who had the impudence to hang one of my servants on a meat hook take his place there himself!”
--from Murder Imperial

The man emerged out of the shadows. He was dressed in a scarlet cloak like an officer, a gleaming helmet on his head; because of the broad cheek guards Fausta couldn’t make out his face, but her simpering smile was answered with a clink of coins. Fausta relaxed. She’d found some custom! She approached the officer, who turned and walked down the street, then turned up an alleyway. Fausta closed her eyes and groaned. She’d feel the sharp stones of a wall against her back before she was finished. Nevertheless, she followed her customer into the dark.
The man turned and stepped closer. Fausta peered up. She opened her mouth to scream at the hideous mask over his face, but a knife pricked her belly as a rough hand seized her arm.

--from Murder’s Immortal Mask

Claudia “The Mouse” is a dangerous woman. She is looking for a man with a chalice tattooed on his arm, and when she finds him, she will say to him, “Hello. My name is Claudia. You killed my brother. Prepare to die.” And then shit will get real. In the meantime, like a certain Spaniard, she is forced to take odd jobs for questionable employers.

Murder Imperial is the first in a series, is set right after Constantine the Apostate has killed Maxentius and assumed rulership of the Western Roman Empire, but before he kills Licinius and takes the East as well. The high-end call girls he has over for entertainment are turning up dead, and his mother Helena, worried about the scandal, employs a certain mouse to find out who is doing what and why. Like many investigators in the genre, Claudia has a tendency to go rogue. Murder’s Immortal Mask is set later in the series (unlike the Roman sets of mysteries I read last year, I don’t think I’ll be returning to these) has an interlocking set of crimes to be investigated at once, involving either the return or a copycat of a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer; the mysterious deaths of members of a group of soldiers formerly loyal to Maxentius (Constantine’s vanquished rival for the Western Empire); and the possible location of Saint Peter’s remains.

It’s hard for me to remember a time when I’ve been so bored by such objectively exciting material. There are ingenious locked room crimes, menacing gladiators, tavern assaults, and a catacomb rigged with traps reminiscent of the beginning of the first Indiana Jones mystery. Claudia is menaced by thugs, places high-stakes bets, and is trapped by the circus’s wild beasts. Bad people with daggers cross and double cross one another in alleys at midnight, in an empire, the very name of which has become synonymous with double dealing, snakepits of pre-machiavellian intrigue, and layers within layers, as a city that was the center of the world for 1,000 years is in the process of being founded. And yet, I found myself nodding off and having to go back and reread parts of it because it all seemed to be told in the same tone of voice as a recording that gives the correct time.

Doherty is considered the foremost writer of historical mysteries set in the era I’m writing about this year, and so I know I’ll be back for more. He has at least three different serieses featuring different medieval detectives *after* the Dark ages. Hopefully, they’ll be better than the Byzantine series.


Julian, by Gore Vidal
Even as a child I had a reasonably logical mind. “But if they are Christians, like us, then we must not fight them but turn the other cheek, and certainly nobody must kill anybody, because Jesus tells us that...”
“I’m afraid it is not as simple as that,” said Mardonius. But of course it was. Even a child could see the division between what the Galileans say they believe and what, in fact, they do believe, as demonstrated by their actions. A religion of brotherhood and mildness which daily murders those who disagree with their doctrines can only be thought hypocrite, or worse. Now for the purposes of my memoir it would be convenient to say that at this moment I ceased to be a Galilean. But unfortunately that would not be true. Though I was puzzled by what I had seen, I still believed, and my liberation from the Nazarene was a long time coming. But, looking back, I suspect that the first chain was struck from my mind that day in the street when I saw two harmless old men set upon by monks.


This one was a bit of fresh air amidst all the Nutty Christianism. Julian the Great was the nephew of Constantine the Apostate, and pretty much the last Great head of an empire that included Rome (Justinian and others came along after Europe had fully and finally succumbed to the barbarians, and the “Roman Empire” became limited to the Eastern/Byzantine empire centered in what is now Turkey and the Balkans. Gore Vidal’s novel, in the tradition of Robert Graves (I, Claudius) and Marguerite Yourcenar (Hadrian’s Memoirs, Bookpost November 2012), presents what purports to be Julian’s memoir and journal, interspersed with commentary from Statler and Waldorf Priscus and Labanius, the curmudgeonly Pagan philosophers who knew the Emperor and who compare notes in the aftermath of his death. Priscus thinks Julian was a fool and Labanius thinks he was a hero, and so between them, Vidal is able to present the best and worst glosses on Julian’s life and times.

Julian himself presents similarly to one of my great ancient heroes, his predecessor Emperor Marcus Aurelius (see last month’s Bookpost for my gushing review of the Meditations)—a brilliant general, an intelligent philosopher, and a good man who lives with generosity, humility (for the king of half the known world, anyway), wisdom and courage. He lives by the values the Christian hierarchy pretends to live by. Unfortunately, he, like aurelius, has his own superstitions, and spends much of his reign trying to restore “the true gods” to be the Established Religion of Rome, resulting in a whole lot of unnecessary infighting. Eventually, of course, the Christians sabotaged his campaign against the Persians, and then murdered him, resulting in a further century of slaughter, invasion and misery, the end of intellectualism for a thousand years, and the end of the Roman Empire forever. After Julian, there were no more Caesars.

Vidal’s novel is compelling and suspenseful, even knowing what’s coming. It is also interesting as a work of stoic and Pagan philosophy by Vidal, put in the mouth of Julian. I read the Durant and Gibbon chapters on Julian simultaneously, and Vidal’s fiction is consistent with their histories. Highly recommended.


Mark’s Gospel
They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and to dismiss his wife.” And Jesus answered and said to them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh, so that they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
--Mark 10: 4-9

I read this Gospel first because it is reportedly the first one to be written (don’t ask me why they put Matthew ahead of it), and the shortest of the four; Matthew and Luke appear to have copied some sections in their longer renditions. It has fewer miracles and parables, no nativity at all, more straight preaching, and more historical accounts than the others.

Once again, I’m reminded that Jesus didn’t say all that much that I disagree with; it is the Christians who have come after him who have turned his sayings into a manifesto to hate. Jesus repeatedly urged people to love one another, including their enemies; was suspicious of the clergy; warned that “false Christs” would come after him (he didn’t specifically name Rick Warren, Pope Bennedict, or the Reverends Falwell or Robertson, but by their works will you know them); and was unmistakably socialist and collectivist. The lillies of the field are a bunch of lazy slackers, and yet God makes them more naturally beautiful than the fanciest garb and makeup can make the pope.

Further, the passage above is what Jesus had to say about divorce. Did he say anything about gays or abortions? Not in this gospel, he didn’t. (spoiler: it’s not in the others, either), so why do the scribes and pharisees of today focus entirely on abortion and gays, and not at all on divorce or the poor, except to hate on the poor? By their works will you know them...

DID YOU KNOW...Jesus can heal with his spit! (Mark 7:32-35) Now, THAT’S badass!


Destinations (Essays from the Rolling Stone), by Jan Morris
The histrionic art is the London art par excellence--the ability to dazzle, mimic, deceive or stir. Look now, as you step from the restaurant after dinner, across the blackness of St. James toward Westminster. There is the floodlit Abbey, that recondite temple of Englishness; and there is the cluster of Whitehall pinnacles; and there, the flash of the neons pinpoints Picadilly and intermittently illuminates Nelson on his pillar in Trafalgar Square; and riding above it all, high over the clockface of Big Ben in the Palace of Westminster, high up in the night sky, a still small light, all alone, burns steadily above the city. It is the light that announces the House of Commons, the mother of all parliaments, to be in session below. There's theatre for you! There's showmanship!

Morris's featured essays from Rolling Stone magazine are individually jewels; together, they make up a compelling and wonderful snapshot of civilization as it stood in the mid-1970s. Hardly anyone who lived through the 1970s admits to having enjoyed them; and yet, in retrospect, some time after Kennedy and before Reagan, we who were alive witnessed the zenith of American civilization, maybe world civilization. It has been one long decline and fall since then. God help us.

Each Jan Morris essay looks at a major world city where big things are happening; mostly American and European, but with a smattering of other locations. We see DC pundits walking around shellshocked in the aftermath of Nixon's downfall (which was, despite the gloom and doom, one of the American people's last, best triumphs. In those days, we actually brought down a corrupt President instead of shrugging while he wiped his ass with our Constitutional rights. We stopped an unpopular and unnecessary war, too. Anyone doing that now?); Panama preparing to receive the canal zone; Trieste hovering on the continental divide between the Western and Eastern blocs; Cairo seething around Sadat; Lost Angeles passing straight from barbarism to decadence without intervening glory; and London presiding over the end of the British Empire.

Morris breathes even more life into what were undeniably "interesting times". Knowing what went wrong afterwards only makes them more poignant. Very high recommendations.


The Man of Feeling, by Henry MacKenzie
His daughter was now prostrate at his feet. ‘Strike’, said she, ‘strike here a wretch, whose misery cannot end but with that death she deserves.’ Her hair had fallen on her shoulders! Her look had the horrid calmness of outbreathed despair! Her father would have spoken; his lip quivered, his cheek grew pale! His eyes lost the lightning of their fury! There was a reproach in them, but with a mingling of pity! He turned them up to heaven—then on his daughter. He laid his left hand on his heart—the sword dropped from his right—he burst into tears.

This strange, badly fragmented 18th century novelette is mostly valuable as a literary snapshot of the times and an example of What Not To Do when writing. Certain isolated examples like Gargantua and Pantagruel and Don Quixote aside, the 1700s were the time when people really started writing long prose fiction in earnest, and they made mistakes while collectively discovering and learning the art. The Man of Feeling is an example of "sentimental" writing, three-hanky emotion-manipulating stories involving good-hearted beggar families treated with over the top cruelty by predatory squires; sweet children slowly starving in the cold; trees falling and killing young lovers, and faithful dogs watchfully pining to death on the graves of their undeserving masters. After an introduction in which a narrator explains that he obtained this manuscript from a country gentleman who was using pages of it as wadding for his musket (to account for McKenzie's failure to fill in huge gaps in the story), we are presented with only the three-hanky parts. Most of these consist of stories told to the protagonist by people he meets while traveling.

He rescues a fallen woman from a brothel, and tears are shed. He visits the site of his beloved schoolhouse, to find that a rich man has bought the land and torn it down because it obstructed his view; the kindly old schoolmaster has died a pauper, and the area children are growing up ignorant and ending up menial labor-slaves. Tears are shed. He visits a debtor prison with utterly degraded poor people, and tears are shed again. In fact, an "index of tears" is included as an appendix to the book, noting all the passages in which people cry.I am not making this up--apparently, after sentimental writing went out of vogue, people used to gather to read it and laugh at the three-hanky parts the same way people laugh at Elmer Fudd getting hurt in Warner Brothers cartoons. The tragedies are so awful they're funny.

Similarly, any moral lesson intended to inspire kindness to our fellow creatures on earth backfires. Show us instance upon instance of good people suffering and failing while wicked people prosper and cheat the meek out of their inheritance, over and over again, and the lesson it teaches is, you might as well be wicked. Show the oppressed rising up and throwing Baron van der Eevyl out of Castle Sinister, or Angus Goodheartie surviving his ordeals and living with love and fortune at last, or even the murdered beggar's soul going to heaven after a life of virtue and pain while Squire Blackheart sinks into the eternal river of excrement come judgment day. That's the story more likely to inspire goodness.

Oh, and while you're at it, write a whole plot. A meta-narrator finding a text with missing pages is the lamest excuse I've seen yet.


The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass
Little people and big people, Little Claus and Great Claus. Tiny Tim and Carolus Magnus. David and goliath, Jack the Giant Killer and, of course, the giant. I remained the three year old, the gnome, the Tom Thumb, the pigmy, the Lilliputian, the midget, whom no one could persuade to grow. I did so in order to be exempted from the big and little chatechism and in order not, once grown to five-foot-eight adulthood, to be driven by this man who face to face with his shaving mirror called himself my father, into a business, the grocery business, which as Matzerath saw it, would, when Oskar turned twenty-one, become his grown-up world. To avoid playing the cash register, I clung to my drum and from my third birthday on refused to grow by so much as a finger’s breadth. I remained the precocious three year old, towered over by grownups but superior to all grownups, who refused to measure his shadow with theirs, who was complete both inside and outside, while they, to the very brink of the grave, were condemned to worry their heads about “development”, who had only to confirm what they were compelled to gain by hard and often painful experience, and who had no need to change his shoe and trouser size year after year just to prove that something was growing.

I wrote a song once, promising that I'd read Gunther Grass. Needing to keep that promise, I stuck through The Tin Drum for all 587 pages. Grass won the Noble Prize on the back of this book, which is said to be one of the most important literary creations of the 20th Century, and when the movie version was shown at my university's theater, it sold out and I missed it. Popular stuff, right?

I couldn't tell you. Maybe I'm a philistine about these central European absurdist books. I never seem to get them, though you can't easily accuse me of giving up trying. Critics rave about their "dada-ism" and are enthusiastic about how existentially devoid they are of meaning, or how they challenge the reader to find their own structure, or something. I go into books to escape those things, because real life has too much of that already.

Anyhow, meet little Oskar. Problem #1 is that Oskar is an unreliable narrator, and he spouts nonsense. At the beginning of the book, we learn that he is in a mental hospital, having confessed to a murder that (he says) he didn't really do. From that starting point, we get his family history through Oskar's eyes. At age three, he decides he's had it with the crazy-making grown-up world and determines not to grow any more--and so he doesn't. He doesn't talk; he uses his tin toy drum to communicate (Morse code? No, he makes pictures with the tap-tapping sound). He has the magic power to shatter glass with his voice, not like a Diva soprano, but with such control that he can carve a circle out of a window by shrieking at it, and even etch art on it.

Do those things really happen and this is a "magic surrealism" plot? Is he insane and making up the whole thing? Is he insane and superimposing his imaginative explanations over things that happened somewhat differently? We don't know.

In passages with Freudian undertones, Oskar causes, or says he causes, the deaths of his mother, his official father, and the man who, he says, is his actual father, but not before seducing his official father's mistress (with his virile, 3-year-old sized body) and having a child who is treated as his half-brother. He uses his drum and his shriek in creative ways to serve in WWII (the fact that this is the Axis he's working for is barely mentioned), and has adventures as a carnival performer and a model before making the decision to grow up after all.

Sometimes when a book defeats my capacity for interest, I invite anyone reading this to give Grampa Miles a clue. Because the book is so widely admired, I figure there must be something I'm missing. Maybe Oskar's perpetual childhood is supposed to appeal to the Freudian desire to return to the womb; it doesn't appeal to me. My biggest fictional hero is Lois Bujold's short-statured force of nature whose clone colors my online identity, the one who raises everybody around him by never being small on the inside. Oskar's constant refrain of helplessness, having ceased to grow by his own decision, his further voluntary descents into unnecessary tragedy, and the petty uses he makes of his superpowers (Is he meant to be Everyman's Id, a shrieking being of low impulse control who is kept shrunken by the forces of order?) are almost offensive to me. Recommended for those who love Big Important Books for their own sake, or who read to find existential angst, not to escape it.


The World According to Garp, by John Irving
Duncan was embarrassed and opened a door immediately—the one nearest him. He gave a quick, surprised but uncritical look back to his father before he seemed to be drawn through the door he’d opened. The door slammed itself after duncan. The stewardess screamed. The plane gave a little dip in altitude, then corrected itself. Everyone looked out the windows; some people fainted, some threw up. Garp ran down the aisle, but the pilot and another official looking person prevented Garp from opening the door.
“It should always be kept locked, you stupid bitch!” the pilot shouted to the sobbing stewardess.
“I thought it WAS locked!” she wailed.
“Where’s it go?” Garp cried. “God, where’s it GO?” He saw that nothing was written on any of the doors.
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the pilot. “It couldn’t be helped.” But Garp shoved past him, he bent a plainclothesman against the back of a seat, he smacked the stewardess out of the aisle. When he opened the door, Garp saw that it went outside—into the rushing sky—and before he could cry aloud for Duncan, Garp was sucked through the open door and into the heavens, where he hurtled after his son.


In my Jan Morris review above, I stated that the 70s were the apex of American civilization before the decline and fall began. What I didn’t say was that it was a pretty shabby time to be a child. Adults were so busy pursuing fulfillment at the upper end of the Maslow pyramid that child-rearing was considered a wretched responsibility to be shunned, and pre-schools and summer camps were developed, not for the kids, but so that parents could get rid of us. And we knew it (Back when I was your age, kid, we didn’t HAVE no Look Who’s Talking! Movie kids were all evil demon spawn, Rosemary’s baby and EvilSpeak and Damien and Carrie and Children of the Corn.. We knocked our mommies off of balconies with our tricycles! We cussed a blue streak and vomited double our own volume in pea soup! And we hated it!)

Garp was a refreshing book to come out of that era; it seems dated to me now, and the title’s implication that Garp is a quirky, opinionated person with views about everything in the world never comes true. He loves his family, especially the children; has a lot of odd coincidences happen to him (ranging from the delightful to the undignified to the horrific), and he writes books that are more about ambiguity than about hammering some kind of moralistic point. In fact, some of his writings are interpreted by extremists on both sides of big topical controversies as favoring their particular side. In the end, Garp comes across to me as an opinion-neutral Everyman coping with the blows of fate—except that he *does* have very strong opinions; they’re just not what I’d call particularly controversial. He loathes child molesters, for instance, and is passionate about telling stories to his kids. A bit hard to find serious opposing viewpoints to that.

What Garp is not particularly opinionated about are the gender issues that permeate the novel. Raised by a single mother who impregnated herself by taking advantage of a dying soldier because she wanted a child but not a husband, and who becomes a leading figure in the kind of feminist movement that was often parodied and used as straw arguments by misogynists in the 70s (but which is treated mostly sympathetically here), Garp does not become a feminist, a sissy, a misogynist, or any kind of extremist. He pretty much lives his own life. He wrestles athletically, chases down criminals, has a mostly healthy sex life, and is the primary parent for his children as he pursues a writing career at home.. There is a nasty radical organization of women who cut off their tongues in reaction to a sensational crime in which a young girl’s tongue was cut off by her rapist; and what may be the first portrayal of a transsexual as someone other than a comic gag. Much of the book is made up of excerpts from Garp’s writing; these sections, it seems to me, are so long that they distract from the main plot of the book.

I remember seeing the movie version of Garp a long time ago, when it first came out. It was one of robin Williams’s first major movie roles, made when he was most known for fast-paced comedy and Mork from Ork, and they clearly tried to silly up the story for him. It didn’t work. Garp is a serious figure to whom crazy things happen (mostly tragic-crazy, not whimsical crazy), and the funniest parts of the movie were shoehorned into it; they do not appear in the book. Other elements—like who that nasty girl with the glasses is and why she hates Garp, are never explained in the movie.

Garp is longer than The Tin Drum by at least 100 pages, but it took me less time to read and was much more enlightening and enjoyable, tragedy and all. Very high recommendations.


Ashes of Honor, by Seanan McGuire
”Walk quickly, but walk with care,” said Luna. “Don’t look back. If you look back, you’ll have to go back the way you came or risk falling off the Road, and I won’t be able to retrieve you if you wind up somewhere you didn’t mean to be.”
“Got it,” I said. “Is there anything else we need to know?”
“Don’t let go of the rose until you’re off the Road, and don’t let it out of your sight until you’re absolutely sure you’re not going to need it anymore.”
“I do so love how all magic comes with its share of dire warnings and unclear requirements,” sighed Tybalt. “It’s like being on the stage, only there’s no director, and the understudies have all died of typhus.”
“On that charming note, see you later, Luna. Here’s hoping we don’t die.”


Drink every time someone in a Toby Daye adventure says some variant of, “Oh, and let’s try not to die while we’re at it.”

This is the sixth in McGuire’s urban faerie arc set in the San Francisco Bay area and the Fae realms. I keep losing sight of how badass October Daye is, because I identify her with the good guys, and because she’s always on the verge of dying hideously. Friends and mentors are continually rolling their eyes and remarking “there goes Toby again” as they drag her mangled almost-corpse from the remains of a fray. Then again, you should see the other guy.

The arc of the series keeps building on plot spoilers from previous stories, and each individual tale is full of plot twists, and so I’m not going to say much about what happens, except that my favorite urban faerie tales explore jarring collisions between the mortal and faerie worlds, as when mortals suddenly find themselves in enchanted realms and goi into denial about it, or when changelings are interrogated by the mundane police, and Ashes of Honor has that in abundance. Also, Toby is at her very best when she is rescuing a child. Highest recommendations.


Find all of my previous Bookposts here: http://admnaismith.livejournal.com/tag/bookposts
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