Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
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Monthly Bookpost, December 2014

Don Quixote de la Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes
"God save me!" quoth Sancho, "did not I warn you to have a care of what you did, for that they were nothing but windmills? And nobody could mistake them but one that had the like in his head." "Peace, friend Sancho," answered Don Quixote; "for matters of war are, of all others, most subject to continual change. Now I verily believe, and it is most certainly the fact, that the sage Freston, who stole away my chamber and my books, has metamorphosed these giants into windmills, on purpose to deprive me of the glory of vanquishing them, so great is the enmity he bears me! But his wicked arts will finally avail but little against the goodness of my sword." "God grant it!", answered Sancho Panza, then helping him to rise, he mounted him again upon his steed, which was almost disjointed.

Those whose familiarity with the most famous work of Spanish literature (and the only Spanish contribution to the "Great Books" series) stems from Man of La Mancha are missing several layers of Awesome. As with Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn, this disjointed epic novel only begins with a "simple" everyday protagonist--here, a country landowneraddicted to Medieval romances (including, possibly, the Froissart and Mallory works with which I started off this year, as dated 200 years later as the world of Mad Men is today) and his peasant "squire" Sancho Panza--and springboards from their imaginations and experiences while traveling into the nature and purpose of life, and into a multitude of philosophies, histories and sciences.

Don Quixote and Sancho are farcial comic characters; those they meet on their travels, as observed through the eyes of alleged "fools", are either very serious indeed, or unintentionally farcial themselves without the benefit of being deemed mad. As Quixote evokes laughter and humiliation, the sane people he encounters on the road often prove to be the bigger fools in their then-modern customs and manners than quixote in his chivalry.

One early episode culminates in one of the first feminist rants I'm aware of in literature, on a topic still being ranted about today. Quixote and Sancho come upon the funeral of a shepherd who suffered from unrequited love and pined away to death. Mourners recite mawkish poems about him and curse the wicked heartless bitch who spurned his love. At this point the woman in question appears and speaks quite eloquently about autonomy and her right to say no and how all she wanted was to be left alone. She leaves the shepherds speechless.

In a later episode, after word has gotten around about the crazy man who thinks he's a knight, one of the period's One Percenters encounters him and stages several scenes just to fuck with Quixote's mind for laughs (Apparently the mega-rich have always been able to pay whole populations to do stupid things to humor their whims), including making Sancho governor of his own Fantasy Island so he can merrily watch the illiterate peasant make a fool of himself. Naturally, Quixote and Sancho both acquit themselves very well indeed.

As the form of the novel was still being experimented on, Don Quixote's structure is sometimes as clunky as the protagonists rusty armor. There are self-contained stories and characters who pop up for one episode and are never seen again, and some of the episodes wander farther from the main story than one would like. One character at an inn discovers a book and reads it, allowing Cervantes to spend several chapters telling us the story-within-the story, that has nothing to do with what is happening on the outside. This has been done several times since, from the stories told in the course of The Pickwick Papers to the "Lard-Ass Hogan" digression in Stand By Me, but this is one of the longest. Similarly, a character will occasionally "find" some poems, that the story may come to a screeching halt while Cervantes reproduces these, and the characters think, how nice, before riding on to the next adventure. And as they ride, characters will discuss any philosophical or moral issue of the day, in ways that approach the Socratic dialogues of Plato. I found these discourses less distracting than the sub-stories and poems; your mileage may vary.

The two "parts" of the work were written several years apart; the first half is much more slapstick, and the second more mature and philosophical. The theme in which fools and lunatics turn out to be the wisest and sanest of us all has long appealed to anyone who marches to the beat of a different kazoo, and the effort to bring back the best parts of long-forsaken ideals, especially warrior codes, is familiar to SCAdians, Ren Faire enthusiasts and people who re-enact famous Civil War or other battles. Don Quixote is one of the great all time novels, and has something to offer just about any reader at different times of life. I'll leave you with one more passage, the prose credo that was later turned into the "Impossible Dream" song that rightly took on a life greater than the musical it came from:

"Let the knight errant search the remotest corners of the world; enter the most intricate labyrinths; assail, at every step, impossibilities; brave, in wild uncultivated deserts, the burning rays of the summer sun, and the inclemency of the winter's wind and frost; let not lions daunt him, nor spectres affright, nor dragons terrify him: for to seek, to attack, to conquer them all, is his particular duty. Therefore, sir, as it has fallen to my lot to be one of the number of knights-errant, I cannot decline undertaking whatever seems to me to come within my department; which was obviously the case in regard to the lions, although at the same time I knew it to be the excess of temerity. Well I know that fortitude is a virtue placed between the two extremes of cowardice and rashness; but it is better the valiant should rise to the extreme of temerity than sink to that of cowardice; for as it is far easier for the prodigal than the miser to become liberal, so it is much easier for the rash than the cowardly to become truly brave. In enterprises of every kind, believe me, it is better to lose the game by a card too much than one too little; for it sounds better to be called rash and daring than timorous and cowardly."


Vanish in an Instant & How Like an Angel, by Margaret Millar

They went out together. When they crossed the street she hung onto Meecham's arm. She was as light as a bird but he felt that he was dragging a stone that had been dragged for a long time by many people, had become larger and heavier as it collected debris, until it now weighed a ton.
--from Vanish in an Instant

In every picture, O'Gorman looked like a part of the background, and it was the dog and the cat, the children, Martha, the bicycle, which seemed the real subjects of the pictures. Only the formal photograph showed O'Gorman's face clearly. He'd been a handsome young man with curly black hair and large gentle eyes with a faint expression of bafflement in them, as though he found life puzzling and not quite what he'd been led to expect. It was the kind of face that would appeal to a lot of women, especially the ones who might think that they could solve life's puzzles for him and, motherlike, kiss away the hurts and bruises it inflicted.
--from How Like an Angel

These two formulaic mysteries made me raise an eyebrow by promoting Margaret Millar as "The American Grande Dame of the genre". Really? THE Grande Dame? What about---well, it did get me thinking how most or all of the other really great women of mystery have been British. When I think American, the names that come to mind right away are Cornwell, O'Donnell, Padgett, Grafton and Paretsky, who came later, probably after the proud blurb on this book. American mystery writers tend to go for private eye and procedural tales, not cozies. So maybe they had a point with Millar after all. Maybe Amanda Cross or Charlotte MacLeod? Or maybe the female answer to James M. Cain, since her crime stories are neither hard-boileds nor cozy whodunnits, so much as situation tragedies with dead bodies and twist endings? But I digress...

Vanish in an Instant is a short novel in which a small town lawyer assigned to defend a spoiled rich girl who seems guilty of murder gets the case thrown out quickly when a man with no apparent connection to the victim confesses to having done it, and presents information that only the guilty would likely know. The lawyer doesn't believe the confession, but doesn't believe the spoiled rich girl did it either, ad sets out to answer the question: Why does a (probably) innocent man, who would not otherwise be suspected, do such a thing?

How Like an Angel has striking parallels to the Lew Archer hardboileds written by her husband Ross MacDonald, who I'm sure she influenced greatly. The protagonist is an out-of-work detective who, while hitching his way to a California town, happens to be dropped off at a Christian cult-commune with a creepy "Master", where he spends the night. One member pays him, on his way out, to go find out if a certain man is still at a certain town; the detective does so and is told he is long-dead, murdered maybe, and a can of worms filled with Pandora's boxes is thereby opened, plot twists and dead bodies ensue, and the big reveal (which I only saw coming a chapter or two from the end) awaits on the proverbial Final Thrilling Page. It is very, very well crafted, probes the psychology of the characters--even minor characters-- with unusual depth, and has my highest recommendations.


The Tintern Treasure & The Christmas Wassail, by Kate Sedley; The Gallows Murders, by Michael Clynes; Heartstone, by C.J. Sansom; Time of the Poisoned Queen, by Ann Dukthas

The Abbot gasped and we all fell back a pace, startled by the sudden apparition, but that momentary hesitation was our undoing. The young man--for, despite the hood pulled well forward to obscure his face, there was no doubting either his youth or sex--simply charged between us and out into the night. I was the first to recover and, pushing Master Foliot unceremoniously aside, rushed after him. By this time, however, reinforcements had arrived in the shape of Brother Mark and an intrepid band of his fellow monks who, on sighting their quarry, gave an excited whoop and set off in pursuit.
--from The Tintern Treasure

"Who cares what happens in London now? The city has become a murky antechamber of Hell. sorcery is celebrated in Cripplegate, wholesale murders in the Vintry. Entire families are dying of starvation in their locked houses. Who'd care about a man screaming to death in a locked cage over a fire at Smithfield? It's a sign of the times." He pulled a face. "If he was alive when he was put in the cage, and I don't think he was, he wouldn't have screamed long."
--from The Gallows Murders

Candlelight gleamed from the windows of houses, stars shone overhead and I suddenly felt happier than I had done for a long time, at peace with all the world. It was the time of Our Saviour's birt, I was at hom with my family, King Richard was safely on the throne, the rebellions of the past few months were over and done with at the expense of very few lives, and tomorrow was the Eve of Christmas.
What could possibly go wrong?
--from The Christmas Wassail

"Michael returned from Dorset to visit me at Easter. When he arrived he looked terrible, pale and distracted, almost out of his wits. He would not tell me why, but after a few days he suddenly asked if I knew any lawyers. For what, I asked. To my amazement he said he wished to apply to the Court of Wards for Hugh to be taken from the Hobbey's custody. I told him i knew no lawyers, and asked why he should do this now, after six years. He said it was something not fit for my ears or any woman's, or man's either except a judge. I tell you sir, I began to fear for Michael's reason. I can see him now, sitting opposite me in the little house I have, thanks to the Queen's goodness. In the light from the fire his face looked lined--old. Yes, old, though he was not yet thirty. I suggested if he wanted a lawyer he should visit Master Dyrick. But he laughed bitterly and said he was the last person he should go to."</i>
---from Heartstone

The article he'd ringed at the foot of the front page merely announced how archaeologists at Sinistrel Manor in Essex had discovered a secret room with a skeleton inside. The evidence indicated the person had been murdered some four hundred years earlier and its corpse hidden there.
"Tomorrow morning," Segalla said, "pathologists are going to study the remains. I want to be there."
"You knew the victim?" Ann asked.
"Aye, but unlike Hamlet's Yorick, I have no sweet memories. The remains belong to the assassin responsible for Mary Tudor's murder."
--from In the Time of the Poisoned Queen

The last two books (so far) of Sedley's Roger Chapman books take place in the first year of Richard III, and are more than half taken up with the arc plot of the King and what he did or didn't do to his nephews The Tintern Treasure overlaps Buckingham's revolt, which (Buckingham being pretty much the last of Richard's victims in Shakespeare) surprised me by being over so quickly and well before Henry Tudor landed in Britain. The mystery at least touches on the arc plot, but it's more of a where-is-it than a who-did-it, and the answer was obvious to me long before Roger started having his usual dreams pointing at the answer. The Christmas Wassail makes a fine end-of-the-year finish to this series (and one reason why I slogged through all of it, to get to this one in December), featuring a decent depiction of the Twelve nights of Christmas/Yule festivities in a town, and two murders involving some elders who had been honored for service in France years ago, a squabbling extended family, a group of traveling mummers, and so many dirty secret pasts that the key is figuring out which one is relevant to the motive for murder.

The Gallows Murders, set in Henry VIII's Wolsey years, is yet another variation on what happened with Richard III and his nephews. In this version, blackmail letters are delivered to the king purporting to be from "The Rightful King Edward V", apparently not dead after all, and bearing the (long lost) original seal. Clynes's rogue detective Shallott and his saintly mentor Benjamin must find out who is behind the plot while also investigating why the king's executioners are themselves being murdered, execution style. As usual, the best part is Shallott, now old and safe, reminiscing with cynical honesty about his own lack of morals. Second best is the character and atmosphere, especially of King Henry, who is never treated well by those who set historical fiction in his court. One memorable chapter has the king hunting peasants and enemies for sport, with Shallott himself having to flee the hounds for his life.

Heartstone, as usual for Sansom's Shardlake series, is head and shoulders above every other historical mystery of the month, in terms of gripping emotional content, character and atmosphere, and learning actual history in the process. In this one, Shardlake juggles the facts behind a surly manservant, the history of a patient at Bedlam with no apparent history of admission, a Court of Wards matter in which an orphan's former tutor filed an allegation of impropriety and then died, leaving Shardlake to find out what the fuss is about---and a 1545 sea battle off Portsmouth, of which I had been previously unaware, but which involved a French invasion larger than the Spanish Armada. Sansom weaves these interlocking stories together in a compelling way worthy of higher literature than this genre usually merits.

Finally, in the only mystery I could find set in Queen Mary's reign, Ann Dukthat brings her "time travelling detective" (he doesn't time travel really; he's immortal and likes to tell the Dukthas-narrator about murders through history, not in chronological order) explores the deaths of Mary Tudor and her advisor Cardinal Pole. Among the suspects are Philip of Spain, Catherine de Medici, Mary Queen of Scots, Pope Paul IV, and of course Princess Elizabeth, who stands to gain the most. Oh yes, and Elizabeth's toad William Cecil. The offered solution is unlikely and the characters not well drawn, but it does tell you a well-researched bit of information about the players in the corridors of power of the day.

In 2015, it'll be murder mysteries from the 17th century, from the twilight of Queen Elizabeth to the twilight of Louis XIV. As usual, most of the historical mysteries I've found are English. I have on hand Edward Marston and Leonard Tourney for crimes set among the Shakespearean/Jacobean stage; Susanna Gregory for the Restoration, and Laura Joh Rowland with a series set in 17th Century Japan. If you know of any others, particularly set in Louis XIV's France, Spain's golden age, the English Revolution/Long Parliament/Commonwealth period, or in the "New World", I'd love to hear about it.


La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, by Francis Parkman

In these early French enterprises in the West, it was to the last degree difficult to hold men to their duty. Once fairly in the wilderness, completely freed from the sharp restraints of authority in which they had passed their lives, a spirit of lawlessness broke out among them with a violence proportioned to the pressure which had hitherto controlled it. Discipline had no resources and no guarantee, while those outlaws of the forest, the coureurs de bois, were always before their eyes, a standing example of unbridled license. La Salle, eminently skilled in his dealings with Indians, was rarely so happy with his countrymen; and yet the desertions from which he was continually suffering were due far more to the inevitable difficulty of his position than to any want of conduct on his part.

While the things described in my books of the year that deal with the 15th and 16th Centuries were going on in Europe and Asia, the Americas slumbered on, blissfully ignorant of what was coming.

Parkman was a 19th Century American historian, of the school that thinks history is made by individual Great Men. his account of La Salle's travels is like watching a gilded statue erected in the town square. The man described is incapable of doing wrong.

It's an interesting read in that it describes places we now know as industrial sewers as the pristine wildernesses they were 300 years earlier. The Great Lakes, the Illinois Valley, the Mississippi River, the gulf of Mexico, and eastern Texas (It is because of La Salle that France is one of the "six flags of Texas"), all without permanent buildings, without pollution, and populated only by people who treated the land as they would a giving mother. Further, despite Parkman's tendency to offensively badmouth Native Americans as languid savages, they come off much better than La Salle's colleagues and subordinates in the church and the army, many of whom see the opportunity to be far from civilization as they know it as a chance to enact Lord of the Flies, and a great many of whom see fit to desert into the wilderness, where Parkman thinks they must have starved or been scalped--the idea of going native didn't seem to have occurred to him.

Take the American (by proxy, anyhow) drum beating with a few grains of salt, but it was a pretty great adventure all the same.


Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan
For a moment it made no sense, beyond its glossy blacks and whites; then it resolved into a medium close-up. Incredible. Vernon stretched out his hand for another; head-to-foot and tightly cropped. And then the third, three quarter profile. He turned back to the first, all other thoughts suddenly dispelled. Then he studied the second and third again, seeing them fully now and feeling waves of distinct responses: astonishment first, followed by a wild inward hilarity. Suppressing it gave him a sense of levitating from his chair. Next he experienced ponderous responsibility--or was it power? A man's life, or at least his career, was in his hands. And who could tell, perhaps Vernon was in a position to change the country's future for the better. And his paper's circulation.
"George," he said at last, "I need to think about this very carefully."

I found this short novel riveting and suspenseful. It begins with the funeral of a woman loved by many, dead of a debilitating brain disease, leaving behind a dull husband (George) and three former lovers: The fringe-right Foreign secretary (Julian), the renowned composer (Clive) and the newspaper editor (Vernon). Vernon and Clive, whose lamentations on the woman's sufferings during her last days lead to thoughts of assisted suicide and set the plot in motion, are the focus of the story.

Clive is facing deadline pressure to finish his masterpiece, and needs undisturbed time and space to concentrate on music, leaving worldly concerns aside. Vernon needs to improve the circulation of his paper, and has the opportunity to publish incriminating photos of Julian to do so. Moral dilemmas, unfortunate decisions, repercussions and a dark climax in Holland ensue, threaded with bitter satire on politics (particularly what happens when a fundamentalist crusader who rails against certain lifestyles is caught indulgin in that lifestyle and suddenly he and his supporters denounce those who call him out on it, for being so "intolerant"), cutthroat journalism and the creative process.

It's a short, very engaging book that packs several wallops. Very high recommendations.


On Animal Generation, by William Harvey

It is a common mistake with those who pursue philosophical studies in these times, to seek for the cause of diversity of parts in the diversity of the matter whence they arise. Thus medical men assert that the several parts of the body are both engendered and nourished by diverse matters, either the blood or the seminal fluid; viz., the softer parts, such as the flesh, by the thinner matter, the harder and more earthy parts, such as the bones &c., by the firmer and thicker matter. But we have elsewhere refuted this too prevalent error. Nor do they err less who, with Democritus, compose all things of atoms; or with Empedocles, of elements. As if generation were nothing more than a separation, or aggregation, or disposition of things.

As the science volumes of the Great Books series go, Harvey is reassuringly readable and even amusing at times. Nonetheless, Animal Generation is an academic tract that you won't have much use for unless you're interested in historical biology. See Bookpost, September 2014 for On the Motion of the Heart and Blood.

Also, see my June 2011 Bookpost for Aristotle's biological works; much of Harvey is given over to refuting his errors and demonstrating, for instance, that there is no such thing as spontaneous generation, and that the female does in fact contribute something besides "matter" and an incubation system to her offspring. Harvey apparently went through dozens of chicken eggs at various stages of incubation to show how the chick's parts are formed, and in what order. How he gets to his conclusions is fascinating if you're in the right mood, but hardly what you'd expect to turn to for entertaining reading.


The Defense of Poesy, by Sir Philip Sidney
I think truly, that of all writers under the sun the poet is the least liar; and though he would, as a poet can scarcely be a liar. The astronomer, with his cousin the geometrician, can hardly escape when they take upon them to measure the height of the stars. How often, think you, do the physicians lie, when they aver things good for sicknesses, which afterwards send Charon a great number of souls drowned in a potion before they come to his ferry? And no less of the rest which take upon them to affirm. Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false; so as the other artists, and especially the historian, affirming many things, can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies. But the poet, as I said before, never affirmeth. The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writeth. He citeth not authorities of other histories, but even for his entry calleth the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention; in troth, not laboring to tell you what is or is not, but what should or should not be. And therefore though he recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true he lieth not.

See Bookpost, September 2014, for Sidney's much longer The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. Where Montaigne has three volumes of essays on which his reputation is built, Sidney rests mostly on just one, of about 50 pages.

The Defense of Poesy gave me mixed feelings. A touch of whimsey, in that I agreed with it for the most part; a touch of depression, in that it was apparently necessary to point these things out at all. Some Puritanical movement was trying to condemn most or all art, and fiction in particular, on the grounds that it was frivolous, that the stories were untrue, and that they corrupted the public morals. Seems to me, a decent refutation to that would be a simple "Stories are fun; go jump in the lake", but Sidney felt the need to go a little further, first suggesting that hymns and psalms transport us to greater communion with a higher power through their capacity to delight (I get that sensation from Rabelais, Bujold and Barry Hughart, but whatever floats your boat); then cites Aesop as an example of using stories to teach good moral values.

One gets the impression that Sidney today would favor teaching about young George Washington and the cherry tree; ot perhaps the Horatio Alger tales about good people who succeeded by hard work and good character; instead, he wrote the meandering The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia which, while not exactly immoral, is hardly instructive.

My take on "poesy" and all art, is that it is self-justifying in that it delights the beholder. If it also teaches, then it gets bonus points. Hopefully Sidney's essay did something to stop some of the censors.


Lock In, by John Scalzi
The five Hadens, or more accurately, their threeps, glared at me from the other side of the holding cell. We could tell they were glaring because their threep models came with customized heads that displayed faces and expressions. The faces these threeps carried were not their owners' actual faces, unless their owners were the spitting images of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton. The threeps were also wearing colonial-era uniforms, which may or may not have been historically accurate. It was like an elementary school diorama of the Continental Congress come to life.
The threeps were just threeps, of course. the Hadens driving them were somewhere else in the country. But when you're a Haden and you're arrested in your threep, if you disconnect, that's considered resisting arrest and fleeing the scene. This fact was courtesy of a young, rich Haden who, in the early years of threeps, carelessly knocked down an old lady, disconnected from her threep in a panic, and then spent three years and a couple hundred thousand dollars of Mommy's money trying to get out of what would have been a standard-issue moving violation. She eventually also ended up adding perjury and bribery to her docket. she should have just done the community service.
Thus our colonials, cooling their heels and glaring through their pixels.
"What you in for, George?" I asked Washington.
"For exercising our constitutional Second Amendment rights."

This may be Scalzi's most thought-provoking book yet, and Scalzi is always thought-provoking. In the world of Lock In, an epidemic has given most people a bout of flu, some fewer people meningitis symptoms, and reduced a small minority (the "Hadens") to a state of complete bedridden immobility, with their consciousness untouched. The Hadens cope by transferring their consciousness into robot bodies ("threeps"), or by buying the services of "integrators" who have the ability to let the Hadens take control of their own bodies for pay. As the story begins, Congress has slashed funding for Haden-related services, corporations are stepping in to privatize those services for profit, the Haden community is staging protests in DC that might turn militant, and Chris Shane, a Haden whose family fortune gives him access to the best threep technology available, begins his first day in the FBI, regarded as a scab by other Hadens, and looking into a crime scene with one dead man and one integrator.

The identity of the integrator's client, the most likely suspect, is privileged.

Lock In, therefore, operates on many levels. It is simultaneously (1) a crime novel with the unique distinction that persons at the scene of the crime may have acted under the control of an unknown Haden, who may appear to have an alibi elsewhere, due to the ability to teleport consciousness; (2) a science fiction tale that deals with consciousness transfer (and the inherent existential questions of identity), plague biology AND robot wars; and (3) a social justice novel that probes issues of privilege relating to the rights of the disabled, the role of government and corporations in aiding those who need life-sustaining technology, socioeconomic class warfare and privilege, and issues of consent and rape as applied to the penetration, invasion and manipulation of one's brain and physical agency by another. Oh yes, and the Navajo nation plays an important role in the plot.

I was completely bowled over. Very highest recommendations.


Ill Met by Moonlight, by Sarah A. Hoyt
The flash of light solidified into a tall, white castle. Because its walls had an uneven transparency like clotted milk, Will saw rooms within it and glittering servants and courtiers in velvet and jewels walking up and down white marble staircases. Ath the center of the castle, a vast salon sprawled, furnished only with a red carpet and a massive gilded throne.
Noblemen and fine ladies, wearing jewels that sparkled like rival stars, stood in groups on either side of the throne. Brightly garbed minstrels played sweet music on strange instruments.
In front of the throne, on the red carpet, stood Nan, her fair hair arranged in heavy coils braided through with pearls, her slim body garbed in fine cloth that gave off the sheen of silk.
Around her, lights sparkled and twinlked like the blinking beacon of the firefly.

Sarah A. Hoyt has been a presence on my FaceBook feed for a while now, and so I figured it was time to sample her writing. Her blog entries run the gamut from harmless cat posts to sensible advice for writers to uncommon mean-spiritedness and calls to arms for Heinleinists against a liberal fandom that she hates and despises for prefering to read works that reflect their values, as opposed to works that call them stupid and pathetic. I wasn't sure what to expect from her idea of "magic Shakespeare", but it certainly wasn't Ill Met by Moonlight.

It's....soft and fluffy.

Seriously, compared to, say, Seanan McGuire's fae world, the faeries of the forest of Arden, for all their squabbling over the throne, are as tame as the average fairy tale (meaning, yes, more than a little darkness, but nothing the average child isn't used to hearing about in these stories). Further, starting from the prince dispossessed through treachery, Hoyt manages to combine plots from Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream,, the "dark lady" of the sonnets, and bits from several other plots into something new.

It can get to be a bit much when, for example, the loser of a fatal duel manages to paraphrase Mercutio's entire "Plague on both your houses" speech--having been the "Tybalt" aggressor in the duel to boot. Still, fans of shakespeare ought to have plenty of fun with it. It's the first in a series, and I care enough to be likely to read the next in it.


Embers, by Sandor Marai
We endured, thought the General. And his guest felt a strange sensation of peace, mingled with both disappointment and pleasure---disappointment, because the other man was standing there alert and healthy, pleasure because he himself had managed to return here in full possession of his powers--as he thought, "He's been waiting for me, and that's what's kept him strong.
It was a feeling that communicated itself to them both just then: that during all these decades they had drawn their strength from waiting itself, as if an entire life had been mere preparation for a single task.
Konrad had known that one day he would have to come back, just as the General had known that some day this moment would arrive. It was what both had lived for.

This brief psychological almost-thriller takes place 41 years after an incident involving the aforementioned Konrad, the General and the General's wife that has haunted them ever since. Konrad left the country. The wife passed away eight years later. The General has been living in his old castle with the 91 year old woman who was once his nurse. As children, he and Konrad were so close as to be called by their community "the two friends". The fact that something changed that looms over the first half of the book like an elephant in the room, but what it is that happened is not disclosed to the reader until much later.

The second half of the book is almost entirely an extended monologue by the General to Konrad, during which his interpretation of the great game-changing thing that happened gradually comes out. The monologue borders on the absurd. chapters end with the expectation that the next chapter will be Konrad's turn to reply, but no, turn the page and the General just keeps on talking, going from his marriage to his friendship to his frustration that, among other intervening events, WWI happened and broke up the Austrian empire from which he (and Marai) drew their status. In spite of having almost no content but a long speech and a whole lot of foreshadowing preceding it, I found it rivetingly suspenseful.


The Time Traders, by Andre Norton
"These tribesmen might not be able to reproduce your gun, but it would set them thinking along new lines. We might find that they would think our time right out of being. No, we dare not play tricks with the past. That is the same situation we faced immediately after the discovery of the atom bomb. Everybody raced to produce that new weapon and then sat around and shivered for fear we'd be crazy enough to use it on each other."
"The Russians have made new discoveries which we have to match, or we will go under. But back in time we have to be careful, both of us, or perhaps destroy the world we do live in."

One of the older versions of the Time Plot. People going back in time must be careful not to do things that would alter the future they came from. Of course, this one having been written during the Cold War, those dirty Russians have no such scruples and are busy using 20th century weapons in the Britain of 2000 BC, while the American "good guys" who travel to stop them are making do with primitive clubs and arrows.

The Everyman protagonist is a petty delinquent who chooses to volunteer for a top secret double-classified military program rather than be subjected to an ominous-sounding punishment in the dystopian "future" early 21st Century. of course, he ends up separated from his unit in the middle of god-knows-when, with the burden of saving all of earth from annihilation or (even worse) the spectre of World Communism! Booga-booga, kiddies!


Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
There are billions of gods in the world. They swarm as thick as herring roe. Most of them are too small to see and never get worshipped, at least by anything bigger than bacteria, who never say their prayers and don't demand much in the way of miracles.
They are the small gods--the spirits of places where two ant trails cross, the gods of microclimates down between the grass roots. And most of them stay that way. Because what they lack is belief.
A handful, though, go on to greater things. Anything may trigger it. A shepherd, seeking a lost lamb, finds it among the briars and takes a minute or two to build a small cairn of stones in general thanks to whatever spirits might be around the place. Or a peculiarly shaped tree becomes associated with a cure for disease. Or someone carves a spiral on an isolated stone. Because what gods need is belief, and what humans want is gods.
Often it stops there. But sometimes it goes further. More rocks are added, more stones are raised, a temple is built on the site where the tree once stood. The god grows in strength, the belief of its worshippers raising it upward like a thousand tons of rocket fuel. For a very few, the sky's the limit.
And sometimes, not even that.

Now that I've read all of Donald E. Westlake's wonderful Dortmunder books, my new Christmas tradition is to break out a Discworld book to read for enlightenment and pleasure on Christmas Day. Because Christmas should be fun, and I want the most fun book I can find. Terry Pratchett has yet to let me down, and there's enough DiscWorld that at the rate of one book a year, I'll be octogeneric by the time I'm done.

See my March, 2009 Bookpost for the day I discovered the DELIGHTFUL ROMP that is DiscWorld. It wasn't until later that I discovered it was even better than that--that it is not only side-splittingly funny but downright philosophical, like my hero Rabelais only with the freedom to look back at earlier times from the here and now. Pratchett has throwaway lines (such as, Time is a drug. Too much of it will kill you) that lesser writers devote entire stories building up to.

Earlier books than this one have simultaneously skewered and celebrated Academia, war, palace guards, feminism, death, ecology, Egyptian pyramid culture and Hollywood. Small Gods "does" theology and ancient Greek philosophy. as the Great God Om finds himself suddenly helpless and in the form of a tortoise, with but one true believer (who is, of course, the simplest, melon-hoeing novice in the Great Temple) at the same time as the Wicked Inquisitor is plotting to enslave the thriving philosophical city across the water. Epic Shit ensues.

Just read it. If you don't at least chuckle a little, I'm not sure we can be friends.


Looking for Alaska, by John Green
"He--that's Simon Bolivar--was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams was at that moment reaching the finish line. The rest was darkness. "Damn it", he sighed, "How will I ever get out of this Labyrinth?"
I knew great last words when I heard them, and I made a mental note to get ahold of a biography of this Simon Bolivar fellow. Beautiful last words, but I didn't quite understand. "So what's the labyrinth?" I asked her.

This is John Green's first novel, the one that made him a Big Literary YA Figure right away(See Bookposts of November 2009, December 2010 and April 2012 for reviews of later John Green books).

I started Looking for Alaska at around 2pm the day after Christmas, took a break at midpoint (instead of chapters, the book's sections count the days down to the date of a major plot twist and then count days from it, like dividing time into BC and AD and only somewhat less epic), and was done by around six, with my heart racing. Even though it feels like a practice sketch for the much better Paper Towns, I found it riveting.

I wish Green had been around when I was the target market for YA and had to make do with Holden Caulfield. He captures a state of mind I vividly remember, the state of mind in which many adolescent boys understand nothing about adolescent girls except for the deep hormonal urge that they need to have one or die. The protagonists of Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns see the female leads as mysterious beings with superpowers, to be worshipped and courted, and then reality hits like an anvil in ways I never encountered in books back when I was failing to grow up. Green's work is a gift to the YA soul.


Jailbird, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr
"I only told the truth," I bleated. I was nauseated with terror and shame.
"You told a fragmentary truth," he said, "which has now been allowed to represent the whole! 'Educated and compassionate public servants are almost certainly Russian spies.' That's all you are going to hear now from the semiliterate old-time crooks and spellbinders who want the government back, who think it's rightly theirs. Without the symbiotic idiocies of you and Leland Clewes they could never have made the connection between treason and pity and brains. Now get out of my sight!"
"Sir," I said. I would have fled if I could, but I was paralyzed.
"You are yet another nincompoop who, by being at the wrong place at the wrong time," he said, "was able to set humanitarianism back a full century! Begone!"
Strong stuff.

I read an abundance of Vonnegut this year, most of it for the second time, having first encountered it during my senior year in high school. As a result, a lot of it was jarring to me, inspiring Proust moments that took me back (mumble) years to a time when I thought quite differenty from the way I think now.

Jailbird is an exception. It is a constant. It looks at the particular aspect of life that has stuck with me through the years. Political/economic oppression, and what I've come to call "Eichmannism", the tendency of people to follow the orders of the wicked, to shrug off horriffic circumstances, and to be more inclined to blame and hate people who point out injustice than to oppose those dealing out the injustice in the first place.

Jailbird refers to multiple episodes of American fascism and violent repression of liberalism over the course of a century: massacres of nonviolent labor strikers by privately paid corporate armies in the late 19th century; the sanctioned murders of Sacco and Vanzetti by the government for the crime of being liberals; communist witch hunts after WWII; the kent State murders; Watergate. During all of these episodes, we see the comfortable bourgeoisie accepting unconditionally the idea that the oppressors are just and right, and loudly demanding that people just shut up about it because they're sick and tired of hearing about those things and they feel oppressed by the constant attention given to scandals. Jailbird was published in the late 1970s; were it a work of 2014 or later, references to the same people who now wish everyone would just shut up about the victims of police shootings and "Gamergate" would fit right in.

The narrator of Jailbird, Walter Starbuck, is not "unstuck in time" like Billy Pilgrim. He just has a lot of flashbacks, out of order, which has the same effect without any of the space aliens. He is tutored by the son of the old-time robber baron responsible for the Cuyahoga Labor massacre; gets a Harvard education, serves without distinction in WWII, accidentally blurts out the name of his best friend and ruins him during a communist witch hunt; is disowned by his son and becomes a pariah everywhere, is taken on by the Nixon Administration, takes the fall for superiors during Watergate, goes to prison, gets thrown out of prison and left to fend for himself with zero resources, and somehow ends up running the one corporate conglomerate that controls, I mean, everything. Starbuck is Eichmannish, except when he isn't. He makes bumbling mistakes that cause major private and public disasters (Vonnegut is big on bumbling mistakes that lead to everything from one dead body to the end of the world. They're in most of his books). He feels a lot of remorse, but doesn't show it, so that people around him think he's unrepentant and continue to scold him all his life. He stumbles into Hell, and back into Heaven again, repeatedly. If there is a moral to it all, it's not given. Vonnegut does not claim to have the answers. But he does ask a lot of the right questions. Very highest recommendations.



Holinshed's Chronicles
Witches are hanged, or sometimes burned; but thieves are hanged (as I said before) generally on the gibbet or gallows, saving in Halifax, where they are beheaded after a strange manner, and whereof I find this report. There is and has been of ancient time a law, or rather a custom, at Halifax, that whosoever does commit any felony, and is taken with the same, or confesses the fact upon examination, if it be valued by four constables to amount to the sum of thirteen-pence-halfpenny, he is forthwith beheaded upon one of the next market days (which fall usually upon the Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays), or else upon the same day that he is so convicted, if market be then holden. The engine wherewith the execution is done is a square block of wood of the length of four feet and a half, which does ride up and down in a slot, rabbet, or regall, between two pieces of timber, that are framed and set upright, of five yards in height. In the nether end of the sliding block is an axe, keyed or fastened with an iron into the wood, which being drawn up to the top of the frame is there fastened by a wooden pin (with a notch made into the same, after the manner of a Samson’s post), unto the midst of which pin also there is a long rope fastened that cometh down among the people, so that, when the offender hath made his confession and hath laid his neck over the nethermost block, every man there present doth either take hold of the rope (or putteth forth his arm so near to the same as he can get, in token that he is willing to see true justice executed), and, pulling out the pin in this manner, the head-block wherein the axe is fastened doth fall down with such a violence that, if the neck of the transgressor were as big as that of a bull, it should be cut in sunder at a stroke and roll from the body by a huge distance. If it be so that the offender be apprehended for an ox, oxen, sheep, kine, horse, or any such cattle, the self beast or other of the same kind shall have the end of the rope tied somewhere unto them, so that they, being driven, do draw out the pin, whereby the offender is executed. Thus much of Halifax law, which I set down only to shew the custom of that country in this behalf.

As I began the year with Froissart and his chronicle of the 14th century, I'll end the year with a different chronicle that appeared at the end of the 16th. As with Froissart, it differs from "history" in that it consists mostly of lots and lots of "things that happened' without interpretation, and is thus a lot duller than history as we read it.

Holinshed began as part of the Elizabethan Court's attempt to write the first encyclopedia (or as they put it, a "Universal cosmography of the whole world." Every aspect of life, the universe and everything was assigned to some scholar. Raphael Holinshed, who was assigned the British Isles, was apparently the only one to actually turn in his work. The result was six huge volumes, including four on the history of England and one each on Scotland and Ireland. I read only the English volumes this year, but might do the others another time.

It starts off with a survey of England as it is "now" (16th century), and then goes back to pre-Roman eras and has a chapter for each ruler, with the four volumes covering, in order, pre-1066; William the Conquerer through Richard II; Henry IV through Edward VI; and Mary & Elizabeth. You can spot the parts where Shakespeare got interested--interestingly, the account of Richard III's villainy is contained not in Richard's chapter, but in the Edward V chapter, which was written by Sir Thomas More, who was a toddler in 1483, and who is about as dramatically morbid as Shakespeare, possibly currying favor with Henry VIII. So yes, the questions about Richard's guilt are valid.

If you read my Bookposts regularly, you know I pride myself on being able to slog through almost anything and stick it out to the end, but this one tried even my patience and is recommended only for die-hard historians.



Find all of my previous Bookposts here: http://admnaismith.livejournal.com/tag/bookposts
Tags: review, review list: monthly
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