Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

Monthly Bookpost, May 2015

The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox
The Tumult of her Thoughts being a little settled, she turned again towards Glanville, whose countenance expressing nothing of that confusion and anxiety common to an adorer in so critical a circumstance, her rage returned with greater violence than ever. "If I do not express all the resentment your insolence has filled me with," she said to him, affecting more scorn than anger, "tis because I hold you too mean for my resentment; but never hope for my pardon from your presumptuous confession of a passion I could almost despise myself for inspiring. If it be true that you love me, go and find your punishment in that Absence to which I doom you; and never hope that I will suffer a person in my presence, who has affronted me in the manner you have done." Saying this, she walked away, making a sign to him not to follow her.

See my December 2014 Bookpost for Don Quixote. One problem with reading books through history is encountering a disproportionate number of Dead White Dudes. However, if you look hard enough, you can find a Sappho, a margery Kempe, an Olauda Equiano.

The Female Quixote was originally presented to me as some sort of feminist anthem, the story of a woman living on her own terms and dedicated to the revolutionary notion that women are people. As such, my first reaction to the story of a woman raised on century-old romance novels, and who perpetually believes herself to be the center of every man's attention, inspired first "Nope" and then, "Well, maybe." For the same reasons that the original Don Quixote inspires first ridicule as a madman, and eventually the sense that the craziest might be the truly sane in an insane world.

Example: The heroine, Arabella, hears of a cad who toys with a woman's affections and abandons her. Arabella's assumption is that the cad is really a handsome lover, who is absent because he was abducted by pirates, and will surely return to clear his name and claim his bride.

Example: She attends a horse race, and assumes that the jockey has entered the lists in disguise, seeking the favor of a lady.

Example: On the road, she believes that every man she sees may be a ruffian come to ravish her, which is presented as a ridiculous notion. compare and contrast with "Schroedinger's rapist", the assumption that prudent women make this very day, for which they are similarly ridiculed as mean, man-hating, untrusting pricklies.

Example: She has two suitors, one of whom has read the same books and plays along with her delusions to flatter her; the other has no idea what she's talking about and is initially discomfited and offended at her overly dramatic presentation, but continues to love her and eventually sincerely meets her half way, once she tones it down a little.

Example: as with the original Don Quixote, the focus shifts from the ridiculousness of the "mad" protagonist to the ridiculousness of the world around her. Meanwhile, some characters who start to humor the protagonist become caught up in the role playing and actually add to her status and power. Thus, Quixote is treated as a knight and a hero; Arabella as a great lady whose feelings not only matter but are to be respected and feared. The closest thing I can come up with as a modern equivalent is the "iron magnolia."

Again, like the original, it suffers a bit because both the attitude of the protagonist and the world at large seem equally ridiculously old-fashioned, the date of the novels being removed from the reader by more centuries than it is removed from the perspective of the quixotic protagonist. But it is a good read both on its own merits and as a rare example of a "great book" written centuries ago by a woman.

Skin Game, by Jim Butcher
When I ran, i went by the mounds pretty quick. when i walked, the prisoners trapped inside them had time to talk to me.
Let me fulfill your every desire, crooned a silken voice in my head as I went by one.
Blood and power, riches and strength, I can give you all that you--- promised the next.
One day, mortal, I will be free and suck the marrow from your bones snarled another.
Bow down in fear and horror before me!
Loathe me, let me devour you, and I will make real your dreams.
Release me, or I will destroy you!
Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Sleep and let me inside you...
You know.
The usual.

The 15th Dresden Files book is one of two novels nominated for the 2015 Hugo Award that is tainted by the "Puppy" scandal (See last month's Book Post for the first). At least with the Dresden Files series, I've read the previous books and you can see how objective I am about the Puppy taint by seeing what I posted about the earlier ones (See Bookposts from around May 2011 through December 2012). As I've said all along, they're a mixed bag, running the gamut from the excellent White Night to the truly terrible Proven Guilty. My interest started to wane around volume ten, and I dutifully slogged my way through vol. 14 in 2012, but didn't feel compelled to read Skin Game until the Hugo ballot appeared.

It's a pretty good, fast paced heist story with monsters, in which Harry Dresden is coerced into participating, with a group of powerful hired baddies with various special abilities, in the "impossible" theft of some important macguffin from a vault in Hades, with the details of the caper revealed gradually on a need-to-know basis and every member of the team suspicious of the others and not to be trusted. The fun and suspense comes from not knowing what the real plot is or what's in the little green bag or who is going to suddenly but inevitably betray the others (probably Mr. Grey will kill Miss Scarlet, while Mr. Brown-nose turns out to be an undercover warden, but read it for yourself).

There is a big problem with reading #15 in a series with an arc plot, if you haven't read the others or if, like me, it's been a few years. Many, many old friends and enemies suddenly appear, and if you've forgotten who they are, you get many, many wet-blanket moments similar to this passage I just made up:

"I looked at the picture Nicodemus had given us, and felt my skin crawl. Yes, I'd seen that face before. The last time I'd seen it, I'd narrowly missed being torn to pieces by an army of robot space weasels."
"The door we were supposed to get through was being guarded by Irving Milch."

...and you don't know or you forgot a long time ago who Irving Milch was, and whether he's fae or vampire or mafia assassin or whatever, because he appeared in book six and hasn't been mentioned since. This happens over and over.

Politically, I can say that NEITHER of the two "puppy" books is particularly conservative, or likely to make liberals cry (one of the puppies' stated goals in getting their slates nominated), apart maybe from Butcher's possibly annoying tendency to make all of his female characters badass fighters AND drop-dead gorgeous AND always aroused by the Dresden guy. Being a heroine addict myself, I don't generally mind a fantasy full of hot warrior women who want to be my fighting fuck-toy, but your mileage may vary considerably. Also, like goldy or bronzey only made of iron, the part where Skin Game waxes philosophical is on the subject of choices and consequences and redemption--Dresden agonizing over whether his mistakes have made him a bad person; the villains being offered chances to turn away; Dresden's angelic friend Michael giving him comfort or scoldings as the occasion arises....which segues nicely into Jim Butcher's decision to associate himself with Vox Day and slate voting, and to identify as the conservative movement candidate for best novel. Not an irreparable mistake, but I guess he'll have to accept the consequences. He has his moments, but if there's a marketing campaign to get people to vote for something "to send a message that liberals suck and we're coming to get them", that something can't get my vote. And having one's moments isn't good enough to overcome that.

The Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley
“You see,” said the fairy, “what comes of living on a burning mountain.”
“Oh, why did you not warn them?” said little Ellie.
“I did warn them all that I could. I let the smoke come out of the mountain; and wherever there is smoke there is fire. And I laid the ashes and cinders all about; and wherever there are cinders, cinders may be again. But they did not like to face facts, my dears, as very few people do; and so they invented a cock-and-bull story, which, I am sure, I never told them, that the smoke was the breath of a giant, whom some gods or other had buried under the mountain; and that the cinders were what the dwarfs roasted the little pigs whole with; and other nonsense of that kind. And, when folks are in that humour, I cannot teach them, save by the good old birch-rod.”
This one was very frustrating to read. It was absolutely delightful, right up until it started getting racist, and then it wasn't any more. Some parts are wonderful, and I wanted to read it to my kid, except I can't. not until he's old enough to not accept the degrading stereotypes on black people, Jews, the Irish, the rom, and especially the poor. Kingsley meant well, I'm sure, but he was a victim of the age when he lived.

There's a boy, Tom, who is assistant to an abusive chimney sweep; who goes to do a job at a wealthy man's manor, is mistaken for a burglar and chased like a fox across the moors by the whole household, has some adventures, and ends up falling asleep at the bottom of the creek--which causes him to "change from a land baby into a happy water baby" and have more adventures under water, while the silly grownups who find his "shell" in the creek assume he's dead, and mourn, not knowing he's gone on to a happier existence. That's the first creepy part. It's all lighthearted, but I kept imagining impressionable very young readers running off to drown themselves so that they can become happy water babies--the book is full of unhappy people and animals shuffling off their skins and rejoicing, maybe as an analogy for going to Heaven, but eww.

There are neat turns of phrases, whimsical situations, and episodes with morals, as with the kind Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby and the tough-love Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, who show the wayward the error of their ways by example. One of their stories involves the Doasyoulikes, who flee from the land of hard work to play all day, and who eventually devolve first into n****rs and then into monkeys, so that Tom may resolve not to be like those savages, and instead value being productive. I can't even pretend I didn't read that, it's so offensive.

But then there's the example quoted above, where Kingsley manages to rail against the Global Warming Deniers a century and a half before they came about. Hard to not be impressed by that part.

The Water Babies is deeply flawed, but worth reading once, as an adult or under supervision. The sad part is the wasted potential. Like looking at a five-star meal that you know someone has irreparably poisoned.

The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria, by Laura Joh Rowland; The Fugitive Queen & The Siren Queen by Fiona Buckley; Low Treason, by Leonard Tourney; The Roaring Boy, by Edward Marston
"Dispatch the whoreson dog!"
Even in the dark, Thomas could see to whom these words were addressed. Starkey stood above them, observing the fray. He had picked up his companion's cudgel. He was laughing a low, vicious laugh and wielding the shadowy thing the cudgel had become above his head. Then Thomas heard the mortal rush of rent air. There was no time to cry out, no time to hear the thud or feel the blinding pain, or worry more about the fate of his bruised senseless body.
---from Low Treason

Constables are local men, usually with other trades to follow as well, who take on the task of upholding the law for a year or two, after which someone else replaces them. Some are good at the task, conscientious and intelligent. Some enjoy the power and become too zealous, arresting people for foolish reasons. And some have too little experience of the world outside their town or village. They don't know what is important and what isn't, and automatically distrust all strangers, assuming that anything they say is only half as reliable as the testimony of local folk. They may be energetic but they're often ineffectual. On sight, I judged that Master Thomas Toft was one of that kind. And I was right.
---from The Fugitive Queen

Sano experienced an antipathy so strong it bordered on hatred for the shogun. That all his efforts counted for nothing in the view of his lord! No matter how many cases he solved, any failure would doom him. He didn't expect gratitude or encouragement, but the Black Lotus case had diminished his tolerance toward the shogun's constant criticism and threats. He must get away before he said something regrettable, or anything worse happened.
---from The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria

It struck me that Gladys's way with ill-wishing was improving with practice, if improving were the right word. Even when she quarreled with our physician, she hadn't sounded so vicious or so powerful. This was actually frightening: "I CURSE YE BY A COLD HEARTH AND A COLD BED---A COLD HEART AND A COLD HEAD, A COLD BELLY AND A COLD BREATH----A COLD LIFE AND A COLD DEATH"
"For the love of God!" gasped Brockley. He had gone quite pale. Dale ran up and stood close to him as if for comfort. Hugh similarly hastened back to my side and we gazed at each other, appalled. Meg began to cry, and Sybil actually crossed herself, in the old fashioned way.
Fleet said grimly, "I think there is unquestionably one real witch here in this churchyard. Don't you?"
---from The Siren Queen

He stamped a peevish foot. "I'll not abide it, Nicholas! His conduct is unforgiveable! Had I not delivered a speech extempore to cover the gap in nature, the play would have fallen apart."
Nicholas nodded. "You must do that office again."
"Ben Skeat has spoken his last line."
"Do not look to me to rescue him."
"I look to all of you."
"Why so?"
"He has passed away," said nicholas quietly.
"What!" howled Gill. "While I was acting with him! That is an insult that cannot be borne. I am mortified."
---from The Roaring Boy

"Someone poisoned Peter Hoxton, though I'm convinced it wasn't my father. I want to know who it really was. Mistress Stannard, according to Lord Sussex, who knows something about you, you have a reputation for being find things out. You are said to be clever at it. I would try on my own account, but I have duties which occupy all my time. Will you help?"
---from Queen Without a Crown

Leonard Tourney has the least satisfying mystery series, to me, of the collections I've been reading. As with January's The Player's Boy is Dead, the villain is exposed from the beginning, and is supposed to be a Napoleon of Crime, utterly overwhelming the country constable who comes along investigating crime, until the net closes on him, at which point he's contemptibly small and you wonder why you were in any suspense at all. Since the constable has Sir Robert Cecil for an ally, it's not easy to cast him as overwhelmed without writing in a pretext for not calling in the Queen's minister quite yet. I'll keep going, but not for many volumes longer.

I'm also running through the Fiona Buckley series as fast as possible, not because it's bad, but because it's set chronologically earliest, still in the 16th century when I'm supposed to be reading the 17th. The Fugitive Queen deals with the Henry Darnley murder covered by Anne Dukthas in A Time for the Death of a King (Bookpost, October 2014) and has the thrice-married detective (now called Ursula Stannard) at Bolton, Yorkshire, to have clandestine dealings with Mary, Queen of Scots. Trigger warnings for attempted abduction and forced marriage followed by forced "consummation of marriage". The Siren Queen is unfortunately based on an actual plot that made little sense at the time and makes less sense in book form. It contains dull passages to do with ciphers, and is to some extent saved mainly by a subplot involving Gladys the Witch, who continually makes herself unwelcome by casting curses on everyone who annoys her. Queen Without a Crown has a double plot that should have been left as one: the interesting "cold case" plot in which Ursula solves a long-ago murder to save a young man tainted and deemed unmarriagable because of a crime attributed to his father, and a hackneyed attempt to intertwine it with yet more plots to put Mary Stuart on the throne of England.

Interestingly, the "queen" in all three titles is not Queen Elizabeth, but Mary Stuart

Laura Joh Rowland's Japan continues to strike me as an utterly foreign and savage place, ruled over by a weak-minded but all-powerful tyrant, criticism of whom amounts to treason against the state and who, seven books into the series, is STILL putting Sano Ichiro's life at risk and threatening him with death for failure to solve or even (in this case) accusing him of the murder. A good record counts for nothing. Then again, I'm reminded of Michael Dibdin's modern Italy, which is no better, and, as their relentless effort to frame Amanda Knox in real life demonstrates, is not even fictional or long ago.

Finally, Edward Marston and his "Lord Weston's Men" players are becoming to Elizabethan historical mysteries what the Dortmunder gang is to modern crime fiction, with the distinction that Lord Weston's Men are--mostly--on the right side of the law. Their adventures are improbable, madcap, not particularly involved in detection, and the suspense is more "How are they going to get out of this situation?" than "Who did it?". The Roaring Boy involves a stranger who gives the players a new play depicting a recently-solved actual murder as having really been committed by someone other than the people who hanged for it. The real culprit will stop at nothing to prevent the play being performed, and comic mayhem ensues.

English Minor Poems, by John Milton
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."

The above poem, "On his blindness", was my very first exposure to Milton; it was posted at waitstaff stations in two different restaurants where I worked, by students who apparently liked to take the last line out of context.

Both the Harvard Classics and the Great Books set devote a whole volume to Milton; the Great Books set includes the collection of "English Minor Poems" as the only lyric poetry worthy of the set, other than Shakespeare's sonnets and Virgil's Eclogues. So you know they must be considered very important, and I must be one of the great philistines to find a lot of them deadly dull.

Overwhelmingly, the topic is Christian religion. There are translations of psalms from the Bible, and odes to Christ's nativity, and angels and light and souls of Milton's dead fellow humans, from small children to great lords, whose passing has added to the joys in Heaven. I'll grant, Milton does a better job than Dante of presenting an eternity of solemn harp music and prayer and endless light as the ultimate bliss, but it still seems to me that the Christians would do a lot better to imitate the Muslims in envisioning a Paradise with gardens and beaches and banquets and a lot of sex.

Milton's other big topic was the English Civil War which, the more I learn about it, the more I dislike both sides. It's like watching a fight within the Republican party between partisans of the Divine Right of Capitalist Overlords (called "kings' back in the day) to grind the faces of the poor, and religious conservatives who want no one to have any fun, ever, because Jesus. I root for both sides to wipe each other out so that the grownups might take over. Milton was a Puritan for Cromwell, and is called "the Puritan poet"---THE Puritan poet, as in, he was the only one. Puritans didn't want art or music or poetry, not even the religious kind.

Of the 90 pages or so of poems, I particularly liked the contrast of "L'allegro" and "Il Pensero", extolling partisans of happiness and melancholy, respectively; the short drama of "Comus", and some of the later short ones (including "On his blindness" and two about the Puritans scolding him for some of his writings). Your mileage may vary.

The Valleys of the Assassins, and Other Persian Travels, by Freya Stark

This is a great moment, when you see, however distant, the goal of your wandering. The thing which has been living in your imagination suddenly becomes a part of the tangible world. It matters not how many ranges, rivers or parching dusty ways lie between you; it is yours now for ever. So did those old barbarians feel who first from the Alpine wall looked down upon the Lombard plain and saw Verona and its towers and the white river bed below them; so did Xenophon and Cortez, and every adventurer and pilgrim, however humble, before them or after; and so did I as I looked over that wide country, intersected by red and black ranges, while the group of hillmen around me, delighted with my delight, pointed out the way to the Rock in a pale green cleft made small by distance far below.

It is what it says. Travels in Persia. In the early part of the 20th Century, to remote areas near the Caspian Sea where, at the time, few westerners had ever been.

I had extreme dissonance between the "Ah, what fun!" tone of the book and the description of what was clearly dangerous terrain, full of unsafe mountain passes, swamps infested with typhus and malaria, and suspicious nomads who would just as soon kill you as look at you. Redmond O'Hanlon in Borneo (see Bookpost, March 2015) was intentionally ironic and funny, with references to the indignities about being bitten by deadly snakes; Stark doesn't seem to acknowledge that there's anything unusual going on.

Recommended for exploration of a remote culture, and an example of a real-life female adventurer.

Interview with the Vampire, by Anne Rice
The vampire was utterly white and smooth, as if he were sculpted from bleached bone, and his face was as seemingly inanimate as a statue, except for two brilliant green eyes that looked down at the boy intently like flames in a skull. But then the vampire smiled almost wistfully, and the smooth white substance of his face moved with the infinitely flexible but minimal lines of a cartoon. "Do you see"? he asked softly.
The boy shuddered, lifting his hand as if to shield himself from a powerful light. His eyes moved slowly over the finely tailored black coat he'd only glimpsed in the bar, the long folds of the cape, the black silk tie knotted at the throat, and the gleam of the white collar that was as white as the vampire's flesh. He stared at the vampire's full black hair, the waves that were combed back over the tips of the ears, the curls that barely touched the edge of the white collar.
"Now, do you still want the interview?" the vampire asked.

This is the first in Rice's very popular series. I was stunned at how dull it was, and can only assume that it gets better. The narrative, which as the title suggests, is in the form of a vampire telling his autobiography to an interviewer, takes a world-weary "this happened, and then this happened" style, without emphasis on what may or may not be important. Several times, I found myself having to turn back one or more pages because my interest had dozed off and I had no idea what I had just read.

The main vampire is not Lestat; it is Louis, a man who was turned by Lestat in colonial-era New Orleans, and who then travels in Europe while events make his will for eternal existence gradually wane along with my desire to read about his life. Still a better love story than Twilight.

The Age of Reason Begins, by Will and Ariel Durant
Amid this clash of armies and creeds the international of science was laboring to lessen superstition and fear. It was inventing or improving the microscope, the telescope, the thermometer and the barometer. It was devising the logarithmic and decimal systems, reforming the calendar and developing analytical geometry. It was already dreaming of reducing all reality to an algebraic equation. Tycho Brahe had made the patiently repeated observations that enabled Kepler to formulate those laws of planetary motion that were to illuminate Newton's vision of one universal law. Galileo was revealing new and vaster worlds through his ever larger telescope, and was dramatizing the conflict of science and theology in the halls of the Inquisition. In philosophy, Giordano Bruno was letting himself be burned to death in the attempt to reconceive deity and the cosmos in terms worthy of Copernicus. Francis Bacon, summoning the wits to science, was mapping its tasks for centuries to come, and Descartes, with his universal doubt, was giving another cue to the Age of Reason. Morals and manners were molded by the vicissitudes of belief. Literature itself was touched by the conflict, and the ideas of philosophers echoed in the poetry of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Donne. Soon all the wars and revolutions of the rival states would sink into minor significance compared with that mounting, spreading contest between faith and reason which was to agitate and transform the mind of Europe, perhaps of the world.

The Age of Reason Begins is the seventh volume in the Durants' "Story of Civilization" encyclopedic European history; the shortest of the eleven books, and the first one to credit Ariel as co-author. The brevity and tone are like the first section of The Reformation, in which they whiz through almost 200 years of what happened in Europe outside Italy between Dante and Luther. The century between 1550 and 1650 is filler while we race to get to the Enlightenment, where the GOOD stuff happens.

On the other hand, we get the Spanish Armada, the colonization of what would become the Eastern US, the 30 Years War, and chapters devoted to the lives of Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare, Richlieu, Gustavus Adolphus, Galileo and Descartes, so it's not exactly dull.

It is, however, broad but shallow; a survey that devotes a few pages each to persons whose works I'm simultaneously reading in their own right, and to events that have filled volumes on their own. Even more depressing is the frequent realization that most American high school students aren't even getting this level of history, but instead get the history of the whole world crammed into a single year with a textbook approved by the Texas Board of Education.

The book is divided into three sections: England, "Europe" (mostly Spain, France and the birth of Holland, with brief nods to the Holy Roman Empire, Italy, Scandinavia, Russia and "the Islamic Challenge") and "The Mind", with two chapters on scientific and philosophical advances. The overriding theme is one of Catholic and Protestant fanatics fighting each other while secular beliefs quietly gain a foothold over the hearts and minds of the people. The Great Conversation that used to be about whether the Pope or the Bible was the ultimate King over All The People now gets mathematical and logical. Those who write in this age fellate clergy and kings in a please-don't-kill-me-for-thinking sort of way, and Galileo, of course, is forced to take it back. Later thinkers will stand on their shoulders and speak truth to power with more confidence.

Filter House, by Nisi Shawl
Her rescuers, followers of the Imam, had been persuaded to deliver her to this holy man's hareem. There she would live, if breath alone meant life. But her mind would stifle, smothered in layers of doctrine like muslin, light but numberless swathes of it falling on her until she was buried, though yet undead. And her body...she shuddered, and drew back from the cave's opening. Best not to dwell on that. There would be a struggle, between the Imam and her father, between her father and the Caliph. Her loins would be the battlefield.

Earlier this year, KT Bradford posted a challenge to people to read no straight white dude writers for a year, which I did not accept (though there are plenty of people out there doing just fine on it, who read no books at all). I did, however, note the included list of fantasy books by female and POC authors, and added it to my already overflowing list. Filter House is the first one on it I've gotten around to.

It's short fiction, running the gamut from "excellent" to "fog-enshrouded", from African folktale to European folktale to American South to dystopian future. There's a ghost story, a couple of love stories, several cautions about what might happen to the world if we don't get our collective act together, some kids coming of age, and some of the old magic that crones pass on to their granddaughters. Several stories, particularly "The Water Museum", left me wanting more chapters. Highly recommended.

Find all of my previous Bookposts here:

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  • Aria: The Masterpiece, Volume 2

    Aria: The Masterpiece, Volume 2 by Kozue Amano Further life on the wet Mars, now known as Aqua. Akari helps a lost visitor, learns about the…

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