Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith
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Monthly Book Post, September 2015

Warchild, by Karin Lowachee
Azarcon's black eyes fixed on me. "Do you know what the gauntlet is, Musey?"
It was one aspect of deep-space carrier culture that I did know about. And dreaded. "I run, jets chase me, if I survive intact then I'm on the ship."
Azarcon smiled coolly. "If you survive intact then I consider letting you on ship. Since very few do, I'll say my good-byes and good luck now."

This is the fourth book I've read off of Tempest Bradford's "stuff to read instead of straight white cis-guys" list, and the first to stick out as being conventional. While Nisi Shawl and Nalo Hopkinson's selections are brimming with Afro- and Caribbean influences, and Cixin Liu's Hugo winner is inescapably Chinese, Karin Lowachee (a Canadian born in Guyana) won the Warner Aspect first novel award with a traditional space opera.

The protagonist is a boy, born in a time of interstellar war, orphaned and kidnapped by pirates, rescued by aliens, trained for war in a lengthy wax-on/wax-off section, put in service on the elite military ship of Hell under a commander who throws people out the airlock on a whim but who inexplicably takes a liking to the protagonist...and there is intrigue and betrayal and things Are Not What They Seem. You've read this story a dozen times in different genres, and it never gets old.

Could be, it's on Bradford's list to show fans of military space opera that they don't have to just read stuff by white guys to get the same stories they claim to have been hungering for all along.


Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion, by Nicolas de Malebranche

Thus we all agree that God is infinitely wise and that He is so essentially and thorough Himself, by the necessity of His being, that people can be wise only through the light of the divine wisdom; that this light is communicated to them as a consequence of their attention, which is the occasional cause that determines the efficacy of the general laws of the union of their mind with universal reason, as we shall explain in the following. Let us now prove that God is just...

Ugh! Yet another attempt (a second tier one compared to Pascal, Liebniz, Descartes, etc.) to "prove" theology by reason. Give it up, guys! Either accept on faith, despite the scientific evidence, a cosmos with a just and fair higher intelligence that will one day make it all work out--if that's what helps you to cope with life and be the best person you can be--or reject it as superstition and find a purpose and rationale for your life that suits you better. Don't use reason to "prove" what can only be taken on faith. These "proofs" of God's existence convince only people who were predisposed to believe them anyway, and who do not need convincing. The attempts to segue from the existence of a creator to the assertion that the Protestant version of the Gospel is The Truth are even less convincing.

Malebranche uses the Platonic technique of having "dialogues" in which one wise man explains "the truth" while other characters make feeble objections and eventually profess agreement with the wise man. Malebranche starts out by losing me with an assertion that human beings consist of thought and do not really have bodies. he goes on to state that everything we "know" is just a feature within infinite extension, and that God is the only active principle in the Universe.

I can't. I just...no.

Three more months of this, and then the Enlightenment.


Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, by John Milton
All otherwise to me my thoughts portend—
That these dark orbs no more shall treat with light,
Nor the other light of life continue long,
But yield to double darkness nigh at hand;
So much I feel my genial spirits droop,
My hopes all flat: Nature within me seems
In all her functions weary of herself;
My race of glory run, and race of shame,
And I shall shortly be with them that rest.



Meh.

Milton is too religious and too Puritanical for my taste, even as the Puritans of the day rejected him as too poetic. His last few poems were written after Charles II was restored to the throne and the new monarchy barely persuaded itself to let the man live. During the Commonwealth, Milton had been one of the more zealous advocates in pen against any Restoration.

Paradise Regained is mercifully much shorter than Paradise Lost (see January 2015 Bookpost), and has the advantage over the Gospels in that it grants humankind redemption because of Christ's successful battle of wits with Satan, not because Christ showed everybody what's what by getting killed.

Samson Agonistes , taken in the context of Milton's actual circumstances, blind and living among his conquerors, is actually pretty dang moving. It's a perfectly structured Greek-style tragedy where post-haircut Samson, in Gaza, dialogues with Delila, various Philistine taunters, his father and a chorus of Hebrews before being led off to the temple where he will eventually commit a massacre-suicide and there will be much rejoicing. Not sure what part of Milton's life is supposed to be represented by bringing down the temple, but the rest is clearly autobiographical.


The Bawdy Basket, The Vagabond Clown, the Counterfeit Crank, by Edward Marston; The Westminster Poisoner, Murder on London Bridge, by Susanna Gregory; The Red Chrysanthemum, by Laura Joh Rowland

"August calls for rustic comedies, where we can feast and frolic. Not for martial tragedies that require me to fight a battle every five minutes and roar down the walls of the enemy's fortresses...Look at me, Nick! I'm being roasted like a pig on a spit. Sweat comes gushing out of me from every pore. My face is a burning waterfall; my armpits are stagnant pools; there's a steaming swamp between my thighs and my pizzle lies in the middle of it like a dead lily. God's tits! How can I duel with Scipio when I've no strength to lift a sword?"
--from The Bawdy Basket

The villain swallowed hard, clearly loath to engage in a skirmish he thought he was unlikely to win. Then he closed his eyes in weary resignation and slowly reached out to place his sword on the nearest crate. Unfortunately, Chaloner's blade chose that moment to drop out of its hilt...
--from The Westminster Poisoner

Tears of gratitude rolled down Mussett's cheeks, and he adopted a pose of total submission. After giving him a warm smile, Nicholas let himself out of the room. The moment his visitor left, Mussett's expression changed. The tears gave way to a sly smile and the ingratiating manner to a surging confidence.
"Give up drink and lechery?" he said with distaste. "Never!"
---from The Vagabond Clown

Reiko shook her head as if dazed. She cowered under the men's scrutiny, while outside the thunder boomed and rain fell in a torrent.
Akera staggered over to her. "She murdered Lord Mori!", he cried, his face livid with rage, his finger pointing at Reiko in accusation. "She cut off his manhood and killed him!"
--from The Red Chrysanthemum


Chaloner was bewildered, not sure what to make of such enigmatic remarks. He sat back in his chair and studied Thurloe hard, but he had never been good at reading the ex-spymaster, and he knew he could stare at him all day and learn nothing.
"Please," he said eventually. "What you are suggesting is madness. Leave London. Go home to Ann and the children before it is too late."
"I cannot, Tom," said Thurloe softly. "I wish I could, believe me. But I cannot."
There was something in his friend's low whisper that turned the blood in Chaloner's veins to ice, and made him wonder what turmoil was about to overtake London.
---from A Murder on London Bridge

"Ah!", said the constable, with heavy sarcasm. "You've grown another leg since you left the Ravem have you? And the little lady now has a second arm. Out of kindness, God has seen fit to restore your missing limbs. It means there's more of you to arrest."
--from The Counterfeit Crank

The Bawdy Basket has Westfield's Men (Nick Bracewell in particular, as usual) trying to clear the name of a member's father who has been wrongly executed for murder. Reminiscent of the Leonard Tourney mysteries from earlier this year, the real culprit, revealed early on, is an unscrupulous rich man who can seemingly have his way with all of London, and it is the function of the underdogs to find a way to stop him, while also extricating their writer Edmund Hoode from yet another perilous romance. In The Vagabond Clown, a performance by Westfield's Men is disrupted by a brawl in the theater that ends with the broken leg of Barnaby Gill and the discovery of a murdered spectator. Because of Gill's indisposition, a replacement is hired, and the usual series of unfortunate events ensues. The Counterfeit Crank isn't so much a mystery as a Dickens-style call for reform two centuries early. The central characters are a couple of child vagabonds come to London to illustrate the period hazards of begging in the streets and the corruption and abuse inherent in the work houses, before Bracewell and Westfield's Men can take them under their wings and show them the comparably stable and well-to-do lifestyle of the theatre.

The Westminster Poisoner has (what would you think?) a series of poisonings in the Painted Room at Westminster amidst a Yule season festival complete with practical jokes by the Lord of Misrule, a bank robbery that really happened, a stolen statue that was also really stolen in history, and an exceptionally vile series of displays of miserly ingratitude and other asshole behavior by protagonist Chaloner's employer the Chancellor. As usual, Gregory's use of actual historical events and people, and her rich descriptions of Restoration-era London overcome credulity-straining complex plots. A Murder on London Bridge is more of the same, featuring Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans all making conspiracies, spreading false clues and killing one another until one identifies with the section in which Chaloner is nearly swept away in the turbulent Thames.

The Red Chrysanthemum, another in Laura Joh Rowland's series set in 17th century Japan continues to become more supernatural, with references to the touch of death, ghosts, and a murder victim who testifies via a medium in an official seance. Sano Ichiro's wife Reiko is the chief suspect in a case written so as to include several Rashomon-like accounts from the points of view of various witnesses reporting what they saw. The motive and identity of the killers is kept secret, but of course if you start with the premise that the heroine of the series is not guilty, then it is immediately obvious who is not telling the truth, and that Reiko must have been deliberately framed to--as always in these novels--destroy Sano.


Where Jackals Howl, by Amos Oz
To the north of Rehavia lie sprawling suburbs, poor neighborhoods with charming streets. In one of these winding alleyways stands an old olive tree. One hundred and seven years ago an iron gate was erected here and the lintel was supported by the tree. Over the years the tree leaned against the iron, and the iron bit deep into the trunk like a roasting spit.
Patiently the olive began to enfold the iron wedge. In the course of time it closed around it and set tight. The iron was crushed in the tree's embrace. The tree's wounds healed over, and the vigorous foliage of its upper branches was in no way impaired.

Stories about life in a kibbutz by an Israeli author who has been there. Sets of families huddling together for support, or more often, hating one another, while surrounded by human and animal enemies. "Where Jackals Howl" is but one of eight tales, but the distant howling of jackals, which may be taken as a metaphor for hostile Arabs, or boiling emotions, or an angry God, can be heard in all of the stories, usually right as something nasty is about to happen.

Some of the stories are reinterpretations of old Bible tales, and the descriptions of thoughts, characters, simple lives, animal herds and dialogues are so consistent with an environment thousands of years old and in that very land, that it is jarring when a military jet suddenly appears overhead to remind the reader that the characters are in the 20th century after all.


Mercury Shrugged: The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon
One summer afternoon, Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find out that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it out more than honorary. Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk as possible. But this did not work. She thought of a hotel room in Mazatlan whose door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down in the lobby; a sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on it had ever seen because the slope faces the west; a dry, disconsolate tune from the Fourth Movement of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra; a whitewashed bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept over the bed on a shelf so narrow for it she'd always had the hovering fear it would someday topple on them.

Pynchon is somewhere on the weirdness spectrum between Vonnegut and William S. Boroughs. The Crying of Lot 49 --the title refers to the auctioneering of a set of postage stamps--is probably the best introduction to Pynchon there is. It's only 150 pages; most of his work is much, much longer, and all of it is solidly packed with dense themes, metaphors, puns and cultural references both ancient/scholarly and modern/hip, and everything in between. The quoted part above is the first paragraph of the book, and Oedipa the heroine can't so much as look at a billboard without similar language.

The estate of which Oedipa is executor belonged to an eccentric billionaire (is there any other kind?) who owned pieces of, I mean, everything, including a factory that made charcoal cigarette filters out of the bones of American WWII casualties. He also had a stamp collection that includes "Lot 49", a set of clever forgeries containing a distinctive post-horn symbol that suddenly shows up everywhere Oedipa goes. She finds it as graffiti on a bathroom wall. She visits an old folks' home that is part of the estate's holdings, and the old guy in the lounge just happens to have relevant memories about his grandfather the mail carrier. She goes to see a production of a Jacobean revenge play, and a line of text gets her attention. She meets people with suggestive names like "Mike Fallopian" and "Genghis Cohen". Random bar conversations reveal important information.

All of these random encounters seem to point to the existence of a secret libertarian courier service in competition with the Post Office, that has been around since the 17th century or longer, that uses stamps like the ones in Lot 49, and that kills people who get in their way. Or else someone is putting an elaborate hoax on Oedipa. Or maybe she's on drugs and hallucinating it all--except that Bad Things suddenly begin to happen to the people who make up Oedipa's meager coping network--her husband, her therapist, the people she's confided in about the phantom post office. And the book ends just as Owedipa is sitting down to see who will bid on the stamps at the auction.

The book may be an example of what Robert Anton Wilson called "guerilla ontology". It includes hoaxes and misdirection on purpose, to teach people not to just blindly accept whatever they read. It has something existential to say about modern (in the 1960s, when the book was written) life and culture in California, and maybe about the meaning of life in general, about things not being what they seem, and about how we know anything and how we cope with the uncertainty about what we think we might not know after all. Very high recommendations.


Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan
Then went the Jury out, whose names were, Mr Blindman, Mr No-good,Mr Malice, Mr Love-lust, Mr Live-loose, Mr Heady, Mr High mind, MrEnmity, Mr Lyar, Mr Cruelty, Mr Hate-light, and Mr Implacable; who every one gave in his private Verdict against him among themselves, and afterwards unanimously concluded to bring him in guilty before the Judge. And first among themselves, Mr Blind-man the Foreman, said, I see clearly that this man is an Heretick. Then said Mr Nogood, Away with such a fellow from the earth. Ay, said Mr Malice, for I hate the very looks of him.Then said Mr Love-lust, I could never endure him. Nor I, said Mr Live-loose, for he would always be condemning my way. Hang him, hang him,said Mr Heady. A sorry Scrub, said Mr High-mind. My heart riseth against him, said Mr Enmity. He is a Rogue, said Mr Lyar. Hanging is too good for him, said Mr Cruelty. Let us dispatch him out of the way, said Mr Hate-light. Then said Mr Implacable, Might I have all the world given me, I could not be reconciled to him; therefore let us forthwith bring him in guilty of death. And so they did; therefore he was presently condemned to be had from the place where he was, to the place from whence he came, and there to be put to the most cruel death that could be invented.

Comparably tame after Milton and Pascal, Bunyan is included in full in the Harvard Classics, and is probably one of the more famous and easily readable books to come out of the 17th Century. The girls in Little Women study it, and are forever concerned about making it to the "wicket gate."

The whole thing is a pretty heavy-handed allegory in which a man named (what else?) Christian goes on a journey seeking goodness and light and Paradise, encountering the usual obstacles, and the one-dimensional personifications of various virtues and vices. The characters have names like Good-Heart, Timorous, Ready-to-Halt and Mr. Worldly WiseMan, and are so single-mindedly consistent with their single defining flaws and virtues that it's hard to take any of them seriously (Bunyan, of course, would write me into Christian's journey as "Mr. Blasphemous" and have me do nothing but laugh at and mock them for my few pages in their company). Somewhere along the line, Christian is given a pass-book, which he shows at the pearly gates at the end and is admitted with great rejoicing, while some other sinner, not having the pass-book is righteously seized by angels who dump him into the pit of flame amid much rejoicing by everyone but Sinner, and that's how the story ends. Except that Bunyan was inspired to write a sequel, in which Christian's wife and kids (whom Christian had righteously left to fend for themselves while he went walkabout, because that's what the good righteous ones do, apparently) go on the same journey, with some distinctions to account for how women are so weak and dependent that they need special justification to be allowed out without a chaperone. Facepalms and eyerolls; I has them!

I got much more spiritual nourishment out of Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, which has a much more wonderful journey with so many parallels to Bunyan (The Doldrums instead of the Slough of Despond; the Kingdom of Words instead of Vanity Fair; etc.), that I'm sure it's not coincidental.


The Maxims of Francois De La Rochefoucauld

Humility is often just a feigned submissiveness employed to dominate others. It is a stratagem of pride, which lowers itself that it may raise itself; and though pride wears a thousand masks, it is never better disguised or better able to deceive than when it wears the mask of humility itself.

No one deserves praise for being good who lacks the power to do evil. Goodness, for the most part, is merely laziness or absence of will.

Very clever men pretend all their lives to condemn trickery so that, at a critical moment and for a large stake, they may indulge in it.

If we resist our passions, it is oftener because they are weak than because we are strong.

Sincerity comes directly from the heart. One finds it in very few people; what one usually finds is but a deft pretense designed to gain the confidence of others

Thankfully, this book is short, and the epigrams within shorter still. It is relentless, and should be read no more than a few pages at a time. I carried it with me this month to pull out during short intervals when I had to wait briefly, like on line at the bank.

They are cynicism after cynicism after cynicism. Proverbs as written by the author of Ecclesiastes. Man is bad, and if Man ever seems to be good, then it is imperative to remember that Man is bad. All apparent virtue is hypocrisy and pretense.

Reading it is like eating out of a box of chocolates to find that every one of them is unpleasantly sour, or like finding that the flower you try to pick has a yellow jacket lurking inside. A few epigrams may make you smile wryly; many of them at once will mess up your attitude and leave you with long term depression. Proceed with caution.


Discourse on Metaphysics, by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
I think that one acts imperfectly if he acts with less perfection than he is capable of. To show that an architect could have done better is to find fault with his work. Furthermore his opinion is contrary to the Holy Scriptures when they assure us of the goodness of God's work. For if comparactive perfection were sufficient, then in whatever way God had accomplished his work, since there is an infinitude of possible imperfections, it would always have been good in comparison with the less perfect; but a thing is little praiseworthy when it can be praised only in this way.

A lot like Leibniz's Theoidicy (see last month's book post), but mercifully takes much shorter time to say the same thing: God is perfect, therefore, what He has made is the best of all possible worlds. In fact, it goes a little farther in that Leibniz produces some scientific laws as evidence of God's perfection: "Look how He made the planets go around the sun with such precision! Truly, God is perfect!" One might wish theologians did that today instead of going back to the tired old religious tradition of ruthlessly suppressing truth every chance they got, on the grounds that it is incompatible with faith and therefore evil.

Meh.


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