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December 2004 Archives

December 30, 2004

Wolfe - The Knight

Gene Wolfe
The Knight

Gene Wolfe is at his best, IMO, when he is writing from the perspective of a confused but observant narrator. His best work, or at least the one I like the best, is his Soldier of the Mist, a novel written in the form of a papyrus scroll marked "read me each day," and owned by a soldier in classical Greece who has recieved a head wound that prevents him from transferring information from short-term to long-term memory. Each day, all he knows is what he learned that day and what he wrote in the scroll. In addition, perhaps because of the head energy, he sees and talks with the gods and heros of ancient Greece - getting wrestling advice from Hercules, and so on. It is a great book, in part because the format means that Wolf can simply leave gaps in his story for the periods when Lazlo forgets to read and write his little scroll.

The Knight is somewhat similar, in that it is the narrative of a flawed narrator. Like Jack Vance's Lyonesse it is powerful, in the simple yet strong mode of a classic folk tale. The very simplicity of the narrator becomes a powerful narrative tool. In this case the conceit is that a boy - teenager? his mental age seems to change from chapter to chapter - wanders from our world into Alfheim and from thence into the middle world. He falls in love with an elf queen, who ages his body but leaves him a kid in a man's shape. He then goes through a series of picaresque adventures.

At times this really read like a toddler story akin to If you Give a Pig a Pancake for about the only consistent trait our hero has is that he is constantly getting distracted from his previous goal. Serving a king, hunting a villain, saving a princess, rescuing a sword, and so on and so on. Wolfe seems to be suggesting that life is a series of decisions we make as we go along, and that we have to choose between our vague general goals, our committments of the moment, and our desire to seize opportunity when it goes by. Still, I felt upset about all the people who depended on our hero and who he abandoned to go haring off after his next picaresque adventure. He is meant to be a kid in an adult body, and so he is.

There is a second volume to this, The Wizard, sitting on my in-shelf. More later.

Note, I read this in December, wrote the commentary in January, and backdated so that the annual book numbers would add up.

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Red Ted
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Gaiman - American Gods

Neil Gaiman
American Gods

This is a big book. It is such a big book that it took me a couple of weeks to think about what I wanted to say about it, and I still don't have anything coherent other than a strong wow and a small and poorly articulated wah.

I had looked at the book a couple of times before reading some rave reviews over on Crooked Timber, and had steered away from it because the cover blurb made it sound like a bad Sandman/Dark Knight ripoff. I was braced for anxty alienated loner with a grudge against the world and a monomaniacal desire for, something - revenge perhaps, or justice, or something compelling.

That is not the story.

Instead we have Shadow, a very sweet somewhat passive and very large man, and his misadventures with Mr Wednesday - a name that when Gaiman finally spelled out its implications I kicked myself for having missed.

The premise is fairly simple: the old gods - gods who immigrated from Europe, Africa, and Asia during the peopling of America - are fading away and being replaced by new gods - the internet, the intangibles on Wall Street - as supernatural beings that shape our lives and must be believed in and supplicated. A Mr. World is organizing the new gods to wipe out the old gods, and Mr. Wednesday is trying to rally the old gods to survive. Things progress from there, but so much you get in the first hundred pages or so.

This is a mind-blowing concept. It reminds us of the great many things in this modern world that we believe in, trust, appeal to, and yet do not fully understand. If a god is a black box that you pour emotions and sacrifice into, and that rewards you by granting or denying your desires, then we have an awful lot of new gods.

I spent a lot of time after reading the ending trying to decide what it all meant. I am still not sure. If I discuss it here, this will become a spoiler and not a review.

Still, let me just say that while we find out where Shadow comes from, I at least was left very unclear about where Shadow was going. In part, that is because Shadow himself ends the book unsure of his own future. I normally like indeterminate endings where you can use your imagination to complete the narrative - one of the way cool things about Walter Jon Williams' City on Fire is the indeterminate ending. Still, in this case I wanted to have done a better job of putting the hints together. I tried to re-read it to see if it worked better the second time, but it was not a book that wanted a rapid re-read.

Still, highly recommended. J listened to it as an audiobook as I read it on paper, and having listened to a few scenes I do think it works better when read aloud than it does when read on the page. The language is that thick, and that powerful, and that smooth.

Note, tweaking the date because I read this in late December. The review was written Jan 9, 2004.

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Red Ted
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December 20, 2004

Butler - Parable of the Sower

Octavia E. Butler
Parable of the Sower
New York : Four Walls Eight Windows, c1993.

Octavia Butler is a powerful prose stylist who creats strong and unusual characters. I like this.

Parable of the Sower is set in a dystopia California built around a "if this goes on" scenario of gated communities and the breakdown of law and order.

It is a very good book.

I was not in the mood for a dystopia.

I stopped after some 20 pages. I might read it sometime in the future when I am in a different mood - the book was simply licorice and I was in the mood for orange.

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Red Ted
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Delderfield - Give us this Day

R. F. (Ronald Frederick) Delderfield
Give us this day
New York, Simon and Schuster [1973]

Delderfield reminds me of Wagner sometimes.

This is not a good thing.

Both produced vast stretches of material that makes you wonder why you are sitting through it, broken by occasional moments of sublimity or bathos, or in Delderfield's case a sort of prosaic sublime bathos, if that makes any sense.

Delderfield wrote a lot about 19th and early 20th century England. Some of it is good. Most of it is long. Much of it is too long for the material.

One of his opuses (opi?) is the story of Swann, a cavalryman who returns from putting down the Sepoy Mutiny in India with a fortune in rubies hidden in his belt, and uses that fortune to set up a business using horses and wagons to "fill in the gaps" between the railroad spurs in the second half of the nineteenth century. The book is long, and has two sequals each even longer than the one before. This is the final sequal, and I could not finish it.

I got a good 500 pages into the book before I finally convinced myself that I was turning the pages just to get to the end so I could say I had read it. That is not really reading a book, so I sent it back without turning the last 200 pages.

The problem is simply that the vast stretches of tedium were not worth the few transcendent moments. He has some good moments - when George Swann (son and business heir of old Adam) uses two early model trucks and a modified horse wagon to lug a six ton battleship turret some hundred-odd miles across England, well, that chapter works. At his best Delderfield is capable of taking the prosaic events of daily life and the large events that punctuate a business or career and turning them into sublime or transcendent moments, paens to the human spirit, and powerful invocations of English nationalism. He does this best of all in his two-volume bit about "The Suburb" but parts of Swann's world also do it.

At his worst, you get bored out of your gourd watching the culture hero wander through life, with adoring wife behind him and large troupe of thinly fleshed out, largely neglected children scattering around them. That is a little unfair - Delderfield does try to give the second generation real personalities in this volume where he had not done so in A Horseman Riding By, but the marriage is the same and the patriarch raising his huge brood through benign neglect and good luck, that is the same. I think that one reason why To Serve Them All my Days works as well as it does is that he manages to limit the offspring to a manageable number, although even there the kids are raised off stage and you get the sense that dad is vaguely aware of some short people living in the house while mom knows all the details. And the book is about dad.

I think I am Delderfielded out. I read too many of his novels in a few months' span.

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Red Ted
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December 09, 2004

Trenchard and Gordon: Cato's Letters

Cato's Letters: or Essays on Liberty, Civil and religious, and other Important Subjects
John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon
Ronald Hamowy, ed.
Four volumes in two
Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, 1995
Originally appeard 1720-1723 in the London Journal

The Liberty Fund is really really good at taking classics of Anglo-American political thought, getting a talented but not high-priced academic to edit them, and publishing them in a durable affordable paperback edition. I disagree with their politics, but I love their books.

Cato's Letters is a classic of eighteenth-century political thought. In fact, while some educated men read Locke and friends in the originals, most American colonists got their ideas of compact theory, religious toleration, and the need for a vigilant defence of liberty, from Trenchard and Gordon. They were the vessel through which Whigh politics and enlightenment political theory were transmitted to much of the colonies, and they were also a well-regarded model of style and power.

I read these back in October, but never got around to blogging them. The letters are all short essays, the first dozen or so inspired by the scandal of the South Seas Company, the last few rather odd little rants, but most of them short essays on political theory or political concerns. All are worried about the corrupting aspects of power, and all warn that wealth and privilege lead a governing class to act for their own interest and not the national interest. As such, it was enlightening to read them during the tail end of the recent Presidential election, for I kept finding bits and pieces that I wanted to cut and paste and send off to the newspaper as op-ed pieces against Bush and Cheyney.

The irony, of course, is that those same bits and pieces could easily have been sent in by Republicans as op-ed pieces during Bill Clinton's two terms.

I won't get into the details of the letters - there are a lot of them - but I will say that I like them. I should add that my students do not like them. I assigned Cato 42, on the difference between natural law and statute law, and I think it was one of the readings with the lowest completion rate of the entire syllabus. Trenchard and Gordon like nice fat multi-clause 18th-century sentences, and our reading habits to day are closer to "See Jane run."

Good stuff.

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Red Ted
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December 01, 2004

Stowe - Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly
E-Text via University of Virginia Text Center
Multiple editions over the years, orig pub 1852

Uncle Tom's Cabin is the great nineteenth-century American novel. It might be the Great American Novel, but I would rank Faulkner As I Lay Dying and Fitzgerald Great Gatsby over UTC. It clearly beats out Twain's Huckleberry Fin.

And yet, almost no one reads it anymore, which is why I assign it to the U.S. History surveys. (Survey part two gets The Autobiography of Malcolm X) They used to read it - it was the most read and most translated work of fiction of its day, it was read, or seen as a play, or seen as a re-written play, or in a re-re-written minstril show throughout the late nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. Remember that the harem in "The King and I" puts on a play of "the small house of Uncle Thomas" and that Berlin has its OncleTomStrasse (spelling?). Instead, while the names of some of the characters are still widely identifiable today - Uncle Tom, Simon Legree - the book itself has fallen out of circulation.

I can see several reasons for its decline: the drop in melodrama, the racism inherent in Stowe's plot and characters, her moral lecturing, and her insistence that Christianity must serve as a force for moral and civil reform all make the book both preachy and obnoxious. However, I think the biggest reasons are the turn to institutionalized racism in the early 20th century and the response of civil rights and especially black nationalists to the book in the middle of the twentieth century.

During the early twentieth century, say from 1890 the 1920s, the United States created a national re-union across the divisions made by the Civil War, with the nation accepting Northern notions of union and Southern notions of race relations. This was the era of mass disfranchisement, this was the era when both the Federal Government and Major League Baseball were segregated, this was the heyday of the second Ku Klux Klan - with family picnics and social events all over the South and Midwest.

During the Civil Rights movement, which might have re-habilitated the book, black nationalists condemned Tom. Tom willingly sacrifices himself to save others; he chooses to stay with and reform white masters rather than trying to run away; he is moved about the countryside by others; and in the various plays and re-writings of the book he changes from a moral conscience and Christ figure to a goofy, grinning, lackey. No one wants to be associated with that, especially because Tom himself was morally and plot-wise a woman and black nationalism was driven in large part by an attempt to re-define black manhood.

So, we don't read the book. And I think we should.

I like the book for a couple of reasons. The first is that, despite the implausible plot and final reconciliation, despite the digressions into long debates about slavery or the direct exhortations to the reader, the book grabs the reader and drags her along. Stowe manages to create sympathy for her heros, anger at her villains, and in Haley, Legree, and Marie she has three of the better villains in all of literature. They more than make up for the penny-tract nature of Tom and Eva, her two religious prodigies and Christ-figures.

The second, and the reason why I assign it to my students, is that the book hits just about every major concern of the nineteenth century: Slavery? yep; Gender roles? yep; Class identity? yep; The dangers of the commercial market? yep; The duty to be moral in an immoral world? yep; Sentiment? yep; Meditations on the duties that come with power? yep; Debates about free will? yep. It is all there, and that is why I call it the great nineteenth century novel.

In addition it has some of the less attractive parts of the era: racism? yep (compare the black and mulatto characters); classism? yep (her male villains are all lower class, her gentlemen are all kind, or at least not cruel); Triumphalism and bigotry? of course; separate spheres restrictions on women? yep - part of gender roles. Again, it is all there.

I re-read the novel every time I teach it, both to be fair to the kids who are also reading it and because I need to refresh my memory before I talk about the details with them.

The new thing I spotted this time was that there are two characters who are sort of the middle-class wish fulfillment fantasy. Rachel Halliday and Bill the drover both exert authority without appearing to make effort. Rachel Halliday is the more obvious - she is the Quaker woman who shelters Eliza as she runs and brings Eliza back in touch with her husband George Harris, who has also run away. Rachel Halliday is depicted as this tiny, soft-spoken woman who sits in her chair and rocks. She speaks a soft word, and children and husband scurry to obey. Separate Spheres advocates argued that a woman could dominate all around her by being gentle, and good, and kind - and Halliday expresses that ideal. Her male counterpart, the drover, has freed all his slaves but they choose to stay and work for wages; he sends them out on errands and they come back; he is uncouth - we meet him spitting tobacco juice with great abandon - but he is one of Stowe's moral voices and he again personifies effortless authority.

And so to teach.

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Red Ted
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