Stand very still. Breathe as softly as you can. See that little flicking movement? No, not over there, straight ahead, behind the bush. Keep looking. You will see it. I promise. There. Didn't I tell you? Cool, right? Isn’t she beautiful?
One of the foundations on which the study of nature is based is to be still and watch. Yes, there is a lot more to it, but you have to find some inner quiet, clear your mental and sensory palate, stop fidgeting, and allow the images, scents, sounds and feel of the world cross your senses, settle in and register. There is plenty more of course. But watching, noticing, is an excellent place to start. In The Hidden Life of Deer, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has done just that. And she was able to learn a lot without having to look very far beyond her back door in Peterborough, NH.
Usually oak trees spread acorns over the landscape every autumn, but in 2007, in Thomas’s neck of the woods, they seemed to be on strike. Reluctant to see the local whitetails endure the particular hardship of cold plus starvation, Thomas took it upon herself to provide something that might help, corn. Deer had been visible on her land forever, but the feeding assured that there would be plenty of deer to watch.
There is probably more written about deer than any other animal. I found 1.2 million websites, 80 books in print, many more out of print and about 100 articles on deer. I really think they are the most studied mammals in the world, but nobody cares about their social lives. They care about the bacteria in their gut in winter, and things related to hunting them — but not what they really are or do. I wanted to just watch them and learn who they are.- from the Mother Nature Network interview
Thompson takes us along with her as she struggles with figuring out how to identify individual animals, and observing the dynamics of interactions among deer groups. There are nuggets of information scattered throughout the book, material that will make you smile as you add it to your accumulated knowledge of the world. Why, for example, do deer nibble and move, nibble and move, instead of chomping down a bit farther in a given patch? Why is food that is ok for deer at one time of year, useless in another? How can deer scat help you determine what direction the critter was headed? How dangerous are antlered buck battles? How can you tell a place is a deer resting spot? How have deer adapted to ways in which people hunt them?
…a useful way to look at another life-form is to assume that whatever it may be doing—chewing bark, digging a tiny hole, wrapping itself in a leaf, sending up a sprout, turning its leaves to face the sunlight—it is trying to achieve a goal that you, in your way, would also want to achieve. In fact, you can be sure of that. The closer you are taxonomically to what you are looking at, the more likely you are to recognize what it’s goals might be, and the further you are, the less likely. Either way it’s fascinating.
Thompson does not fawn solely over deer for the entirety. There is plenty of subsidiary intel here on other forest dwellers. Turkeys come in for a considerable look and you will be thankful, I guarantee it. Bobcat scat (no not a form of feline singing) on a boulder has particular significance, and is not just evidence that the kittie could not make it to the usual dumping ground in time. (see, I managed not to conjure an image of the guy below leaving a deposit in the woods) In fact there is a whole section on varieties of woodland scat that you will not want to wipe from your memory. There is a description of oak behavior, yes behavior, that will make you wonder if Tolkien’s depiction of ents might have more truth to it than most have suspected.
Not to leave all the consideration to the critters, Thompson offers some observations on human selection and characteristics as well.
suppose we had evolved in the northern forests, rather than simply arriving there as an invasive species. We certainly wouldn’t be naked—we’d be permanently covered with dense fur—and when our pineal glands told us that the days were getting short, we’d do a lot more than simply feel gloomy—we‘d redouble our efforts to find food, and we’d start breeding so that nine months later our young would be born in the spring. Allegedly we do eat and breed a bit more in the autumn, but if we were truly a northern hemispheric species, we’d do it in grand style…The reason we don’t have thick fur and a breeding season is not because we’re superior beings, but because we evolved where such things were not needed.
She also goes into some unusual hunting rituals humans engage in, wondering if the practices in question might extend into pre-history. She refers to such learning, handed down from generation to generation, as The Old Way, ( a subject she explores in depth in her book of that title) whether it is the passing of information by ungulates or homo sap.
In fact Thomas, an anthrolopogist, as well as a naturalist, has spent considerable time in Africa, living with and studying the Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari, writing about what she learned in The Harmless People, Warrior Herdsmen and The Old Way: A Story of the First People. She is best known for The Hidden Life of Dogs. She has also written about felines, in The Tribe of the Tiger: Cats and their Culture
Thomas is very easy to read. You need not be concerned with getting lost in scientific jargon. She is very down to earth, and very accessible. There is a spare beauty to her prose. She has also written several novels, (Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife most prominently) so she knows how to frame and tell a story.
For most of us, city-dwellers by and large, opportunities for wildlife observation are much more limited than they are for those living so much closer to actual wilderness. But we need not be starved for information, insight, lore and wisdom about the natural world. Just as Thompson provided corn for deer to help get them from one year to another, so she has offered, in The Hidden Life of Deer, knowledge and nourishment for the mind and the soul. You will learn a lot reading this, some of it very surprising. The book has been found by many readers since its publication in 2009. Do yourself a favor and hunt down a copy, then sit somewhere where no one can see you and read it very quietly. I advise against twitching your ears.
…what were the origins of the many pieces of Heraclix? He was like a puzzle to himself, an unknown being or beings, self-aware, yet unaware of the individuals from whom he had been constructed.
Where do we come from? Of what are we made? Who are we? How did we get to be who we are? Can we change? In the case of Heraclix, of the title, all the above apply. H is a big guy. Think Shrek with a bit less green. Usually the golem is a clay creature, but H is more of a group effort, being comprised of parts, a Frankenstein monster with better (than the film) motor skills, and a makeover. Heraclix is riven, as so many of us are, with a complicated nature. His is more physical in it’s manifestation, though. With one arm in particular eager for action, he reminded me a bit of Doctor Strangelove . In a nifty opening, he breaks out of a womb-like vat of liquid (not the last birth event in the book), and does what any newborn might do. He reads everything he can get his paws on. Doesn’t know where the ability came from, but really, really wants to get a handle on his world, and comes across Daddy his maker’s porn private, and very disturbing, notes.
Mattatheus Mowler is not your garden variety sorcerer. Sure he’s a few hundred years old, and is educated enough to animate dead parts, among other nifty tricks, but the boy has some serious ambition, not to mention an issue with aging, and is not to be messed with. That brimstone aroma that may be wrinkling your nose emanates the Faustian bargain he has made. He has a client list that would be the envy of any K Street operative. Of course, evil, connected genius or not, he is still human, more or less, and makes mistakes enough to allow for an actual contest. Not exactly your ideal re-animator, (or would that be assembler?) as daddy dearest rains blows and other abuse down on Heraclix’s large frame with abandon. But one day MM brings a sweet young thing to the lab, in a jar.
The author - please note the shooter on his sleeve
Pomp is a pixie with moxie. She encourages H to stand up for himself, and overcome the self-loathing that accompanies his beatings. Mowler has dark plans for her of the sacrificial sort, but the plan flies to pieces, the premises succumbs to fire (always a risk when dealing with hellspawn), and a dynamic dimorphic duo is made.
The motive force here is Heraclix trying to find out who he actually is. With information gleaned from Mowler’s premises, he and Pomp set off on a classic journey of self-discovery. They cover a fair piece of European landscape, beginning in Vienna, with stops in Prague, Istanbul, Budapest, and sundry locales in between. Along the way they pick up pieces of the puzzle, as in a video game, that lead them from place to place. The information is sometimes in the form of clues, in Mowler’s papers, say, or in writing along the side of a coin. More often it is in the form of stories told by Gypsies, Cossacks, wizards, an old man in an obscure town, sundry characters they encounter in their quest. As the pair travel, together and separately, they gain points knowledge.
Heraclix comes across as a likeable hulk. He has a pure heart (whomever it might once have belonged to) and is an honest seeker after truth. In trying to discover his true identity he learns a thing or two
…there was something in the quality of sorrow suffered at the hands of another that was different than the sorrow that one brought on others, whether through one’s own stupidity and neglect or by intentional acts of hatred. The latter carried the sharpest stings of guilt, regret, self-berating…
Pomp, while a very valuable partner, is not so much seeking truth herself as she is eager to help Heraclix. Hey, the big lug saved her, so she owes him. But she finds that she, as well, is challenged to consider her view of herself and the world.
Her life isn’t now about playing pranks all day every day. It isn’t about not caring. All this playing pranks and not caring isn’t fun any more. If she goes on like this, her life stays immortally, eternally…boring. Death is sad, but death makes life more worth living.
In addition to H&P there is a parallel story involving Holy Roman Empire royalty, a young lass, and a fair bit of intrigue.
There are some images and themes that run throughout. Birth is addressed multiple times, in both a biological and baptismal way. Heraclix is very clearly being born by breaking out of a watery enclosure in an early scene. There is what might be seen as a baptism by fire, and later in the book, he has what seems another aqueous bursting through or two. History figures large here. Pomp, when we meet her, has no notion of it, not understanding the concept of memory. Heraclix cannot remember anything and wants to find out who he is. The tale is told in a historical context, offering a look at the feel, if not much of the detail, of tension between the Holy Roman Empire and its foreign enemies. Eternal life is addressed in the wizard’s desire for it and in how Pomp, who has it, copes with and gives a lot of thought to the implications of life without end. Changing one’s life is also addressed on multiple fronts. A killer becomes a healer. Pomp is faced with potentially changing her orientation as well, getting to see in person the questionable wages of all-fun-all –the-time.
I am sure there are many references to folk tales I missed in here, but a visit to hell itself surely must conjure Dante. So be on the lookout for references to The Inferno. And heading to the basement certainly seems in synch with a Campbellian structure.
One of the things that most impressed me was the diversity and creativity of Aguirre’s imagination. Heraclix alone is a marvelous concoction, but there are many more. Phantoms haunting the one who killed them, demonflies from Hell, a Godzilla-like Beelzebub, some carnivorous clover, fairies up to no good, a demonized crow, some magic mirrors, a telescope for seeing magic. The list is considerable and the creations quite fun. While some echo familiar elements of fantasy fiction, there is an added layer of the new that gives it all some real sparkle.
Gripes were few. There are a fair number of characters, and it can be a bit tough at times keeping them straight. The ARC I read did not have a list of characters in it. I do not know if the final version might. I find it useful to make my own list as I read to help keep everyone straight. Also there was one escape I had a problem with. (view spoiler)[H manages to escape from hell, but it is not entirely clear to me how he got from underground to above. (hide spoiler)].
Aguirre has established himself as a top-drawer, award-winning editor of speculative fiction, and a seasoned writer of sci-fi as well. Heraclix and Pomp demonstrates that he is also a confident, creative and imaginative novelist. The journey on which Heraclix and Pomp set out is a consistently interesting and engaging one, offering not only a look at a fantastical world, but adult consideration of eternal, real-world, existential issues. I am sure they would love for you to tag along.
Heraclix and Pomp was sent along by the author, a GR friend, in return for an honest review
Aguirre’s blogspot page, Forrest for the Trees, includes a 24:47 sample of the audio book. Some items in the archives are worth a look, including a three-part sneak peek at the second adventure of H&P, and a piece on his writing process (no necromancy involved).
An interesting interview with Forrest on Shelf Inflicted, in which, among other things, he talks about how H&P came to be.
Suicide Game, a first novel by the mononymous Haidji, is an oil and water mixture of intriguing concepts, impressive visual sensibilities, and, at lea...moreSuicide Game, a first novel by the mononymous Haidji, is an oil and water mixture of intriguing concepts, impressive visual sensibilities, and, at least in the English version, a crying need for a professional, native-English-speaking editor.
The core element here is the Suicide Game itself, a privately run enterprise that takes in 8,000 contestants and produces a single winner, in a more or less contemporary setting. It does put one in mind of the scene in Glengarry Glen Ross when Blake, a bully sent to incentivize the sales staff at a real estate firm, says to them, “As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody wanna see second prize? Second prize's a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired.” It might read here “First prize, fame and fortune, with treasures beyond your imagining. Second prize, you die.” In The Hunger Games participants were selected by lottery. In Suicide Game, it is voluntary. One might wonder who in their right mind would willingly participate in such a travesty.
Haidji has put together an ensemble cast. There are game participants, with contemporary and back-story people connected to each, the council that runs the whole thing, the arena designer, and a smattering of game employees. No one character occupies enough time to be considered primary. Oh, and add in a terrorist.
One can take this as a straight ahead story about a social abomination, and the individual tales that feed it, or take it as a metaphor for existing sociological madness. Choose the former and you may find yourself leaping into an abyss.
What country would allow such a thing to take place? At least when nations sponsor the suicide game we call war, they attempt to offer at least the pretense of a reason. Not so much here. Why would anyone choose to participate in any contest with such poor odds unless they had nothing left to lose? And while the lure of fame and fortune might lead one to publicly humiliate oneself, as we see every day on reality programming, it is a whole other level to join a death march. And if one is seeking to kill oneself, the usual reason is despair. What possible appeal might there be to enticing participants with glory when they have already given up all hope? While there are some shenanigans involved in the legitimacy of some of the contestants, I found the justification offered for most of the competitors to be thin. Kinda tough to invest much in relating to characters if the reasons for their actions are unpersuasive. Why choose to die? Why not try to solve your problems? And if you are determined to snuff it, there are plenty of quicker ways to go about it. Why drag it out for several days, and do it in front of a global audience? Lost love figures large here. But then found love figures pretty large as well, with love at first sight a very unconvincing motivator. Maybe in this world there are no second acts, let alone third ones. They might take some advice from Ingrid Michaelson. All the broken hearts in the world still beat. Despite the rampant heart disease our culture breeds, people get over heartbreak, find new loves, new outlets, new satisfactions. I got the feeling that the characters jumping into the game could do with a good talking-to, or an intervention. “You schmuck, sit down! What the hell were you thinking?” Taking the USA as an example there are 39,000 suicides here annually, more or less. Cramming 8,000 of them into a four day span is, well, a stretch, suggesting that it must have been a really bad week when applications were being accepted, or a big week for immigration. I imagine the selection process was probably as selective as that used by the National Geographic Society for individuals nominated for membership. (Although George Bailey certainly deserves to belong.)
In addition to an excess of telling over showing, there are elements there that hint at an eagerness to gloss over problematic details. It is as if the entire world existed in a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney film in which the neighborhood kids decide, “Let’s put on a play,” and magically a stage, set, costumes, script and time for rehearsal all appear as if out of nowhere. Just think it and it is so. For example, the management of the stadium decides to make a radical change in their food service, and it is changed during a break in the game action. Modifications to significant stage elements of the stadium are likewise implemented as if by divine command. A significant computer programming re-working is done in, it seems, nanoseconds. With over twenty years as a programmer, I can say for fracking sure, no bloody way. The romantic relationships also seemed to lack real-world substance.
Ok, if, however one takes this as a piece of social commentary, it becomes possible to look past the story-telling problems and settle in to a consideration of larger issues. One can look at the heartless exploitation of the participants by corporate entities, and not have to look too far to find contemporary equivalents. In the US, how the NFL treats players is pretty close to amoral disinterest in the well-being of the workers who create the value they are selling. I am sure there are plenty of equivalents in other sports. The entertainment industry offers many examples of people willingly putting themselves, their reputations, and maybe their health, if not their lives, at risk in order to gain their fifteen minutes in the media spotlight. The Suicide Game might be seen as an exaggeration of that reality to make a point. I do not think that major sports organizations descended to a level of exploitation where they process, package and sell bits of loser contestants. But would you really put that past the NFL, or our major networks? One element in all this is the dehumanization of the contestants by putting them all in the same uniform and having makeup artists remove remnant individuality from their faces. This surely speaks to the depersonalization inherent in much of mass media. Outside of committed fans, can you really tell who is wearing a particular football uniform on a given Sunday? Just as players are largely a production factor for corporate owners, parts that can be replaced as needed when they wear out, the suicide game takes the notion to an extreme, and succeeds in making a point.
My biggest gripe about the book is that the English is in need of serious repair. Haidji speaks English. We are were pals on GR, (that seems to have taken the leap when this review appeared) and have exchanged our share of messages, so I can attest that her English is pretty good. But I cannot say whether this book was written in another language (she speaks several) and translated or was written directly in English. In either case, it is in great need of an editor whose native tongue is English. There are many instances in which it is possible to ferret out what the author meant, when the words used did not do that job well enough. Turns of phrase are sometimes simply wrong. Readers are expected to read between the lines for thematic or psychological reasons, but should not have to do so in order to simply correct the text. That said, it is a readable book. Just be aware that you may have to do some extra work to figure out what is being said.
If one can get beyond the language shortcomings, there is fair bit of interesting material tucked into the story. Haidji concocts an umbrella made of air alone that is pretty cool. The notion of making diamonds of the unexpected material cited here is a real thing. The stadium design has some elements that are quite fascinating. Her governing Suicide Game council applies a very unusual voting methodology. A court case involving Big Oil is also reality-based. An early scene involving a terrorist and 9/11 was one of the strongest elements in the story. On the other hand, use is made of a drug referred to as “milk of amnesia.” Such a drug does exist. I have been a personal beneficiary on multiple occasions. (Yes, it is legal, wiseass, and is used in medical work) But it does not act in the real world as it is shown to act here.
There are some mysteries in here as well that add texture. Who is actually in charge of the whole thing? How did a baby get loose in the stadium? Will the smitten connect with the actual objects of their…um…smit? Will everyone be blown to bits?
It is also clear that Haidji has a strong sense of the visual. Color and texture offer a strongly defined background against which the characters do their things. The game logo is wonderful. Candidates are in white face, dressed in shiny black, made up to betray no emotion. The logo is painted in orange. That hare krishnas are in attendance enhances the presence of that color Ushers who clean up the bodies are dressed in gray. Makeup artists at game wear matte black, and the game Hostess wears a red femme fatale dress. Designer names for clothing and footwear are rampant, which certainly does not speak to me. I had to look up far too many of these. But readers with more fashion knowledge (pretty much everyone) will have a better shot at appreciating the references.
There are problems for sure with Suicide Game. It really, really needs the assistance of a professional, native-English-speaker editor. There are issues with an overly simplified view of how relationships might progress and even how things work in the world. But if you can make a leap of faith to look past these, there are rewards to be had in the many fascinating notions that live in that world with them. You might enjoy Suicide Game, and without having to pay the ultimate price.
Review posted – August 29, 2014
I received this book from the author in return for an honest review.
In the beginning was the word, (well according to John 1:1 anyway) but in the absence of someone writing it down, then printi...moreIn principio erat verbum
In the beginning was the word, (well according to John 1:1 anyway) but in the absence of someone writing it down, then printing millions of copies, you might never have known. So maybe in the beginning was the word but right behind it was the printer. Before Stephen King, Dan Brown, JK Rowling or AC Doyle, there was once a major global best-seller, the first one. It had an initial printing of one hundred eighty, and it changed the world.
The finished product - from the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center Library
Alix Christie has given us a look at how the Gutenberg bible came to be, and in so doing has illuminated the image we might have of this seminal work with portraits of the man himself, the era in which he lived, the politics of the time, details of the technical advances that went into development of the movable type press, and a look at the people involved.
When you combine the words Gutenberg with Bible, you might conjure an image of some monkish guy in a garage basement, or barn, banging away at his personal project until Voila! You might also think printing the bible was his first gig. Turns out, not so much. While it may not have taken a village to make the famous big book, it came close. Johannes Gensfleisch, the man we know as Gutenberg, (the name of the town where his mother had been born) had some help. There is no question that he was a genius, and that his notions of using movable metal type ushered in a new age. But he was also a very results oriented entrepreneur. Bit of a slave-driver too, as well as being someone of questionable ethical standards, and maybe not the guy you would want having your back in a critical moment. One of the joys of Alix Christie’s tale is learning at least some of the many challenges of all sorts that had to be met along the way from revolutionary printing notion to reality. She came on her less-than-glowing notions about Gutenberg as the sole source of the genius behind the press as a result of relatively recent research by several European scholars. She goes into details on the book’s site.
The author - from her Facebook page
Our window into this world is his assistant. Peter Schoeffer, the apprentice of the title, was a scribe in Paris when Johann Fust, who had adopted him, summoned him back to Mainz (pronounced mīn(t)s) to work as Genfleisch’s apprentice. Fust had seen what Gutenberg might do with his marvelous new machine and committed a significant financial stake to the project. Part of the deal was for Peter to be an apprentice in Gutenberg’s shop. Fust’s intentions were not wholly beneficent. He wanted a spy on the inside. The story of how the bible was ultimately made is given by Peter, relating his history to a monk many years later. We step back and forth between the then (1450-1454) and the now (1485), of the story. This offers the author a way to present some views on Gutenberg from a more objective distance. Well, from a distance, anyway. JG is presented in a rather dim light as seen through Peter’s eyes.
Johannes Fust and Peter Schoeffer
In the world of the late 15th century the Catholic Church was a particularly corrupt and oppressive force, impacting the world of earthly politics to an unholy degree. It was within the power of an archbishop, for example, to essentially quarantine an entire city if, say, the ruling council of that city went against his wishes. The Church was also busy selling indulgences, pieces of paper on which the church had incorporated its imprimatur, and which, once you filled in your name, would guarantee forgiveness in heaven for sins committed on earth. The 15th century variety was a way for the church to raise funds, for things like Crusades and large papal celebrations. As the mass production of these monstrosities could be stunningly lucrative to the church, those in charge had a considerable interest in the possibility of new printing technology. And Gutenberg had to be on his guard to keep the church from learning of his project too soon, lest they seize his entire workshop for their own purposes. Secrecy was paramount, and many tongues needed to be stilled for the project to proceed. This creates considerable tension in the story, even though we know that the book is eventually made. Christie also looks at the local politics of the city, the importance of guilds, and the political push-pull of the elders (think the one percent) vs the workers (in this case, guilds).
The focus on the people involved in the time and place make this a tale of Mainz and men (sorry), and not just a tracking of technological innovation. There is a bit of romance in here as well, as Peter and a local lass become entangled. This offers Christie an opportunity to look at the status of women in the late 15th century and note the life-threatening aspect of childbirth that was much more a hazard then than it is today. Of course the tech stuff is fascinating, as it took considerable trial and error to work out the kinks. Christie is a master of these details. As she should be. She apprenticed as a printer and owns a working press. However, she is equally adept at portraying the many interpersonal tensions and complications in the relationships of the major players.
For centuries the ruling class had run the city like their private bank. They’d lent the council sums they then repaid themselves at crushing rates of interest. These bonds they then bequeathed to their own spawn, in perpetuity. Thus was the city fated to insolvency, like half of the free cities of the Reich. Each time the treasury was bare, Archbishop Dietrich would step in, prop up that rotting edifice, enact some other tax that only workingmen and merchants had to bear.
Contemporary issues resonate here. Just as the internet, a marvelous bit of technology, can be put to low or dark purposes, so could the original printing press. In fact an early money-maker for Gutenberg was the equivalent of a penny-dreadful. The selling of indulgences by the Church is echoed today whenever the Department of Justice investigates corporations for malfeasance. What remains clear is that tools, even miraculous ones, are only as good as the people who control them. The stresses between old and new, between powerful and less powerful, between religious and secular power comes through. BTW, one of the reasons Gutenberg opted to produce a bible is that a project that was in the works with church leaders to print a standardized missal fell through. I suppose one might call this an early missal crisis. I wouldn’t, but I suppose some might.
I expect Christie was hewing as closely as possible to the history she is writing about. Peter was a real person, as were all the major and maybe even minor characters in this impressive book. As the fictional Peter here tells his story to a monk many years after the events described, so the real Peter did the same. This is definitely an instance in which the historical aspect of this historical novel is a very powerful element. She even includes in an afterword a bit of what happened to each of the characters after the bible was completed. No, nothing on Dean Wormer.
I have two gripes with the book, neither of them major. I appreciate Christie hewing to history in her re-telling of how the great book came to be, but I did not find the steps forward to Peter’s telling the tale to a monk altogether necessary. Second, one thing you should know about Gutenberg’s Apprentice is that, as informative and satisfying as it is, it is a slow read. At least it was for me. You are unlikely to be taking this one to the beach to while away a few hours. But if you settle in for a longer spell, you will be richly rewarded.
Gutenberg’s Apprentice may not be the first book you have ever read, but it will definitely leave a lasting impression.