Somewhere between Agatha Christie and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, this is a merry and enthusiastically complicated comic novel about time tr...moreSomewhere between Agatha Christie and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, this is a merry and enthusiastically complicated comic novel about time travel. It is set, largely, in the Victorian era, where "historians" from the future have gone back in time in search of an arcane church artifact and then to repair the damage they have done to the "continuum." Exceptionally well crafted, both as a massively plotted puzzle in four dimensions, and also for comic effect. This is not the kind of comedy that will have you rolling on the floor, but if you have a taste for the absurd it should give you plenty of chuckles. (less)
Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife. The Time Traveler’s Wife falls, consciously or not, in the great Science Fiction tradition of stories th...moreAudrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife. The Time Traveler’s Wife falls, consciously or not, in the great Science Fiction tradition of stories that sets up a simple counterfactual scenario -- in this case, what if there was this guy who sporadically travelled involuntarily back in time? -- and explores what the ramifications might be. In this case, we end up with a beautifully rendered story about the nature love, loss, and the passage of time. These are universal themes, of course, the same ones that are explored in much mainstream literature. But The Time Traveler’s Wife also serves as a good example of, how by imagining people in unprecedented and extreme situations, the Science Fiction author can provide fresh insights, or at least a fresh viewpoint, into human nature.
In addition to being good Literary Science Fiction, incidentally, this book offers a great romance, strongly drawn characters, and an intricate puzzle of twisted and overlapping timelines. The two primary characters experience events in different orders, often knowing what lies in store in the future of the other; as readers, events are revealed to us on yet a third timeline. It is an intricate puzzle of cause and effect, and Niffenegger has structured the book masterfully to keep us thoroughly engaged in what will happen next. Or what will have happened next. It is a wonderfully crafted text. (less)
Beowulf is a message in a bottle from an amazingly remote time and way of life. It is like a letter that you find in the attic, written by a cultural...moreBeowulf is a message in a bottle from an amazingly remote time and way of life. It is like a letter that you find in the attic, written by a cultural great-great-grandparent, an eccentric ancestor that you never had the chance to meet and whom you know precious little about, but whose influence is still felt every time the family gets together.
The differences between your life and the life of a medieval Anglo-Saxon tribesman are notable. You, gentle reader, live perched on the framework of a global economic system, a relatively stable social order, and myriad wonders of technological achievement and materials science. The Anglo-Saxon, on the other hand, has a life style that, although by no means "natural" -- we're talking about human beings, here -- is far more exposed to the elements and to the immediate questions of food supply and survival than we are or probably could bear to be. Manufactured items are exceedingly rare. With communication sporadic and resources few, human-on-human violence is a commonplace.
These are people without literacy, without an organized justice system, without antibiotics. They can not expect to be famous in the future or to be defended from assault by others, and they know that life is always extremely tenuous. All of this breeds a way of thinking about priorities that seems to the modern eye, shall we say, bracingly rugged. There are no frills, and there is no romance. Beowulf, the warrior hero, lays it out for us before going into battle:
"...do not grieve. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark."
A NOTE ON THE TEXT No one knows the exact origins of the Beowulf story. We don't know whether it was an important legend among the Anglo-Saxons or just a random one that happened to survive by accident. It is an oddity in that it is a written relic of a non-literate people; the oral tale survived long enough into the reintroduction of literacy for someone -- two someones, judging by the handwriting -- to write it all down.
There is a lot of Christian content in Beowulf layered over a clearly pagan core narrative. This may be because the scribes who wrote the tale down, who were almost certainly monks, manipulated its content; or, it's possible that the tale had evolved Christian trappings among its tellers in the newly Christianized population. Either way, the text reflects its having been written down in the period of transition from non-literate pagan England to literate, Christian England.
THAT WAS A GOOD KING The Anglo-Saxons are a tribal people; in the grand game of Civilization, they have discovered Iron Working but not Monarchy. What they call "Kings" are really regional warlords. The job of these kings is to protect their people through wise leadership in war and diplomacy, and to ensure that everyone gets an equal cut of the spoils. Alliances must be well thought out, wars must be prosecuted with vigor and valor, and treasure and the honor that it signifies must be distributed fairly and properly to those who have earned it.
To an great extent, Beowulf is a kind of Medieval Machiavelli, a manual of advice for the Anglo-Saxon king. Beyond the basic tale of hero fighting monsters, the text is packed with digressive speeches that recount the histories of tribes, heroes, and events. Each of these tales comes with an implied suggestion for the best practice of leadership.
One of the key messages of Beowulf, for instance, is "avoid feuds." The idea that "it is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning" is intended to deter crime and violence by the threat of reprisal, and doubtless it often served that function. It's an unstable system, though, in that once the peace is broken it tends to stay broken, in an endless cycle of reprisal killings. And this is bad. Feuds are costly, disruptive, and almost impossible to stop once they are underway. They can fester for generations. The Anglo-Saxons, as you might expect, understood the psychology of this very well; at one point, the tale contemplates two tribes trying to end a decades-old feud through a judicious political marriage:
"Than an old spearman will speak while they are drinking [at the wedding feast:], having glimpsed some heirloom that brings alive memories of the massacre; his mood will darken and heart-stricken, in the stress of his emotion, he will begin to test a young man's temper and stir up trouble, starting like this: 'Now, my friend, don't you recognize your father's sword, his favourite weapon, the one he wore when he went out in his war-mask to face the Danes on that final day? ...and now here's a son of one or other of those same killers coming through our hall overbearing us, mouthing boasts, and rigged in armor that by right is yours.' And so he keeps on, recalling and accusing, working things up with bitter words until one of the [bride's:] retainers lies spattered in blood, split open on his father's account.... Then on both sides the oath-bound lords will break the peace...."
It's hard to end feuds. Readers of Beowulf are reminded of this constantly, and reminded that the best path is to make sure that feuds don't get started in the first place.
An even more important message is "be generous." Give until it hurts. In Beowulf, the final measure of a king is how much loot he is passing around. If you are distributing a lot of gold to your people, it shows that you have successfully fostered and defended the wealth of the community, and that you honor and respect the work of the people who made it all possible. It is, oddly enough, a more or less democratic mechanism, a way of assuring the consent of the governed. If you are tight-fisted, you will sow resentment and dissent, and you will not be king for long.
Considering that we are in the Early Middle Ages, here -- the proverbial "Dark Ages" -- its impressive what a promenant role queens have in this system of distributing wealth and honor. They mix freely and with apparent ease through the company of warriors, and the honors that they bestow through words and gifts are portrayed as somewhat independent of, but equal to, those of their husbands. That they possess some measure of power -- and that they, like their husbands, were considered under obligation to exercise that power wisely -- is shown clearly in this episode:
"Great Queen Modthryth perpetrated terrible wrongs. If any retainer ever made bold to look her in the face, if an eye not her lord's stared at her directly during daylight, the outcome was sealed: he was kept bound in hand-tightened shackles, racked, tortured until doom was pronounced -- death by the sword, slash of blade, blood-gush and death qualms in an evil display. Even a queen outstanding in beauty must not overstep like that. A queen should weave peace, not punish the innocent with loss of life for imagined insults."
Queens are definitely not entirely autonomous, but then this is not a society of autonomous individuals. Everyone in the community is bound to everyone else by obligations of service, responsibility, and the sharing of loot.
ABOUT THAT LOOT The Anglo-Saxons are mad for it. They do not share our notion of the embarassment of riches. Unabashed materialists, they find gold fascinating and lovely, and frankly want as much of it as possible. In a time of very, very few manufactured goods, a handful of gold hoops seems to have represented the good life. Indeed, to an Anglo-Saxon gold "rings" (bracelets, really) ARE the good life -- they are the luxury automobile, the McMansion, the marble countertops, the master bedroom suite with wraparound shower, the weekends in Aspen, the whole deal. It's all wrapped up in a few bands of metal. A person's rings represent their honor and their standing among their peers, and thus, like the luxuries of any era, they have a psychological worth unrelated to their inherent beauty or utility.
This is the kind of thing that makes Beowulf so fascinating. Its characters think and act in ways that are often wholly alien to us. But at the same time, they are human beings and, for those of us who grew up in the matrix of the English speaking world, they are important cultural ancestors. In there with the alien, there are plenty of glimpses of what we share.
ON THE TRANSLATION I read the popular recent translation by the Irish poet Seamus Heany. This version is sometimes criticized on technical grounds and for being "too much Seamus Heany, not enough Beowulf." I am unqualified to comment on the technical questions, but can comfortably say that "too much Seamus Heaney" is an oxymoron. The text as he renders it is a brilliant piece of alliterative poetry. I read it out loud, probably to the puzzlement of the neighbors, and it felt great coming out of the mouth. The only problem was getting the rumbling rhythms out of my speech for a few hours afterwards.
SUMMARY You know the story. Man fights monsters: Grendel, Grendel's mom, and a dragon. The fights don't make up much of the text, though, and for my money they are just window dressing for a much more interesting meditation on the qualities and responsibilities of leadership. (less)
When I say it's "laugh out loud funny," I mean that I was frequently howling with laughter, pounding the armrest, gasping for breath, and rolling back...moreWhen I say it's "laugh out loud funny," I mean that I was frequently howling with laughter, pounding the armrest, gasping for breath, and rolling back and forth in helpless convulsions of mirth. Mrs.5000 would glance up from her long, difficult, experimental French novel with a look that, if not exactly distainful, at least carried the hint of a suggestion that I might be overdoing it. This, of course, would set me right off again, and although at no point was I actually rolling on the floor per se, it was touch and go a few times.
Topics include, you know, things like family, language, life, death, international travel, and the struggle against tobacco addiction. But it hardly matters. Sedaris could make a trip to the morgue funny. In fact, he does.
On my second or third go-around -- February 2009 -- I'm most struck by how Austen is, in every single sentence, gently mocking her characters. It's lo...moreOn my second or third go-around -- February 2009 -- I'm most struck by how Austen is, in every single sentence, gently mocking her characters. It's lovely to behold. I had forgotten, too, that the whole hermetic little society under examination is a brisk morning's walk from London, which makes all of their insularity and intriguing just that much more hilarious.(less)
Back in graduate school, when our idea of a really good time was studying abstruse social theory, there was one or another -ism that purported to expl...moreBack in graduate school, when our idea of a really good time was studying abstruse social theory, there was one or another -ism that purported to explore the linkages between the large-scale forces of Big History and the local lived experience of individuals. I remember it as a very compelling piece of theorizing with gobs of intellectual merit, lacking only in any kind of applicability to empirical research. And so Big History and lived experience remained sadly disconnected, as least on my watch.
It turns out that we might have done better to just read "Bridge on the Drina." Apparently the best known novel to have been written in the Serbo-Croatian language, "Bridge" is the story of a bridge, and of the town by the bridge, and of the people who live in the town, all through dozens of generations of Balkan history. Always in the background are the intricate ethnic relations of Bosnia and the destinies of larger kingdoms, through the long decline of the Ottoman Empire, the apex of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the crises of the early 20th Century. Seldom discussed directly, the big political picture nevertheless underlies everything that happens in the lives of the peasants, merchants, tradesmen, students, and soldiers who populate the novel. Ivo Andric, whose day job was in the diplomatic corps of the late Yugoslavia, is masterful at showing how decisions from faraway capitals alter the tenor of life for the people who live near his bridge, and also how forces of local tradition and isolation, and not incidentally the force of accumulated local lore, render the town and the lives of its people idiosyncratic and unique.
It is, I discovered after I’d read most of the novel, a real bridge! And the town, Visegrad, is a real town! Yet despite that, and despite the highly specific local setting, Visegrad serves as a kind of everytown, and Balkan history to an extent a stand-in for any history. "Bridge on the Drina" has a real universal quality, in one sense “about” a certain time and place but equally “about” what it is like to be a human in a town that is shaped and shocked by events from the world beyond its outskirts.
The writing style – I read the translation by Lovett Edwards – has a formal, measured Central European solemnity to it. It is not a book to get through in one sitting, but it is also a highly compelling read which kept me up too late more than one night, trying to get through “just one more chapter.” Violence and sexuality are, as in real life, driving forces throughout, but are discussed and described with a great deal of dignity and discretion. However, I will also warn you of a lengthy and detailed description of a torture-execution early in the book that ranks among the most ghastly, horrifying passages I have ever read.
PLOT: A bridge is built. The centuries pass. Life goes on.
The narrative unfolds as a series of short stories and anecdotes. Most chapters include more than one distinct story within them, and many stories overlap the chapter breaks, yet the chapters provide a pacing and a rhythm that seem exactly right. Characters, families, buildings, large and small modifications of the bridge itself, and the enduring habits of the townspeople appear and reappear, weaving the book loosely together through time.
The book ends in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. The bridge itself, however, has continued its journey through history. It was the site of horrific events during the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Today, though, it is a World Heritage Site, and bookish people from all over apparently make the pilgrimage to integrate the bridge into their own life stories. Having read this book, I understand why they would. (less)
"J.K. Rowling’s great gift, in this opening salvo of the Harry Potter fusillade, is that she writes a virtually frictionless prose. The story and sett...more"J.K. Rowling’s great gift, in this opening salvo of the Harry Potter fusillade, is that she writes a virtually frictionless prose. The story and setting are jolly enough, and often rather engaging, but what compels you forward is less a sense of “I must read another chapter!” than “Why not read another chapter?” In Sorcerer’s Stone, reading is so effortless as to require no real investment."