The best histories tend to have a solid theme and narrow focus. With Rubicon and Persian Fire Holland captured this technique admirably. With MillenniThe best histories tend to have a solid theme and narrow focus. With Rubicon and Persian Fire Holland captured this technique admirably. With Millennium, he may have bitten off more than he could chew, at least in a mere 400 pages.
The work deals primarily with the centuries prior to the year 1,000 AD, a momentous year by the accounts of this book, filled with foreboding about the loosing of Satan and the Anti-Christ upon the world for the next thousand years, and the solidification of Christianity as the predominant religion in Europe.
Of course, you can't talk about the solidification of Christianity in Europe without mentioning its beginnings during the Roman Empire; and you can't talk about Christianity's spread through Europe without discussing the assimilation of the religion by various barbarian nations; and you can't mention the fractured barbarian nations without addressing their leaders who consolidated them into factions (that in many cases soon fell apart); and you can't talk about these barbarian nations and their Christianity without discussing their relationship with the Pope; and you can't discuss relationships with the Pope without discussing the up-and-down power of the position; and you really, really can't discuss Christianity in Europe in the centuries preceding the millennium without discussing the Saracens and Islam in the Mediterranean...
You get the idea.
Holland has chosen what is absolutely a fascinating subject that few understand well. Of course, his well-chosen and interesting topic suffers for the very reason people don't understand it well--there are simply too many moving parts to mold into a cohesive narrative.
That doesn't stop Holland from trying, though, and it is a noble effort. In the end though, this subject doesn't fit well within Holland's modus operandi of grand, popular themes that can be addressed clearly and succinctly. The sheer volume of information, of rulers coming and going, of shifting borders, of the now-and-again influence of the Byzantine and various Islamic empires, was simply too great a strain in a work of comparatively little girth.
Here Holland's swift yet thorough style becomes problematic as we whisk back and forth between characters, regions, and places in time.
I enjoy Holland's work and I appreciate his ambition, and deep down I liked this book, but the work required separate volumes. Instead Holland tried to squeeze an entire elephant into a single, man-sized pair of pants, and as a result the book is dense and almost bursting at the seems....more
The historical figures and mythological structure of the cosmos found in the Prose Edda existed in an oral tradition and skaldic poems long before anThe historical figures and mythological structure of the cosmos found in the Prose Edda existed in an oral tradition and skaldic poems long before an Icelandic nobleman named Snorri purportedly decided to put them down on paper. Much of the poetry concerning the Norse gods is sadly lost as a consequence of that tradition.
Snorri's work is an obvious attempt to preserve some of what was lost and promote the continuation of a poetic tradition that had begun to fade by the 13th century in the face of Christianity, the last bastions of a heathen pantheon of northern Europe making a last stand in Scandanavia. Faced with the spread of Christianity and its Bible, Snorri observed his people had no solid theological work upon which to fall back on as a resource, and thus composed what is known as the Prose Edda.
God + Giant = Horse + Spider (Sleipnir). Only in mythology.
The Prose Edda is generally composed of a Prologue and three parts:
Gylfaginning The largest portion is given to the Gylfaginning, and serves as the meat of the Nordic cosmic history. It involves the travel of a Scandanavian king, Gylfi, disguised as Gangleri, to visit Odin, who likewise disguises himself as three kings (it seems to be a theme amongst gods to disguise themselves simply because they can), and inquire about the nature of Odin, who has migrated from his original lands (Troy--yes, that Troy). In the process of their discussion, Gylfi learns about the creation and inevitable destruction of the world, as well as the various gods of the Nordic pantheon.
Gylfi speaking to Odin, disguised as three kings
The compilation was meant as a guide, maybe even a bible of sorts, to which people and poets could refer--a handy thing in any age, really. The work refers heavily to the Poetic Edda, which itself is more a collection than a consciously assembled work, compiling bits of mythological history and assembling them into a relatively linear whole.
The dialogue begins with the three kings stating Gylfi must become wiser (i.e., more knowledgeable about mythology) or he will not be permitted to leave alive. It's a pretty thin veneer for a contrived conversation meant to unsubtly wheedle information about the foundation of the world, and while probably the most informative in a general sense, comes off a bit forced. Here we have a disguised kind seeking mythological knowledge, asking surprisingly pointed questions about topics which he knows nothing about, and can therefore hardly know when he's received all the information about something.
"What more of importance can be said of the ash [Ygdrasil, the world tree]?"
The history of the Norse Gods is one of strange contradictions and bizarre world creation legends tending toward the Munchhausen Trilemma--not that science has found the bedrock for an explanation of a beginning yet, either, but it seems pointed in a comparatively sensible direction.
The contradictions stem from an effort on, presumably, Sturleson's part to link Norse gods to a physical location and line of people, the AEsir, on Earth, which we'll get to later.
The gods, Odin and his famous offspring and brethren, were a race of people who were born of a giant who was born of the very first giant (a term usually, but not always, restricted to Very Large People).
What did not simply appear from the void, such as light and waterfalls and cows, came from a single giant, Ymir (who was a giant, even though not all giants are giant) that, having been slain by his grandchildren, Odin included, had all his body parts turned into the various landscapes fo the world. When Gylfi/Gangleri asks where one thing or another comes from (e.g., What did the giant eat if there was only light and dark and such? Answer: A cow formed spontaneously from icicle drippings. How fortunate.), one gets the impression that pretty much anything can precipitate the formation of something else based purely upon necessity, and in that fashion "it's turtles all the way down."
This seems a rather linear and sensible description of the ascent of Odin, et al, to the seat of power, not unlike the ascension of Zeus and other Greek gods after they slay their elemental father. Where it gets confusing is when we consider the Prologue to the Gylfiginning.
In the prologue, despite having been the grandsons of what was the first humanoid being, Ymir the giant, the "gods" hail from Troy, exist post-Talmudic flood, and are called AEsir. They are the current line in many generations and have migrated all the way from eastern Anatolia to settle in Sweden.
We also learn in the Gylfaginning that Odin and his brethren were actually just people who became godlike because of their great powers and are immortal so long as they eat magical apples overseen by another "god". While other gods are innately godlike, the Norse Gods are more like superheroes. We have an All Father in Odin, yet he and all the other gods have anticipated their doom in the final battle (Ragnarok), in which everyone dies, even the warriors who died well and are granted the opportunity to participate in this final battle. Rather grim, though there are hints of an afterlife afterwards, even if the fate of everyone involved in Ragnarok isn't clear--clarification is welcome.
How these two pathways rectify with one another is beyond my understanding. Only in the realm of mythmaking and religion can a story be told several starkly different ways and each of them be true.
This is a resource for myth-writing poets, so it can hardly be expected to be believable, or without contradiction and hyperbole. It probably suffers from an effort to integrate some features of Christianity that were invariably absent from the oral tradition and an inexplicable compulsion to tie Asgard, the home of the gods, to Troy and its King Priam.
Skaldskaparmal The Skaldskaparmal is a dialogue between AEgir and Bragi, the god of poetry, and provides examples of the proper idioms used to refer to people, places, and things (e.g., Gold is known as Sif's hair, pretty much everyone's bane, and a number of other, more obscure references based on Nordic myths) when composing poetry.
For example, Suttung's Mead gives the gift of poetry to any who drink it. Odin stole the mead by drinking all of it, then vomited two thirds out while flying over Asgard in bird form (to escape the giant he was fleeing), with the final third blowing out his rear. This final third is known as the "bad poet's portion". The implication here ought to be clear.
This also confirms the grand thesis of scatalogical theorist,Taro Gomi.
In this section it is plain to see mechanisms utilized by Tolkien in his writing. Projected downfalls of one God or monster in the Edda are often referred to as The Bane of [insert character], which naturally brings your mind to bear on particulars from the Lord of the Rings, such as Isildur's Bane.
Hattatal This book loses a star because it inexplicably lacks the Hattatal, which many other versions contain. The Hattatal was composed by Sturleson in an effort to demonstrate appropriate meter and method used when composing poetry.
In all, this work is a fantastic and convoluted resource for figures, names, locations, and their functions in Norse mythology. If you want to know why certain gods do the things they do (e.g., fight frost giants, appear in cinematic features, etc.), the name and features of the gigantic hall in which each lives, the particular traits that are their weaknesses and strengths, where monsters like Jormungand originate (usually Loki), it's all here.
The Midgard Serpent, Jormungand. Not a dog dropping.
In all, an informative if not gripping read. However, if you're looking for a reference book, you're probably better off finding a Dictionary of Norse Gods, or something of that ilk....more
Boy, I really wanted to enjoy this. Those four stars are derived primarily from the fact that Mrs. Jones' storytelling ability held my attention for aBoy, I really wanted to enjoy this. Those four stars are derived primarily from the fact that Mrs. Jones' storytelling ability held my attention for a full 400 pages despite reveling in every moment where the snooty main character was put in her place. There's also the pleasure that comes from seeing Sophie, Howl, and Calcifer reappear for an extended period.
As with the previous book in the series, Castle in the Air, there is a prolonged run-up to the climactic scene, followed by an abrupt and almost jarring wrap up. However, while there's clearly a plan behind the plot, you really have little idea where you're going until you get there--and by that time you're much too far along to give up.
Fortunately, Jones' storytelling is entertaining, apart from her egotistical and righteously lazy lead, and much of the tale is spent probing minor mysteries that invariably accumulate to form parts of a larger one. This is a book of discovery, and much of the plot revolves around learning some new bit of information rather than getting from A to B. In fact, it may be a surprise to learn there's a point to it by the time you realize there is one.
No doubt the weakest in the series, but not one you should overlook if you've come this far in the series already....more
Full of Jones' charm and characteristic wit, pleasant twists and characters that are more than what they seem, this work was a welcome addition to HowFull of Jones' charm and characteristic wit, pleasant twists and characters that are more than what they seem, this work was a welcome addition to Howl's universe. Jones maintains a steady, comfortable tempo throughout. Even at well past 300 pages the story galloped along, into and through the ending, then right out of the endzone and into the parking lot a la Forrest Gump.
Not quite as powerful as Howl's Moving Castle (one of my favorites), which proved clever, entertaining, and even grim in parts. This story felt much lighter, though no less convoluted in the ending.
The tale's only failing comes with the very abrupt ending when compared to the richness of the book that preceded it. Satisfying, certainly, though the "roundup" might have served better as a coda than a hard stop.
Nevertheless, Jones' work is imaginative and heartfelt, entertaining and (to a nigh subversive degree) philosophizing, and I'm looking forward to returning to this place and others again....more
To each culture and to each period in time, Alexander the Great has meant something different, and each generation that recounts his history tends toTo each culture and to each period in time, Alexander the Great has meant something different, and each generation that recounts his history tends to do so from a different political and social perspective. To the Republic and Empire of Roman he was a noble conqueror; to the Greeks of his time he was a tyrant; to the Indians he was no more than a passing barbarian. To Peter Green (in 1970) he is a man standing upon the shoulders of others, making his own history as he goes, and, like so many absolute rulers, touching it up in retrospect to obscure flaws and preserve the illusion of his infallibility. For all his greatness, Alexander was not perfect. Alexander is reliant upon others, much as he may have been loathe to admit. Without his army, his father, his commanders, his Macedonian core, his fame may never have reached such heights. They are the tentpole upon which all of his successes hang.
Green says as much at the outset of his work:
“Genius Alexander had, and in full measure; yet even genius remains to a surprising extent the product of its environment. What Alexander was, Philip [Alexander’s father] and Macedonia in great part made him, and it is with them that we must begin.”
Nevertheless, Alexander is a powerful historical figure as an individual. So much so that his history is commandeered and contorted to espouse a variety of ideals.
Mosaic of Alexander at the battle of Issus, BCE 333.
Green attempts to eschew these proclivities, see past the propaganda, and give an account free of ideology (though he admits this isn't possible, even for someone conscious of the possibility). Green paints a sometimes unflattering picture of Alexander. Alexander comes off as impertinent, quick-tempered, self-righteous, vengeful, surrounded by capable commanders, and the beneficiary of those who were ill-prepared to deal with an army his father had created. Granted, if Alexander had been completely devoid of ability he would not have stifled the resentful Greek city states, obliterated the massive Persian empire, quashed repeated revolts, subdued a large swath of India in spite of horrendous conditions and fierce resistance. He is, at the same time, depicted as cool under pressure, well educated in classics, a brilliant strategist, a profoundly successful manipulator, motivator, and an unprecedented logistical wunderkind. But to say he did so entirely of his own accord, built the mechanisms of government necessary to do so, and developed the processes of army training and unique characteristics of the Macedonian phalanx (considerably longer spears, for example) from the ground up would be a mistake.
Similarly, it would be a mistake to believe that wherever Alexander trod, citizens bowed to his leadership. Where Greece is concerned, nothing could be further from the truth-—Alexander’s lust for conquest presumably made him indifferent to the turmoil there that had little interest in being ruled from afar by a Macedonian king, charitable or hostile though he may be.
Alexander is a man raised to believe he is special, a new Achilles, and this hubris taints Green’s interpretation of him, believing he is often guided by own grandeur rather than sensibility (from a political rather than tactical standpoint, in any case), and the pursuit of a great destiny rather than the solidification of the empire he created. Alexander is lauded for his ability to suppress a wide variety of cultures and bring them under his banner, a feat that, even in this age of modern warfare and superpowers vying against meager militaries in distant countries, is all but impossible. Green sees this less an example of brilliance than an afterthought and consequence of expediency as the army moved hastily on its route through southern Asia. Essentially, conquered people remained just as they had been. Nothing changed but the landlord. Even so, revolts invariably sprang up as soon as he left, making the map of his empire something of a misrepresentation and more of a catalog of places he had been and conquered.
Perhaps most astounding about the history is how much information is available, particularly the minutiae, including, in some cases, the precise quantity of bribes to individuals. Alexander himself is to be thanked in this regard, considering he had the foresight (at least on his Asian campaign) to take not just soldiers, but historians, zoologists, botanists, and a wealth of other individuals with a mind to catalog everything they witnessed. This was a consequence of both Alexander’s tutelage under Aristotle, as well as a very concerted effort to record his history in the most favorable method possible, both for the purpose of his legacy and to quell discontent in the regions under his control.
Most refreshing is the perspective one gains from time and the ability to call upon prior biographies, from sources as ancient as Plutarch and Ptolemy, to more contemporary (relatively speaking) sources originating from the middle ages through colonial and even early 20th century, noting how they choose to present Alexander according to the sentiment and ideology of the writer and culture--something Green notes his on writing invariably suffers from as well. He notes in Alexander's time he was viewed as a tyrannical, militant autocrat; during the height of the Roman and British empires as a laudable imperialist seeking to enlighten the world through Hellenism; and a liberator from monarchy during the revolutionary periods of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Green himself presents Alexander as a brilliant tactician, planner, and propagandist done in by megalomania brought on by his unprecedented successes and an empire he sought ever to expand rather than consolidate and secure.
From a contemporary standpoint, as one might expect, this is a wholly satisfying stance to take. The general consensus views conquerors as people seeking their own gratification and power rather than fellowship--those who do seek fellowship don't use military domination as their tool since doing so is effective against armies, but not populations.
In the end, Green's biography borders on cynical, painting Alexander less as the deity he believed himself to be and an example to which others compared themselves (notably, Julius Caesar), and more of an ambitious human with a tremendous opportunity, and both the will and acumen to see it through.
This is a stellar, humanizing work, and a brisk one, too, even at more than 500 hundred pages (including the appendix, which makes convincing sense of the cluttered details surrounding the pivotal battle at the Granicus river). For anyone interested in the subject and the period, this is an excellent place to start and a reliable place to return to....more
This is probably no surprise as his screenwriting career was equally extensive, so he likely had an inside edge in terms of getting his work translated from print to screen. Matheson penned one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek, several episodes for The Twilight Zone, most notably, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (which gave me horrible nightmares as a child--thanks, Richard), and even an episode of Family Guy (the splendid source for this episode was, naturally, the short story The Splendid Source, included in this collection), of all things. And that's just a small sample.
As has occurred before, I went to Matheson's source material in the hope that it would offer insights the film did not and probe themes the cinematic treatment touched upon but did not fully explore. For example, the possibility that the plucky, scrap-heap robot, Atom, had developed consciousness. For the second time in as many tries, I was severely disappointed.
There's no questioning Matheson's imagination. You can't have a pantheon of works of such breadth without it. But where What Dreams May Come came across as agonizingly meticulous many of these stories came across as thought orphans, or treatments of ideas that he might explore more fully later, abandoned after a single chapter.
I haven't yet read I Am Legend, yet, though I want to, but given my experiences so far I'm a bit reluctant to take that plunge....more
Everitt's The Rise of Rome is a two- (maybe three) pronged recounting of the beginnings and evolution of the western world's most prominent power prioEveritt's The Rise of Rome is a two- (maybe three) pronged recounting of the beginnings and evolution of the western world's most prominent power prior to and during the early Christian era.
The book's structure is centered upon significant episodes in the genesis and development of Rome the city as the empire expanded, beginning with the traditional history. This first stage is acknowledged as having nuggets of truth, in that the overarching event described probably occurred, but has likely been revised to endow the story with traditional Roman principles. A suitable comparison might be the mularkey that is Parson Weems' claim with regard to George Washington's honesty in confessing to chopping down a cherry tree as a youth--a traditional trait that, in this age of information, seems an unlikely quality of any person of political clout.
Having told us what Romans told themselves, Everitt tends to cite Roman sources, such as nationalistic Livy or Cicero, and historians Polybius and Plutarch (the former lived in close proximity to the events he recorded) to reinforce or dispute the traditional history and effects of this indoctrination.
Next Everitt holds these fables up to the light of archeological evidence and competing sources to determine their validity, and finally offers his opinion on why or why not the traditional history should be trusted or suspicious. For the most part, the traditional history is reliable in the sense that the recorded event occurred, though not necessarily in the same manner that it was told.
While I don't give much credence to opinions without supporting evidence, and some of Everitt's speculations are guesswork backed by extended immersion in the topic, Everitt's guesses seem safe bets when cut and dry historical evidence is not available.
A bit more academic and less breakneck than Tom Holland's work, but extensive sourcing and the fact that Everitt works almost exclusively on Roman history makes him seem a more reliable read. For what it's worth, like Holland, his training is in English, not history....more
The title of this book would lead a reader (this reader, anyway) to believe the focus to be the Achaemenid Empire and it's leading men, Cyrus, Darius,The title of this book would lead a reader (this reader, anyway) to believe the focus to be the Achaemenid Empire and it's leading men, Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, leading up to and through the clash between Persia and Greece. That assertion is an error of scope, as Holland looks not only at the rise of Persia, but that of all the major players (e.g., Persia, Sparta, Athens, etc.) in characteristic thrifty but efficient detail, which was much more than I expected--so much the better.
Persian Fire corroborated much of the information about the Achaemenid Empire Gore Vidal provided in Creation. This duplication, coupled with the abundance of sources (though largely 20th century), seems an indication that the information is well established, it's simply overlooked as part of a grade school education of the period. Notably, the most prominent Greeks as fractious, greedy, and overconfident; not that that isn't characteristic of most peoples, only that it contrasts with the cursory lay education most receive on the topic. The bulk of Greek history consists of Spartans Strong (like USA!); Athenians Philosophical (like founding fathers!); Doric, Ionian, and Corinthian columns; the Parthenon (made of columns!); Zeus; the like, et al.
The most enjoyable aspect of an education is when an important historical event one has accepted (suspected, perhaps, but never had the sense or resources to investigate), has in truth been falsely represented or unduly oversimplified, and is at last exposed as a fallacy.
My favorite example of a shattered illusion is the unprecedented beginning of the West's cherished Democracy and the halcyon Greek period that bore it. In Holland's work, Democracy is presented less as a philosophical belief that the common man should have some say in the form of their government rather than the aristocracy, or that positions of authority ought not be exclusive to inheritance, all of which arose as a consequence of Greek philosophers gathering to determine the most equitable method of rule. Instead, it came about as a means for one aristocratic family to wrest power away from another at the cost of the inability for anyone to maintain absolute power. It was a brilliant and elaborate stroke, but invariably one brought about by, as Holland implies, the spite of an out-of-favor aristocratic family.
Naturally, the citizens of Athens enthusiastically supported the proposal that they would be allowed to help decide the rules of their society, they rebelled in the streets when Cleisthenes, who gave the power to vote on laws to the people, was chased from the city by a "tyrant" (a form of monarch, though rarely of the disposition that lends to the modern definition of tyranny), who in turn found themselves faced with the power of the mob.
Similar anecdotes are strung through Holland's works, creating a tapestry of interwoven events from which he often extrapolates the thoughts, feelings, and ambitions of the characters in these histories. It is a style that may seem somewhat dishonest without supporting text, and is probably the point where he takes the greatest creative license, but at the same time makes the historical figures more than empty-eyed marble busts or rigid profiles on coins, is extremely engaging, and makes sense in the context provided.
I believe Holland is in the same league as Pulitzer Prize Winner David McCullough in terms of narrative skill, with an ability to draw a reader into a historical period through the details they choose to include and elaborate upon. The difference between the two, thus far, is McCullough (an American author) tends to focus on American (i.e., USA) history, while Holland (an English author) spends his time on ancient civilizations.
Holland began his his writing career as an author of supernatural fiction. He has since turned his English acumen toward bringing history to vibrant life, and he's clearly made the right move for his career, and, more importantly, my enlightenment.
I still have two more Holland historical works to read, but I'm enthused by the prospect that, according to his current pace of publication, we should be getting a new Holland work in the next year. I look forward to continuing the process of adulthood re-education....more
Breezy and brisk, Tom Holland tells the story of the early Roman Republic and the counterintuitive yet inevitable transition to a monarchy in a styleBreezy and brisk, Tom Holland tells the story of the early Roman Republic and the counterintuitive yet inevitable transition to a monarchy in a style that is very easy to read. The Roman Republic was founded upon an abhorrence of kings, making the presumption that Rome was destined to be ruled by emperors somewhat hard to swallow. Holland, however, makes the case for Roman personal ambition and competetiveness as major motivators for kingship, and also highlights a variety of additional interesting oxymorons built into Roman dogma.
The speed with which the reader is whooshed through the narrative makes one worry how thorough a history can be without being stodgy and meticulous. Carthage, the Punic Wars, and Hannibal receive perhaps two pages. One gets the impression as they read this book that they are zipping through an art museum on a roller coaster.
Gladly, the details Holland chooses are chosen very well, which makes his accelerated style very functional. They are concise and illuminating and well crafted, and they make it possible to describe the Carthaginian wars effectively.
The Roman attitude is the primary theme, with all its perks and pitfalls. For example, Romans regarded their city with pride and arrogance, yet Holland (and others) compare it unfavorably to other cities of its day in terms of layout, consistency, and architectural beauty. The anathema of long-term despotic rule does have its advantages, as Holland indicates, allowing long-term architectural projects and metropolitan organization, compared to 1-year consular rule that prevented extensive plans of action, resulting in a Rome that was, in short, a haphazard dump in which it was easy to get lost. Romans likewise cherished the illusion of public opinion swaying the direction of their city and nation, when in truth the ruling class held sway more and more as years passed, as the Republic gradually metamorphosed into a plutocracy.
Because this period of Roman history has been covered to great extent, it's difficult to question the veracity of historical fact Holland presents--he offers up seven pages of source material in defense of his writings. Holland has degrees in English and Latin, not history, and may take a bit of creative license with the figures in his book, but he doesn't spend much time on anyone without a significant amount of contemporary writing done about them, and it's easy to infer what sort of men Julius and Augustus Caesar, Pompey, Sulla, Cicero, and others were through their actions, and because they constantly wrote about themselves or had someone else do it for them (though they may have elaborated somewhat upon their histories--it's plausible that Julius Caesar was not, in fact, a god). While the opinions and feelings he projects upon the characters may or may not be true, the circumstances certainly were, and Holland uses his Roman Thesis to calculate them appropriately.
In the end, Holland covers ground similar to that which Plutarch covers with the latter, Roman portion of his Lives, but with more energy and a great deal of circumspection about the nature of Roman society, with the aforementioned disdain for an inevitable monarchy at the forefront, and how successive personalities laid the path for Emperors.
The world of the 21st century has come and gone by way of cosmic cataclysm, but unlike the dinosaurs and other victims of global extinction events, huThe world of the 21st century has come and gone by way of cosmic cataclysm, but unlike the dinosaurs and other victims of global extinction events, humanity managed to survive and reorganize into a functional society a millennia later. Not without help, though, as some suppose the supernatural or extraterrestrial may have had a hand in developing the utopic post-apocalyptic world. The 31st-century editor, however, strongly doubts the veracity of these claims (view spoiler)[, but as I've recently discovered, there's more truth to these claims than I'd been led to believe (hide spoiler)].
Rendering of 31st-century apostle
This story has a fascinating premise with a marvelous setup describing the power and functionality of myth and an editor that acknowledges the seeds of truth from which myth can spring, while resisting belief in the more obnoxious supernatural fallacies that make something truly mythical.
The framework for this compilation of myths is extremely convincing. The editor's voice is spot on, both dubious of the myths he has assembled while acknowledging they must have come from somewhere, and the quotations selected by author Matteson are well chosen and display topical erudition that lends credence to the expectation that the tales will be well-formed.
I am sadly not well versed enough in Nordic mythology and that of northern Europe to identify the many references to the Poetic and Prose Eddas found in the chapter titles, or Nordic myths found elsewhere, as there surely are. Those familiar with them are likely to take more from these stories, see the connections and implications they make, and better appreciate them.
With that in mind, the foreignness of the work appealed to me--a direct consequence of my ignorance. All around me droplets of information fell, and every so often I recognized the notes they struck upon the ground. A wealth of references to worldwide theologies abounded, and every once in a while I was able to tie something I recognized to something I did not, which gave me the impression that comprehension was only a few inches out of my grasp. This in itself was a good reason to continue on.
In some myths there are tradeoffs, however. Strictly observational myths filled with symbolism tend to suffer with me, largely because the symbolism is often too obscure for me to understand, and reading through them is akin to driving down a road littered with stop signs. This isn't all bad, and it certainly isn't the worst. If there were a primer for this book, or if someone did a nice study of it, reading such a book in conjunction would certainly be helpful. As I've stated in other reviews, however, this isn't necessarily the fault of the author, but my fault for lacking the expansive knowledge necessary to draw from required for full comprehension. This becomes apparent very early on when the self-denoted "Flying Man" states the following:
I am the shaman of initiation You are the initiates of Lascaux I am the yogi of sindhu You are the brahmacharibhava-pratyaya I am the bodhisattva Quan Yin I am Tara, Yemara, Chenrezig of one thousand compassionate arms You are the sentient beings, the inner anima and the animus I am Hermes, I am Thoth Passing from the chthonic carrying the caduceus I am the flying man You are the water pigs You are the fetish rodent and the genius of the snake You are the wild duck, the impetuous swan You have come to rest under the juniper tree to drink the galbuli to shade under its whorls to be healed with its oils to build with its red cedar woods You have come to rest under the juniper tree I will feed you and send you forth I will send you to Horeb to hear the wind, to feel, to shake as the rocks, to hide yourself from the fearsome fire. I will send you to the wilderness. I will I will I will I am the Flying Man.
Here we have an amalgamation of references from Buddhist, Greek, Egyptian, Christian, Judaism, and other theologies I likely was not able to identify, as well as locations, psychological archetypes, etc., all essentially stating "I am a messenger from the Gods, a teacher, and an artisan; you are the clay." After picking through this dense knotting, it seems fairly clear Flying Man is a direct reference to Hermes. Without an understanding of any of these references, it's gibberish. Add a rhyme scheme to it and you have something straight out of Alice in Wonderland (minus the mathematical undertones). Add a cause to it and you might end up with a book by Ted Geisel. In a metafictional sense, Matteson could not have chosen a truer opening quote with: "In a senseless world, a myth makes sense of nonsense." Knowledge tends to dispel myth with sense, but knowledge of myths is helpful in making sense of this long stream of information.
I am by no means a critic of cryptic gibberish. When I can pull off a bit of nonsense in my own work that, in the proper context or with a second read, makes sense, I feel gratified by a fleeting sense of genius. In short, Matteson knows his stuff and it would be helpful if you knew it, too.
For me, the lone drawback was not the layers upon layers of information, nor the myths themselves, but perhaps the execution of them and the description of the characters within them. Where the editor's remarks were sharp and professional, the myths in the telling were not as crisp and tended to provide information rather than let it flow along with the plot. The characters were oddly functionally observational at times, making leaps of cognition in their dialogue that turned them into narrators rather than participants in a story, and coming across as strangely detached from events taking place around them that were at times so surreal and bizarre they would have terrified any normal person.
This might be a pithy complaint considering the greater volume of myth is conveyed in extremely tedious detail designed to move the story forward, but as a matter of preference a character more fully engaged in their world is more compelling. For example, you might tell me Bruno is seven feet tall and likes to eat cheese, but this paints a dispassionate picture of Bruno--he is a block of wood. Or you could describe Bruno hunching through a doorway, one hand pressing a block of cheese into his mouth while the other fished eagerly through a pocket in search of more.
Fussing aside, this is a story I liked. I might have liked it more had the characters been more real to me, but making the story more character driven would probably deemphasize the mythmaking, which was the best part of the story. As a fan of history and myth, this book is plenty good.
I would undoubtedly benefit from a second read, and possibly a third, to understand the content more fully. While I haven't re-read a book in a long, long time, I have a file set aside in my mind that I will revisit with any new knowledge and hold it up to the kaleidoscope of my brain to see what the book looks like through each new facet. In terms of ambition alone, this story easily warrants a five-star rating.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
It would be silly of me to revisit my thoughts on this book when they are largely encompassed in my review of the first book in the series, Buried inIt would be silly of me to revisit my thoughts on this book when they are largely encompassed in my review of the first book in the series, Buried in Benidorm. The themes remain largely the same, and your sensitivity to subjects that deal with the reality of human nature, regardless of profession, may well stain your opinion of this story. While this kind of sensitivity may hint at discomfort with reality, the realm of fiction is, admittedly, designed to allow you to, and broad enough that you can, choose your own, insulated reality.
As I confessed in my review on the first book in this series, my experience with hard-boiled mystery is pretty slim. Apart from one Josephine Teybook and one by Dan Brown, we're talking about Encyclopedia Brown and the Happy Hollisters. So you might interpret my enthusiasm for this story, and its predecessors, as coming from the voice of inexperience. That said, I can speak for the strength of the story as a work of fiction, a category in which I have an abundance of experience, so I don't feel I'm misguiding anyone by saying "Yes, you're probably going to enjoy this."
Using the fewest words possible to describe my experience with this entry, I blew through this book. I tend to take a while to work my way through a story, taking breathers every now and again, ultimately turning the process of reading a book into a weeks-long process. Not so with this one. To my surprise, I roared through it in just a few days.
If you're looking for a gritty story, with a wry, disenchanted, and self-deprecating main character the likes of which you'd run across in film noire, Max is your man. On the other hand, if you're offended by the seedy characters prevalent in hard-boiled private detective stories with touches of spiritual apprehension expected from an ex-priest turned PI, hounded by clergy looking for favors, spare yourself the rage at reality....more
From the Beginning to The Gunslinger and the Man in Black
This review could easily bump up to 5 stars once I understand the full story, but to reach t
From the Beginning to The Gunslinger and the Man in Black
This review could easily bump up to 5 stars once I understand the full story, but to reach that point would require a massive undertaking--seven more novels follow this one. King is, in my mind, not a writer who creates the kind of book one can digest in just a few days. Granted, I've never read anything else by King, but I've seen his works bending the shelves at bookstores and libraries with their bulk. This work, too, by King's own admission, is essentially a chapter in a massive magnum opus that stretches over several books, making it considerably longer than anything else he's written, which is saying something.
Based on this book alone, I'd have to say that King is pretty good at spinning an ominous yarn, withholding information to compel the reader to continue, maintaining tension (even if it's the sort that makes me uncomfortable), and convincing enough with turn of phrase. I liked the story and it made for a fast read, despite some curious techniques that would make Andy Farmer proud. On more than one occasion we are presented with a flashback inside a flashback, and at least once we're given a flashback inside a memory inside a flashback.
Still, despite these acrobatics, I never lost the thread of the story. All due credit to King for pulling it off.
There's also the plot of the story itself: Roland, the last Gunslinger, searching for the Tower. Do I know what the tower is? No. Do I know why he's looking for it? No. Do I know where he is? No. Do I know what happened to all the other gunslingers? No. The better part of the story is like this: posing questions that are not answered. Yet.
Throughout the work King drops crumbs indicating the world might be a future version of our own, an afterlife, or some surreal composition of those who occupy it. It's impossible (for me, anyway) to guess what all this portends any better than reading the first volume of an encyclopedia would tell me what is in the last. These tidbits are tantalizing and frustrating in their isolation. Without reading further they appear arbitrary and without meaning. One is left with the hope that the author knows that meaning and will eventually explain. With a writer as lauded and successful as King, I have to believe that is the case here.
However, having so many times in the recent past been led upon a meandering and complex path in the hope of reaching some profound revelation, I've been disappointed that the purpose of so many wrinkles is to engage the reader/viewer brain, and the ultimate effort to tie these threads into a satisfying cord instead disintegrates into a half-baked conclusion that exposes the story as little more than disparate permutations meant to capture people's desire to find patterns where they ultimately, and disappointingly, do not exist.
Still trying to figure this one out. The Last Supper? Why? Also, Baltar and 6 are... what? Ignorant?
In the end, in spite of so much, I enjoyed this book. I'm not about to rush out and buy part II of CXV, but I can acknowledge this sets up some framework around which I can envision King putting up walls and ending up with a serviceable house. To be perfectly honest, he gets half his stars based upon potential alone.
Perhaps in some far off future I will finish this voluminous series and have a fuller understanding of what King intended for it. At that time I will fill in any missing stars, should I deem it worthy.
On the other hand, maybe King went this route. In which case I'll take all of the stars, crumble them into dust, and blow them in his eyes. It's the least I can do for wasting so much of my time.
Post the Final Chapter: The Gunslinger and the Man in Black
There's also the plot of the story itself: Roland the last Gunslinger, searching for the Tower. Do I know what the tower is? Sort of. Do I know why he's looking for it? No. Do I know where he is? Maybe. Do I know what happened to all the other gunslingers? No. The better part of the story is like this: posing questions that are not answered. Yet....more
Picking up right where they left off, though a bit more famous as a consequence of their exploits in the previous novel, areThe Cloud brothers return!
Picking up right where they left off, though a bit more famous as a consequence of their exploits in the previous novel, are brothers Trevor and Russell Cloud, as well as helper-bot AidMe and the ubiquitous and fascinating Everything Machine, the Cloud.
I won't spill the beans about the plot, which you can read in the book summary, or too much about the writing itself, which you can read about in my review of the first work, Gathering Clouds. I will tell you, however, why Pink Water is a wholly good read.
Part of the goodness of Pink Water, though not the primary goodness, is its thriftness. Clocking in at 175 epages, the story is lickety split fast. Imagine yourself making the Scooby-doo skeddadle noise as you read through it. As a story targeted at Young Adults or Older Adults with no time on their hands (i.e., me), this is pretty much the perfect length. Time enough to squeeze in before one sees-something-shiny/goes-back-to-work. There isn't much down time in this story, partly because of its brevity there isn't time for it. The plot zooms.
The stakes are no less high in this work than they were in the last, either. Frankly, at the height of the climax in the first work, I didn't see any way for Trevor and Russell to recover from their incident in deep space. Fortunately for them, author Field and the Cloud brothers have more imagination, intellect, and vigor than I do. Nothing has changed in the sequel--once again the boys find themselves lost in uncharted space--and that's a good thing.
At the conclusion of my first review, I made a wish for the adventures of the Cloud brothers to continue, and the author wasted little time granting that wish. As a consequence, it is my belief that Field is either some form of magical wish-granting entity or a writer of some skill and thrift. While I hope it's the former, I would still be pleased if it's the latter. It's a win-win either way.
Because Umberto Eco demonstrates a remarkable knowledge of 14th-century (and earlier) ecclesiastical history, one might suspect him to be a student ofBecause Umberto Eco demonstrates a remarkable knowledge of 14th-century (and earlier) ecclesiastical history, one might suspect him to be a student of the subject, or rather, the dean of a college of religious history. Or, and this seems more likely, an 800-year old biographer who finally got around to putting his early experiences down in writing 30 or so years ago.
Unfortunately, in truth, he was a medieval history professor before being convinced to write historical, monk-centered murder stories set in the middle ages. Take heart, though, that despite the disappointing fact that he is not eight centuries old, this description is probably a significant oversimplification.
Because I lack a similarly vast understanding of 14th century Churchology (I KNOW it's not a word, but understand anyway!) in all its fascinating minutiae, the book made itself a challenge to read in some places. This is not the fault of the story, but, as Ezra Pound might have said, of the reader for being too ignorant to understand it. I certainly fit that bill in some respects, though, as with many great books, this one was an avenue to further my education. And, where once I might have been led to my trusty 1960s era encyclopedia set (so old it was spelled encyclopaedia--a point that cost me dearly in a grade-school spelling contest), an iPad Wikipedia application served to bolster and clarify.
The historical fiction is one that, when done effectively, I enjoy a great deal. In the past year I've started reading Gore Vidal's novels, and the experience has been delightful and rich for someone accustomed to more straightforward historical books. I enjoy these stories (for the same reason I enjoy historical works, minus the fictional narrative) largely because of the informational safari the process of reading becomes, leading from one research point to a hundred others, along an interweaving web of educational adventure. Anyone who has experienced the fission reaction that is opening a dictionary to find the meaning of a word, only to be led to another word, and on and on until you run out of fingers to serve as placeholders, will understand the kind of digressive undertaking it can become. And Huzzah for that!
Eco's main Sherlock Holmsian character William of Baskerville says as much himself: "Often books speak of books." As does the narrator of the tale, the novice monk Adso: "Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves."
With that in mind, you may want to consider having some form of resource on hand, though it's possible to bull through without it. (It may also help to be fluent in Latin or, at the very least, have an understanding of one of the romance languages, because there's a lot of untranslated Latin.) Fortunately, Eco manages to inject enough intrigue into the story amidst an ocean of detail that I was able to come away feeling I'd read a story rather than bumbled into a food fight betwixt historians and emerged feeling dirty and stupid.
Ultimately, my complaints are few and ridiculous. The characters of the monks grew rapidly tiresome as conversationalists, often because they felt compelled to try and bend every explanation or dialogue into a demonstration of God manifest in the world (which was the point--a point I'll get to...). This made conversing with them exhausting. (... now.) Amusingly enough, it becomes clear before long that these monks are something of a contradiction, for all their pontification. And this is the tension, apart from the murders and the library labyrinth, that drives the story. Here we have God-devoted monks trying to eschew the world around them, yet their purpose is to preserve knowledge of the world, of philosophers, of the secular world, and in many cases, the heathen world (as they reprinted many Islamic texts as well). While material wealth is coveted, ironically, by the monks of the monastery, so is intellectual wealth. And this particular abbey has an Erebor-like hoard of books. It would not be an exaggeration to say the book ends with Smaug descending from the skies, driving the monks away, and heaping all the books into a monstrous pile and falling asleep for a decade. Feel free to use these final two sentences as the springboard for your Lord of the Rings/The Name of the Rose mashup, spinoff fiction.
Eco is a savvy writer and recognizes their attempts to maintain a virtuous shroud, and it's apparent the protagonist felt the same way. I felt the corner of my mouth pull up whenever William offered a short, dismissive platitude in an effort to end some rambling speech about how God Made Such And Such or interjections of humble thanks for some arbitrary blessing and get them back to the subject of his investigation or to add something substantive to a philosophical argument (arguing philosophy with the devout is itself exasperating, considering how easy it is to dismiss rational thought in a world overseen by an omnipotent overlord and thus removing the need for thought altogether). The monks' attitudes are understandable, but speaking to them with the intention of gathering information was like wading through swamplands in sponge boots.
At the same time, and this may not be to the liking of more devout readers, the book is written from a secular angle. Yes, the main characters are all religious as is the narrator, but the monks are very human in their vanities and vices--some of which are decidedly and mortifyingly anti-Christian doctrine.
In the end, the story was definitely interesting from a plotting perspective. A series of murders in a 14th century monastery surrounding a secret library and solved by a Former Inquisitor Turned Thinking Monk? Pretty neat.
Yet the biggest takeaway from this story is the experience of going back to, what seems to me, a vivid and historically accurate experience of religious life in the 1300s, filled with religious proprieties and all its contradictions in the face of the secular Renaissance as it gathered steam, peppered with observations that set intellectuals and religious at odds and strengthened humankind as a provider for itself of technology to sever the need for a giving God, and as the religious battled the countless schisms and interpretations of Christianity as opposed to the belief of the general populace that Christianity has always existed as it is, uncontested and unadulterated.
This isn't so much a story as it is an experience. If you're in the mood for an experience, I encourage you to have this one....more
There are some authors who can slip from one genre to another without the slightest hiccup, buoyed solely by the strength of their prose. These are thThere are some authors who can slip from one genre to another without the slightest hiccup, buoyed solely by the strength of their prose. These are the sort of writers you read just to enjoy the infrastructure of their phraseology and the construction of the story. Anthony Doerr is infinitely resourceful for the former; I think L.H. Thomson is a strong candidate for the latter.
My introduction to Thomson was the sci-fi novel The Process Server (go here for that 5-star review). Typically, myself included, most people seem to find a genre and stick with it. Not Thomson, who likens himself a literary polymath on the scale of Isaac Asimov. I'd call him an arrogant cad if it weren't for the fact that he pulls it off (damn him, anyway).
Buried in Benidorm differs in genre from The Process Server, but shares its strengths: rounded, complex characters with a history, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, short but effective descriptions, and here-and-there a poignant and amusing aside.
Perhaps as interesting as the story itself is the history of the main character, Max, and how it informs the rest of the story, particularly his views on the church. Or, at least, the local magistrates.
Max is a former priest who left to clergy but was unable to leave it behind. While he feels no allegiance toward the community of faith, it certainly feels he owes them a debt, along with substantial seminary fees. The story paints clergymen as men clinging to their clerginess, attempting to justify their typical-person behavior (haughtiness, avarice, etc.) by passing it through a sort of ecclesiastical car wash, as if being religious figures makes underhanded behavior acceptable and serving a higher purpose. (view spoiler)[The case, as we discover, involves the church trying to lay claim to a deceased aristocrat's wealth by implicating his wife in his death, thereby causing her to forfeit her inheritance to the church. (hide spoiler)] That in itself is enough to raise eyebrows, but we also learn from Max that the bishop is, historically, a bully--he'd been one as a child and had no reservations about being one now.
In fact, it is the mystery of Max' departure from the priesthood and loss of faith that is, at least initially, what drives the story, moreso than that of the murder discovered at the opening of the book. This mystery manifests not just as absence of faith and a focus on the secular, but very near animosity, which may be off-putting for readers of a more religious bent who take this perspective as an affront to their God rather than a judgment of the men whose responsibility it is to deliver His message.
This conviction is stated, in no uncertain terms, fairly early in the tale when Max is discussing the interruption of his vacation by the church:
She detected my obvious discomfort. "And...? I take it something has interrupted?"
I nodded briefly. "My former employer."
Caridad giggled. "God?"
I gave her a withering look. "Very funny. The diocese."
She gritted her teeth like she had just driven over bumpy roadkill then uncapped a beer for each of us. "Ay. So, definitely not God, then."
This isn't to say that the church is the only thing to take flak. There's plenty of scorn to go around as the characters in this story all seem to harbor one prejudice or another, whether it be Detective Nicodema's disdain for the wealthy (money creates crime), the layabout Domingo's disdain for the non-religious (though perhaps just Max), Tomas' disdain for Portuguese (which may be a regional thing), the disdain Caridad shares with Max for clergy (due to mistreatment), and pretty much everyone else's disdain for Max as a consequence of his departure from the church. That said, there is an abundance of backstory justifying each of these perspectives, so it never seems as though the author is simply projecting his hatred of one thing or another through his characters. Rather, it's more likely that a disenfranchised former Catholic priest who has turned to private investigation is predisposed to contact with people who have criminal pasts, and harbor grudges against those who have wronged them. Or, perhaps, that's just the way we all are, but fool ourselves into believing we're above the fray or have never had cause to dislike anyone.
This was a good story and a good mystery by my reckoning (considering the limit of my Hardboiled Mystery reading consists entirely of The Happy Hollisters series, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, and The Da Vinci Code), though it seemed what should have been the undercurrent dominated the work. Again, the main crime seemed to me more a chapter out of a larger work. And there's nothing wrong with that, so long as Max Castillo's story is not a one-off and is part of a longer series--which it is.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
At last! This review is the culmination of a long and tragic period during which I wanted to read on, but could only peel away time for it in frustratAt last! This review is the culmination of a long and tragic period during which I wanted to read on, but could only peel away time for it in frustrating slices. If my review is disjointed and nonsensical, I blame Time for its failure to properly encompass all my responsibilities and leave room for reading as well.
To start, I enjoyed Maree’s writing style. That’s actually a pretty big component to my enjoyment of a story. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a variety of styles, from the sparse and speedy style of Ernest Hemingway (though I didn’t so much enjoy his stories themselves) to the more elaborate and clever meanderings of a William Shakespeare, or the atypical writing of E Annie Proulx (The Shipping News).
Alexios has a nigh-formal descriptive style and characterization to it that, in the world of writing, tends to go one of two ways: bland and tediously overwritten, in the fashion of 18th and 19th century writers (not to short change contemporary pedants who are just as tedious); deep and meaningful in detail, as in the case of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (which, oddly enough, many found overwritten—that happens when your footnotes can fill a page—but I found mesmerizing in the stories in each detail and within stories). While Alexios doesn’t quite boast the mesmerizing features of Susanna Clarke’s masterful tome, it certainly doesn’t fall into the dull world of literature from the 1700s and 1800s (sorry, Leo Tolstoy, I did love War and Peace, but not every contemporary writer was as good at making huge stories interesting—some were just huge).
The story itself is one that tells multiple, seemingly unrelated tales, while pulling the bowstring more and more taut as we approach a final revelation. Though the tales of the individuals are interesting, and hint at structural ties (each seems to involve a kind of nameless mystic identified only by their title, each distinctly mystical, yet each with a different level of connection with the ethereal) that suggest the stories are somehow related as opposed to completely arbitrary, it is the promise of the coming reveal that invariably drives a reader on. Who is Alexios? How does it tie into the theme of DEATH/NEAR-DEATH???
The answer to that question is a pretty stunning swing into the surreal and ethereal that would be shameful and rude of me to spoil for you. I will tell you that you will likely view the ending in one of two fashions: fascinating or mind-breaking.
If I were to ask myself to find a weak point in the story (I am… right now), it would be to complain that it lacks a feature it isn’t necessarily supposed to have (What!? No Laser Dragon Ships? No Sentient Air Horses? No banana-powered submarines? Expectation Fail! No stars!). What seems to be lacking for the typical reader is a hint about what the payoff might be right away. In pulp fiction books, the conclusion is often easy to spot immediately in the summary or the opening chapter, so the reader knows exactly what they’re building toward:
“Johnny Jimson, long-haired rock god and private investigator, had to be on stage for his concert in 1 hour. But someone had kidnapped his Electric Trombonist. Oh Nohs! He must find his trombonist or all his fans will be sad.”
Oftentimes an author can get away with leaving out cardinal directions if the reader is confident the author knows what they’re doing, trusting the story won’t simply meander from place to place before slumping into an arbitrary conclusion that doesn’t tie anything together. My purpose in bringing this up, oh potentially mutually concerned reader, is to indicate that isn’t the case here—there’s an obvious relationship between the characters due to the similar structure of their adventures. And there’s certainly a payoff, so don’t be put out when it’s not immediately apparent where the story is headed because no one mentions a missing Trombonist right off the bat.
If you’re looking for a story to rank highly in terms of Strictly Plot-borne Gripping Adventure, this likely isn’t for you—that’s not how this story works, necessarily. Maree does a splendid job providing anxious moments to keep the reader engaged as we build toward the conclusion. Fortunately, different stories require different grading scales, and this story ranks pretty highly on the Thoughtful-Well-Written-Tale Scale, which, as you might have guessed from the score, and me being a reasonably sensible person, is the scale I decided to use.
UNRELATED SIDE NOTE
As a completely unrelated side note that is nonetheless integral to Chance’s success as a writer, I feel compelled to point out that the author’s name, if not contrived, could hardly have been better chosen as a Catchy Author Name. In my experience, I’ve known few people with better “writing names” (the champion, of course, goes to a classmate of mine from Bowling Green: Bradley Wolfenden III). It sounds good, and no doubt looks good on the spine of a book, on which, after reading this story, I believe it has earned a place....more
As one with high aspirations for the human race, in spite of its frequently embarrassing stumbles (wars, politics, persistent absence of flying cars,As one with high aspirations for the human race, in spite of its frequently embarrassing stumbles (wars, politics, persistent absence of flying cars, etc.), the premise and final revelation of this tale saddened me somewhat. The Overlords come to Earth, halting millennia of strife and suffering amongst humanity, yet at a price--essentially the end of extraterrestrial human exploration. People become peaceful, happy, and largely sedentary (two of these three points I find, understanding the often determinedly irrational, domineering, and destructive human mind, nigh impossible without some kind of pharmacological intervention), and the explorer spirit is largely quashed with the aim of a different goal for humanity.
If you're looking for rollicking sci-fi adventure, you're never going to find it with Clarke. He's a good, straightforward, but largely tension-free writer. This is not to say that his stories are not enjoyable or don't explore interesting avenues of thought, but you're probably never going to be rushing through a story to keep up with characters racing against a ticking clock. If anything, it will be to learn exactly what is going on (and maybe end up disappointed in the anticlimax... ahem... Rendezvous With Rama).
In what might be a mild spoiler, I found myself disappointed in the resolution of the tale, which ended up being nigh spiritual, and a justification of many popular pseudosciences over the years (telekinesis, ESP, clairvoyance, etc.--all of which, I feel, are slightly less bunk than UFOs, ghosts, etc.). I understood it, and I thought Clarke's explanation was successful, but I'd prefer a science fiction novel have humanity succeed without transcending humanity. With that said, I didn't deduct any stars, since that's just a personal preference. In Clarke's defense, he did provide a disclaimer at the beginning of the book which read "The beliefs expressed in this book are not those of the author." And why should you have to believe everything you write? That would be rather limiting, wouldn't it?
I did deduct a star because it was, though much less than others, a hum-drum (yet concise and effective) telling of extraterrestrial contact. Still, that's what you get with Clarke, who is ever the even-keeled pragmatist, and it's a less tedious story than some others. Clarke isn't really a writer you get excited about (Yeah! An alien spaceship entered the solar system, then just kept going, because it was just using our sun to propel it onward!), but you feel like you've broadened your mind a bit by having read him. He's a highbrow writer who manages to write probing stories without coming off as condescending or forcing his intellect down your throat by beating you over the head with his scientific knowledge or highly literate background. He writes without an overly heavy hand on subjects that could very easily bury the common reader. Perhaps that is part of Clarke's larger appeal.
Please don't interpret this story as a condemnation of Arthur C. Clarke, I feel he's a very good writer of speculative fiction, but his approach is so pragmatic and without... urgency... that he doesn't quite generate the same amount of enthusiasm in me that, say, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series might.
All in all, a good story. Go into it if you're interested in a look at how humanity may turn out for the better, or if you're up for a more grim interpretation, end....more
A reader, like the main character, Chiyu (whose name I pronounce in my head like the latter portion of an explosive sneeze), is likely to begin this sA reader, like the main character, Chiyu (whose name I pronounce in my head like the latter portion of an explosive sneeze), is likely to begin this story a bit disoriented. Here we have a perfectly normal woman in her night clothes inexplicably surrounded by the gristle and blood of broken bodies, soldiers in tunics hacking medievally at citizens, and two invincible warriors resisting them.
Holy beans! (or something equally, if not more profane) you think to yourself. Where on God’s green Earth are we? How do I return to whence I came? Nevermind that. Let’s get out of here.
Chiyo obediently follows this same train of thought, linking up with fleeing citizens, the two warriors guiding them to safety. Pretty standard stuff that proceeds about as much as you might expect. Then, after all of their efforts, the two epic heroes do something shocking (a euphamism that with any more detail would be considered a spoiler) and at the same time we learn about a fairly striking prophecy. At this point the story takes off.
From this point on I enjoyed this story. Not that I didn’t enjoy the story leading up to this unexpected turn of events and important reveal, but this is the point where the tale entered fabled New Territory, piquing my interest as it had not before. Suffice to say, characters we anticipated might be archetypal and bland were abruptly not so. I’ll spare readers any further detail outside of this small tidbit: the title fits, as you might expect.
As an added bonus, I enjoyed the tidbits of scripture, or what have you, provided at the outset of each chapter, giving us an insight toward a prevailing religion and shaping the ensuing story. As a fan of Watership Down and The Shipping News, this can be a remarkably effective device if done well, and if the author is either studious enough to locate an appropriate quote, or clever enough to invent one of their own. Forsythe gets the nod on the latter (assuming the religious text she quotes doesn’t actually exist).
All in all, an excellent story that, once I crested that first mount of “where am I and what exactly is happening here and… oh! That was unexpected!” I cruised along to the wholly satisfying conclusion.
Why, oh why deduct a star, then? The missing star lends entirely to preference. There are several different styles of writing, and I tend to prefer tight narratives, where this story tended to offer descriptions that bordered on excessive, such as using two sentences to describe something where one might suffice. (e.g., “She couldn’t breathe. Her breath came in sharp uncontrollable gasps.” “…panicking and uncertain of what to do…”) That said, to each their own, and Forsythe gets full marks for all but the Personal Preference category, which is completely subjective, but something that weighs heavily in my opinion of a story’s enjoyability.
This isn’t a romp, or a happytime joystory full of girlish frolicking and adventure, and I think that is the story’s biggest strength. A good story is a convention turned on its head, and this story demonstrates some skillful acrobatics....more
Thomson’s novel is rich in detail that fills the story with a sense of historical authenticity without falling into the sci-fi trap of impractical “woThomson’s novel is rich in detail that fills the story with a sense of historical authenticity without falling into the sci-fi trap of impractical “wouldn’t this be cool” and smacks of William Gibson’s classic, Neuromancer. In that same respect there is a very real danger of becoming hopelessly lost in the foreignness of a world so far removed from our own, the reader is enfiladed by foreign terminology with roots just firm enough to get a grasp on them without being completely lost, but Thomson preserves a few human foibles that allow us to anchor ourselves while we familiarize ourselves with the rest of the universe. For the curious and persistent, like a good sci-fi reader, you’ll settle in.
Mixed into the tale are a few unobtrusive observations about smoking and a book-long theme of the class system of the future, of which the main character, named with tongue in cheek, Smith, and the self- and surrounding-destructive nature of an obsessively hedonistic and predictably escapist human race controlled by megabusinesses.
The Process Server is decidedly anti-big business, or at the very least, the main character is, rightly laying blame for the slow environmental destruction of Earth at the feet of the Big-6 corporations and capitalism-at-all-costs that supplanted government—the culmination of a capitalist’s wet dream.
Apart from the jarring experience of acclimating oneself to a new reality, to which sci-fi readers learn to welcome that moment of epiphany when the new environment begins to click comfortably, the story breezed along smoothly and kept me interested once I understood (fairly early on) what Bob Smith, the process server, intended to do.
This is a story of discovery, about where humanity finds itself in the future, and is fascinating in learning how things shake out. It is a universe in which conservative, capitalist, and hawkish ideology wins out, for the most part, and depending on your perspective this may seem a utopian or dystopian outcome. From the point-of-view of the main character, a disrespected member of the lower caste who assesses the state of things with a tone of grim resignation, it’s clearly the latter, and like most folk in his situation in the present and the past, his goal is not to try and change the world to suit him better, but to get by in it as best he can.
Thomson has created a fascinating (or forbidding) future, populated it with a few gritty, Sisyphus-like characters with varying levels of addiction to alternate-reality escapism, whose primary goal is to survive, not unlike the crew of Serenity. The dialogue is sharp, the descriptions snappy, the conclusions sensible, and the story wholly engaging. It isn’t often that I enter a world that has not been heavily critiqued and seasoned for a few decades, but with those reservations in mind, this is a world I leave that was well worth the time to get to know before everyone else had a chance to tell me to check it out....more
Trevor Cloud is a reclusive genius who has invented a machine that can go anywhere, endure any environment, and is powered by any energy expended arouTrevor Cloud is a reclusive genius who has invented a machine that can go anywhere, endure any environment, and is powered by any energy expended around or upon it. His focus on the development of his extraordinary machine, an egg-shaped contraption he calls The Cloud, has left him only dimly aware of the fact that the clouds of Earth are curiously in absentia. It isn’t long, however, before Trevor, and his less reclusive brother, Russell, learn the nefarious source of the missing clouds—an extra-terrestrial agent that is siphoning away Earth’s vapor for reasons unknown.
Brother Russell Cloud could not be more different from his brilliant sibling: athletic, outgoing, upbeat, philosophical, and perhaps somewhat prescient. Nevertheless, the two brothers confide and trust in one another completely.
The story meanders a bit as Trevor and Russell explore the fascinating capabilities of the Cloud, here and there unveiling some new (but invariably important) function, but this is mere winding of the crank before the brothers come into contact with the aliens. Soon circumstances require them to deal with the threat. Indeed, after witnessing the technological capabilities of the visitors’ machines, and the paltry attempts humanity makes to thwart them, Trevor and Russell realize they and their machine may be the only thing that can stop the aliens.
James Field has created a fascinating exploratory device in the Cloud and novice adventurers, the Cloud brothers. Who wouldn’t want to test the capabilities of a nigh self-sustaining machine that could go anywhere and guarantee the safety of its inhabitants? Best of all, improbable as it may seem, Trevor describes the function of his machine and its many failsafes with a scientific literacy and tone that makes the device seem entirely probable.
To my surprise, despite the variety of experiences and entities we encounter on our journey with the Cloud brothers, the most interesting of all were the inanimate characters: the Cloud ship itself, seemingly invincible, infinitely adaptable, and all but unstoppable, and a gadget that identifies itself as Aidme. Part of the fun in reading this story is learning how Trevor will tweak his ship with a few hours of coding to navigate the latest challenge.
This is the maiden voyage of the Cloud and the Cloud brothers, and their first adventure was a doozy. It might be difficult to top, but I hope it isn’t their last....more
Let me begin with a deep and heartfelt apology: Dogget Mann has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for a long, long time. For that reason alone I am asLet me begin with a deep and heartfelt apology: Dogget Mann has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for a long, long time. For that reason alone I am ashamed for not having told the world about it sooner. I don’t think the slightly increased knowledge of this story would have improved the world noticeably in the past few years, but perhaps exponentially as the years passed for certain. I feel a genuine sense of guilt for not adding my voice to the support of this book, author Lester Milton, and to the bright but hapless Dogget Mann himself, who seems to find himself everywhere but the right place in the right time.
Dogget’s matter-of-fact view of the world lends to some amazing insights about human behavior—it’s easy to warm to him quickly, particularly contrasted to the chilly nature of the world in which Dogget lives. Dogget loses his parents early in life, and escapes still others along the way, all the while searching not for adventure, but for an existence the content take for granted. Naturally (otherwise this would be a considerably shorter story), he is unable to find either.
Lester Milton’s storytelling is wry and breezy, and may come off as deliberately simple to appeal to younger readers, but, in the end, his story might be too smart for them. Here and there the story is dotted with poignant life lessons, drawn all the sharper by Dogget’s clarity of thought, offhandedly breaking down behavioral problems, and solutions, in the space of a paragraph addressed to the family members he is escaping. His conclusions about the behavior of those around him are simple, straightforward, plain, and yet these easy solutions to glaring character flaws had, to the instant of Dogget’s analysis, escaped them. Viewing the world through the unclouded lens of a child’s eyes is always fascinating, and opens our own to the ease with which we ought to be able to rectify our interpersonal ills, which makes our inability to correct them even more profound and perplexing as individuals and observers.
The biggest tragedy, or at least a close second compared to the adventuresome events in the life of a boy who is simply looking for stability, is that this book has been overlooked for so long. Again, because of my neglect, I feel partially to blame for this. Dogget’s story is an amazing and striking one that deserves your attention, but, like the boy himself, has nevertheless remained lost despite all his efforts.
I'm sorry, Lester, that I haven't written this sooner--I'm also sorry that the rating system ran out of stars....more
Main character Milo is an unfortunate child weighed down by the burden of a tedious existence, flitting reluctantly from one state of ennui to anotherMain character Milo is an unfortunate child weighed down by the burden of a tedious existence, flitting reluctantly from one state of ennui to another, which says something about himself. To wit, in the words of Harvey Danger, "If you're bored, then you're boring." So it's unlikely he would have a safety net of friends who might help him out of this state, and parents seem largely absent.
Where a contemporary cure for the unfortunate Milo would probably involve expensive medication prescribed by the expensive psychiatrist receiving gratifying kickbacks for the medication prescribed, Milo is miraculously blessed instead by the fantastic. And thank goodness, because the likelihood of the former solving anything (for Milo, anyway) seems doubtful.
And herein lies the wonderment of children's literature--the ability to escape to a place where they can heal themselves of the injuries they receive in reality and patch up the holes in their hearts from errant arrows. Childhood isn't so far removed that I can't remember the sense of safety that came from escaping into a fantasy world where the resolution to problems came with the turn of a page. This book is not only for Milo, it's also for the children suffering in the same fashion as Milo.
Literature that can hide something profound within a shell of simplicity always gets my approval. Children's literature is predisposed to this possibility based solely upon its audience. But a smart author like Juster knows a clever work can succeed on multiple levels, pretending to be a work directed solely at children while having a pertinent message they can take with them to adulthood, and The Phantom Tollbooth does so by giving meaning to the innumerable cliches and patterns of behavior that make up our world, and shining a light on their absurdity and the ridiculous caricature one becomes when they exist for a singular purpose or belief. By pointing out the ridiculousness of a world built out of cliches, turns of phrase turned literal, and puns come to life, one ought to see how silly it is to view the world from a singular perspective or as one that exists in black and white, right and wrong, and all the other false dichotomies zealots and equally ignorant people believe in, as well as the problems it creates. Notably, the absence of Rhyme and Reason.
All the myriad dullnesses of the educational process that bore Milo in reality are brought to fascinating life in a fantasy world that invigorates him and rekindles his curiosity--the very spark of life.
Milo takes the transition from reality to fantasy very much in stride and with characteristic glumness, and we get a glimpse of just how far he has fallen from engaging in the world. Gladly, Milo regains his sense of wonder in starts and spurts, until it has been completely restored. This is, to my mind, a fabulous recovery, and a resurrection in its own right worthy of praise and relief. There is nothing more depressing than a child lost to depression, and few things more gratifying than seeing a sense of purpose restored.
The story is rife with puns (though, as stated, not without purpose), something acceptable for younger audiences but something I find appalling and corny, but the story itself is compelling and never sits still long enough for the reader to become bored, maintaining a continuous train of thought despite its restlessness. In this, the story has an advantage over me.
Despite never having read this as a child, even though I should have, I feel confident in assuming I would have liked it then, probably more than I do now. As it stands, I feel obliged to deduct 0.01 stars for each year I am removed from childhood, which, ultimately and as designed, shouldn't have any sort of effect for a good long time.
If you're looking for an equally good feeling story of redemption and self improvement, but in a much shorter form, I strongly suggest Juster's The Dot and the Line....more
This work gets all its stars simply for providing me with insight on what was purportedly excised from the Bible during the assembly process over theThis work gets all its stars simply for providing me with insight on what was purportedly excised from the Bible during the assembly process over the course of several ecumenical councils in the early centuries CE. Whether these books were not included because they are fallacious or because they didn't fit the narrative the early church sought likely depends on the depth of your belief.
Most interesting and horrifying of the stories in this compilation was the depiction of Child Jesus as a violent toddler vested with the powers of life and death that he wielded as recklessly and carelessly as one might expect from a child of that age who has been told he is the son of God: arrogant, pitiless, selfish, and shockingly devoid of any value for life considering his destiny. Everyone is rightly terrified of him, and it's no surprise early church leaders decided to remove this episode of his existence. Who would believe God was just and loving to send down his only son to Earth and have that child turn out to be a nightmarish and unstoppable warlock?
If you never read another thing about Jesus, this is what you would expect him to become by age 30.
Much of the other material was less noteworthy and probably removed because it didn't fit well with the narrative or because it was so steeped in symbolism as to be impenetrably ponderous--made moreso because the narrator not only pointed out the symbols, but went on to explain them, which is rather indicative of a poor symbol. The best example of this would be the vast allegory in which a castle is constructed during an apostolic vision supplanted by Revelations in the New Testament, and absolutely everything has some meaning, from the different materials bricks are made of to the color of the workers' clothing. In a word: exhausting.
"Every element in this image means something. We'll start at the top left and work our way to the bottom right." --The Apocryphal Bible
This is by no means an omnibus of all the works the various councils decided not to include, but it is a good collection, and it includes excerpts that denote exactly why these stories were not included as well as approximate dates of authorship and guesses at authors as well....more