Saturday, December 2, 2017

How I failed to appreciate a staggering work of genius

From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the PresentFrom Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present by Jacques Barzun
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For shocking erudition, this work deserves a 10/5, or 15/5--5/5 is too little. The sheer amount of learning is astounding. Incredible. Most of the time that I was reading this, I was marveling at the breadth of this man's knowledge, and how much writing--poetry, correspondence, history, novels, diaries, philosophy, drama, and everything else--he had read, digested, remembered, and could compare to other cultural objects. And how much art. And how much music. And every other scrap of cultural information. He is an encyclopedia of cultural information, and shares that knowledge while applying analysis and critique to all of it, and placing all of it in historical context, in the flow of ideas. He demonstrates more knowledge on a single page (and there are 800 of them) than I have gathered in my entire life. I don't think that's exaggeration, even though I take pride in knowing some things. It's crazy how much information he has at his fingertips.

But good god is it horrible to read.

Okay, not all of it. Any one page is pretty good. Some sections make for excellent reading, good information, something worth knowing. The best parts read like historical overviews, and those were the parts that kept me going. And in all honesty, his style is fine, his prose is clear, generally, and his command of the language is outstanding.

But it's like reading a 300,000-word meandering essay, looking for the thread, enduring a deep dive into the significance of thousands of particles of culture, some of them famous works by well-known men and women, but many, many of them virtually unknown or forgotten works by obscure historical figures. "Who cares?" was a frequent thought, though it is admittedly an irrational and unfair critique of a work nobody forced me to read. I suppose I kept hoping he would get back to things I cared about, which he did here and there. I had expected to find this a popularization of cultural history for the lay reader, but it's not that.

He writes as a critic, so while it's right that he give his opinion, it dominates the work. This book is filled with so many generalizations and unsupported opinions that you could assign an entire class unique research projects based on the assertions he makes over just one or two pages. He could, for all I know, be right about damn near everything, if you can call an opinion right or wrong, but who wants to read all of the lesser correspondence of a minor 17C playwright to see if what he says about it is accurate? (For example.)

Thus, 3/5 star. In my opinion. A towering accomplishment, but a drag--a great deal of value wrapped up in a whole lot of cripplingly dull obscurity. His theoretical, perfect audience might love this work, and rave, and demand all the stars, but that's true of every author's writing, right? Just find the right audience!

And the last bit, his critique of the late 20C, reads like every old-man rant you've ever heard--against TV, public schools, fast food, students rating professors, the internet, modern journalism, sports, non-traditional families, and many other topics. He handled the years 1500-1950 with cool detachment and impartiality, but 1950-2000, the "Get off my lawn!" years, are mainly responsible for the "decadence" part of the title. It's unfortunate that it's where the book ends, because it colors how I read everything else he wrote.

This work is impressive in many ways, particularly its scholarship, but I can't recommend it. It's a long, dry read, with widely-separated moments of interesting commentary. This is clearly meant for cultural historians and intellectuals, and maybe smart-looking bookshelves, where I'm going to put it now and pretend like I understood everything....

Oh, apparently Jacques Barzun enjoyed baseball and detective novels. I'm glad to know that.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

An Awesome new Holmes and Watson

A Study in Charlotte (Charlotte Holmes, #1)A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a sucker for Sherlock Holmes stories and adaptations, including the BBC's Sherlock, CBS's Elementary, the Guy Ritchie movies with Robert Downey, Jr., and all kinds of books, including a very enjoyable novel by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called Mycroft Holmes.

I've found my new favorite.

All of the adaptations try to update the stories, showing proper respect for the original, and meet with varied success. The mystery aspect is important, of course, and so is a knowledge of the stories, but the key is Holmes, and I adore this particular heroine.

This series supposes that the Holmes family and the Watson family stay connected over the generations, with many partnerships similar to the first. The dynamic remains the same, passed on to each successive generation. The newest such partnership is Charlotte Holmes and James Watson, who meet in an American boarding school. She is the socially isolated detective, and he's the rugby-playing average guy who wants to write. Or be a doctor. Or both.

There is a lot to like about the high school mystery story, and the use of pop culture is fitting and appropriate, and Watson is a good character--but Holmes is the star. She's what makes this adaptation memorable.

In this incarnation, Holmes is a gifted high school student, a descendent of Sherlock, trained by her parents to have all his skills and knowledge. She has, of course, Sherlock's failings as well, and though all of this is conventional and expected, it's still well done, and the way it's presented is fresh. This Holmes is wonderful--independent, difficult, brilliant, brash, confident, and damaged--but somehow still a young woman in the modern world. The combination really works.

I recommend the book. Highly, in fact, in case that tips the scales for anyone.

This is not just for fans of Sherlock. With a strong teen heroine and a familiar setting, it works well as a YA novel, if somewhat edgy, as the story deals frankly with some difficult issues and contains a bit of language. Mystery fans in general and many others would find a lot to admire in this novel.

I am eager to get ahold of the sequel.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Personal reflections on Rocket Raccoon and Groot: Steal the Galaxy!

Guardians of the Galaxy: Rocket Racoon & Groot Steal The GalaxyGuardians of the Galaxy: Rocket Racoon & Groot Steal The Galaxy by Dan Abnett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you're like me--where you like comics, but you love books--this crossover novel will be a great find. Marvel characters in original novels! Love it.

A digression
I remember when I was a kid, we had a Fantastic Four book. It was one of those "big little books," where it was short and fat and had a picture on every other page but was a legit book. I loved being able to read a comic book story filled with some of my favorite characters, on my own, at my own pace, supplying most of my own pictures. I read that book a bunch of times.
The Fantastic Four: The House of Horrors

About the same time, we had a "Get Smart" novel, which somehow was more fun than the goofy TV show. TV is all dialogue, but a novel has narration, which makes the story seem more real to me, and filled in so much that was missing. I don't know where that one book came from, or why we didn't get more. Should have.
Missed It By That Much!

And my favorite novel of this sort (crossover from another medium) that we had when I was a kid was Alan Dean Foster's novelization of "Star Wars." I loved the movie, but in some ways preferred the book. It had scenes that were missing from the movie, which was cool, but what affected me the most was the narration: the lingering on crucial events that occurred in a second in the movie but filled a paragraph in the book, or a page; the revelation of the characters' thoughts and motivations; the explanation and description of technology; the backstory and connections. The movie was two dimensions, but the novel was in three. Or so it seemed.
Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker

This "original novel of the Marvel universe" is in the same vein, and I liked it. It is a straight-up comic book adventure, but it's more fun (for me, a book nerd) to enjoy it in novel format. The author employs an excellent smart-ass tone, supplies helpful exposition, uses a variety of settings and secondary characters, and keeps the saving-of-the-galaxy plot moving along with as much energy as a comic or movie. It is very much pulp fiction, with all that implies, except for shoddy writing; Dan Abnett is an excellent writer who knows the characters and universe very well. So, I suppose, this is high quality pulp, which I mean neither as an oxymoron (a lot of pulp is well-written) nor a criticism. Pulp is entertaining; pulp is imaginative; pulp doesn't make a lot of demands on a reader; pulp, more than anything is fun, which is what I want most from reading.

If you're not put off by your comic book characters showing up in your paperbacks, and you like novels to be fun, maybe even silly, you should take a look. I think you'll enjoy it.

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Friday, November 24, 2017

I should have read the Iron Druid Chronicles sooner. Duh. My review of the first book.

Hounded (The Iron Druid Chronicles, #1)Hounded by Kevin Hearne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I used to have a prejudice against stories told in first person. They took me out of the story too much. Sometimes the narrator is like a new acquaintance talking through the movie you're trying to watch; I want them to leave me alone to let me enjoy the story with them yapping in my ear through the whole thing. Other times, the narrator is too chatty, like a tedious neighbor standing in your yard that you can't escape from; or too introspective and moody, like a Holden Caulfield-type going through some serious shit, and you're trying to care, but it's killing you.

Not here, thankfully. None of that stuff.

The narrator here--Atticus O'Sullivan, a very old druid who looks 21 or so--is active and witty with a clear voice, and he is very likable as a protagonist. Atticus escorts us through the story with a briskness that makes it read like one long action sequence, although there are quieter and calmer moments with helpful exposition and at least passing reflection. The narrator smooths out the highs (a little) and amuses us through the lows like a tour guide, contributing to the energetic flow of the novel. This made the book fun for me to read in a few quick chunks. (Technically, I suppose, the author is doing all of those things with a tight plot a sure hand, but you know what I mean.)

The setting is a plus here. The story is nicely grounded in a real place and time, with real-enough characters (like local ASU students and restaurant employees) which has the effect of making the supernatural features (figures from Irish myth, witches, demons, werewolves, fancy swords, other fun stuff) both more believable and more distinct. This might be truer for those of us who live in Arizona and know Tempe and the Superstition Mountains; perhaps we can picture it all more completely. I dunno. I suspect the result is not too different for folks in other places, because it's well done.

Kevin Hearne is a local (for me) author, and has been at Comicon, though I have not had the pleasure of meeting him IRL. Now I am motivated to get his other novels and see if I can't track him down (in a celebrity-friendly way) at the next event and get some signatures and a handshake. :)

RIYL: fun things

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Friday, November 3, 2017

Upon reading H.P. Lovecraft

Great Tales of HorrorGreat Tales of Horror by H.P. Lovecraft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

H.P. Lovecraft has a particular way he likes to tell stories. A quaint way, I suppose. Rather than tell the story of an active hero who confronts his main conflict and either succeeds or fails in his efforts, he tells gives us second hand stories, with the action told out of order, and the conflict approached sideways.

The author puts most of the action offstage, seen by reflection rather than by natural light. The heart of the action either takes place long, long ago, or it takes place in a hidden way, behind closed doors, coming to light later. Most of the narration is rather like a police report, or a long diary entry explaining research that has taken years to collect. (Most of his stories are guilty of unnecessary detail and redundant action. I wondered again and again if it would have struck me in a different way 80 years ago, whether I would have relished what I often found dreary.) Rarely do his characters participate in the real story, with the major crisis occurring in real time; they usually are there to investigate what has already happened, to piece it together by hints and clues, more detective story than action story.

The result is that the truly horrific or amazing or terrifying actions are only partly seen, only partly revealed, and only a bit at a time. They are glimpsed, and guessed at, and hidden from or run from, but rarely experienced by the narrator directly. (Some stories, like "The Thing on the Doorstep," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," feel more cinematic and more modern by having moments of true action, but they are the exception.) Sometimes ancient objects or alien relics are catalogued completely, blandly, scientifically, as in "At the Mountains of Madness," or "The Shadow out of Time," but at the same time with much fainting and upset all around, with key portions left out by the narrator because they are too terrifying to reveal.

Lovecraft's strategy is to make the strange and exotic remain somewhat veiled, only partly seen, protecting it from the sanitizing light of first person experience. He feared making his cosmic or supernatural creatures too familiar, robbing them of their impact. For the same reason that movie monsters are not revealed for as long as possible, remaining more frightening the longer they are in the shadows, his horrors are usually kept away from our close scrutiny, with details hinted at but left unsaid.

80 and 90 years after they were written, after decades of science fiction and horror in books and movies dealing with similar themes, our reaction is doubtless much different from that of the original audience. For Lovecraft, the essence of horror is realizing the cold truth revealed by science, by Darwin and astronomers and archaeologists and physicists: that humans are not the only creatures in the universe, or even the original creatures of earth, and that our assumption that we were a special creation, one that is watched over by a loving creator, is nothing but a comforting myth. It is realizing that almost the entire history of life preceded our own, and we are not central to the story of the universe. We are, in fact, minor characters, or nearly invisible and inconsequential props, overshadowed by greater, wiser, more powerful, less comprehensible others.

Lovecraft's fiction uses scale to dethrone humanity, to reduce us to insignificance--galactic distances, deep time measured in eons, unfathomable intelligences without compassion or even sanity--awakening his reader to the notion that humans and human history are vanishingly small and unimportant and fragile and impermanent in a universe that doesn't need us and doesn't care whether we exist another instant. He takes us, thematically, into a terrifying, giant room off our house that we never knew existed. Then, as we are adjusting to this new reality, he shows us a door to a room off that one which dwarfs the first--and then hints at a terrifying door at the end of that room leading to something greater and more incomprehensible and soul-shattering than anything so far.

After that, disoriented, mind blown, we are brought back to small town America to emphasize how our secure and pleasant existence is an illusion. He feeds the fear that perhaps there are malevolent actors, titanic and remorseless, who would gladly squish us if we foolishly succeeded in getting their attention. Over and over in the stories, his characters are like Jack, too curious for their own good, tapping the giant on the shoulder, wondering what happens next.

Usually, the squishing comes next. Thematically speaking.

Lovecraft would very much like us to quit trying to wake the giant.

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Okay, yeah, I really loved this book :) (My review of River of Stars)

River of Stars (Under Heaven, #2)River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I knew I would like this book before I opened it, because I like virtually everything Guy Gavriel Kay writes, but there were other reasons to hope. I am intrigued by the setting, which is a pseudo-Song Dynasty China, and the plot promised by the blurb is the epic clash-of-cultures type of fantasy that almost always draws me in. But when you read it (if you read it), you soon realize that this is above all a character-driven book, and it is the characters that make this novel so special.

The prose is beautiful, light in a way that makes you believe that this author could write poetry just as easily, and is a pleasure to read, line by line, page by page. But it's still a fantasy, with all the action and fun and vitality that one hopes for in that genre. This is the story of an ancient, crumbling empire facing invading steppe riders, and Kay has constructed a tight plot with sharp, bright action. His scholarship, as always, is exceptional, which he uses to create a sense of time and place so complete that it feels natural, unobtrusive, rather than merely exotic or overwhelmed by details. The events placed in this setting fit logically together like well-crafted puzzle pieces, while still leaving room for heroic action and remarkable face-to-face conflict, with moments where you cheer for and celebrate the brilliant court maneuver as much as the inspired military action.

And all of this works because it's all about the characters; the unfolding plot makes sense because the characters behave according to their natures. They are far from types, or cutouts, though. The main characters and many of the secondary characters are unique individuals with complex but comprehensible objectives. The magic of it is that Kay makes you care about so many of them, living their joy and grief as deeply as if they were real people. The soldier Ren Daiyan; the female scholar Lin Shan; the poet Lu Chen; the brothers and fathers and daughters and ministers and assassins--they live and act and love and fight and die in a world as strange and real as our own, and you live with them and feel for them and experience the story with them in a way that isn't common anywhere, let alone in genre fiction.

River of Stars is a sequel, in a way, to Kay's earlier novel Under Heaven. That book was set in a pseudo-Tang Dynasty, several hundred years before the events of this one. Other than being set in the same fantasy version of China, there is no real connection between them. Under Heaven is a very good book; l enjoyed it in virtually every way, and I absolutely recommend it. Nevertheless, this novel, I feel, is superior. Based on a progression (IMO) from very good to amazing, one hopes the author has the chance to write many more such novels...

River of Stars is both as an exciting fantasy novel and a beautiful piece of literature. I hope, if that recommendation speaks to you, that you love it as much as I do.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Short review of "The Throne of the Crescent Moon"

Throne of the Crescent Moon (The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, #1)Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Saladin Ahmed has created a fantasy world where Middle Eastern themes and culture are neither disrespected with broad caricatures and offensive tropes nor idealized with the breathless admiration of the wannabe, which is a danger for this sub-genre and others like it. Because he follows this middle road between extremes, the author is able to tell an engaging story that draws on traditional literature like The Arabian Nights but can still comment credibly on humanity and society, especially the evils of the class system. The story is peopled with round main characters who drive the action, but even the imperfectly drawn characters have an arc and both good and bad qualities, enough to give the appearance of realism for fantasy purposes. I enjoyed reading it, and intend to find the sequels.

I have genuine criticisms of the novel, but since it has so much more that I like about it than otherwise I will just leave it at that. A very human author created art that I appreciate, and I look forward to seeing more.

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