Francis I and St. Leibowitz

April 8, 2013

The election of the new pope, who calls himself Francis I after St. Francis of Assisi, reminded me of two wonderful science fiction novels by Walter M. Miller Jr.: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) and Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (1997 — actually the latter seems to have been finished by Terry Bisson; I learned this only just now from Wikipedia). This new pope seems to offer a slight hope that the Catholic Church might be reformed (ouch, better not use that word in this context), although on the other hand, while he appears to be agreeably pomp-averse he is also said to be as reactionary as one is accustomed to with the Catholic Church. Now, the connection for me is that in Wild Horse Woman a new pope is elected as well, and he is indeed a radical one. I don’t remember any details, but the character stuck in my memory as kind of a Zen sage who would shock the protagonist with heretical-sounding utterances. That will be the day, when the Catholic Church elects a Zen master for pope! No such hope for this pope, I guess; nope.

Anyway, these two novels take place mostly within the ranks of the Catholic Church in the Dark Ages after a nuclear war. I love them and strongly recommend them. And that makes me wonder again: Is there a deeper reason why I like these catholic-themed novels so much? Am I a closet Catholic??? By the bright light of day, the only ‘religion’ I sympathize with is Zen Buddhism, but what about the dark places of my subconscious? And Walter M. Miller Jr. is not the only devoutly (?) Catholic author whose work I love: Gene Wolfe seems to be another case in point. The religious aspect is not close to the surface in The Book of the New Sun (including The Urth of the New Sun) and The Book of the Long Sun, but it becomes salient enough, though it is nowhere obviously Catholic. The literary merit of all of these books is sufficient to account for my loving them, but still, perhaps that is not all that motivates me. Oh well, if Catholicism takes such beautiful shape, surely I am allowed to indulge in it.

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‘The Kings of Cool’ by Don Winslow

March 6, 2013

A crime novel. Quite cool indeed — or hot, compared to the quaint Sherlock Holmes novel (A Study in Scarlet) I read just before. Very hard-boiled also, though it’s not a hard-boiled detective novel but rather about two amiable marijuana dealers and organized crime.

I got two Winslow books — Kings of Cool and Savages — for my birthday. I wasn’t sure whether to read the two books in the order of publication or in chronological order. In the end I decided for the latter, so Kings of Cool, the prequel, came first.

I tend to compare crime novels with those of James Ellroy and Andrew Vachss. From that perspective, this one is much sunnier and funnier, but there are still lots of brutal violence. The protagonists here are not as damaged and obsessed. Winslow’s stylistic gadget of putting mere parts of sentences in separate paragraphs or even chapters is interesting — though there’s maybe a bit too much of that.

I enjoyed this book very much and am looking forward for more, maybe The Power of the Dog next. (At the time of writing, I’ve been through with Savages for quite a while already; my backlog is accumulating again.) However, Ellroy — at least the later Ellroy of the L.A. Quartet and the Underworld USA Trilogy — seems more worthwhile from a literary standpoint. Vachss less so.

‘A Study in Scarlet’ by Arthur Conan Doyle

February 14, 2013

A Sherlock Holmes novel. Nice. Not overwhelming, not for modern readers anyway, I guess: it is old-fashioned — because it’s old. But nice. (Sorry again for overusing ‘nice’, but it’s a nice word, isn’t it? Nah, maybe not really so much.) I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes novels (in German) when I was a boy; now I wanted to rediscover them, see how much they were still able to entertain me. And yes, they do; a Sherlock Holmes story once in a while is going to be appreciated, even though there is more titillating (now isn’t that a nice word?!) literature available. You can read this one because it’s a classic detective novel, or just because you are interested in the original Sherlock Holmes character (I do very much like the Guy Ritchie picturizations — actually I liked all Guy Ritchie movies I have seen; I never saw Swept Away).

I got Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, vol. 1, as a gift; the edition is n— … good, though printed a bit close to the binding. There were two things I didn’t expect: (1) There is a long part which isn’t recounted by Dr. Watson, but rather told by an impersonal narrator, what is called (in German) the ‘auktorial’ or the ‘neutral’ narrative perspective — dim recollections from German classes, and help from Wikipedia. (2) I was also surprised by what I read about the Mormons, that they had (in the 19th century) an inquisition-like secret police — I hope they do not have that anymore, or else I may be in trouble now, just for mentioning it.

‘Stonemouth’ by Iain Banks

January 25, 2013

I liked this novel very much, even though it instantiates a broad pattern common to, at least, The Crow Road and The Steep Approach to Garbadale, maybe even Espedair Street: The male protagonist returns to the place where he spent his youth, where an unresolved teenage-love issue is waiting to be resolved. Maybe this is a defining topic for Banks himself? Stonemouth deviates from the pattern (more narrowly conceived) insofar as … But that would be a spoiler. Let me just say that this book ends on a slightly more positive note, in a certain sense, than the others. Then again, the others have happy endings too, I’d say — I like that! Not naive, happily-ever-after happy endings but more sophisticated, grown-up happy endings. Maybe I’m a sucker that way, but I like reading stories where people not so dissimilar from me go through a crisis, suffer, then take a developmental step or have some kind of inner breakthrough and get a happy ending, at least for the time being. I suppose it’s what I’d like for myself. I mean, crises and suffering I have already (I’m a father); I’m waiting for the breakthrough, the moment of slight enlightenment.

I guess noticing such patterns is the curse of people like me who let themselves become addicted to particular writers and then read everything of theirs they can lay their hands on (well, not the history of whisky Banks wrote, Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram — or maybe some day; probably it is a quite entertaining read, even though I couldn’t care less about alcohol — okay, just ordered it, only 3,41 € including postage, for the hardcover edition, couldn’t resist): if you read enough of an author’s material you’re bound to stumble over common themes sooner or later. Let me emphasize that there is no real repetition. Well, in a philosophical sense there is, but not the real kind, where you’d say, reading a single one of these books is enough, reading the others would be redundant. No, no, they’re quite different stories. (At least they seem so to me; I’m not that analytic and critical a reader.)

To forestall misunderstandings: this is not just (or even not at all) a love story; for example, it has also elements of a detective story, it is very exciting in parts!

‘Nine Princes in Amber’ by Roger Zelazny

January 12, 2013

This fantasy novel felt a bit weird for a long time, as the protagonist, Corwin of Amber, at first didn’t even know who he was and then didn’t seem to know what to do. But I liked the last part, after Corwin was thrown into the dungeons (I love the Count of Monte Cristo story, as far as I know it; haven’t actually read the original yet, but several adaptations, such as the great The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester — also in a beautiful graphic-novel version done by Howard Chaykin — and the not-as-great The Stars’ Tennis Balls by Stephen Fry, whose other work I like more): from then on, there was something worth doing, and he did it. I’m curious to see how the tale goes on, in The Guns of Avalon.

I read this in a volume of ‘Fantasy Masterworks’, called The Chronicles of Amber, even though it contains only the first five Amber novels out of ten, not to mention a few short stories. This edition is cheap, but also cheaply made, with lots of typos and mediocre printing.

‘Dodger’ by Terry Pratchett

January 4, 2013

Pratchett’s latest ‘novel for young adults’ takes place in London (mostly), somewhere around the middle of the 19th century, and thus in a Dickensian setting. (Charles Dickens is even an important supporting character in the book. I waited for Darwin to make an appearance, but that tender hope was sadly thwarted.) The title character, Dodger, is obviously modeled on the Artful Dodger (whose ‘real’ name is, amusingly for us Richard Dawkins fans, Jack Dawkins — presumably neither of them is named for the other) from Oliver Twist, though not very close; for example, Dodger simpliciter is a tosher whereas the Artful Dodger is not. He gets involved in the problems of an abducted girl or young woman and, thanks to his unique talents, plays a central role in solving them.

The book pratchetts along, joke upon joke, puns galore; however, the plot never totally captured my feelings, even the exciting parts did not quicken my heartbeat. I suppose that applies to others of Pratchett’s novels as well. But maybe it is not an appropriate criticism of Pratchett’s writing, as he doesn’t aim to deliver drama or thrillers. I guess it just so happened that after reading this particular book I asked myself for the first time whether it gave me this ’emotion capture’. So, my comments shouldn’t put off readers (except those looking for high drama): Dodger is quite as good as Pratchett’s books usually are.

‘Brightness Falls From the Air’ by James Tiptree, Jr.

December 12, 2012

Quite a good science fiction novel. I read this book once already back when I couldn’t read English very well; so this time it was almost as if I had read it for the first time. There might have been a wee bit more adventure/action and a little less interpersonal relationships for my taste, but really I can’t complain; I did enjoy it.

A small company of people wait on a planet on the galaxy’s rim for a cosmic lightshow (plus ‘time-flurries’) which is actually the last remnant of a murdered star. But some of them have secret agendas. — Is this a space opera? Maybe, if a space opera can take place on a very small stage. (Sounds a bit like a James Bond movie taking place in a single location.) Behind the plot — which involves aliens, ‘Black World’ criminals, the far-future equivalent of TV stars, a prince and a test-tube baby looking for her father — this book seems to be (among other things, probably, which I didn’t notice) about dying, about dying well and about the fear of death, that of others and one’s own.

The book reminded me a little of Gene Wolfe in the way in which the author frequently keeps her (‘James Tiptree, Jr.’ is the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon) readers in the dark for a little while, or gives them information they cannot use right away.

Now I’ll have to obtain Up the Walls of the World, Tiptree’s first novel (Brightness Falls … is only her second and last novel; she is better known for her short stories), which I have also read once already, ages ago, in German (Die Feuerschneise). But I got such a heap of good books for my birthday that there is absolutely no hurry; I won’t run out of reading matter any time soon (not that I was in danger of doing so before).

‘The Hobbit’: Postscript

December 1, 2012

One more thought concerning the relation between The Hobbit as a book and as a movie: I also wonder how some of the humor in the book is going to be (or rather has been; the New Zealand premiere took place a few days ago) translated into the movie form, especially the names of the three trolls – ‘Bert’, ‘Tom’ and ‘William Huggins’ – and William’s speaking purse. The movie The Lord of the Rings did have humor, fortunately, but not of this kind. Orcs had suitably inhuman names, and if we had been told any trolls’ names they would presumably have been something like ‘Ugg’ and ‘Thugg’; whereas ‘William Huggins’ sounds more like a hobbit than a troll. Probably their names won’t be mentioned at all in the movie. Nor can I imagine a troll’s purse squeaking, ”Ere, ‘oo are you?’ in Peter Jackson’s movie (it’s hard to see a troll owning a purse in the first place). But I’m willing to be surprised. [I’d like to get those quote marks and apostrophes right in the purse quote above. Can someone tell me how?]

Speaking about surprises, I was pleasantly surprised how many likes and followships (‘The Followship of the Rong’; probably bloggery adepts have a pithy word for this) I garnered by my last post. Maybe I should add the tag ‘Hobbit’ to all my posts? At first, when this happened I suspected these people might be trying to trick me into reading their own blogs: I can imagine someone liking a post of mine, but when the (automatically generated) e-mail says, ‘They thought “…” was pretty awesome‘, that sounds rather far-fetched to me. But it seems to be just ordinary American hyperbole, where ‘nice’ doesn’t mean ‘nice’ any more but ‘bad’, and if you want to convey ‘nice’ you have to say ‘terrific’ or ‘awesome’. What will it be like in ten years, when ‘terrific’ and ‘awesome’ will have been devalued too? ‘Peter Jackson’s new movie was 8 billion percent godlike!’

I rarely take the time to look at other people’s blogs. It’s extremely likely that there are ones I would very much enjoy to read, but I better not start: I get little enough done in life as it is. That being so, I better close and go to bed (and a little more reading). But thanks for liking me, all who did so!

‘The Hobbit’ by J. R. R. Tolkien

November 26, 2012

I read this book once or twice before, ages ago, in a German translation. Still a nice read, although I’d recommend it more because it’s a classic than because it’s so terribly stunning. It doesn’t stun me, at least. (If you want to know which books I really love, look for the authors whose names reappear over and over again here: Banks, Wolfe, Ellroy, …)

From the narrator’s tone of voice it is clear that The Hobbit is aimed at a juvenile audience (also, the inside blurb says so [is it a blurb if it’s inside?? More like an informational text, in this case]: he read it to his children). But it’s not all juvenile: the end of the dragon is not the end of the problems; various decent people (dwarves, men, elves) almost go to war over who gets how much of the dragon’s hoard. (Okay, I may be rather susceptible to finding worthwhile messages in books which many would not take serious, e.g., Harry Potter …)

I wonder how Peter Jackson has managed to turn this not-very-long book into three full-length (or quite possibly overlength?) movies, like he did for The Lord of the Rings. I mean, TLotR (the books) probably has five or ten times as much content as The Hobbit. I am confident that he succeeded in making a good trilogy, I’m just curious about how he did it. (Mostly I am very eager to see the movies.) Looking up The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on IMDb furnishes the beginnings of an explanation: apparently Sauron (a.k.a. The Necromancer), Saruman and Galadriel feature in the movie, even though they are never onstage in the book, and Saruman and Galadriel are even never mentioned at all, as far as I remember. (And who the f*** is King Thranduil?) So it seems like Jackson has added action that is at best hinted at in the book. Oh, I trust he did his job well and I will enjoy the movies.

Actually I once sent a postcard to Peter Jackson (or at least I tried to: I didn’t have a real address; don’t know whether it ever arrived) suggesting he might consider filming The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (having proved himself capable and worthy by his version of TLotR). Perhaps he’ll read this blog? Perhaps you’ll all write him postcards promoting the sake of TBotNS?!

Next: Brightness Falls From the Air by James Tiptree, Jr., and maybe then Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith. Although I suspect I’ll get much more urgent books soon for my birthday …

‘The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters’ by G. W. Dahlquist

November 26, 2012

This book is too long. Otherwise, it’s not bad at all. It is well written, in a pseudo-19th-century style (reminded me a little of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, in that respect — also a long book, but I really liked it). It tells an interesting story with elements of science fiction as well as fantasy. Horror too, I guess. It is sprinkled with bits of kinky sexiness. It is gripping — but I think it is just too slow in getting to a resolution, takes too many turns.