Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

Premise:

T. H. White retells the Arthurian epic with a modern touch. King Arthur attempts to use “Force, the metal illness of humanity” for human good, creating an age of chivalry that will one day come again. Published 1958, considered the literary pinnacle of the fantasy genre.

About:

T. H White actually wrote five books about King Arthur, but only four of them were published together in The Once and Future King. The Book of Merlyn was published later, in 1977. So my copy of The Once and Future King contains The Sword in the Stone (upon which the Disney movie was based, delightful humor and all), The Queen of Air and Darkness (a much darker book about life in the Middle Ages before the Round Table), The Ill-Made Knight (a book about the glorious Round Table and its darling knight, Lancelot), and The Candle in the Wind (about King Arthur, in his weary old age, as his Round Table falls about him in ruins).

What I Liked:

(1) Book I. All of it. It’s adorable, hilarious fun (Merlyn is…so funny. And The Wart is adorable), and it really brings the Middle Ages to life, especially for children. My favorite joust in all of literature:

“The knights had now lost their tempers and the battle was joined in earnest. It did not matter much, however, for they were so encased in metal that they could not do each other much damage. It took them so long to get up, and the dealing of a blow when you weighed the eighth part of a ton was such a cumbrous business, that every stage of the contest could be marked and pondered.”

(2) The whole book really enlivens the Middle Ages in humorous, detailed ways:

“The Dark and Middle Ages! The Nineteenth Century had an impudent way with its labels.”

“Did you know that in these dark ages which were visible from Guenever’s window, there was so much decency in the world that the Catholic Church could impose a peace to all their fighting—which it called The Truce of God—and which lasted from Wednesday to Monday, as well as during the whole of Advent and Lent? Do you think they, with their Battles, Famine, Black Death and Serfdom, were less enlightened than we are, with our Wards, Blockade, Influenza and Conscription?”

(3) T. H. White manages to humanize everyone, especially King Arthur, Queen Guenever and the knight Lancelot, despite their questionable decisions and outright mistakes. Arthur, despite his preoccupation with justice, prefers to overlook the affair between his wife and Lancelot. Lancelot, despite his preoccupation with holiness, cannot keep himself from the queen. And the queen herself?

“People are easily dazzled by Round Tables and feats of arms. You read of Lancelot in some noble achievement and, when he comes home to his mistress, you feel resentment at her because she cuts across the achievement, or spoils it. Yet Guenever could not search for the Grail. She could not vanish into the English forest for a year’s adventure with the spear. It was her part to sit at home, though passionate, though real and hungry in her fierce and tender heart. For her there was no recognized diversions except what is comparable to the ladies’ bridge party of today. She could hawk with a merlin, or play blind man’s buff, or pince-merille. These were the amusements of grown-up women in her time. But the great hawks, the hounds, heraldry tournaments—these were for Lancelot. For her, unless she felt like a little spinning or embroidery, there was no occupation—except Lancelot.”

What I Didn’t Like:

(1) I didn’t enjoy book II or think it necessary. It drags, it’s dark, and most of it seems unnecessary. The point of it is to humanize “the Orkney faction” while Arthur, Lancelot and Merlyn conceive of the idea of “the Round Table.” But mostly, it’s a lot of unpleasant or boring episodic “showing” that could have been condensed into a few scenes. (2) King Arthur’s questions, the questions asked by the whole book, get only very vague answers, at least to my understanding. The thematic questions are mainly these: (a) Why does humanity fight and go to war? (b) How can we stop ourselves from doing so?

His solution appears to be that humanity must rid itself of political boundaries.

“The imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined. The airborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to [the birds], and would to Man if he could learn to fly.” OH, OH, and also EDUCATION! “The hope of making [the new round table] would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.”

I don’t really mind the vagueness of the dear king’s answer to his own troubling questions; perhaps his are the best humanist answers. And the book is too lovely for me to really mind; the answers aren’t the point, after all. Fortunately, this little piece of culture (or, rather, big piece of culture, coming in at 639 pages), instructs us in history, empathy and how to laugh at ourselves.

Overall:

I loved this book. Everyone who loves fantasy literature, or wants to read just one account of the Arthurian epics, should read this book.

Recommendation:

Book I is a great kid’s book, in addition to being a fun read for teens and adults. Books II-IV are fine for teens +.

*****5/5 STARS

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Premise: Anyanwu cannot be killed and Doro cannot die. When Anyanwu is chosen by Doro as his companion, she agrees to his breeding plans only to keep him from hurting her children. But Doro ends up needing more than just Anyanwu’s unusual gene pool to bring new meaning to his 4,000+ years of life. Historical Fantasy published in 1980 by multiple Hugo and Nebula award winning author Octavia E. Butler.

Why I Read This Book? Blame this quote: “[Doro] wandered southwest toward the forest, leaving as he had arrived–alone, unarmed, without supplies, accepting the savanna and later the forest as easily as he accepted any terrain. He was killed several times–by disease, by animals, by hostile people. This was a harsh land” (pg. 3).

About:  This book is a love story (although sometimes, I thought it was turning into a hate story) that spans ages of time and two different continents. Because of this, the atmosphere and settings change drastically throughout the course of the novel. But the fantasy component makes this book a power story, also. The long-lived protagonists seek out other people with unusual, inheritable powers (like mind-reading or healing abilities) and work to develop these powers through opposing methods (force vs cultivation). The inherited powers often drive their users mad, and the two protagonists react differently to this eventuality.

Themes: I don’t usually talk about themes, in my book reviews, because who cares? But this novel is so heavy, it would be pointless to write a review without exploring them. It explores some common themes like the redemptive power of love; several specifically African themes, like the brutality and preciousness of life in pre-modern Africa and in the slave trade; it also examines more specifically American themes like race relations throughout our country’s history–but in a unique way, not just from the modern African-American perspective, but from the very powerful, very African perspectives of Doro and Anyanwu; and several more modern themes like the fluidity of gender. They are complex and interesting—Butler does not preach at us, in this novel.

And best of all, she manages all this in a tense, moving narrative.

The Cover & The Atmosphere: That first cover disturbs me, but it does accurately reflect the weirdness of this novel. The story and characters feel ancient, even barbaric. I had trouble relating to Anyanwu and Doro because they were so strong and other-worldly. There is a strong animal presence in them because they lived for centuries in the premodern times where survival was the virtue.

Overall: Read it! Seriously, this book is completely unique.

P.S., Trigger Warnings: There’s some weird sexual stuff in this novel—several historically-realistic depictions of sexually or physically abusive relationships, including incest. It’s really a beautiful story, but just FYI.

*****5/5 STARS

DazzleofDay

About: A new generation of pioneers seeks sanctuary from our dying earth in a mission to a new planet. Only the patient, whole-minded Quakers have worked out the challenges to turn these theoretical missions into a reality. This literary hard sci-fi follows the takeoff, the problems encountered during the mission and the effects of those challenges on the very human community that rises to meet them. Published 1998, Adult Sci-fi. Awards: 1998 Oregon Book Award Nominee for Fiction (Finalist). A NYTimes Notable Book.

The Short of It: This book will appeal to a certain kind of reader, certainly, because of its carefully crafted tech details, people and atmosphere. I care about two of the three (people and atmosphere), so I liked it. The complaint I hear most often (and agree with) is that the plot moves very slowly.

What I Loved: (1) The setting and descriptions work with other elements to create pitch-perfect tone in this novel of “the new frontier.” It’s beautiful and bleak, a real gem. (2) Molly Gloss slows down each moment so you can understand the psychology of each moment, sensation and act of humanity—grief, adultery, lust, fear, etc.—and you grow to care for these flawed people because you see yourself in them. (3) I also loved the cultural vision and authentic feeling of the Quaker meetings, both the personal and collective experiences of them. They feel very genuine, neither sentimental nor unfeeling. Having attended small religious meetings all my life, I was tickled to recognize the characters in the Quaker meetings: the elder, the blah-blah-er, the gossip, the elderly, etc.

What I Didn’t Love: (1) A few things didn’t ring quite true—such as when a God-fearing person refers to humans as animals. Maybe futuristic Quakers will accept a completely naturalistic explanation of life, in which humans are considered animals; but I doubt that this will ever be a majority opinion among spiritual communities (although I have very little familiarity with Quaker theology). I think the reverence for our humanity, the thing that separates us from animals, is too great for that sort of casual comment. It sounds like agnosticism trying to mask itself as theology.

But those moments are comparatively rare. Gloss got the important thing right, namely that for all the truthful, searing human folly present in every character, there is also a certain peace about the community that rings just as true.

(2) The plot is a bit of a snore, although the tension in the writing still kept me reading. The structure and purpose of the book were better formed than they are in your typical character or plot driven novels. This novel was more “idea-driven,” or, as Orson Scott Card might have put it in his Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, “milieu-driven.” The wandering plot feels designed to mirror the wandering quality of a Quaker’s movements in the spiritual realm—waiting for the spirit to speak through them to the community at large. Waiting. Listening. Then, perhaps, speaking.

Other Comments: There is some very technical jargon about the ship and the theories of survival. I don’t really understand or care about those, but I thought I’d mention them in case they matter to someone else.

Recommendation: For adults who love thoughtful, literary sci-fi and for readers wanting an intro to hard-sci-fi (because the book is rather short).

***3 stars for character, atmosphere and cohesive vision.

Favorite Quote: “When people are feeling the weight of their own lives, they want to see the life other animals are given, and there is something mysterious and revealing about the discarded machinery of birds’ lives. In abandoned flakes of eggshell, emptied seed cases, the hollow stems of cottongrass, in the delicate attenuated backbones of fish and the teeth of desiccated crustaceans, you can sometimes glimpse the bare and intricate structures of God” (239).

AtlasShrugged atlasshrugged4

Adult Fiction; Dystopian (Sociological Sci-Fi); Published 1957

Premise: The world is falling apart around Dagny Taggert and Hank Reardon as they struggle to save their beloved industries from their strangely powerful, pervasive enemies. But who, exactly, is their enemy?

About: Part of what makes this book so interesting is that it’s part novel, part philosophical treatise. I really enjoyed the novel and learning about Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. While I don’t agree with the moral part of her philosophy, I agree with a lot of the economic part. However, I can’t say that even the economic portion was quite thorough enough or correct enough to say, “Yes, I approve.” I hear that her non-fiction work is more thoroughly developed, as far as philosophy and theory, although I haven’t read any of it for myself, yet.

BEFORE YOU READ ON: I generally try to avoid spoilers, in my reviews; but this review is going to contain a lot of spoilers about Ayn Rand’s political position and the point she makes in Atlas Shrugged because it’s pretty much impossible to critique these things separately from the book. (It is a VERY political, VERY polarizing book.) I really hope that if you’re considering reading this book, you’ll skip the “What I Liked” and “What I Didn’t Like” sections until you have read the book for yourself. Discovering Rand’s perspective was a huge part of the fun—for me, at least. Do please, however, skip down and read my “Overall” and “Audiobook” sections of the review, if you’re interested.

SPOILERS!!!

What I Liked: (1) This novel kept me up at night. It’s a study in slow-burn tension. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. (2) It introduced me to libertarian thought, something I was almost completely unfamiliar with. (3) It breaks down the idea of economic centralization and shows, with examples, why it might harm an economy, if implemented as irresponsibly as the Jim Taggarts of the narrative did. It also strongly conveys the conservative argument that socialism takes incentive away from businessmen, inventors, workers, etc. (4) It interested me in politics by giving me a new perspective on the confusion that is contemporary American politics. I didn’t know where to begin, before reading this book, so I have to thank it for helping me forward. (5) It provides a very pro-American viewpoint that is lacking in the public schools I attended. I had absorbed a very negative view of America by the time I went through public high school and my first two years of college. But this book—among other things—showed me that things aren’t as black and white as my teachers (or other people in my life who would disagree with my public school teachers) would have me believe. (6) The book is just so…triumphant. A lot of the book feels like the best moments in other books, when your hero kicks the antagonist’s booty. Oh, here’s a slightly spoilery Catching Fire example: when Peeta drops the baby bomb on live television, and the capitol citizens end up calling for a halt to that year’s unpopular hunger games. At that moment, you’re just like, HAH TAKE THAT, PRESIDENT SNOW! GO PEETA!! That’s what reading Atlas Shrugged felt like, to me. There are so many great moments, particularly from Dagny and Hank.

What I Didn’t Like:

(1) Its portrayal of socialists is flawed. It simply is. I don’t believe all socialists are like Jim Taggart. I think a lot of self-described socialists honestly believe that economic centralization is the answer to world poverty. That doesn’t make them evil, bloodsucking moochers. It means they are compassionate people who, I believe, rely too heavily on the government for social salvation. In fact (just to throw in one ideological disagreement I have with this novel’s message), I like some “socialist” practices and policies because I think (a) the policies can work to benefit the poor, if done right, and (b) that individuals do have some obligation to the community. To give one small example: free lunch for underprivileged school kids. I would vote for that, in my community, as long as the policies made sense. Why? Because, using my brain and heart to think this through, I decided that these kids are doing their part by going to school and it will only help the community to have them being properly fed, if they aren’t getting the right nutrition at home. I wouldn’t vote for laws about this on a federal scale because I think the specifics of the policies should be kept local–the local communities know what their kids need better than the federal government does. It’s simply of matter of “Which way does it work better?” But I don’t think that’s a bad tax on our community’s hard workers, as long as the majority of voters approve. (And yes, I realize that unions and other organizations passed important standard-of-living controls on corporations.) So basically, my complaint is that Rand does not honestly portray the protests of her opposition, in this book. Either that, or she just didn’t understand her opposition. I would have to read her nonfiction to know whether or not she understands the heart of socialist thought.

(2) And, for another ideological disagreement with the novel: Unlike Rand’s heroes, I don’t think that all taxes should be abolished. I believe the government needs some taxes to keep running and doing its primary job of protecting us from our enemies and ourselves. I don’t think a completely free market would provide safe service in every realm (such as law enforcement. I don’t see how law enforcement could safely and successfully be privatized, although I admit I’m new to libertarian thought and haven’t read all of their ideas on the subject). (3) Another thing: making money is not the highest virtue. Sorry. Frugality and hard work certainly are virtues, but making money is not the highest of callings. I truly believe that some Americans—e.g. wounded veterans, physically and mentally disabled, and many mothers, who work more often than not on unofficial “jobs” like keeping house, keeping children and keeping sane–cannot and/or should not have to be monetarily self-sufficient, as Rand seemed to believe. (4) The marriages. Marriage, in this book, is a horror zone. That’s not surprising, considering Rand’s ridiculous string of affairs, but I’ll leave it at that 😉 (5) ALL HUMANITY MUST WORSHIP THE HEROES OF INDUSTRY OR THEY SHOULD JUST DIE (nope, sorry).

END OF SPOILERS!!!

Overall: Fabulous novel with some flawed philosophies and portrayals. Despite my qualms with it, it’s been a long time since I loved a book this much.

Audiobook: Scott Brick is freaking fantastic. Great narrator. Loved the audiobook.

*****FIVE STARS

SPOILERS!!!

Characterizing Quotes:

“I want to be prepared to claim the greatest virtue of all—that I was a man who made money” (a hero of the book, 96).

“No one’s happiness but my own is in my power to achieve or destroy” (798).

“Accept the fact that the achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness—not pain or mindless self-indulgence—is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and result of the loyalty to the achievement of your values” (1059).

“If you choose to help a man who suffers, do it only on the ground of his virtues, of his fight to recover, of his rational record, or of the fact that he suffers unjustly; then your action is still a trade, and his virtue is the payment of your help. But to help a man who has no virtues, to help him on the grounds of his suffering as such, to accept his faults, his need as a claim—is to accept the mortgage of a zero on your values” (1060).

About: Published in 1936, Gone With the Wind tells a tale of the south before, during and after the Civil War. The setting’s conflicts are brought to life in its colorful confederate characters: brutal and beautiful Scarlett O’Hara, a femme fatale if there ever was one; Melanie Hamilton, a gentlewoman who surpasses all obstacles with true humility; Ashley Wilkes, a gentleman lost in a new age; and Rhett Butler, Scarlett’s dashing and courageous male counterpart. The book was a best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

As of any book with such outstanding credentials, my review isn’t going to be anything ground-breaking; but I couldn’t resist sharing my thoughts. Perhaps readers will be interested to know what I enjoyed, admired and disliked about it.

What I Loved: All of it, really.

First of all, I love the novel’s attention to women’s concerns. It follows Scarlett O’Hara throughout her lovely, antiquated little world: the courting! The pretty dresses! The chivalry, the quaint mannerisms! And it pays the greatest attention to Scarlett’s every girlish crush, womanly worry and “mean girl” whim. At least half of the book is comprised of Scarlett mooning over beaux, scheming how to entrap them, and ruining relations with girls everywhere. You don’t find that in a lot of classics! Scarlett’s narration gives the novel a certain allure that could never be achieved with another narrator. Even though I would never want to meet her, her engrossing narration undeniably livens up the story.

Because of this unusual choice of subject matter, perspective and storyline, I found Gone With the Wind one of the most engrossing and readable books I’ve ever encountered. (I enjoyed it far more than, say “Madam Bovary,” which I’ve heard described as “the first ‘sex and shopping’ novel.”) I’ve never stormed through 1,000+ pages so quickly in my life! I was hanging onto every word- a can’t eat, can’t sleep sort of book.

The characters. I love them for their completeness, if not always for their amicability (or, rather, their lack thereof). They never change their natures, an inflexibility that usually leads them into unhappy lives. But I loved them even when they broke my heart. Melanie, a sweetheart just as tough as Scarlett, is my favorite character. She provides an invaluable counterpoint to Scarlett, and her victories give the story a refreshing radiance.

As we enter the story, Scarlett is already losing her beloved Ashley to some inbred mouse of a girl named Melanie—and the one-sided rivalry has begun. This rivalry symbolizes the tensions between the heart and spirit of the south. Melanie, the heart, gentility and nobility of the south, fades away in the aftermath of the war. Scarlett symbolizes the unbreakable spirit of the south, being one of those few southerners with the mettle to survive and thrive. Melanie proves herself reigning queen of gentle, well-bred society by recognizing the courage, if not the moral bankruptcy, of the survivors. Many of the other gentlemen and women turn their noses up at the “unsexed” Scarlett and other prosperous but scandalous figures arising from the ashes of war.

The book describes confederate society entirely differently than the history books do, giving voice to an important, lesser-known perspective. For example, it portrays a more sympathetic theory of origins of the KKK. I haven’t read much about the Confederacy and am ignorant about the Reconstruction; but after reading this, I’m certainly interested in finding out more about the difficulties of life in the antebellum south. The primary theme of the book—Nobility vs Survival—colors the character arcs set against this background. The intelligent, fierce and selfish survive, while the noble fade “nobly” away, gone with the wind.

What I Didn’t Love: (1) It broke my heart. ***HIGHLIGHT to see SPOILER***Specifically, the last 100 pgs or so utterly and completely broke my heart. Being a rather sensitive sort of reader, I don’t like feeling listless and unhappy after finishing a book. However, not everyone experienced the ending this way—it is, after all, a poetically just, “serves you right” kind of ending. Scarlett entirely deserves what she gets (and I suppose you could say Rhett, Ashely and Melanie earned the fruit of their labors, as well), and she doesn’t let it break her because she never lets anything break her. And there is hope for the future, for Scarlett will always keep pressing on. ***END*** (2) The book is clearly racist, and I can’t imagine an African American enjoying it…but, at the same time, history is history. When the author wrote this (in the 1930s), racism was still fairly prevalent. And after all, Margaret Mitchel was writing about the Civil-War-Era American South. I think most readers are able to recognize and acknowledge that writers aren’t perfect and never will be—they will have flaws. The perspective presented in this book is valuable because we can learn from it. But readers who cannot overcome the reality of this historical fault may not be able to stomach the book.

Overall: I expected to enjoy this book and it far and away met my expectations. It’s marvelously written, painfully truthful and definitely what I’d classify as “unforgettable.” I’m sure I will read it again.

5/5 Stars. Highly recommended to all.