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What I read last month.  

I've come to the part of Medieval history where the most enduring literature consisted of Norse sagas where the smoldering volcanic passions are buried under tons of glaciers and genealogies. And continuing to slog therough the Old and New Testaments, with Confucius thrown in this month for variety.

If those things aren't for you, you'll also find my take on Stephen King's It, read at about the point in the cycle when It's due to come back, several medieval mysteries (including Thirteenth Night which was recommended to me here), the other Bronte sister, and beaucoup thoughts about the death penalty in America, inspired by Norman Mailer's "true novel" about the execution of Gary Gilmore. Enjoy!

28 Years Later:  It, by Stephen King
The energy you drew on so extravagantly when you were a kid, the energy you thought would never exhaust itself--that slipped away somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four, to be replaced by something much duller, something as bogus as a coke high: purpose, maybe, or goals, or whatever rah-rah Junior Chamber of Commerce word you wanted to use. It was no big deal; it didn't go all at once, with a bang. And maybe, Richie thought, that was the scary part. How you didn't stop being a kid all at once, with a big explosive bang, like one of that clown's trick balloons with the Burma-Shave slogans on the sides. The kid in you just leaked out, like the air out of a tire. And one day you looked in the mirror and there was a grownup looking back at you. You could go on wearing blue jeans, you could keep going to Springsteen and Seger concerts, you could dye your hair, but that was a grownup's face in the mirror just the same. It all happened while you were asleep, maybe, like a visit from the Tooth Fairy....No. Not the Tooth Fairy. The Age Fairy.

Cue the Beverly Hillbillies...

Come listen to a story 'bout a boy named Bill
Who made a paper boat one day when he was ill
His little brother lost it down a storm drain in the ground
When up from the sewer came a bubblin' clown!
(It, that is...Pennywise...Bob Gray...)

Well, the next thing you know, Bill's brother lost an arm
And children in the neighborhood were coming into harm
Bill had to stop the monster, whatever it might be
With Richie, Eddie, Stan and Ben and Mike and Beverly!
(Marsh, that is...like the one down in The Barrens...)

Stephen King is a grandmaster of horror fiction, always on the short lists of "the best ever" horror writers.  He's written MANY books, and It is always on the short lists (along with The Shining, The Stand and the early volumes of the Dark Tower series) of the "best ever" of King's books, which means that It is on  the short list of best horror books ever.

I disagree.  I think it's merely adequate as "horror fiction" but that, as literature, it's one of the best and most important FICTION works of the 20th Century, as much a part of what Mortimer Adler called "The Great Conversation" as applied to its era as Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Pride & Prejudice, Middlemarch, Huckleberry Finn, The Sound and the Fury, 1984 and the Star Wars trilogy are as applied to their eras.  It has things to say about love, loyalty, friendship, good and evil, aging, ethics, tribalism, cosmogony, emotion, metaphysics, duty and the meaning and purpose of life and what humanity loses and gains as it matures.  The stupid clown is just details.

Stephen King does a bait and switch here.  He sets up a shape-shifting monster that comes forward every 28 years to eat little children. Because it shape-shifts, King gets to write little vignettes featuring The Mummy, The Leper, The Teenage Werewolf, The Frankenstein, The Zombie, The Crawling Eye, The Giant Spider, The Flying Leeches, The Giant, The Roc, The Dracula and The Old Witch.  And, of course, The Evil Clown.  King shoots his wad in the monster department, which explains why he runs out of big bads and has to resort to shit-weasels in Dreamcatcher later on.  I read it in 1985 when it first came out, and remember finding the individual monster vignettes to be amusing and the final showdown with the monster to be esoteric and a little stupid.

See, I was a kid back then.  There were things I didn't see.

The real reason the monsters were almost comic relief is that the monster's town of Derry is the real monster.  I was a bullied kid, and the seven protagonists of It are bullied kids, and the bullies who target them because of their race, gender, religion, disability, etc., and who progress from assault to attempted murder as the book progresses, are scarier to me than clowns and zombies. They really exist, and they really kill.  And It's creepiest power is not the shapeshifting or the killing. It's the ability to somehow cause the bullies to lose control of themselves and cross lines from petty humiliation into deadly violence, and to make the grownups look the other way and not see while bullies commit mayhem and murder in front of their noses.  The most frightening scene in the book--one that Beverly Marsh continually refers back to--is one in which she—a child--yells for help, and a grown man on a nearby porch responds by calmly folding his newspaper and going into his house.

The protagonists experience Derry as children in 1957, and then again as adults in 1985, as the cycle starts again.  The difference in their perspectives as children and as adults is fascinating.  Most of my best friends were bullied and identify with one or more of the "Loser's Club" whose special vulnerabilities and quirks may be the only thing that can stop The Evil. I was a "Richie" with more intelligence than wisdom, always betrayed by a big mouth that moved faster than my brain.  I had a "Ben" friend who was bullied because of his weight and a "Stan" who was not only Jewish but obsessed with order and cleanliness.  The girls I gravitated to were "Beverlys"  who were picked on for their strength even as boys were picked on for weakness.  We won, as children and later on, when we banded together in spite of the encouragement to try to raise our status by turning on the other “losers”.    Like the seven, I lost touch with the others, gained a lot, lost something else to compensate which may or may not have been worth it, but which is lost by all of us as time passes.  Like the seven, I find that I bond most with those few--including you, maybe--who don't quite lose all of it as we age, but who remember enough to keep that bond going, the bond that might be what human beings need in order to fight...It.   Very highest recommendations.

Oh, and this is the 28 year anniversary of the climax of It.  Do you think the "Loser's Club" really stopped the monster permanently?  Or did it just hibernate as usual?  Be careful if you go to Maine this summer, kiddies, and always keep your circle of misfit friends close...

Well, that's all I have to say about Pennywise the clown
I'm glad you paid a visit to his lair in Derry town
You're all invited back here in 28 more years---
For another heaping helping of your childhood's greatest fears!

Between Ptolemy and Copernicus: Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe, by Stephen c. McCluskey
The lights in the heavens, the Sun and the Moon, the stars and the other planets, have enticed people to contemplate them from the beginnings of recorded history. In the introduction to his great work of mathematical astronomy, the Hellenistic philosopher Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 100-ca. 175) put his finger on one of the timeless appeals of the heavens. The heavens display a constancy and an order, a symmetry and a calm, that stand as silent challenges to the transience and discord, the irregularity and the turbulence, of the world in which we live. He spoke truly when he declared these characteristics to be divine.

I probably should have captioned this one “From Ptolemy to...Ptolemy”, since Ptolemy was lost to the Western World as soon as the Christians took over, along with most of the ancient classics I bookposted about in 2011 and 2012, until the 13 Century, when commerce with the Arab world brought it back, and McCluskey’s book is about the intervening period.

See Bookpost, February 2013 for my commentary on Ptolemy, whose Almagest was the only major scientific work to come out of Europe until Da Vinci wrote his notebooks. McCluskey’s excellent, very readable, 200 page book is much easier to understand than Ptolemy. The account of how medieval scholars attempted to make sense of the night sky using the superstitions, naked eye observations and “computus” (calculations) prior to receiving the astrolabe from Arabia is a wonderful object lesson in how discoveries are made by curious minds. It may well mirror similar efforts by ancients hundreds of years before Ptolemy, with the distinction that those early people did not have to also deal with Christians who threatened to murder them if their discoveries conflicted with their book of superstitions.  As with almost all works, written in or about this period, it serves as an intentional or unintentional clarion call to “never again” allow religion to tamper with non-sectarian matters.  

Stalkers, Siblings and Solicitors:  Show No fear, by Perri O’Shaughnessy
He called Nina’s mother, Ginny, to gripe when Nina didn’t answer her phone. He turned up on his bicycle at Matt’s new job in a fast-food joint to quiz him about Nina. When Matt gave him nothing, he told Matt he’d get him fired.Nina’s phone rang constantly. She answered. Richard hung up.
“Time to leave town, Nina”, her mother advised. “Give him time to get weaned and find somebody else to pester.” Nina jumped at a friend’s offer of a family cabin at Fallen Leaf Lake, near Lake Tahoe. Up there for a few precious summer weeks, where the squirrels scrabbled and she could take an old rowboat out on the calm waters, she unwound, quit crying and started living again.
She moved back to P.G. and applied to the Monterrey College of Law. Richard’s stories had engaged her, and she knew she wanted to go into some kind of law, though the idea of criminal defense seemed too intimidating.
Soon after, she discovered she was pregnant.
She went to a counselor and decided abortion was not for her.

I’ve found over the years that Shaughnessy’s Nina Reilly legal thrillers have long since lost their punch.  This one, a prequel set while Reilly is in law school and only just getting to know Paul Waggoner, is an exception.  Go back in time, discover the old magic again.

It begins with an unnamed stalker abducting an unnamed woman from her home and throwing her off a cliff.  We then cut to young Nina among her family and her legal peer group, most of whom have not appeared in the previous novels and are fair game for dying of natural or unnatural causes as the story progresses.  There are many men of various degrees of creepy who might be the abductor from the beginning, at the forefront of which is the disgusting, sociopathic control freak who fathered Nina’s child and has shown up after four years of absence to sue for custody.  There are also women who might be the abductee, in the event that the prologue really takes place later in the book. Or maybe she survived the fall. We don’t find out until later.

There are a couple of game-changing plot developments I won’t spoil here, and a lot of spotlighting of icky behavior. Trigger warnings about stalker-type abuse, and an enthusiastic recommendation for those of you who aren’t triggered, because of the  interesting look at the psychology of assholes and especially Type A assholes in the legal profession.

I am a VIKING: Egil Skallagrimsson’s Saga
It is told of those men’s state who were werwolves, or who went berserk, that while the fit was on them they were so strong that nothing could withstand them, but the minute it was past they became weaker than their wont. This was the case with Kveldulf, that once his madness left him he felt exhausted from the onslaught he had made, and he was now quite enfeebled, so that he must take to his bed. A following wind was bearing them out to sea. Kveldulf was in charge of the ship they had taken from Hallvard and his men. They had a good wind and kept close together in their sailing, so that they were in good sight of each other constantly.

And so begins my foray into the nadir of  European civilization to date, 500 years in which the churches burned everything worth reading, and in which the only places to find anything remotely resembling literature, you had to go either to the Arab world or to the ends of the north, where the churches hadn’t yet been granted enough temporal power to destroy.

Egil’s saga is one of the best of the age, combining poetry, epic prose and ties to known history—there are appearances by Alfred of Britain and Harald of Norway—and my local chapter of the SCA names one of its major tournaments after Egil, and yet the tale is a sad shadow of Homer and Virgil. I’m going to once again assume that something far more beautiful and thrilling than the English translation came out in the original Nordic runes. On the surface, it’s an interesting adventure/tall tale, in which Egil Skallagrimsson stands at the center of five generations of viking badasses (the first third or so of the tale takes place before Egil is born, and he lives to see grandchildren before dying), a muscled giant and something of an asshole who, when someone tries to bully him as a child, puts an axe through his head (“Master Snorri, Grim pushed me!”  “Have you no honor? SLAY him!”). He travels the northlands from Denmark to Iceland, fights manfully, swears manfully, drinks manfully and skalds poetry on the fly, especially insult poetry right after doing something particularly atrocious to an enemy. He’s only doing what’s expected of him in a macho world where nothing is praised so much as physical size and strength, and where heads of families have as much regard for peace and hospitality as Walder Frey.  Thomas Hobbes and George R.R. Martin may well have been highly influenced by this and other Sagas of the barbarian North.  Several examples of Egil’s poetry are included in the narrative.  And yet, the overall effect is one of solemn, lugubrious dullness, as if the saga is narrated slowly by an old, humorless windbag whose reverence for the subject matter is anything but contagious.

Old Testament: Psalms  

      O JEHOVAH, thou hast searched me, and known me,
      Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising;
Thou understandest my thought afar off.
      Thou searchest 1 out my path and my lying down,
And art acquainted with all my ways.
      For there is not a word in my tongue,
But, lo, O Jehovah, thou knowest it altogether.
      Thou hast beset me behind and before,
And laid thy hand upon me.
      Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is high, I cannot attain unto it.
      Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
     If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, thou art there.
      If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
      Even there shall thy hand lead me,
And thy right hand shall hold me.
      If I say, Surely the darkness shall overwhelm 2 me,
And the light about me shall be night;
      Even the darkness hideth not from thee,
But the night shineth as the day:
The darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
      For thou didst form my inward parts:
Thou didst cover me in my mother’s womb.
      I will give thanks unto thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made:
Wonderful are thy works;
And that my soul knoweth right well.
      My frame was not hidden from thee,
When I was made in secret,
And curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
      Thine eyes did see mine unformed substance;
And in thy book they were all written,
Even the days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was none of them.
      How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God!
How great is the sum of them!
      If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand:
When I awake, I am still with thee.
      Surely  thou wilt slay the wicked, O God:
Depart from me therefore, ye bloodthirsty men.
      For they speak against thee wickedly,
And thine enemies take thy name in vain.
      Do not I hate them, O Jehovah, that hate thee?
And am  not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?
      I hate them with perfect hatred:
They are become mine enemies.
      Search me, O God, and know my heart:
Try me, and know my thoughts;
      And see if there be any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.

--#139

Meh.

New Testament: Acts  
And as he journeyed, it came to pass that he drew nigh unto Damascus, and suddenly there shone round about him a light out of heaven. And he fell upon the Earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest, but rise and enter into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men that journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but beholding no man. And Saul rose from the earth, and when his eyes were opened, he saw nothing, and they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.  And he was three days without sight, and did neither eat nor drink.

What the twelve “books” of Joshua through Esther are for the Old Testament, Acts attempts to be for the  New Testament all by itself.  The omnipotent patriarch (Moses for the Jews; Jesus for the Christians) having passed on, his disciples are left to do carry on in their own right, and various supernatural things happen. Acts is primarily the story of Peter (known for  healing a lot of sick people before getting elbowed aside by Paul), Stephen (known mostly for getting stoned to death while other persecuted Christians saw their shackles and prison doors turn into dust before their eyes—what did Stephen do to get singled out for martyrdom?), and especially Saul, the enemy of the Christians and their foremost persecutor, who, after making his hatred for all things Jesus clear, came back from Damascus one day, told his enemies “I had a vision and I’m one of you now”, and somehow took over the church and steered it away from loving thy neighbor and toward obedience to church fathers, testifying about established doctrine, and tithing money to church elders.  Even before Saul/Paul takes over, we get a disturbing harbinger of Christianity (Acts 5: 1-9) in which a couple sells their land and donates most of it to the church, and Peter essentially tells them, “Fuck you, you should have given us ALL of it” and murders them.

Color me unimpressed. There are countless healings and dead-raisings and prisons that cannot hold the faithful, so it’s not hard to see why people are depicted as impressed and easily converted.  So when did all that stop?  Was it when the Popes attained temporal power and started burning everybody?

Chemist who fall in acid get absorbed in work: The Analects of Confucius  
Confucius says, "Guide the people by law, subdue them by punishment; they may shun crime, but will be void of shame. Guide them by example, subdue them by courtesy; they will learn shame, and come to be good."

Confucius says, "Today a man is called dutiful if he keeps his father and mother. But we keep our dogs and our horses, and unless we honor parents, is it not the same thing?"

Of the Chi having eight rows of dancers in his hall, Confucius said, "If this is to be borne, what is not to be borne?"

Confucius says, "A scholar in search of truth who is ashamed of poor clothes and poor food is not worth talking to."

Confucius says, "Who can go out, except through the door? Why is it no one keeps to the way?"

I was getting tired of the Bible and medieval theology-centered "wisdom", and turned elsewhere, to one of the oldest 'sacred texts' ever, to see if it would feed my soul the way the Bible and Koran (Bookpost, April 2013) didn't.  The answer is, not so much.

Confucius was a conservative before the old ways had even been invented.  I tend to enjoy short books of pithy sayings (See The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Bookpost December 2012, and Proverbs, my favorite part of the Bible, some time later this year), but the Analects, 20 chapters of "Confucius says" -isms in 60 pages, has a pretty disappointing dirt-to-gold dust ratio.  The ones above are representative.  Most of it is about ceremony and ancestor worship and these kids these days not respecting their elders.    Many mentions are made of named persons, maybe scholars who gather to listen when Confucius holds court, and maybe so well known in China in 800 BC that no one felt it necessary to explain who they were before letting future generations know that Confucius said "Hu-T'su is no dullard."  Then we have sayings of the "If you climb up a tree, you must climb down the same tree, unless you are a flying squirrel" variety, koans that you might chew on for several minutes before guessing that the tree is a limitation encountered by people going through life, and that it is right to be a 'squirrel' and think outside the box, or maybe that people have no business being mere squirrels and must climb down trees in the regular way, as their ancestors did, or more likely, "Won Ton Foo, dude!" Still others list virtues that people should cultivate: A wise man has an open hand, a stout heart, a mind with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge...

It gets points for being an undisputed classic outside the western world, and being brief and easy to read.  Beyond that, it's mostly a comfort book for old men.

The Medieval Murders: Brother Cadfael’s Penance, by Ellis Peters,.Thirteenth Night, by Alan Gordon. Murder Wears a Cowl, and An Ancient Evil, by PC Doherty  

”And in order to pay what may be asked,” said Hugh ruefully, “Laurence d’Angers, so Leicester’s agent says, has been enquiring for him everywhere without result. That name would be known to the earl, though not the names of the young men of his following. I am sorry to bring such news. Olivier de Bretagne was in Faringdon. And now Olivier de Bretagne is prisoner, and God knows where..”
--from Brother Cadfael’s Penance

”She was attended by this man Malvolio, who I discovered had his own designs. At first, I thought he wanted her for her wealth, but after observing him closely, I began to suspect he may have been an agent for someone.”
“Did you ever discover who?”
“No. He was very secretive. I believe that he practiced on the Countess to encourage her despair. He may even have been administering some subtle drug that sapped her will. I decided that outside intervention was needed. I learned of a suitable pair of siblings, a young man and woman of good family. Through the Guild, I arranged for them to be shipwrecked and guided towards the town by our agents, hoping that their arrival would rouse either the Duke or the Countess.”
“One of your typical harebrained schemes.”
“Thank you, Father.

--from Thirteenth Night

The two figures drew together. Ragwort saw a flash of steel and hid his eyes. He heard the gentle slash of a razor-edged knife cutting skin, vein and windpipe.  A dreadful scream shattered the silence, cut off by a terrible gurgle as the old woman, choking on the blood which gushed up into her throat, crumpled to the cobblestones. Ragwort opened his eyes. The second figure had gone. The old lady lay in an untidy heap. She moved once but Ragwort sat transfixed by terror at the thin stream of blood snaking across the cobblestones toward him.
--from Murder Wears a Cowl

With Brother Cadfael’s Penance, we say goodbye to Cadfael and the Shrewsbury priory. It’s Ellis Peters’s last Cadfael novel.  Like The Summer of the Danes (Bookpost, March 2013), the murder is only tangential to the rest of the story, the killer revealed as an afterthought, and even the goodhearted wrongly suspected youth is cleared early in the novel.  That’s not what Peters was writing about.  The main story has King Stephen and Empress Maude still squabbling over the crown as they were when the series began, threatening to destroy England and leave it prey to the French or the Scots. There’s a peace conference that goes wrong, and an honorable noble caught in the middle, and Cadfael himself agonizing at having to disobey the Prior’s orders in order to serve a higher cause. There is more philosophical grist about loyalty and duty here than in many dry nonfiction works about ethics.

A commenter on one of my earlier Bookposts suggested I give Alan Gordon a try, in part because I was finding a dearth of medieval mysteries that were not set in England.  I’m glad he did. I was not aware at how much I was missing the dry wit and cynicism of Saylor, Davis and Roberts, the three writers of Roman mysteries to which I paid so much happy attention last year. Ellis Peters is as warm and fuzzy as a series including violent crimes to solve can be, and Doherty writes mostly straightforward adventures with an emphasis on historical detail and not much more attention to character than the average Agatha Christie novel.  Gordon brings me my fix of the kind of detective who turns to dark humor to cope with the corruption and degradation inherent in a loathsome environment where the powerful are unworthy and the worthy are helpless.

Gordon has done something marvelous, in that he’s made a historical mystery sequel to Twelfth Night, in which Orsino is murdered, the former steward “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” Malvolio is the prime suspect, other characters from the play make cameos to various degrees, the theme of the original is developed with a darker tone and several throwaway references, and Feste turns out to be a spy working for a secret international “Fools’ Guild” of bards, troubadours, jongleurs and traveling performers who use their peculiar talents to find what the wise fail to see. Gordon does this to devastating effect.  Highly recommended, with delight that this is the first in what promises to be an excellent series.

Murder Wears a Cowl is more of Doherty’s standard Corbett fare, this time with a Jack the Ripper-like figure killing old London’s prostitutes and some of the clergy who minister to them, King Philip continuing to menace London and send spies to be convenient suspects, and digressions into the parts of the story that actually happened. High on atmosphere, low on character, and the instant the murderer actually appeared in Corbett’s perception, I said “That’s the one!”  

Finally, we come to a new and ingenious PC Doherty series, of which An Ancient Evil is the first, in which the characters from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales tell each other mystery stories on the way to Canterbury.  An Ancient Evil is the Knight's Murder Tale, involving an ancient curse from the days of William the Conqueror and a vampire cult that plagues Oxford. The detective--a knight, of course--must solve a series of gruesome murders and decide whether the cult is led by human villains (and if so, who), or whether they really do have supernatural powers.  Between chapters, the pilgrims to Canterbury discuss developments, make guesses and heckle each other. It's delightful and chilling at the same time, and it left me eager to see how, e.g.,  the Pardoner, Miller and Wife of Bath will narrate their crime tales in future novels.

What, they invented ANOTHER Bronte?:  Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte
”And what do you do with the birds, when you catch them?”
“Different things. Sometimes I give them to the cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive.”
“And why do you mean to do such a horrible thing?”
“For two reasons. First, to see how long it will live, and then to see what it will taste like.”
“But don’t you know it is extremely wicked to do such things? Remember, the birds can feel as well as you, and think, how would you like it yourself?”
“Oh, that is nothing. I’m not a bird, and I can’t feel what I do to them.”
“But you will have to feel it some time, Tom. You have heard where wicked people go to when they die, and if you don’t leave off torturing innocent birds, remember, you will have to go there, and suffer just what you made them suffer.”
“Oh, pooh! I shan’t. Papa knows how I treat them, and he never blames me for it. He says it’s just what he used to do when he was a boy. Last Summer, he gave me a nest full of young sparrows, and he saw me pulling off their legs and wings and heads, and never said anything except that they were nasty things, and I must not let them soil my trousers, and uncle Robson was there too, and he laughed and said I was a fine boy.

It’s easy to see how Anne got overshadowed by Charlotte and Emily. Agnes Grey is a brief and dreary book, primarily written to draw attention to the plight of poor, educated people whose career paths in those days were limited to being teachers and governesses to the children of upper class twits, given responsibility but no authority, treated as inferiors in front of the children, and sometimes punished for the children’s transgressions, leading the little brats to misbehave on purpose so as to see the governess punished for failing to control them—which they weren’t given the power to do.

Agnes, the daughter of a poor clergyman, enters the service of a succession of abominable households that think they’re better than she is, where they have raised the boys to torture helpless little animals and the girls to be spoiled princesses. Sadly, the children are likely to grow up to fit right in with their One Percent society. The plot has just enough time to get around to a standard love story and an unhappy arranged marriage, but really, Agnes Grey is to governesses what The Jungle was to Chicago stockyards and Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to slavery—a call for reform based in the fictional depiction of actual misery.

Oh God, not Beowulf AGAIN!
Then from the moorland, by misty crags,
with God's wrath laden, Grendel came.
The monster was minded of mankind now
sundry to seize in the stately house.
Under welkin he walked, till the wine-palace there
gold hall of men, he gladly discerned,
flashing with fretwork. Not the first time, this,
that he the home of Hrothgar sought,
yet never in his life-day, late or early,
such hardy heroes, such hall-thanes found!
To the house the warrior walked apace,
parted from peace, the portal opended
though with forged bolts fast, when his fists had struck it
and baleful he burst in his blatant rage,
the horse's mouth. All hastily then, o'er fair-paved floor the fiend trod on,
ireful he strode; there streamed from his eyes
fearful flashes, like flame to see.
He spied in hall the hero band
kin and clansman clustered asleep,
hardy liegemen. Then laughed his heart
for the monster was minded, ere morn should dawn,
savage, to sever the soul of each,
life from body, since lusty banquet
waited his will. But Wyrd forbade him
to seize any more of the men on earth
after that evening. Eagerly watched
Hygalec's kinsman his cursed foe,
how he would fare in a like attack.
Not that the monster was minded to pause!
Straightaway he seized a sleeping warrior
for the first, and tore him fiercely asunder,
the bone-frame bit, drank blood in streams,
swallowed him piecemeal--swiftly thus
the lifeless corpse was clear devoured
even feet and hands.

Of the Dark Ages "literature", this is the one they make people read in school, probably because it's a simple story, and brief, and unlike Njal and Egil, it doesn't feature protagonists who believe it's acceptable to murder one's neighbors and take their stuff, and so there's less 'splaining to do for the impressionable kids. At least Beowulf only kills monsters.  Specifically, he kills one monster, and there is much carousing, and then he kills the monster's mother, and there is more carousing, and after a lengthy interlude, he fights a third monster and they both die, and that's how the saga ends.

I didn't like it then, and I didn't like it the second time, and I only put up with it a third time because I'm on a decade-long literary odyssey and it's on all the Great Book lists (best and only surviving European manuscript of the seventh century and all).  It should have predated Homer by a millennium. The descriptions of mortal combat are about as dull as it is possible to be while describing people fighting monsters.  It doesn't even have quotable throwaway lines. It can, however, be read in about 90 minutes, and people of north European ancestry are expected to be at least familiar enough with it to recognize Beowulf, Grendel and Hrothgar.

So, Beowulf. Yeah, I read that too. Again.  If you loved it, feel free to tell me what I'm missing.

The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel: The Song of Roland

Beneath a pine was his resting-place,   
To the land of Spain hath he turned his face,   
On his memory rose full many a thought—   
Of the lands he won and the fields he fought;           
Of his gentle France, of his kin and line;   
Of his nursing father, King Karl benign;—   
He may not the tear and sob control,   
Nor yet forgets he his parting soul.   
To God’s compassion he makes his cry:           
“O Father true, who canst not lie,   
Who didst Lazarus raise unto life agen,   
And Daniel shield in the lions’ den;   
Shield my soul from its peril, due   
For the sins I sinned my lifetime through.”           
He did his right-hand glove uplift—   
Saint Gabriel took from his hand the gift;   
Then drooped his head upon his breast,   
And with claspèd hands he went to rest.   
God from on high sent down to him         
One of his angel Cherubim—   
Saint Michael of Peril of the sea,   
Saint Gabriel in company—   
From heaven they came for that soul of price,   
And they bore it with them to Paradise.

This one is worse than Beowulf. The introduction gushes that “its patriotic ardor gives it a place as the earliest of the truly national poems of the modern world, as if this is a good thing (would they similarly gush about the ‘patriotic ardor’ of the Horst Wessel song?), and never mind that its accuracy as a description of a loss by Charlemagne’s army in 778 bears as much relation to reality as...OK, let me put it in modern terms.

Imagine, if you will, an album-length country song written in response to a terrorist attack in Afghanistan that killed a dozen American soldiers in 2012.  According to the song, the muslim terrorist king, Kim-Jong Bin Laden, aided by the American traitor Hillary Fonda Clinton (who is angry at not having been appointed Secretary of Defense), pretends to surrender and offer fealty to President Bush, who, as commander in chief, has been personally leading his forces to victory from Kazakhstan to Yemen for the past 30 years.  Bush trustingly withdraws, leaving Vice President Chuck Norris to lead the rearguard with Defense Secretary John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Pat “Lightning Fists” Robertson, who is a twelfth degree grandmaster black belt of doom.  

It’s a trap, of course. Grinning and laughing like monkeys, the Evil Chinese Muslims trap Norris’s band of 300 at the pass of Thermopylae, in Afghanistan. Wave upon wave of infidels charge at them. 400,000 of them die by Vice President Norris’s bare fists alone, and the other 299 kill a lot them, too. But still they keep coming!  Reverend Robertson smites hundreds with his rock-hard head, but ultimately falls, while uttering a dying benediction on America and Freedom. Kennedy too, dies of stab wounds inflicted by the Chinese Jewish Muslim Lee Harvey Oswald, and Norris pauses from killing long enough to cradle Kennedy in his mighty arms and comfort him as his misty, innocent eyes fade into dull grey.  And then Norris kills several thousand more terrorists, using his earlobes after both arms are broken, until he is at last struck down. In the back. With Kryptonite.  At which time, President Bush returns in his famous flight suit, wails and gnashes his teeth over the carnage, and proceeds to slaughter Clinton, Bin Laden and seventy million more terrorists, in individual drone strikes. And God Bless America. Allons, enfants de la patrie—fool me twice, won’t get fooled again! And a bald eagle soars overhead, shedding a single tear that falls into the sea of blood below and is lost, but will never truly evaporate.

If that’s your idea of history as interpreted with judicious poetic license, have at it.

Let’s Do the Time Plot Again: Lest Darkness Fall, by L. Sprague de Camp

Deadlock, by Sara Paretsky

50 Shades of Gary: The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer

I probably shouldn't have read Norman Mailer's fact-based novel about the crimes and death of Gary Gilmore.  It made me furious, sad and bitter far beyond what an event I was completely oblivious to at the time should have done.  It also made me wistful and weepy for a bygone era in our once-great nation's history, when people actually agonized about the morality of allowing the government to murder its own citizens. In Utah.

Mailer's novel begins with Gilmore's release from prison, his troubles starting life at an age when his peers are beginning to reap the fruits of middle class adult life and he's still planting the seeds and being lectured about it. It continues through his love affair with an unstable woman, his arrest and trial for a double murder, and the media circus that surrounds his conviction, imprisonment, and refusal to appeal the death sentence. It shifts perspective from Gilmore's friends and family to his girlfriend, his employer and co-workers, the families of his murder victims, his lawyers and opposing lawyers, his cellmates, prison wardens, the journalist who interviews Gilmore throughout the appeal process, various government and media figures, and press clippings.

I found culture shock.  I never knew there were so many redneck Mormons around Provo and Orem, working shit jobs, getting drunk and finding trouble and being an influence on Gary Gilmore, who nonetheless manages to cross lines that the other violent country boys don't.  I found a complex portrait of Gilmore as everyman, as devil and as angel, a man with a high IQ, a definite conscience, a sense of beauty and a streak of pure evil living together in dischord in one soul, a man too dangerous to be allowed into society yet too decent to give up on.  I was struck by the mundanity of his murders--two ordinary guys shot during the course of ordinary robberies, with none of the horrific details we find in the sensational murder trials of today--no deliberate cruelty, particularly vulnerable victims, cannibalism, corpse mutilation, Satanism or grandiose, chilling statements after the fact.

More than anything, I was shocked at the depiction of an America not so long ago but worlds apart from where we live now.  In 1967, a Supreme Court with a liberal majority abolished the death penalty nationally on the grounds that black people were being disproportionately targeted for it. Some Justices wanted to flat out declare the death penalty to be cruel and unusual punishment.  Ten years passed before Gilmore was convicted and voluntarily declined to appeal his sentence. He said that sentence had been passed and he wanted to atone for his crimes because that was what justice was.  And Utah and America FLIPPED. Prison wardens couldn't believe they might have to actually kill someone. Lawyers went into full panic mode wondering what to do next. Celebrities flew to Gilmore's side trying to talk sense into him. Catholics protested. The media wrung its hands.  Republican Mormons in Utah agonized over finding a way to prevent this terrible, horrible precedent from going forward while still making a show of respecting the law.  And still, Gary Gilmore held out for the death sentence, calling it the right thing to do and attempting suicide as the process dragged on, after which the prison officials would go to great lengths to save his life so that they could kill him properly later.  That's how much human life meant in those days.

As I write this, the state government of Texas is actively celebrating it's 500th execution. Governors boast about the number of people they murder, and imitate in mocking voices the pleas for clemency they receive from prisoners....and get re-elected. People host "Fry 'em" parties with pepperoni pizza and bug zappers on the night of scheduled executions. The national media invites savages on television to lament that lethal injections are not more painful, and to urge further limitations on death penalty appeals, on the grounds that it costs taxpayers money, and never mind the Knapp v. Arizona matter, in which it took a full seven appeals before they found that the prosecutors (who didn't even lose their jobs, much less face criminal sanctions) had withheld DNA evidence proving the defendant was innocent.  The Catholic Church (Helen Prejean excepted) has by and large stopped intervening in executions, choosing to focus on the life-rights of fetuses instead of unquestionably living persons, so that Catholic women will produce more fresh children for horny priests. Supreme Court "Justice" Antonin Scalia proudly opines that actual innocence is no bar to execution. And, of course, more than ever, the system disproportionately kills the poor, the black, the physically ugly, the mentally ill, because losers.

36 years after Gilmore's execution, this is what American civilization has come to.  And Gilmore's desire to "die with dignity" paved the way.

By Odin's Sweaty Balls: Songs of the Elder Edda

Find all of my previous Bookposts here: http://admnaismith.livejournal.com/...

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 11:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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