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What I read last month.  

Several classic "great books", including six more books of the Bible, the Baghvad Gita, Thomas Aquinas and Copernicus.

Some modern classics, including Atwood's Blind Assassin, Hamsun's Hunger, and Martel's Life of Pi.

And some things just for fun, including the most wonderful speculative retelling of Hamlet I've seen to date; murder mysteries by PC Doherty, and science fiction by Kim Stanley Robinson.  


Constantinople is not Istanbul: Byzantium, by Stephen R. Lawhead  
I saw Byzantium in a dream, and knew that I would die there.  That vast city seemed to me a living thing: a great golden lion, or a crested serpent coiled upon a rock, beautiful and deadly.  With trembling steps I walked alone to embrace the beast, fear turning my bones to water.  I heard no sound save the beating of my own heart and the slow, hissing breath of the creature. As I drew near, the half-lidded eye opened, and the beast awoke. The fearful head rose, the mouth gaped open.  A sound like the howl of wind across a winter sky tore the heavens and shook the earth, and a blast of foul breath struck me, withering the very flesh.
I stumbled on, gagging, gasping, unable to resist, for I was compelled by a force beyond my power.  I watched in horror as the terrible beast roared. The head swung up and swiftly, swiftly down--like lightning, like the plunge of an eagle upon its prey. I felt the dread jaws close on me as I stood screaming.
Then I awoke; but my waking brought neither joy nor relief. For I rose not to life, but to the terrible certainty of death. I was to die, and the golden towers of Byzantium would be my tomb.

This long, gripping historical novel was recommended to me by a friend who knew I was concentrating on Medieval-themed books this year. It certainly does give a decent cross-section of various cultures in the Dark Ages, and enjoyment of it is enriched by familiarity with the various epics, sagas, histories and commentaries on the Christian and Muslim theologies of the age that I’ve been poring over all year.

The protagonist starts out as a monk in ancient Ireland who is sent on a pilgrimage to Constantinople, is kidnapped by vikings, kidnapped again by Saracens, and eventually makes it to Byzantium, with the result that by the time we’re done, the band of adventurers includes an extremely odd mushel of Celts, Danes, Arabs and Greeks, all baffled that the others live in a certain way and worship a different sort of God.

I suspect it was made with a big budget movie in mind. Some of the most marvelous scenes involve culture shock, as when a barbarian raiding party decides to sack Byzantium, thinking it’s no different from any barbarian village, and is stymied by the harbormaster who tells them they can’t dock their warships without paying the toll.  Or when the same barbarian raiding party, having agreed to act as mercenaries for the Byzantine emperor, wields their two handed axes against a treacherous army of arabs about half the size of the vikings but with apparently unlimited numbers.  

Above all, we see Aidan the monk grow from youth to manhood, from self-doubt to self-reliance, from everyone’s slave to the leader of multiple former captors. Even after 870 pages, I was a little sorry to say goodbye to him. High recommendations.

Old Testament: 1 & 2 Chronicles
When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, she came to prove Solomon with hard questions at Jerusalem, with a very great train, and camels that bore spices, and gold in abundance, and precious stones: and when she had come to Solomon, she talked with him of all that was in her heart.  Solomon told her all her questions; and there was not anything hidden from Solomon which he didn’t tell her. When the queen of Sheba had seen the wisdom of Solomon, and the house that he had built, and the food of his table, and the sitting of his servants, and the attendance of his ministers, and their clothing, his cup bearers also, and their clothing, and his ascent by which he went up to the house of Yahweh; there was no more spirit in her.  She said to the king, “It was a true report that I heard in my own land of your acts, and of your wisdom. However I didn’t believe their words, until I came, and my eyes had seen it; and behold, the half of the greatness of your wisdom was not told me: you exceed the fame that I heard. Happy are your men, and happy are these your servants, who stand continually before you, and hear your wisdom.  Blessed be Yahweh your God, who delighted in you, to set you on his throne, to be king for Yahweh your God: because your God loved Israel, to establish them forever, therefore made he you king over them, to do justice and righteousness.”
--2 Chronicles 9:1-8
If you have to skip one part of the Bible, it might as well be Chronicles which is mostly a drier retelling of Samuel and Kings, with everything that preceded them summarized in a famously dull and long list of “begats” (A begat B, and B begat C and C begat D...) all the way from Adam to David. It leaves out most of the interesting stories but includes such things as the many chapters going over the architecture and embellishments on Solomon’s temple, and bare bones descriptions of dozens of battles (A-Tribe went forth and conquered B-Tribe...).

Many times in the Kings books, the writer, understandably wanting to get it all over with, writes, And of the further doings of Rheoboam (or whoever), are they not set forth in the books of Chronicles?  Answer: No, they pretty much aren’t.  Not that I’m complaining, mind you.

New Testament: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Hebrews  
Beloved, do not avenge yourselves,but rather give place to wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” says the Lord. Therefore, if your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.
--Romans 12: 19-20

Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.  And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is shameful for women to speak in church.
-- 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

The New Testament is much shorter than the Old Testament.  You have the four Gospels, one book about the Apostles carrying on after the death of Christ, one apostle’s too-much-pepperoni-pizza dream set down as holy scripture...and that’s it, except for the ‘letters to the editor’, most of which I commented on in March.  Romans, Corinthians 1 and 2, and Hebrews are the longest and best regarded of the letters, and I read them separately.

Honestly, they’re more of the same.  Paul writes various words of encouragement or chastisement to fledgling congregations in various cities.  Sometimes you find a beautiful phrase that has been quoted down the centuries—the line about how I lived and thought as a child, but when I grew to be a man I put away childhood things is here, as is the part about if I speak with the tongues of angels but have not love it is but sounding brass.  Other times it can be mind-bogglingly offensive, as with the part about it being shameful for women to talk in church, highlighting the folly of blind adherence to stultifying centuries-old dogma.  Sometimes old ways are tried and true good ways; other times, they were that way because humanity was primitive.

The commentary helps by putting the circumstances of the letters in context, but is also as amusing in its whoppers as the scripture itself.  The note to the Corinthian letters describes them as “a very vivid picture of the perils through which the infant church struggled in the midst of a vicious pagan society, before its fundamental principles were firmly grasped, and while opportunities abounded to be led astray by rival teachers.”  Meaning that the Corinthians apparently liked to party, and that some sects dared to disagree with Paul’s view on things.

Pearls Before swine: Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden
Taking on the role of older sister often feels about like carrying a sack of rice back and forth across the city. Because not only is a younger sister as dependent on her older sister  as a passenger is on the train she rides, but when the girl behaves badly, it’s her older sister’s responsibility. The reason a busy and successful geisha goes to all this trouble for a younger girl is because everyone in Gion benefits when an apprentice succeeds. The apprentice herself benefits by paying off all her debts over time, of course, and if she’s lucky, she’ll end up mistress to a wealthy man. The older sister benefits by receiving a portion of her younger sister’s fees—as do the mistresses of the various teahouses where the girl entertains. Even the wigmaker, and the shop where the apprentice geisha will buy gifts for her patrons from time to time...they may never directly receive a portion of the girl’s fees, but certainly they will benefit by the patronage of yet another successful geisha, who can bring customers into Gion to spend money.
Compare and contrast the narrative of Sayuri, the Geisha of the title, with that of Aidan in Byzantium, above. Both are bildungsroman protagonists who begin as confused children and tell the story of their growth to maturity, with the distinction that Memoirs of a Geisha takes place entirely in one country.

This story is presented as the narrative of Sayuri, one of the most successful geishas ever, a legend in her time, looking back on her life.  In fact, she only gets as far as the first half of her life, and about three quarters of the novel is limited to her experiences before age 20, as she becomes a geisha in the first place.  Because of the introduction, we know in advance that she has made it beyond what was thought possible, which you’d think would put a damper on the suspense. But no, this is an intense, gripping read.

Born beautiful into a poor fishing family, Sayuri catches the eye of a rich patron, who buys her and sells her as a slave by another name to a prestigious geisha house in Kyoto.  Her degrading conditions and her rivalry with the vicious Hatsumomo (queen of the  geisha pecking order) is the bulk of the story.  Young Sayuri is bullied, scolded, punished by being put on the drudge track and told she will never be a geisha.  The tale is gloomy, frustrating and possibly triggery, until it takes a Cinderella turn and she is given a desperate chance to come into her own with the aid of some proper tutors.

Beginning in 1929 and continuing through WWII and a decade or so beyond, Memoirs of a Geisha has a lot of food for thought about growth and growing pains, both human and national, about the changing of customs and convention over time, and about how one obtains and uses power from an officially subservient position.  Highly recommended as both enlightening and entertaining.

Around and Around We Go:  On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, by Nicolaus Copernicus  

The apparent irregular movement of the planets and their variable distances from the Earth--which cannot be understood as occurring in circles homocentric from the Earth--make it clear that the Earth is not the center of their circular movements.  Therefore, since there are many centres, it is not foolhardy to doubt whether the centre of gravity the Earth rather than some other centre is the centre of the world. I myself think that gravity or heaviness is nothing except a certain natural appetency implanted in the parts by the divine providence of the Universal Artisan, in order that they should unite with one another in their oneness and wholeness and come together in the form of a globe. It is believable that this affect is present in the sun, moon, and the other bright planets and that through its efficacy they remain in the spherical figure in which they are visible, though they nevertheless accomplish their circular movements in many different ways. Therefore, if the Earth too possesses movements different from the one around its centre, then they will necessarily be movements which similarly appear on the outside in the many bodies; and we find the yearly revolution among these movements.

Copernicus died of natural causes the same year he published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which is why Galileo and not Copernicus was the one bullied by the church into recanting the theory that the earth and other planets go around the sun and that the earth is not the center of the universe.  

There are six chapters, and only people really enthusiastic about the mathematics of astronomy need to go beyond Chapter 1, which sets out the heliocentric theory and explains where Ptolemy went wrong (he had assumed that an earth must be in the center of the universe because if it were anywhere else, the positions of the stars would change markedly.  In fact, the earth’s distance from the Sun is so small compared to its distance from the other stars that the change in position is not noticeable). The other chapters are full of equations and tables dealing with the earth’s motion around the sun and the movements of the moon and the planets.

Copernicus identifies the earth’s rotation, revolution and axial tilt as explanations for what we see in the heavens from night to night.  He made some errors in that, like Ptolemy, he clung to the idea that orbits must be circular, because circles were perfect, and it was left to Kepler to identify the orbits as elliptical later.  This is just a summary of the main points of Copernican astronomy; the book is not something one would normally read for pleasure.

The Medieval Murders: The Devil’s Hunt; The Demon Archer; Ghostly Murders; The Poison Maiden; by PC Doherty.  

Corbett studied The Bellman’s proclamation once again.
“How long have these been appearing?”
“Over five months,” Simon replied. “At first we thought it was some scholar’s madcap scheme. Then the King’s Council tried to hush matters up but the proclamations became more frequent. The King wrote to the Regent, John Copsale, who wrote back claiming all innocence. A month ago, Copsale, who was in his fifties, was found dead in his bed. The physician said he had died from natural causes, but since then The Bellman has grown more vindictive.”

--from The Devil’s Hunt

"We have the Fitzalans, two brothers and a half sister. A great deal of antipathy, even hatred, swirled between them. We have this strange outlaw, the Owlman, with his secret threats. We also have, standing in the shadows, Jocasta and her daughter, Verlian, Brother Cosmas, even Odo the hermit; that's one game. Then we have the king and what he intends. Nor must we forget the Prince of Wales, God knows what mischief he's plotting! And last but not least, our beloved brother in Christ, Seigneur Amaury de Craon. Now, each group could be separate, but I suspect, the more we stir the pot, Ranulf, the more they'll mix together. So." He smiled. "In a while it might be very dangerous to ride around Ashdown Forest. I won't go to them. I'm the King's Commissioner; I'll make them come to me."
Ranulf was about to ask how when an arrow whirred in front of him and struck the ground..."

--from The Demon Archer

Philip spun round, his hand going to the small dagger he kept in the sheath of his belt.
‘Who’s there?’ he shouted. ‘This is God’s house! In the name of the Lord Jesus...!’
‘Spectamus te! Semper spectamus te!’
‘Aye!’ Philip screamed back. ‘And I am watching you! I Philip, priest of this church!’
Something was moving at the bottom of the church.  Philip drew his knife and ran toward the main door but there was nothing. He heard a sound behind him. He spun round, moaned in terror, and dropped the knife. Eyes, like burning coals, glared at him through the darkness.

--from Ghostly Murders

I took the twisted piece of parchment from my wallet and studied it.  ‘Very little here,’ I said, and handed it over.  ‘Nothing but two entries: what looks like an unfinished word, ‘basil’, probably basilisk, the mythical beast, a dragon-like creature with deadly stare and breath; and a circle surmounted by a cross with the letter P in the middle, and the Latin words, seven letters in all, sub pede—underfoot.’
--from The Poison Maiden

Doherty’s Hugh Corbett  mysteries continue to be about what they’ve been, only more so. King Edward Longshanks is more grumpy, Corbett more introspective, and the villains more Scooby Doo-ish than ever.  The Devil’s Hunt features the usual increasing number of corpses, this time in one of the first Universities to be founded in Oxford. Wild, boisterous students and persnickety masters abound to be suspected of being a shadowy killer called The Bellman, who taunts the detectives with clues and who has about as much villain cred as an Adam West Batman baddie.  In , instead of The Bellman, we get The Owlman, who does not in fact skulk around the forest in an outlandish feathered costume with goggles, but that’s how I kept picturing him regardless.  It has the kind of passages where “in the darkness, The Owlman watched and plotted”, written a little awkwardly so as not to reveal who The Owlman really is under the goggled mask he doesn’t really wear, or even whether he’s really a man.  Maybe he’s really a demon owl with Katniss-like archery powers. Doherty wants you to consider the possibility.

Which brings us to this month’s evening with the pilgrims to Canterbury, this time featuring the priest’s turn to tell a tale of Ghostly Murders.  This comes closer to being a Scooby Doo episode than any of the previous Doherty ‘satanic killer from Hell’ books, involving a legendary treasure that they say was stolen years ago from a band of foully murdered knights Templar and hidden somewhere around a spooky church haunted by the ghost of the Evil Monk (you know where this is going already, don’t you?) and maybe by the ghosts of the murdered Templars.  Everyone believes in the ghost of the Evil Monk. They warn the new priests (a pair of brothers, one of whom is the Chaucer priest telling the story to the pilgrims) about him.  They see him laughing a mua-ha-ha laugh in the dark and flee in terror, only to get lost and sink into the nearby swamp.  The priests intend to tear down the church and build a new one, which will naturally disturb a lot of crypts and treasure-hiding places, and of course the Evil Monk’s Ghost doesn’t like this and tries to scare away the priests. You can almost smell the sulphur from Hell!  Or maybe it’s just the latex.  Finally, The Poison Maiden, second in the series about Mahtilda the Templar maiden and herbalist turned lady in waiting to Queen Isabella, is a disappointment so obvious that it’s almost amusing to note Doherty’s feeble efforts to point the reader in the wrong direction.  The Mahtilda character is still intriguing, and the scenes in which she diplomatically or fatally foils her enemies are well written, but even these read like scenes from Game of Thrones without the zest.

Hamlet—the Film from Tim Burton: An Antic Disposition, by Alan Gordon  
The boy picked up another piece of wood and began carving it.
“You think that I am still in danger,” he said. “Even with my mother protecting me.”
“We have to think about what happens if you were to lose her,” said Terence. “I was watching your uncle when you drew your sword. He fears you.”
“He fears a boy?”
“He fears the man you shall become,” said Terence. “He fears his brother’s image. But he will not fear someone whose mind is addled.”
“So you want me to play...”
“The fool,” said Terence. “Yes, Amleth, I want you to do that. It’s an old trick, but it just may keep you alive.”

Alan Gordon’s historical mysteries are firmly set in the Middle Ages (which is why I started them this year), and I normally review them briefly in a group of “Medieval Murders”.  An Antic Disposition is good enough to merit a separate note on its own.

Gordon’s previous books, featuring Feste and Viola from Twelfth Night as members of a super-secret spy cabal of court fools, established the guild well.  Here, Gordon applies it to Hamlet, telling an adaptation of the legend with Nordic names (“Gerutha” for Gertrude, “Amleth” for Hamlet, etc.), beginning the story several years before the death of Amleth’s father Orvendil, and telling it largely from the point of view of Terence of York (also called Yorick), a member of the Fool’s Guild sworn to protect young Amleth.

Instead of the Kingdom of Denmark in the 12th Century, we have the more intimate dukedom of Sleswig; instead of Hamlet’s madness as his own act, we have foolishness as tutored by Yorick; and instead of scholarly studies at Wittenberg, Hamlet gets formal fool training in Paris.   Guess where Horatio comes from?  Guess where the players come from?  Guess how Hamlet just happens to get off that ship that’s supposed to take him to England?

Think about it....does this all make more sense than the original Shakespeare, or what?  Are you intrigued yet?

If not, consider the further plot variations Gordon dishes out.  Instead of Orvendil’s brother acting against him alone, we have a conspiracy that both Gerutha and Gorm (Polonius), both very nasty characters, are in on, and instead of the weird subplot involving preparations for war with Fortinbras, we have Fengi (Claudius—even nastier than Gerutha, Gorm, or Shakespeare’s original Claudius)’s eminently foreseeable plot against the actual king of Denmark.  Most or all of the myriad deaths from the original happen on cue, including the ones (Orvendil, Yorick) that take place before the play or offstage; however, almost none of them are what they appear to be, and you might want to stop just before the final chapter, and ask yourself if you’ve spotted the hidden thread running through the plot, the two different murderers behind the scenes, and who they actually killed.

Variations on the Hamlet plot are risky.  They run the gamut from mixed bag (the urban 2000 Almeredya movie featuring “Denmark Corporation” and ghosts on closed circuit TV) to utter failure (Orson Scott Card’s disgusting anti-gay anthem featuring Hamlet’s father as a molester of every male youth in the story) to the just plain crazy (the John Woo version featuring badass kung-fu-and-gunfire Hamlet taking out half of Denmark).  An Antic Disposition is the best—maybe the only—alternative Hamlet story I’ve encountered that actually succeeds and has laughter, horror and pathos in all the right places.  Very highest recommendations.

Notes from Above Ground: Hunger, by Knut Hamsun
It had no taste at all; a sickening smell of dried blood rose from the bone and I had to vomit immediately. I tried again—if I could just keep it down, it would be sure to do some good, the important thing was to make it stay down. But I vomited again. I got angry, ground my teeth into the meat, ripped off a small piece and forced myself to swallow it. It was no use; as soon as the tiny bits of meat grew warm in my stomach, up they came again. Frantic, I clenched my fists, burst into tears from helplessness and gnawed like mad. I cried so hard that the bone got wet and dirty from my tears—I threw up, cursed and gnawed again, crying as if my heart would break, then threw up once more. I swore at the top of my voice, damning all the powers of this world to eternal tor ment.

One of the best things I can say about this one is that it is short enough that I could stand to finish it.  Published in 1890, Hunger has been lavishly praised by the likes of Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann and Kafka, which alone ought to tell you whether you will love or hate it.  

It is intensely psychological and, like much of Dostoevsky, Mann and Kafka, depicts nonsensically bad behavior in such a way that the reader can almost understand where the irrational, self-destructive protagonist is coming from.  In this case, the gimmick is that the protagonist is a starving writer, so overcome by hunger that he is unable to make proper decisions because of the pain.  Those of you who can be hard to deal with when your blood sugar crashes, or know people who are like that, can maybe relate.  Nevertheless, an entire novel consisting of cycles of blood-sugar fits is a bit much.

The narrator deteriorates into an animal-like state as we read. He continually screws up situations in which he has an opportunity to climb out of the mess he is in.  He is clumsily crooked when it would be wise to be honest, and suddenly develops scruples of honor and allows himself to be cheated, or becomes the kind who refuses to accept handouts when offered, even though he is willing to steal. He forces a reluctant landlord to evict him, turns down the patronage of those who admire his writing, has bizarre, ineffective encounters with women, gets arrested unnecessarily and eventually leaves town on a ship bound for Britain, and that’s how the story ends.

I’m reminded of many Dostoevsky antiheroes, and of modern characters like Warren in Buffy or Theon in Game of Thrones--characters who have evident humanity, and a lot of pain, who might well be sympathetic if only they didn’t make the wrong decision each and every time, creating worlds of misery for themselves and for anyone unfortunate enough to get into their sphere of influence..  I find enough of me in those characters, both in the mistakes I’ve  made in the past and the temptations I’ve mostly learned to avoid in the present, that it makes my skin crawl to see them in fiction.  Perhaps Hamsun is saying that this is part of the human condition, and that most or all of us have these tendencies.  I hope he’s wrong; I really do.

It is what it is: On Being and Essence, by Thomas Aquinas  

Because the word ‘being’ is used absolutely and with priority of substances, and only posteriorly and with qualification of accidents, essence is in substances truly and properly, in accidents only in some way with qualification.
Further, some substances are simple and some are composed, and essence is in each. But essence is in simple substances in a truer and more noble way, according to which they also have a more noble existence, for they—at least that simple substance which is first, and which is God—are the cause of those which are composed. But because the essences of the simple substances are more hidden from us, we ought to begin with the essences of composed substances, so that we may progress more suitably in learning from what is easier.

I’m going to learn to hate Thomas Aquinas before this year is over.  The best thing I can say about On Being and Essence is that, next to the overbearing, ponderous Summas, this one is very, very short. Under 100 pages, even.  The second best thing is that, again as opposed to the Summas, it is actual philosophy and not religion.  Until it gets religious, of course, because Aquinas just can’t help himself.

While short, On Being and Essence is not a quick read.  It’s one of those chunks of thick, dense prose in which I had to stare hard at every paragraph to squeeze meaning out of it, and sometimes had to go back and read it again because the words started to just slip by me.  Not because they were hard, but because they were mushy, nonsensical, repetitive or boring.  Much of Aristotle (see Book Posts from almost all of 2011) was like that for me..  So are the Prophets in the last parts of the Old Testament.

Speaking of Aristotle, Aquinas mainly repeats what he learned from the Categories and the Metaphysics.  The bulk of the tract is devoted to explaining the genus et deferentia definition, and to distinguishing being from (guess what?) essence.  Being means existence, and essence consists of the major qualities of some given thing.  All that exists have essence, but no all things that have essence actually exist (unicorns and centaurs, for instance).  And then we segue into...God is defined as “pure existence”, such that God’s only essence is existence, and all that exists is a subset of God.  There. I’ve summarized it for you so you don’t have to read it. You’re welcome.

Yes, I’ve heard the “God is everything and everything is God” argument before, usually from people who have passed from “We are all God” to “I am God, and I have stopped noticing that everyone else is spiritually co-equal, and so  I now assert the right to do what I want to with all that appears before me.” Unintended consequences and all that.

Fearful Symmetry: Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
He was too fast. He reached up and pulled himself aboard.
“Oh my God!”
Ravi was right. Truly I was to be the next goat. I had a wet, trembling, half-drowned, heaving and coughing three year old adult Bengal tiger in my lifeboat. Richard Parker rose unsteadily to his feet on the tarpaulin, eyes blazing, as they met mine, ears laid tight to his head, all weapons drawn. His head was the size and colour of the lifebouy, with teeth.

An excellent book.  I devoured it right up.  Oh, dear...

It’s hard to imagine that this book wasn’t published until the 21st century.  It feels like it’s been around forever.  The blurb on the cover calls it “A parable that will make you believe in God.”  Well, not really. But then again, neither did The Little Prince or Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and yet I found those books highly moving and spiritual.  All three belong in a similar category, in which things very simply said turn out to say much bigger things.

It’s a simple, quickly read story. There’s a bit of exposition in India, and a bit of conclusion in Mexico, and the bulk of it in between is in the Pacific Ocean, the narrator trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger, trying to stay alive.  It’s as simple and complex as Robinson Crusoe, stripped down to the essence of the human mind, soul and will.  Very high recommendations.

Terrathumping: 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Clearly, his faceplate was filtered to an almost completely polarized black opacity, and yet the land was still white, etched with tiny black lines. Sawn was still looking up. Dying of thirst, she now drowned in the torrent. Following her example, breaking out all over in a sweat, he glanced up again. The surface of the sun was a roiling mass of white tendrils. It bounced as if throwing off thermal waves; then he realized it was his heart bouncing him, bumping his body hard enough to make his vision jostle. Writhing white circle in a starless charcoal sky. White banners flowing over themselves everywhere in the circle, the movement suggestive of some vast living intelligence.  A god, sure, why not? It looked like a god.

Humanity gets knocked down, but it gets up again.  Abyssing the night away.

This meaty sci-fi book was nominated for the 2013 Hugo.  The characters are two dimensional and the plot is a stock trope straight out of Heinlein—protagonist’s influential mentor/friend dies suddenly of apparent natural causes; mysterious people show up inquiring whether she left some kind of message behind; protagonist bewilderedly denies all knowledge, but later discovers secret information hidden where only she would find it; plot is discovered; interplanetary intrigue, travel and love interest ensue.  We’ve seen this part before.

What we haven’t seen is a sweeping vision of a future existence in which humankind has expanded to inhabit most of the solid planets and the moons around them, entire asteroids are set aside for use as bioengineered habitats for threatened species, progressive gender roles (at least five of them) and poly relationships are taken for granted, and AI is plugged into our heads.  This is a book to be read for the science, philosophy and literary style—if you’re familiar with Dos Pasos’s USA trilogy, you will recognize and thrill to the many digressions between the chapters, that give scientific and historical breakthroughs that show how humanity got from 2012 to the worlds of 20312. And the lists.  Omigosh, the lists of animals, stars, excuses for not doing the right thing, etc., are worth reading all by themselves.  High recommendations.

Instant Karma: The Baghavad Gita
Hang on me
As hangs a row of pearls upon its string.
I am the fresh taste of the water; I
The silver of the moon, the gold of the sun,
The word of worship in the Vedas, the thrill
That passeth in the ether, and the strength
Of man's shed seed. I am the good sweet smell
Of the moistened earth. I am the fire's red light.
The vital air moving in all that moves.
The holiness of hallowed souls. The root
Undying, whence has sprung all that is.
The wisdom of the wise, the intellect
Of the informed, the greatness of the great.
The splendor of the splendid....
To him who wisely sees,
The Brahman with his scrolls and sanctities
The cow, the elephant, the unclean dog,
The outcast eating dog's meat
All are one.  

Taking another break from the endless Christian scripture of the Middle Ages, I took a brief look into Hinduism, of which the Gita is one of the most famous scriptures.  I found it short but very difficult, full of karmas and dharmas and yogas and other unexplained vocabulary, the knowledge of which is as taken for granted as eucharists and transubstantiation are in Christian writings.  

The Gita is a small but extremely influential part of a much larger spiritual epic, the Mahabarata, of which I’ve seen video adaptation but not yet read the original. In the midst of one of those Final Ultimate Battles Of Ultimate Destiny, the warrior prince Arjuna shrinks from the evils of a war in which his kin are on both sides and many will surely die, several at his own hand.  He then has a conversation in seventeen sections of verse with the god Krishna (who apparently drives Arjuna’s chariot for him).  On the surface level, Krishna’s words advance the plot by convincing Arjuna that it is right for Arjuna to fight in the war, citing the doctrine of ‘selfless action’ (I think Goethe might have been influenced by this doctrine, as he describes a similar purpose for man’s existence in Faust).  

On a deeper level, the conversation instructs Arjuna in the entire spiritual meaning of life, the Cosmos, the One from which all things come.  Hindus study this book and live their lives by it the way serious Christians study the Gospels. They get an instructional guide to how to live out of it.  From what I got out of it, right living consists of recognizing Krishna as the One True God and surrendering one’s self entirely to Him; regarding all the world as an illusion; and doing all things with no motive of self-interest.  I oversimplify greatly, possibly due to lack of understanding, but there it is.  My favorite line refers to ‘the axe of detachment’ with which one is supposed to cut through the illusions of the world.  I consider that axe to be a distant cousin of my own ‘serrated gutting knife of reasoned discourse’ with which I arm myself when posting on the Internet.

Jesus is Icumin in: The Christian West and its Singers (the first 1000 years), by Christopher Page  
When a string quartet gives a recital, perhaps featuring works that many in the audience regard as masterpieces of Western musical art, the sounds are produced with a basic raw material of the Asian nomad.  Bows strung with horsehair momentarily bring the world of skin-tents and fermented mare’s milk into a surprisingly happy conjunction with Beethoven’s late quartets. When the four players read the music from staff-notation they use a device of the twelfth century song school, for in its most familiar form, with five parallel lines, the musical staff records the octave that medieval singers of plainsong were required to supply, with a few extra notes on either side that might also be expected of them...The tradition of Western classical music, in the widest sense of the term ‘classical’, bears the marks of its long evolution in the curious assembly of peninsulas, islands and creeks at the Western end of Eurasia commonly called Europe.

I asked for this, and can only blame myself.  In advance of my year of reading about the Middle Ages, I asked some friends for suggestions, and one medieval music maven suggested The Christian West.

It has the distinction of being the single heaviest tome I’ve read all year (Note that my Gibbon and Aquinas are printed in several volumes).  700 pages on thick, glossy paper bound in a sturdy library hardcover.  Many full color illustrations, mostly of well-worn artifacts  and yellowed documents with writing in dead languages.  It gives a history of the first Millennia AD’s Romans, Greeks, barbarians, Carolingians, Merovingians and Celts, specifically from the point of view of their music—how it influenced the development of Medieval Europe, and how the culture shaped it. Duby (last month’s bookpost) does something similar with architecture, only in many fewer pages.

This is a book for serious musical academics.  The technical terms slowed me down, as did the (as always) emphasis on the churches that had a monopoly on culture and suppressed it whenever possible.

Bitter Turducken: The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood
I would study the posters of movie stars in the glass cases outside the Bijou Theatre and compare them with how I myself looked, or might look if I combed my hair down over one eye and had the proper clothes.  I wasn’t allowed to go inside; I didn’t enter a movie theatre until after I was married, because Reenie said the Bijou was cheapening, for young girls by themselves at any rate.  Men went there on the prowl, dirty minded men. They would take the seat next to you and stick their hands onto you like flypaper, and before you knew it they’d be climbing all over you.  In Reenie’s descriptions the girl or woman would always be inert, but with many handholds on her, like a jungle gym. She would be magically deprived of the ability to scream or move. She would be transfixed, she would be paralyzed—with shock, or outrage, or shame. She would have no recourse.

This is the story—stories nested in stories, actually—of two sisters, Iris and Laura, born into and kept in high society gilded cages in the early 20th century.  The first of the book’s 15 sections briefly tells how Laura dies shortly after WWII, and how the other members of Iris’s family also die during the remainder of the century.  Interspersed with this are excerpts from the posthumously published novel, “The Blind Assassin”, that made Laura a sensation.

The main body of Atwood’s novel consists of Iris, in her 80s in 1999, looking back on her life with many regrets and writing about her upbringing with Laura.  Inside this narrative are more excerpts from “The Blind Assassin”, which consist mainly of meetings and conversations between a couple.  Inside their narrative, the male half of this couple writes disturbing stories about monsters and aliens that prey on women. One of these stories is, in fact, about a blind assassin, though at other times Iris mentions Eros or Justice as potentially the blind assassin of the novel.

Stay with it.  I found the leaps between the novel and the novel-within-a-novel disjointed and hard to grasp at first; I had a hard time making sense of Laura’s novel and figuring out what it had to do with her and Iris’s life or why generations of youths, girls especially, would take to and worship it.  Over time, it became clear, and the two sisters’ lives were revealed as an epic tragedy that pulled together with a wallop in the final sections.  Very high recommendations.

Find all of my previous Bookposts here:

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (6+ / 0-)

    Cover me, Melvert! I gotta leave the Sovrin Independent Free Market Collective of Fortress Libertopia to go get our disability checks!

    by AdmiralNaismith on Thu Oct 03, 2013 at 11:00:32 AM PDT

  •  Sci-Fi Hamlet (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I don't have much to add to your Bible comments for a change.  You're right about Chronicles; there's not a lot in them that isn't covered better by Samuel and Kings.  It's been years since I've read those books, but I have the impression that they were written with a strong pro-Davidic point of view; so that all of the virtues of David and Solomon were emphasized; their character flaws, not so much.

    I don't think any of the other chronicles mentioned in the Books of Kings are actually these Books of Chronicles; I think they are other historical works which were extant at the time Kings were written, but are lost to us today.  Which used to drive me crazy when I first ambitiously tried plowing through the Bible cover-to-cover.  Ah well.  I'll have to try looking for them someday in the Library of Lost Books.  

    But on to Hamlet.  This is not exactly a recommendation, because I don't think it's that great a book, but I once read a book titled Too, Too Solid Flesh by Nick O'Donohoe, which was a science fiction take on Hamlet.  In a future where live theater is largely dead, there is a small company which does its best to keep it alive by performing Hamlet.  All of the performers are androids, programmed to be the character they are portraying.  A human detective with an interest in theater is given the assignment to pose as an android and inflitrate the cast to discover the truth behind the curious "accidental" death of the scientist behind the project.

    It has its interesting bits and a few notable conceits, but the relentless parallels between the murders and the play stretch become too gimmicky and labored, and I found the truth behind the the murder of Hamlet's "father" implausible.  I wouldn't recommend it unless you're really curious to read a Sci-Fi Hamlet.

    Read my webcomic, "Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine" at

    by quarkstomper on Thu Oct 03, 2013 at 04:47:03 PM PDT

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