It's a new year, and a new set of books to read. Having finished my not-very-pleasant year of traipsing through the theology-centric Middle Ages, this year the scholarly part of my reading list centers on the late 14th through 16th Centuries, covering the Italian Renaissance, Reformation, the introduction of white people to America, and the period of English royalty from Henry IV through most of Elizabeth I. Including historical mysteries from the age. But much more than that; I anticipate the usual eclectic mix you've come to expect from me over the course of three generations.
In this month's entry:
The Cuckoo's Calling, by JK Rowling
The Chronicles of Jean Froissart
The Sea of Fertility, by Yukio Mishima
Medieval mysteries by PC Doherty, Margaret Frazer and Kate Sedley
The writings of John Wycliffe
Hounded, by Kevin Hearne
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut. Jr.
Bloodsucking Fiends, by Christopher Moore
A Void, by Georges Perec
What's in a Name?: The Cuckoo's Calling, by "Robert Galbraith" (JK Rowling)
No, it is not the young woman whose loss we bemoan, for she was no more real to most of us than the Gibson girls who dripped from Dana's pen. What we mourn is the physical image flickering across a multitude of red-tops and celeb mags; an image that sold us clothes and handbags and a notion of celebrity that, in her demise, proved to be empty and transient as a soap bubble. What we actually miss, were we honest enough to admit it, are the entertaining antics of that paper-thin good-time girl, whose strip-cartoon existence of drug abuse, riotous living, fancy clothes and dangerous on-off boyfriend we can no longer enjoy.
The appearance of Robert Galbraith's debut novel (cheekily captioned "A Cormoran Strike Mystery", as if this never-before-seen detective's first appearance was supposed to be a draw, like Poirot or Scarpetta or something) was unnoticed by me, and probably almost everyone else. The Revelation that Galbraith was JK Rowling using a pen name was noticed by everybody, and immediately I was #147 on the library's waiting list for the single volume. Fortunately, the library ordered ten more copies due to the demand and I was able to get my copy by the end of the year I requested it. So yes, names mean something.
It's not too far fetched to see Rowling turn to mysteries. At their best, the Harry Potter stories are mysteries, with clues that, if spotted, might have the reader figure out who's really after the Philosopher's Stone, or why Sirius Black chose that particular time to break out of Azkaban and into Hogwarts. In The Cuckoo's Calling, Rowling tries to do classic Chandleresque noir and, yes, she pretty much nails it. Even if, because of who she is, I kept thinking of Robin the female protagonist as grownup Hermione without so much drive to prove herself, and the male protagonist Cormoran as grownup Crabbe or Goyle, if the sorting hat had made them Griffindors and they were smart. And without all the magic stuff. And--oh, all right, it's obviously a completely different world, but names mean something.
I liked all of it. The given circumstances that have the detective rub elbows with the ultra-privileged people of high society, and the down-and-out, within pages of one another; the protagonists who see deeper meaning behind nominally banal things; the wordplay (note the bird imagery, including the names Robin, Cormoran(t) and Cuckoo); the jaded cops, the shouting rich people who think they can own the detective because they're so rich; the private eye tropes; and, yes, the challenge of whodunnit, which I met at the eleventh hour and in spite of a glaring detail that is explained away unsatisfactorily.
Robin and Cormoran are just the kind of pair to hold a mystery series together. They work off of each other like Castle and Beckett, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, the Moonlighting couple. I'll be glad to see the series continue. Very high recommendations.
The Calamitous Fourteenth Century: The Chronicles of Jean Froissart
He had not been there an hour when King Henry and the Viscount of Rocaberti, with a small company of their men, arrived at the same quarters and entered the room where King Peter was. As he came in he said, "Where's that Jewish son of a whore who calls himself King of Castille?" then King Peter stepped forward, that bold and bloody man, and said, "You're the son of a whore. I'm the son of Good King Alfonso." With these words, he seized his brother in his arms and, pulling him towards him in a wrestler's grip, he mastered him and forced him down under him on to an ambarda, in other words, a bed with a silk mattress. He got his hand to his dagger and would certainly have killed him if the Viscount of Rocaberti had not caught hold of his foot and twisted him over so that King Peter was underneath and King Henry was on top. The latter drew a long Castilian knife which he carried slung from his shoulder and drove it upwards into his brother's body. his men came running in and helped to finish him off. They also killed at his side an English knight called Sir Ralph Helme, who was formerly known as the Green Squire, and a squire called Jacques Rollans because they attempted to resist.
You may have noticed last year, when I took up the writings of the middle ages, a dearth of non-theology related nonfiction. I had to resort to Gibbon's 18th century history of the era, and other histories written by modern authors, to touch on the society, history and politics of the time. I should be considered blessed. As the Greek and Roman historians faded from Europe's awareness for a thousand years, Europe reinvented the art of describing events that actually happened from scratch, and were they ever dry about it.
Froissart (begun last year but not finished until this month) may be the best writer of history to come between Tacitus and the 15th Century, and even he is not technically a historian so much as a 'chronicler'--he wrote about the 14th century, most of it dealing with England versus France in the hundred years war, from the viewpoint that A happened, and then B happened, and then C happened, without commentary on how those things may have been connected, or why any of them happened, or any of the things besides bare facts that make history interesting. Never have I seen wars and political intrigue set out so soporifically.
Gibbon, by contrast, is still widely read because he sets out to explore why the greatest civilization in Europe sank from mastery of every place it touched to being overrun by marauding barbarians, and analyzed everything that happened from that angle, with an ominous message that the same things could happen to the British empire (and, though he knew it not at the time, to the American empire too). Froissart--not so much. almost all editions, including the 500 page version I read, are abridged, which means that there were even duller parts to it than the ones I read.
There are nuggets of gold among the dust. The English victories at Crecy and Poitiers stand out as harbingers of the battle of Agincourt that Shakespeare made famous. Even Froissart cannot make completely dull the spectacle of new forms of warfare surprising and defeating the old, as small armies on foot with longbows take down much larger forces of chain-mailed knights on horseback. Later on, the administration of Richard II, from john of Gaunt to the Peasants' Revolt (Wycliffe and the Lollards get a mention) and the King's deposition by Henry Bolingbroke are described almost grippingly. The best part of the whole work consists of little vignettes between the battles involving the Count of Foix and other nobles and knights, who hold banquets, hunts and jousting tournaments, illustrating the good and bad sides of the morals, manners and codes of honor of the age. As a SCAdian, I admire the concept of 'chivalry', by which I mean a code of gallantry and honor among warriors, as appropriate for the big kid on the playground as it is for a marine colonel: Be courteous off the battlefield (or even on it, when practical); do not bully the weak, but defend them against those who do; avoid habits (drunkenness, gluttony, lechery, etc.) that would tend to reflect poorly on your honor and threaten your physical fitness advantage over enemies; no raping, pillaging, etc. In practice, of course, this code fell short, and emphasized loyalty to masters unworthy of a true knight's service, and the appearance rather than actual practice.
Seppuku, I Choose You!: The Sea of Fertility, by Yukio Mishima
Catching the first lady off guard, the Princess jumped off the chair, covered the three feet that separated her from Honda, and clung to his trouser legs. Honda rose in alarm. Quivering and still clinging to him, the Princess cried out, weeping loudly. He bent over and put his arms around the fragile shoulders of the sobbing girl. the ladies in waiting, nonplussed, were unable to pull her away. They clustered together, whispering uneasily among themselves as they stared at her.
"What does she say? Translate!" Honda called to hishikawa who was standing in amazement.
Hishikawa translated in a shrill voice, "Mr. Honda! Mr. Honda! How I've missed you! You were so kind, and yet I killed myself without telling you anything. I have been waiting for this meeting to apologize to you for more than seven years. I have taken the form of a princess, but I am really Japanese. I spent my former life in japan, and that is really my home. Please, Mr. Honda, take me back to Japan.
The Sea of Fertility is really four novels with an Eastern Hemisphere take on the common western theme of a "great soul" who fails to function in the real world and ends up dead, with the implication that said soul is too great or too beautiful or too holy or just too much for the rest of us to deserve the company of. "I could have told you, Vincent..." Normally, these plots don't work for me because the 'great soul' comes across to me as a full-of-himself pretentious jerk; maybe the example that comes closest to working is John Knowles' A Separate Peace. In Mishima's four volumes, the 'great soul' not only dies but is reincarnated into three more lives.
In Spring Snow, the first volume (and the one that paradoxically affected political, scholarly me the most), the protagonist of the whole work, Shigekuni Honda, endures the pains his boyhood friend Kiyoaki, who is beautiful, delicate, and apparently destined to die for love, unnecessarily. Kiyoaki is indifferent to the young woman who loves him, until she becomes irrevocably betrothed to a member of Japan's royal family, at which point he suddenly realizes he loves her, commences a passionate clandestine affair with her--she had been wanting him all along--and is beaten by his own father when discovered. She ends up running away to a convent rather than marry the prince, and Kiyoaki walks through the snow to the convent to bang on the doors day after day until he at last dies of pneumonia. We are meant to feel sorry for Kioaki's star-crossed love; I felt so mainly because he is treated so poorly by his own family and society. I felt much more sorry for the girl, who is last heard sobbing behind the door that the priestesses refuse to open. It seems to me that everyone, including Kiyoaki, does very poorly by her.
The second book, Runaway Horses has Honda, now grown to adulthood, recognize a young athlete, Isao, as the reincarnation of Kioaki by the three moles on his chest. Whereas Kiyoaki gives all for love, Isao gives it all for politics and honor, leading a foolish and clumsy right wing revolutionary plot reminiscent of a backwoods amateur militia dedicated to revolution against President Obama, except that Isao wants to subvert Japanese industrialists and restore the Emperor's influence. The third book, The Temple of Dawn, has Kiyoaki/Isao reincarnated again as a Siamese Princess who Honda befriends (becoming ever more obsessed with reincarnation theory) during and after the WWII era, and in The Decay of the Angel, Honda encounters yet another reincarnation in 1970, this time as a young, amoral street urchin whom Honda adopts, with the kind of consequences one comes to expect after the first three volumes. As Honda ages, he becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator, and doubts arise as to whether the later characters are really incarnations of Kiyoaki, and how much of the plot is Honda's delusion.
For a 'great soul', Kiyoaki/Isao/Ying Chan/Toru seems to bring on a lot of drama and cause a lot of misery to everyone he and she touches. By the fourth volume, especially, there seems to be little to admire about him. That said, there is a surfeit of tragic beauty about the 20th Century Japan depicted in the tetralogy, and about the major characters. The Sea of Fertility is considered one of the Great Non-Western works of literature, and has enough sexuality, death and philosophy to qualify.
Mishima was himself a colorful character involved in physical culture, philosophy and strange political movements. Perhaps to emphasize the whole 'tortured, doomed genius' aspect of The Sea of Fertility, Mishima committed ritual suicide the day he finished writing the book.
The Late Medieval Murders: The Whyte Hart, by P C Doherty; The Novice's Tale, by Margaret Frazer; Death and the Chapman, by Kate Sedley
I saw his eyes flicker to the side and I knew he was a liar and it was then that I decided to betray him. I am a liar amongst liars, a veritable Prince or Earl of Liars, even the Lord Beelzebub must blush at what I say. Yet I have one virtue, one flower amongst the thorns: I can always recognize another liar!
--from The Whyte Hart
It was easy to forget among the quiet patterns of St. Frideswide's that its nuns were the daughters, granddaughters, sisters of men who held their inheritance by right of arms and battle skills. As nuns and women their daily life held little need for inheritance of courage, but the blood remembered. With no weapons of their own but anger and courage, they were standing in a closed rank of black and veiled white across the center of the choir, between Sir Walter's men and Thomasine. she stood alone at the top of the altar steps, beside St. Frideswide's altar, her right hand stretched out to touch it. Head raised, she was staring out at the men come to take her, and there was no show of fear in her at all.
--from The Novice's Tale
I'm tired of modern, forward-thrusting youth with their modern, forward-thrusting ways, and their unshakable conviction that Henry Tudor and his son, the present king, rescued this country from the grip of a monster. It is my privilege to have met our late King Richard, even to have been of some use to him, God bless him! But, nowadays, that's another heresy, and probably worse than the first one. The Richard people talk about now is a hunchbacked monstrosity, steeped in blood and evil. But that isn't the man that I remember, though I've no intention of writing a political tract; just a record of my early life, which in many respects was a strange one.
--from Death and the Chapman
The Whyte Hart is one of the earlier PC Doherty books, but the last chronologically and on my radar, stretching as it does into the 15th century reigns of Henry IV and V, and concerning the death, before the story begins, of Richard II. It appears to be a stand-alone story, which is a pity, since the narrator-detective is considerably more interesting than Hugh Corbett or Brother Althelstan--a thin, wormy man, orphaned by his mother at birth, abused by his father, treated as a good-for-nothing during his formative years and steered toward an existence as a Peter Pettigrew-style cowardly backstabbing good-for-nothing, but who turns around and redeems himself, or at least becomes more of a man, when given half a chance and a change of luck. I like stories like that. The mystery is nothing--it does for the actual historical rumors about Richard II's survival beyond the report of his death what Doherty's earlier The Death of a King (Bookpost, October 2013) did for the same rumors about Edward II: Speculates about an interesting set of circumstances that fits a lot of the known evidence, and writes it. Meanwhile, Jankyn the "liar" narrator gets to go from London to the battle of Agincourt to Scotland and various other places in search of clues. Atmosphere, adventure, and hair-breadth escape are the thing here, not detection. I wouldn't have minded seeing more of Jankyn and less of Corbett in Doherty's writing.
Margaret Frazer is a new author to me, bringing my historical crime fiction--it's set in England, apparently like all the others--into the 15th century, specifically the reign of Henry VI. the main setting, at least for the first book The Novice's Tale is in a convent full of formidable nuns who somehow manage to be the good characters. Sister Frevisse is the main detective, Sister Thomasine is the angelic novice, wrongly accused of the murder of her overbearing aunt, and Thomas Chaucer, brought into the nobility by virtue of his father Geoffrey, is the token male interest. As is usual in these mysteries, a key bit of historical trivia--in this case, some court gossip about Queen Catherine--plays a vital role in the plot.
Kate Sedley may be the most prolific of the historical mystery writers of the era I'm reading about this year, but her "Roger Chapman" series comes later than Frazer's. Chapman writes from old age in Henry VIII's reign, and Death and the Chapman begins his adventures in the last days of Henry VI and includes the start of a friendship with a Yorkist Duke of Gloucester named Richard. Roger also investigates some mysterious disappearances and sinister goings-on at a London public house, in a 'mystery' that isn't so much a whodunnit as a when-will-roger-figure-this-out" tale.
Ten Parson's Tales: The Writings of John Wycliffe
It is known, by belief, how mankind trespassed to God, and how by God's righteousness that trespass must needs be punished; and how it might not be punished, and yet mankind be saved, unless Christ. both God and Man, had offered himself upon the tree. This offering was sacrifice made to God for our good. And here saith Christ, by John, that no man hath more love than this, to put his life for brethren, and thus Christ is of most love. We should follow Christ afar in this love, according to our power, and offer our body to the Father of heaven, for love and profit of our neighbor. And since each man should follow God both by body and by soul, each man should here follow Christ by true service to God. And since this martyrdom of Christ was so sweet before God, Paul well calls it an offering to God into smelling of sweetness. For deeds that please to God must smell sweet before him. And here many men say, that men slain in worldly cause are but stinking martyrs, and offerings to the fiend.
The Parson's Tale is the very last of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (se last month's Bookpost); it consists of a long, dry sermon in prose on the seven deadly sins and is so dull that most editions (except the Mortimer Adler "Great Books" set, natch, don't even bother to include the whole thing. However, for those who can't get enough, there is John Wycliffe, the 14th Century reformer who is most famous for translating the Bible into vernacular English for the masses instead of using Latin for the high and mighty to spin to the poor; and most of whose worthwhile writings were burned by the Catholics.
What is left is not great work. Here are several sermons exhorting the goodness of Christ; a small volume called "The Poor Caitiff" setting forth rules to live by; a list of reasons prayer might go unanswered; and, most interestingly, a list of bad things done by church leaders similar to Luther's more famous tract of two centuries later, accusing priests and bishops of indulging an unhealthy lust for riches by selling false relics, indulgences, even cursing the innocent if the money's good. Wycliffe's speeches helped to inspire Lollardry and Wat Tyler's rebellion against Richard II; from the writings that survive, it's hard to tell why the peasants even cared.
Battle Iron Druid: Hounded, by Kevin Hearne
I'd no sooner finished speaking than a ball of flame blew through my door, breaking the glass and melting my door chimes. It extinguished itself in front of me, leaving a tall, majestic, fully armored goddess in its place. It was Brighid, goddess of poetry, fire and the forge.
"Old Druid," she said in a voice of music and dread, "I must speak with you about the death of my husband."
In the same genre as Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden and Seanan McGuire's October Daye, come the urban fae adventures of Atticus the Iron Druid of Tempe. It's a series I may not be following, in part because my local library only has the first volume, Hounded.
The main problem with the Iron Druid (I can't even imagine his name without speculating about him having a cooking contest with Dresden in Kaga's kitchen) is that he's too powerful even in book one. Dresden and Daye start out relatively helpless and level up; Atticus is making out with Goddesses, killing gods, killing giants nine at a time and allied with The Morrigan right from the beginning. He has cold iron spells to use against the fae, and cold fire to use against critters from Hell. Aren't the protagonists of these stories supposed to start out with, you know, a kobold or something?
It's also played for comic effect, especially in the way the real world clashes with ancient mythology. We have a hunt goddess delighted to discover a new species of bighorn sheep in Arizona; a law firm that includes a blood-sucking vampire (get it?) and a pack of werewolves more than usually attentive to the corporate hierarchy; and a coven of witches, the youngest of whom (age 90) sticks her tongue out and throws tantrums, while dressed as a spoiled valley girl. Worth the read, but as brain candy, not meat.
Mr. Deeds Goes to the Country: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut
"It's still possible for an American to make a fortune on his own---provided somebody tells him when he's young enough that there IS a Money River, that there's nothing fair about it, that he had damn well better forget about hard work and the merit system and honesty and all that crap, and get to where the river is. 'Go where the rich and powerful are,' I'd tell him, 'and learn their ways. They can be flattered, and they can be scared. Please them enormously or scare them enormously, and one moonless night they will put their fingers to their lips, warning you not to make a sound. And they will lead you through the dark to the widest, deepest river of wealth ever known to man. You'll be shown your place on the riverbank, and handed a bucket all your own. Slurp as much as you want, but try to keep the racket of your slurping down. A poor man might hear.'"
One of Vonnegut's simpler parables, with shades of Capra. I last read Vonnegut back in high school, when I thought he was Godlike, and I haven't picked him up since for fear that age and maturity might have spoiled him for me. Both The Breakfast Club and Catcher in the Rye turned my world upside down when I was a teenager, had me wandering around looking at the stars rethinking life and redefining the kind of person I wanted to be--and then when I tried them again a few years later, I was shocked and thought, "Those 'protagonists' are horrible people! Why did I ever think something like that was profound?"
I shouldn't have worried. Vonnegut still kicks ass. At least, GByMR does. It involves an eccentric millionaire who moves to a firehouse in a small town in Indiana, where he sits all day by a hotline (suicide prevention stickers and graffiti in phone booths and restrooms all over America urge the down and out to call it), helping people, giving money away, and speaking like some combination of Jesus, H.L. Mencken and john Lennon. Naturally, the lawyers for his next of kin are trying to have him declared insane so that they can get at the money. It's funny, touching, wise, and short enough to read in full in an hour or two. Highly recommended.
Fiends With Benefits: Bloodsucking Fiends, by Christopher Moore
She let go of the beam and dropped to the floor. Tommy backed away from her to the bed and sat down.
"If you want to leave, I'll understand," she said.
"When we were making love...you were cold inside."
"Look, I didn't mean to hurt you."
Tommy's eyes were wide. "You really are a vampire, aren't you?"
"I'm sorry. I needed help. I needed someone."
"You really are a vampire." It was a statement this time.
"Yes, Tommy, I am."
He paused for a second to think, then said, "That's the coolest thing I've ever heard. Let's do it with our shoes off."
Christopher Moore is one of my favorite living writers, and the least likely of my favorites to be recognized by my geek friends (when I go to conventions and sing book-based songs, the one based on I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings is the book the fewest people have heard of), which strikes me as odd since Moore is utterly, fabulously geeky, and his books totally count as genre fiction, though they're not generally classified as such.
Bloodsucking Fiends is a vampire story, set in San Francisco, and it is laugh-out-loud funny, adventurous and thought provoking all at once. I read it out loud to The Redhead during a long road trip, and we both loved it. The long distance drive time passed quickly. SHE is a young professional, newly made into a vampire, discovering her new powers and limitations, and scared as all get out. HE is an aspiring writer, newly moved to the city from the midwest, working the night-loading shift in a supermarket (the scenes where he and the rest of the night crew pass the time in the supermarket bowling with frozen turkeys and using the floor-scrubbing machine as a jet-ski are alone worth the price of the book). She hires him to meet her daytime needs while she sleeps, and of course, they fall in love. Comic mayhem ensues.
Very highest recommendations. As with most of the other Moore I've read, everything about it is squee-out-loud wonderful. Just read it.
Translator's Scary Nocturnal Vision: A Void, by Georges Perec, translated by Gilbert Adair
"So why that odd postscript?"
"I thought at first it was a phony. My hunch, now, is that it was his only option. Anton had to go out on a full stop, so to say. Possibly, his wish was to transmit a signal to us that wasn't so ambiguous, but, not having such a pithy communication at his disposal...
"Nothing is as cryptic as a void," murmurs Amaury.
I don't normally acknowledge the translator of a foreign language book I read, but Gilbert Adair is my new hero. I didn't read Perec's book so much as Adair's. The English translation, not attempted until 25 years after the 1969 original French, is remarkable not because it's a pleasure to read, or because it's smooth enough to not look like a translation (it isn't, although I suspect it has this in common with the original), but because it was done at all. Which is true of the original.
Georges Perec wrote a 300 book without ever using the letter E.
Seriously. That's the whole point of the book. No Es. If that intrigues you and is your idea of a good read, have at it. If it makes you back away slowly, you're free to do that.
Perec postured as a demented genius. You can tell by the way he chose to pose for his author photo on the book, grinning out at us with bug-eyes and feral hair. He apparently loved wordplay, had oodles of time on his hands, and made a point of tackling every literary genre and technique once, without ever doing anything twice. A Void, while being clunky and incoherent as a matter of course, is nominally a political thriller. A conspiracy nut named Anton Vowl (get it?) suddenly goes missing (get it?), leaving "a void" (just like the letter Perec tries to "avoid" in the book). Vowl's worried friends search for him, and begin to comb through his diary, looking for clues as to where he may be.
Get it? Get it? How very clever Perec is! His cleverness either has you enthralled or begging him to stop. (Stop, Georges, you're killing me!)
But wait, there's more! Inside the diary are mangled E-less rewritten famous quotations, such as "William Shakspar's 'to go on living or not to go on living' stanzas", or the complete poem attributed to "Arthur Gordon Pym", about a blackbird who says "Not again". Which Perec mis-translated from English to French, and Adair translated back into English, without any Es and keeping the meter straight. Do you see why I admire Adair so much, even though the book sucks?
It's like one of those recurring Saturday Night Live characters that some Hollywood idiot milks into a full-length movie although it can barely sustain a ten minute comedy sketch. It's like some agonizing physical skill that is neither entertaining nor useful, like mastering the art of not blinking for over 20 minutes at a time. I mean, maybe you could win a bet with it, but that's it. No matter how clever you are, there is no way around having to expand little words like "me" and "be" or "the" into clunky three-word phrases each and every time. Sure, the feat was all the more impressive for having continued through 300 pages, but he should have been content with proving he could do it with a short story, that might at least have had a coherent plot.
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