What I read last month.
Still giving a focus to the Medieval era while making time for other thins, it got interesting as I reached the Islamic Golden Age, which coincided with Europe's Dark Ages, and had to read the Koran. In fact, due to a quirk in my scheduling, I read scripture from Moses, Jesus and Mohammed all in one month, and was struck with the similarities, differences and dark glass in all three. My less than reverent commentary on the scripture, and on some related works by and about Arabs, appears below.
Also, to avoid being spoiled by the ubiquitous internet commentary as the TV series unfolds, I read season three of Game of Thrones. Oops, I mean Storm of Swords, and wrote on of my longer reviews about it, hopefully without much in the way of spoilers. Plus (of particular interest to political enthusiasts) the first half of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the last of the Swallows and Amazons series, and much more. Enjoy!
It Can’t Happen Here: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (first half), by Edward Gibbon
Fortunately for mankind, the more useful, or at least, the more necessary arts, can be performed without superior talents or national subordination; without the powers of ONE, or the union of MANY. Each village, each family, each individual, must always possess both ability and inclination to perpetuate the use of fire and of metals; the propagation and service of domestic animals; the methods of hunting and fishing; the rudiments of navigation; the imperfect cultivation of corn, or other nutritive grain; and the simple practice of the mechanic trades. Private genius and public industry may be extirpated, but these hardy plants survive the tempest, and strike an everlasting root into the most unfavorable soil. The splendid days of Augustus and Trajan were eclipsed by a cloud of ignorance, and the Barbarians subverted the laws and palaces of Rome. But the scythe, the invention or emblem of Saturn, still continued annually to mow the harvests of Italy, and the human feasts of the Lestrygonians have never been renewed on the coast of Campania.
Since the first discovery of the arts, war and religious zeal have diffused, among the savages of the Old and New world, these inestimable gifts. They have been successively propagated; they can never be lost. We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion, that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.
Besides the Bible, there are two gigantic tomes relevant to the Middle Ages that I’ve been reading in bits this year and that I expect will take the whole year to get through. One is Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, which can wait for an entry later on. The other is Gibbon’s six-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written in the 18th Century but describing pretty much the 1200-year period I’m focusing on in 2013.
Except it’s really in two halves. The first three volumes cover the third, fourth and fifth centuries, respectvely, in great detail, climaxing with the extinction of the Roman Empire in the west in 476 and leaving 900 years of the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire for the other half of the work. Because the first half constitutes the “fall of Rome” as most people today understand it, and because the reduction of what eurocentrics consider “the entire civilized world as it was known at the time” to a state of utter anarchy and a thousand years of misery still fascinates and divides people, as does the question of whether the modern western world is headed in a similar direction right now, the first half is worth a little consideration on its own.
Consider the passage I quoted above, which is possibly the most optimistic section in all of Gibbon. I don’t know about you, but in my life, there seem to be a LOT of SCAdians, Mormons, Survivalists, Left-Behind types and people just fed up with international industry run rampant, who for one reason or another are going back to the kind of cottage industry and self-sufficient, off-grid existence described by Gibbon. Because Peak Oil, or deficit spending, or hordes of barbarians from China or Mexico, or nuclear war, or global climate change, or zombies or chemical-induced Monsanto famine, or whatever disaster floats your boat, is going to end Western Sypphilization in our lifetimes, and when the electricity and the internet go off and the supermarkets cease to have food, we’d better be ready, right? These warnings may seem like ridiculous Chicken Little squawkings, or like sensible warnings that those with ears, let them hear. The point is, Gibbon’s analysis of ancient history is topical and fascinating, and though the work runs into the thousands of pages, it’s worth it and is remarkably easy to read, as academic histories go.
Gibbon was neither a liberal nor a conservative, at least not so you’d notice from his great book, but his statements of the reasons Rome fell have much for both the left and the right to point to righteously, and to denounce. According to Gibbon, the main mistakes Rome made, that we should beware of today, include the following:
• They exempted the rich from paying taxes, and so the Roman economy tanked and there was no money to either feed the people or to sustain the endless border wars against the barbarians.
• The best, wisest, and most virtuous families practiced family planning, including (shudder) abortion, while the lean, hungry barbarian invaders, and the stupidest Romans, bred like rabbits.
• Rome attempted to have both a welfare state and open borders, which was not economically sustainable.
• Once the Christians got their feet in the door, it was all over. Christians cared more about the afterlife than about their families and their country; left necessary work to contemplate God, and simultaneously failed to fight the barbarians and fomented civil strife over religion within Rome.
• The military-industrial complex became de facto rulers of the empire. First, they selected Emperors friendly to themselves, by force; and then, having established themselves as rulers, they lost the discipline needed to be an effective military. In fact, by the end of the Empire, most of the once-undefeatable Roman Legions had been replaced with mercenary troops with questionable loyalty (see “open borders”, above)
• The Stoic ideal of community and duty was replaced with uncontrolled individualism, with disastrous results. Hence, when Ostrogoths across the Danube were conquered by Huns, individual Roman bureaucrats FIRST allowed them to cross safely into Roman territory, SECOND, accepted bribes to let the refugees keep their weapons against the emperor’s orders, and THIRD oppressed and subjugated the refugees to the point where they rose up in revolt. Those three things together made up a mind-bogglingly stupid policy. Another example: time and again, two contenders, say a governor and a general, would be competing for power over a Roman province. One faction would be winning, and the other faction, as a last gambit, would go over to the barbarians, and help them to invade and take the province, after which the barbarians would contemptuously kill both the one they conquered and the traitor who helped them.
• The loss of mobility within Roman society led to rigidity and decay at all levels, such that the ruling class became corrupt and out of touch; the aristocracy fat and lazy; the mercantile class greedy and self-centered; the military brutal and stupid; the peasants utterly, utterly degraded.
• Wars far on the over-extended frontier drained the treasury, depended on long, fragile supply lines, and kept the soldiers far away, enhancing civil unrest at home.
What do you think? Any of that look familiar to you?
Gibbon has a gift for the memorable turn of phrase. In the middle of a particularly dry passage, he’ll say something like, “The consequence, of course, was that the carrion eating birds of the area enjoyed very frequent and delicious feasts all up and down the Appian Way.” The book is interesting because he wrote about the most awful of “Interesting Times”.
Very highest recommendations.
Old Testament: Numbers, Deuteronomy
Now when the people complained, it displeased the Lord, for the Lord heard it, and His anger was aroused. So the fire of the Lord burned among them, and consumed some in the outskirts of the camp. Then the people cried out to Moses, and when Moses prayed to the Lord, the fire was quenched.
If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in the land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs.
Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart, saying, “The seventh year, the year of jubilee, is at hand,” and your eye be evil against your poor brother and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the Lord against you, and it become sin among you. You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore, I command you, saying, “You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.
Numbers, as you may guess from the title and comparative dearth of references to it in popular culture, is the dullest of the first five books of the Bible. In Numbers, the Jews who left Egypt with Moses, and their descendants, take a census, and many names are given, classified by which of Jacob’s 12 sons they descended from. After that, they wander for 40 years in the desert, kvetching that they can’t have leeks and garlic to go with their manna from heaven. They get thirsty, and God tells Moses to talk to a rock. Moses says, “No, that’s stupid”, and for such blasphemy, God tells him he doesn’t get to enter the Promised Land after all that trouble. Then more Jews kvetch, and god smites them. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Deuteronomyis a whole new (mostly) set of laws handed down by Moses in his extreme old age. As opposed to Leviticus, it includes the most famous Jewish customs (the Kosher dietary rules, the Passover ritual, the Jubilee), as well as many unfortunate commands that have thankfully fallen by the wayside (such as stoning to death anyone who converts away from Judaism). It also contains what appear to be the actual ten commandments, which are different from the popular list found in Exodus, and may be what was actually on those stone tablets that Moses broke. These are more about showing proper servility to the Old Testament God at all times than about not killing or bearing false witness.
DID YOU KNOW: Under Deuteronomy you are allowed to go into your neighbor's vineyard and eat all the grapes you want, as long as you don't pack any away for later? That when harvesting your crops, you should leave a bit behind to be gleaned by the poor and needy? In general, Deuteronomy is a lot more humane than the previous books, which is a low bar to clear, and not so much if you own the vineyard your neighbor gets to eat from--except for all the minor things you get stoned to death for. And just about every other sentence is "And remember, I am the Lord Your God. Fear Me", or words to that effect. These are things people need to know to understand a lot of rituals still practiced today, but my does its age show.
New Testament: Matthew’s Gospel
Now, in the morning, as He returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the road, he came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it: “Let no fruit grow on you ever again!” Immediately the fig tree withered away.
--Matthew 21: 18-19
See that? It’s FIGS, you stupid Westboro Batshits! God hates FIGS!!!
Matthew has a reputation as the "friendly" Gospel. I think this is partly because, like Genesis, it's the first section of its Testament and therefore the one that the most people actually read, and partly because it's the basis for the Godspell musical that's performed somewhere in every town in America at least once every three years, and which is admittedly, a feel-good production. The main character is not usually referred to specifically as "Jesus", and is usually a gentle teacher who either wears a big Superman S on his shirt or wears random psychedelic colors and clown makeup, along with the other characters. John the Baptist and Judas are the same character, you can cast it without regard to race, gender or physical disability, according to the talents of your audition pool (I've seen at least one version where "Jesus" and John/Judas were the only female characters--and of course Judas was the hot ginger--, and another where they were the only males), and it's full of catchy gospel-y show tunes, and so everybody loves it. I've seen over a dozen productions, and they all make me leave the theater smiling and resolving to be a better, love-my-enemies, cast-not-stones, help-the-poor-and-the-prisoners kind of dude.
Guess what? Matthew's Gospel is not Godspell, even if many of the words are familiar. Godspell is about half of Matthew. It's the feel-good half, plus some popular stories like Rudy the Prodigal Son, which are not in Matthew at all. The rest of it--the part you didn't hear the catchy show tunes about, is pretty nasty.Like the part where he cheerfully plans to set neighbor against neighbor, and where he scolds someone who wants to follow him but thinks it might be important to take care of his deceased father's funeral first. Or when his mother's calling him, and he says that his followers are his real family now, and that people should choose between him and their own blood kin. How sharper than a serpent's tooth...
Another popular belief among 'liberal' Christians is that Jesus is the good cop and Saul/Paul is the bad cop, such that all the inconvenient parts of Christianity--the homophobia and the slavery apologists and threats of Hell and the left-behind and the Apocolypse are all from Paul's letters and John's Revelation, which don't count as much because those were mortal men who weren't even among the 12 apostles who did pal around with Jesus--but Christ himself--HE was all about lillies of the field and infinite mercy and forgiveness and unicorns and rainbows, right? No. Matthew's Jesus is a dickensian schoolmaster with a cane. He gets the sermon on the mount over with early in the gospel, and segues into many, many warnings of Hell and damnation, and not just for the scribes and pharisees, but for people who don't "keep enough oil in their lamps at all times" (meaning, failure to be prepared for Christ's return when you least expect it), or for those who follow false prophets, or for those who put family above serving Him. Which is pretty much a red flag for cult behavior.
Jesus is hardly alone in this. One interesting side-effect of reading the Gospel simultaneously with Moses and Mohammed (see elsewhere, this Bookpost) is noticing how similar they are as prophets and lawgivers. Earlier this year I complained in my Bookpost about how nonsensical the ravings of Isaiah and other Old Testament Prophets seemed to me, and this month I found that the Surahs of the Koran are even more so. This is because I was not the target market. They didn't preach in my time, not in my language, and not to my racial ancestors. And Matthew's gospel, as written in the King James, Gideon or Masonic translations, is no different. Skimming it, it has as much gibberish as those other big name Speakers for God. the reason those words usually resonate more with me is that they HAVE been adapted for my target market, and presented to me, often, as Godspell. Acted out, even. If I put as much time and energy and song into the rest of the Bible and the Koran--if there was a musical version of Isaiah featuring an Elvis impersonator as Isaiah, with a happy-go-lucky singing group of sidekicks to rejoice in and act out his prophecies, turning their swords into plowshares and lying down with lambs--could be every bit as Awesome as Matthew's Godspell. As it is, I only find them worth meeting halfway, which apparently isn't enough to inspire me to be one of the Faithful. Good thing, too.
Wazir Tabouleh Falafel? The Koran
IN the name of the merciful and compassionate God.
READ, in the name of thy Lord!
Who created man from congealed blood!
Read, for thy Lord is most generous!
Who taught the pen!
Taught man what he did not know!
Nay, verily, man is indeed outrageous at seeing himself get rich!
Verily, unto thy Lord is the return!
Hast thou considered him who forbids a servant when he prays?
Hast thou considered if he were in guidance or bade piety?
Hast thou considered if he said it was a lie, and turned his back?
Did he not know that God can see?
Nay, surely, if he do not desist we will drag him by the forelock!—the lying sinful forelock!
So let him call his counsel: we will call the guards of hell!
Nay, obey him not, but adore and draw nigh!
HUH? The whole book is like this! It might as well not have been translated for all the sense I can make out of it. Sorry; I’m not dumb, but for this one I’m going to have to get the Cliff Notes edition.
The Cliff Notes Edition: The Meaning of the Glorious Koran. An Explanatory Translation by Marmaduke Pickthall
The arrangement is not easy to understand. Revelations of various dates and on different subjects are to be found together in one surah; verses of Madinah revelation are found in Meccan surahs; some of the Madinah surahs, though of late revelation, are placed first and the very early Meccan surahs at the end. But the arrangement is not haphazard, as some have hastily supposed. Closer study will reveal a sequence and significance—as, for instance, with regard to the placing of the very early Meccan surahs at the end. The inspiration of The Prophet progressed from innermost things to outward things, whereas most people find their way through outward things to things within.
This is really a different translation of the Koran, with commentary above each of the 114 “surahs” (chapters). Apparently, translating the Koran from the original Arabic is one of the many, many things that is Forbidden, and so all translations are not called translations. They are called “commentaries” or “interpretations” and accompanied by such servile “please don’t kill me” groveling as to insert “glorious” in the title of the translation. This is less meaning and interpretation than it is the text of the book, in English.
Having read Moses, Jesus and now Mohammed all in one month, I marvel that these particular words have inspired so many people over the centuries. Mohammed especially, as he did not even claim to perform any miracles. He had dreams, wrote them down as scripture, and a nomadic people barely mentioned as footnotes in history prior to the seventh century suddenly rose up and, within a century, conquered an area larger than the Roman Empire (containing not much of Europe but going much deeper into the Sahara than Rome and including the entire Arabian peninsula, all of the Persian empire and extending to central Asia as far as Sind and the Aral sea). Once again, I’m going to assume a lot was lost in the translation, and the true believers may say that I have not been blessed to see the true beauty, wisdom and truth in the text.
The Koran is maybe one third as long as the New Testament. Of the 114 surahs, about half of them are the equivalent of psalms; about ten are as long as the books of the lesser prophets of the Old testament (see last month’s Bookpost), and the rest correspond roughly in length to chapters from books of the Bible. The Psalm surahs were composed in Mecca before the longer ones, which were composed in Medina, and yet the shorter ones are at the end.
It gets very repetitive. Mohammed refers many times to the early chapters of Exodus, especially the part where Moses does the stick-to-snake trick and the leprous hand trick before Pharaoh; he repeatedly asserts that there is none but the one God Allah; and he makes some references to Jacob and Joseph, and to the New Testament. More than any thing, Mohammed loves to emphasize the eternity of torments in Hell awaiting those who dare to doubt Mohammed, and how much misery there will be for them on that day and how they will say “Woe” and “Would that we had believed”. This is the major theme of the whole Koran.
On the other hand, unlike Moses and Jesus, Mohammed does at least attempt to describe the “good” afterlife in Paradise—the beautiful, well-watered garden that must have seemed wonderful beyond belief to a desert people; the 72 virgins; the best food and companionship. Further, for all the torture and damnation, there is little to no urging for followers to go forth and kill the nonbelievers, the immodest women, the Jews, and people who draw pictures of him. It’s hard to call it a work of “peace” exactly, but most of the viciousness associated with modern radical Islam, like that of the Fundamentalist Christians and the Ultraorthodox Jews, appear to have been made up by followers after the founder of the religion was no longer present and directly addressing the congregation.
A River in Egypt: The Cairo Trilogy, by Naguib Mahfouz
How often he remembered with sorrow the time not so far distant when he and his mother shared a bed. He would fall asleep, his head resting on her arm, while she filled his ear with the sound of her gentle voice recounting stories of prophets and saints. He would be asleep before his father returned from his night out and wake only after the man had risen to bathe. He would not see anyone else with his mother. The world belonged to him and he had no rival. Then a blind decree that made no sense had separated them. He had looked to her to see what impact his banishment had made on her.
How startled he had been by her encouragement, which implied that she had agreed with the decision. She had congratulated him, saying, “Now you’ve become a man. You have a right to a bed of your own.” Who said it would make him happy to become a man or that he craved a bed of his own? Although he had soaked his first private pillow with his tears and warned his mother he would never forgive her so long as he lived, he had never dared slip back into his former bed. He knew that behind that treacherous, tyrannical action crouched his father’s unalterable will. How sad he had been. The dregs of sorrow embittered his dreams. How furious he had been with his mother, not just because it was impossible for him to be furious at his father but because she was the last person he thought would disappoint his hopes. She knew, though, how to appease him and gradually cheer him up.
It’s a family saga, like The Forsyte Saga (Bookpost, April 2010) or Buddenbrooks (February 2009), or even 100 Years of Solitude (March 2013), where the focus shifts over the course of a very long book from the ancestors to people who weren’t even born at the start of the book, usually with an emphasis on how much things change over the course of generations, or maybe how it all comes around in a full circle. This one just happens to take place in Egypt (The Cairo Trilogy seems to me to be an equal and opposite stark prose contrast to the much more poetic Alexandria Quartet--see Bookpost, January 2012—also Egyptian).
Mahfouz is the only Arab to have won the Noble Prize for literature, as of this date, and he won it largely on the strength of The Cairo Trilogy, which owes its fame largely to the strength of the central character, Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who is as much a household name in Egypt as Babbit or gatsby or Archie bunker are in America. Probably especially Archie Bunker—both Bunker and al-Jawad were made on purpose for assholes to think of as the good guy while intellectuals laughed at him behind his back. The tale begins during WWI, at a time when men were patriarchs and the al-Jawads of the Arab world lorded it over their families like moral tyrants while visiting brothels on the side. The wives were like Celie in The Color Purple (Bookpost, March 2010) in that the system gives them no power, but they make their small corner of the world their own, and somehow were the engines that made the world run. The youn ones, like Kamal, and the younger ones after him, like Ahmad the communist and Abd al-Muni’m the Islamic militant, question the old ways and reject many of them as stupid.
And that is how things change over geologic time. If you hadn’t noticed, it may be because between the 1950s in which Mahfouz wrote the trilogy and today’s times, what was a time of great and liberal change in the Middle East was largely reversed by the rise of a new wave of fundamentalist militants who turned the clock back in a big way. Good thing that could never happen in America, eh?
The Medieval Murders: The Holy Thief, by Ellis Peters. The Templar & The Templar Magician, by P.C. Doherty
He was about to urge her to let well alone and trust heaven to do justice, but then he had a sudden vision of heaven’s justice as the church sometimes applied it, in good but dreadful faith, with all the virtuous narrowness and pitilessness of minds blind and deaf to the infinite variety of humankind, its failings, and aspirations, and needs, and forgetful of all the Gospel reminders concerning publicans and sinners. And he thought of songbirds caged, drooping without air to play on the cords of their throats, without heart to sing, and knew that they might well die. Half humanity was here in this lean, dark girl beside him, and that half of humanity had its right to reason, determine and meddle, no less than the male half. After all, they were equally responsible for humankind continuing. There was not an archbishop or abbot in the world who had not a flesh and blood mother, and come of a passionate coupling.
--from The Holy Thief
No quarter was given. To walk the streets was to tread on a carpet of corpses. The Turks fled to caves beneath the ground, but the Franks pursued them, pouring in sulphur and fire to kill them before going down themselves to search for any plunder. The Turks fought desperately, some even committing suicide rather than surrender. Marrat fell, and as Peter Bartholomew trumpeted, “What a fall!” Once again the Frankish leaders met to quarrel over who owned what. Meanwhile the rest of the army were reduced to desperate means as food supplies swiftly disappeared. The corpses of Turks had been ripped open to search for coins and gems they might have swallowed.
--from The Templar
A time of turbulence, of visions, portents and warnings! Heaven glowers at us because we have lost our way! Our souls, with their open ulcers, will go to hell on crutches. Around us, nothing but hollow graves, rotten and rotting corpses. Water may soak the earth. Blood soaks the heavens and calls on God’s justice to flash out like lightning. The sins committed in close and secret chambers will be paraded along the spacious pavements and squares of hell, where the rack, the gallows and the torture wheels stand black against the eternal flames of God’s wrath. I urge you to repent! We have taken Jerusalem, but we have lost our way.
--from The Templar Magician
See last month’s bookpost about my thoughts and love for Brother Cadfael in general. The Holy Thief is classic Cadfael, complete with clerics both harsh and soft, a pair of lovers, one of which is accused of murder, and a whole lot of warm and cozy reflections on various human souls, present even in a time of long rain when the abbey at Shrewsbury is threatened by floods. The events of A Morbid Taste for Bones are referred to in depth here, and so you really need to read that one first. If you’ve read the tales in order up to this point, you’ll be very familiar with the standard pattern for solving the crime. I knew the main villain before there were even any clues dropped; however, at least part of the solution completely caught me off guard—the only time in nineteen books in which that has happened. So if you think it’s all that easy, think again, and stop to think some more when you get to the part where various contenders for the possession of a certain relic are about to seek divine guidance by each opening the scripture to a random point.
The Templar is barely a murder mystery at all. There’s a crime stuck in almost as an afterthought, but the main focus is on the siege of Antioch during the Crusades, and on the founding of the Templars by Europeans who felt it part of their “religious freedom” to burn entire cities and kill surrendering civilians to get at various relics from the Holy Land and take them to France and England, where they clearly belonged. A key moment in history captured in the novel is the part where Peter Bartholomew really did discover one of about five existing old spears said to be the very lance with which Jesus was stabbed on the cross, and which really did inspire the crusaders with enough zealotry to turn the tide of the battle. Knock out about 20 pages of “mysterious” crime, and you’re left with 280 pages of historical novel concerning actual crimes against humanity, with no more mystery about it than the age old question of how belief in God can inspire so much evil in people.
The Templar Magician is a sequel taking place about 50 years after the first Templar, and containing a few of the same characters. It spans Tripoli, the Valley of the Assassins, and London toward the end of King Stephen’s reign—some characters, like Mandeville and Eustace, will be familiar to readers of the Cadfael books as well as to real historians. Unlike the first, this is less about actual history and more about interpretation, giving alternative theories to several famous deaths in an era when life was short; and exploring several historical rumors of witchcraft and sacrilege.
I Am the Eggman: Great Northern?, by Arthur Ransome
“Eggs of the Great Northern Diver, found here for the first time! Don’t you see, man? Unique. Absolutely unique. It’ll mean that every bird book so far written is out of date...Witherby, Coward, Morris, evans...all the lot of them, confuted by the Jemmerling collection...I’ll have the eggs, the actual nesting site, copied exactly, the birds themselves, shot in the presence of witnesses. You shall be a witness yourself and have your place in history. Proof. Proof. That is everything. The incredible thing must be proved beyond all manner of doubt...”
“But if you take the eggs and kill the birds they won’t be nesting there any more.”
“What matters is to prove the new scientific fact that they have nested. There’s an old saying: what’s hit’s history, and what’s missed’s mystery. We must have the proof, once and for all...in the Jemmerling collection.”
This is the final book in Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, and in some respects, the most satisfying. I discovered the series when I was much too old for it (Bookpost, September 2010), decided I didn’t care, and have been reading it anyway over the last four years.
By now, the swallows and amazons who made an adventure out of sailing on the lake by their houses in the first book are exploring the Hebrides and probably teenagers. Dick discovers a rare bird nesting where that species supposedly never nests, and must save the nest from a wicked egg-collector who wants to take the birds and eggs for his collection. I read it simultaneously with other books in this months entry, books that explore murder, insanity, great historical events, Heaven and Hell—and it amazes me how well Ransome, even against that background, manages to convey such a sense of importance and urgency about one pair of Great Northern Divers on a loch in the middle of nowhere. The swallows and amazons prepare to photograph the birds and elude the collector with as much fervor as if they were averting the end of the world. And yes, it’s delightful.
There’s always a certain wistfulness at the end of a series. There’s a sense of loss saying goodbye to John, Nancy, Dick and the rest of the kids whose exuberant “Swallows and Amazons Forever!” appears on the cover of each book, but I know I’ll be reading them to my son one day. Those of us with children don’t really have to put away childish things.
They hate us for our freedom”: Islam in History, by Bernard Lewis
From this diversity of Islamic society arises a second feature, particularly striking to the European observer—it’s comparative tolerance. Unlike his western contemporaries, the medieval muslim rarely felt the need to impose his faith by force on all who were subject to his rule. Like them, he knew well enough that in due time those who believed differently would burn in Hell. Unlike them, he saw no point in anticipating the divine judgment in this world. At most times, he was content to be of the dominant faith in a society of many faiths. He imposed on others certain social and legal disabilities in token of his primacy, and gave them an effective reminder if ever they seemed disposed to forget it. Otherwise he left them their religious, economic and intellectual freedom, and the opportunity to make a notable contribution to his own civilization.
I went into this book expecting anti-Arab propaganda, knowing nothing more about Lewis than his work with the Bush Administration drumming up support for a fake war against Iraq. As it turns out, prior to the 21st century, Lewis was an innovative historian of remarkable integrity, whose disgrace ranks him with Colin Powell among basically decent people ruined by an evil government that used him and spit him out.
In fact, after foundering with the Koran, with Gibbon’s and Durant’s blurbs about Arab history, and even Mahfouz’s 20th century novel, I found Islam in History essential in putting it all together to the point where I can claim some small understanding of a culture very different from my own, that is almost never displayed to Americans without tainted glosses of “otherness”.
Prior to Mohammed, Arabic culture was all but ignored in the Greco-Roman dominated western world. Babylon, Persia, Alexander and the Roman empire maybe went exploring the Arabian Peninsula a little, but found it a barely inhabitable desert with some nomads, not even worth the trouble of conquering. Suddenly, between 611 and 711 AD, these nomads conquered an empire larger than Rome’s, stretching from Spain through Africa, Arabia and Persia into India, and the European “Dark Ages” in which almost nothing happened coincided with a golden age of Islamic Caliphates and kingdoms, arguably making possible the continuation of Western Civ, as it was largely the Arabs who preserved the few non-Christian ancient texts that survive. According to Lewis, the tale of Muslims burning the Library of Alexandria and all its works is false; Christians had already destroyed the Great Library centuries before Mohammed existed.
As it turns out, the “history of Islam” worth writing about lasted from Mohammed until some time in the Eleventh Century, by which time the Caliphates were broken and replaced with nation-states, and then ended until the Twentieth Century. The intervening 900+ years, spanning the Turks and the Europeans, is summed up in a single chapter, “Islam in Decline”, while a few chapters at the end summarize the shaking off of Europe, the reactions to the creation of Israel, the Shia revolutions, and ending (the book was written in 1993) on the first (the good) Iraq War. Would that Lewis had stopped there.
No way to control it. It’s up to the Ottomans.
Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing: Hyperion, by Friedrich Holderlin
You breezes that nourished me in tender childhood, and you dark laurel woods, and you cliffs of the shore, and you majestic waters that taught my spirit to sense greatness—and O! you images of mourning, where my melancholy began, you holy walls with which the heroic cities are girded, and you ancient gates through which many beautiful wayfarers passed, you temple pillars and you rubble of the gods! And you, O Diotima! And you valleys of my love, and you brooks that once saw the blessed figure, you trees where she found joy, and you springtimes in which she lived, the fair maiden with the flowers, do not depart, do not depart from me! Yet if it shall be, you sweet remembrances! Then you expire too, and leave me, for man can change nothing, and the light of life comes and departs as it will.
This one went in one eye and out the other. Holderlin was one of those German Romantic poets from the Goethe era, and Hyperion was his only novel. It’s a short one, and not surprisingly, it’s more of a long prose-poem than a tale with a beginning, middle and end. It is devoted more to describing people and places than to telling a story.
The plot, such as it is, has the title character discovering ancient Greek civilization, experiencing an emo friendship and a love affair that consists more of admiring the loved one and getting emo than actually loving, and getting involved in a war against the Turks. It’s told in the form of a series of letters to his friend Bellarmin, who sends no replies that we know of. It might as well be a journal. It is so devoid of the sense of an ending that the final words of the book are “More soon.” I’m not sure whether Holderlin died before finishing the book or not.
Those of you who like Bildungsromans might enjoy this one, or be able to explain to me what I missed, even. I had similar problems with Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister.
Museum Murders: The Murder Room, by P.D. James
And at that moment it happened. A mobile phone began ringing, shattering the silence, as startling and ominous as a fire alarm. There was no doubt from where it came. All their eyes turned to the trunk. For Kate the few seconds before anyone moved or spoke seemed to stretch into minutes, a suspension of time in which she saw the group frozen into a tableau, every limb as fixed as if they were dummies. The tinny ringing continued.
Then Calder-Hale spoke, his voice deliberately light. “Someone seems to be playing tricks. Juvenile but surprisingly effective.”
It was Muriel Godby who acted. Scarlet-faced, she burst out with “Stupid, stupid!” and before anyone could move, dashed to the trunk, knelt and lifted the lid.
The stench rose into the room, overpowering as a gas.
The catch here is that the passage above takes place in the famous crimes exhibit of a museum, and the trunk is the very trunk in which so-and-so was brutally murdered early in the 20th century.
Though published in 2003, The Murder Room follows the classic English mystery format. We are introduced to a small, family-owned museum by Hampstead Heath; one by one, we are shown various quirky family members, museum staff, etc., who desperately want the museum to continue operating as is; and finally, we meet the one trustee who is determined to shut the whole thing down and have it sold. Cue music in a dark minor key, and wait for the dead body to turn up, at the museum, in a way that copies one of the historic crimes exhibited in the “murder room.” Wait for the detective (James’s Adam Dalgliesh in this case) to turn up and brood about humanity. Wait for more copycat murders to come to light, probably but not necessarily of someone who witnessed something about an earlier murder. Find killer. Detective explains motive and clues. Everyone tut-tuts and has a cup of tea. Highly recommended for character and atmosphere.
Calvin and Hyde: Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg
From the moment, I conceived it decreed, not that I should be a minister of the gospel, but a champion of it; to cut off the enemies of the Lord from the face of the earth, and I rejoiced in the commission, finding it more congenial to to my nature to be cutting sinners off with the sword than to be haranguing them from the pulpit, striving to produce an effect which God, by his act of absolute predestination, had forever rendered impracticable. The more I pondered on these things, the more I saw of the folly and inconsistency of ministers in spending their lives striving and remonstrating with sinners in order to induce them to do that which they had it not in their power to do. Seeing that God had from all eternity decided the fate of every individual that was to be born of woman, how vain was it in man to endeavour to save those whom their Maker had, by an unchangeable decree, doomed to destruction. I could not disbelieve the doctrine which the best of men had taught me, and towards which he made the whole of the Scriptures to bear, and yet it made the economy of the Christian world appear to me as an absolute contradiction. How much more wise would it be, thought I, to begin and cut sinners off with the sword! For, till that is effected, the saints can never inherit the earth in peace. Should I be honoured as an instrument to begin this great work of purification, I should rejoice in it. But, then, where had I the means, or under what direction was I to begin? There was one thing clear, I was now the Lord’s and it behooved me to bestir myself in His service. Oh that I had an host at my command, then would I be as a devouring fire among the workers of iniquity!
This short but fascinating psychological thriller predates Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, The Turn of the screw, and The Picture of Dorian Gray by several decades, and probably influenced them all. It combines elements of all three and caps it off with a scathing indictment of the evils of Calvinism. Never having encountered Hogg before, I was thrilled at the reminder that, no matter how much I read and reread the established classics and new books, there will always be pre-20th century works yet for me to discover, that will rock my world on a first reading.
The book is in two parts. First, the omniscient narrator presents us with a series of reports of external views of a Scottish laird’s family, and events reportedly seen to happen among the jolly, social elder son and the brooding, Calvinist younger son, Robert Colwan, who is the main character. Colwan is depicted as a prig and an asshole, inexcusably antagonistic, vicious, and possibly a murderer by the end, and often seen in the company of a mysterious man who apparently has the power to shapeshift and look like other people.
After the “reports” climax into almost slapstick violence, gothic horror and procedural crime investigation, they abruptly end, and we get into the second part of the book, which is Colwan’s first person narrative of his life as a Calvinist, and the mysterious “friend” who incites him to become who he is.
The story can be read on several levels. Colwan could be a sociopathic asshole, or schizophrenic and insane, or he could really have a supernatural companion who might be the Devil, or worse, who might actually be doing God’s work, in a Calvinist Universe in which God is cruel and destroys people as part of some predestined plan. There are many (probably intentional) discrepancies between the story as told in external reports and as perceived by Colwan, and other discrepancies between Colwan’s own narrative and itself, and the ambiguity only enhances the amazing, disturbing effect of the book. Very highest recommendations.
It’s Springtime for Joffrey in Westeros: A Storm of Swords (Game of Thrones, vol. III), by George Arr-Arr Martin
”You are a perilous prize, ser. You sow dissension wherever you go. Even here....Do you know, Edmure Tully has offered a thousand golden dragons for your recapture?”
Is that all? “My sister will pay ten times as much.
“Will she?” That smile again, there for an instant, gone as quick. “Ten thousand dragons is a formidable sum. Of course, there is Lord Karstark’s offer to consider as well. He promises the hand of his daughter to the man who brings him your head.”
“Leave it to your goat to get it backward,” said Jamie.
Bolton gave a soft chuckle. “Harrion Karstark was captive here when we took the castle, did you know? I gave him all the Karhold men still with me and sent them off with Glover. I do hope nothing ill befell him at Duskendale...else Alys Karstark will be all that remains of Lord Rickard’s progeny.” He chose another prune. “Fortunately for you, I have no need of a wife. I wed the Lady Walda Frey when I was at The Twins.”
“Walda the Fair?”
“Walda the Fat. My Lord of Frey offered me my bride’s weight in silver for a dowry, so I chose accordingly.”
At least two more volumes, maybe more, haven’t even been published yet, but I have a working hypothesis as to how it will all end. Denaerys
of Pern and Ser Friendzone Ser Jorah will finally arrive, only to find that there is nothing left for the dragons to attack. All of Westeros will be a smoldering, uninhabitable mass of scorched earth, and every inhabitant will have been slain in this endless series of wars within wars, in which alliances shift on a whim and anyone who wins a game-changing victory against enemies is immediately backstabbed by friends.
Maybe if we’re lucky,
Miles VorkosiganTyrion Lannister and Honor Harrington Brienne of Tarth will have paired up and sensibly fled across the seas in time to raise many children who will be either invincible or completely wretched depending on whose genes they inherit for what traits (her strength and his charisma, or the other way around? Please, God...), but I doubt it. More likely, Tyrion will stay and continue to bail out his worthless, unappreciative family until one of them , Livia Cersei probably, kills him, while Brienne will have sworn an oath to serve someone who gives her unconscionable orders, and she’ll die committing atrocities, because oaths.
Jokes aside,Game of Thrones is possibly THE richest, most magnificent fiction series I’ve gotten into in a decade, with the most epic world, the most gut-wrenching plot twists, the most perfectly drawn, compelling, flawed, human characters, and the most rapier-witted dialogue. The double-meaning-filled verbal sparring matches between frenemies are alone worth their weight in fool’s gold. Having surfeited myself on the first two books (Bookposts, June and September 2012), I was partly resolved to wait and save the others for special occasions, but as it happens, season three of the HBO show is being aired as I type this, and every social media site I frequent is filled with peoples’ OMG posts about plot spoilers, and so I figured I’d better read the third book in the series now, before someone spilled the beans to me about, you know, that part.
Interestingly, at the same time, the video of Season One was finally made available at the library, and so I was able to introduce The Redhead to the whole concept at the same time (I’m on queue for Season Two, which will get to me some time this year). Among the bonus features was an interview with George R.R. Martin, in which he made my jaw drop by explaining that his big rule for Westeros is “No Bad Guys”. Everyone’s got a bit of good in them, including the villains. It’s all ambiguity.
Um, excuse me? Where’s the “ambiguity” in, say, Gregor Clegane? Or Craster? Or Balon Greyjoy or Mad King Aerys or most especially
Draco Malfoy JOFFREY??? Granted, there are villains like Cersei and Jamie and Theon and The Hound, who you can end up liking just a little at times (it’s almost comical when a Lannister other than Tyrion has stirrings of compassion. It’s like some exotic new food they’ve never seen before, and they don’t really want to try it even if it smells oddly good), but there are also people like Joffrey who are pure evil no matter what your moral compass.
Further, it’s hard to make the case for anyone being an equal and opposite force for Pure Good. In fact, after the first episode of Season One, The Redhead wasn’t sure if she wanted to continue, on the grounds that it appeared there was NO ONE genuinely likeable in the whole world of Westeros. Eddard begins the whole story by killing someone we know to be innocent, and continues at first as an enabler to King Robert’s coarse, misogynistic drunkenness. Tyrion is first seen in a NSFW scene debauching himself in a brothel; Denaerys and Jon are on unsteady adolescent legs, not yet aware of the steel at their cores;
Katniss Arya is sulking in the background, Bran is supposedly dead by the end of chapter one, and Brienne doesn’t even appear till the second book. They all come to grow on readers and viewers who take time to know them, but it does take time to know them, and even then they all of them have character flaws that muddy the moral waters, even the most honorable of them. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. In fact, the series raises a lot of questions about what virtue really is. Some of the most wrong decisions made are made out of a belief that loyalty, honor, duty, requires them, and that to do the clearly right thing would be the greater evil. Likewise, people are condemned for clearly right decisions. There’s a good deal to hate about Jamie Lannister, for example, but it’s a little crazy-making to me that his act, before the beginning of the series, of ridding the world of Mad King Aerys is the thing everyone hates MOST about him.
Bottom line: the true mark of a great storyteller is the power to evoke intense emotion in the reader, and Martin has this power to an uncommon degree. I felt an amazing amount of joy, and of intellectual pleasure, and fear and rage and bitter sorrow—the most infuriating parts of the book draw attention to real world evils that people should be aware of; they are not the kind of rage and sorrow that makes you think the author is a jerk (cough Butcher *cough).
Volume III brings even more characters, more corners of Westeros, more treachery. Villains get comeuppances and heroes shine. Danaerys in the slave market is destined to be one of the Great Scenes of genre lit, and
Inogo MontoyaPrince Oberyn is almost as badass, and the scenes around The Wall made me sorry I started out the series skimming them as dull. Weddings. More than one, in the midst of chaos. Who wouldn’t love weddings?
And then,....Oh George, HOW COULD YOU????
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