28 December 2011

Shakespeare on the OWS movement

Coriolanus, Act I, scene i:

Menenius: What work's, my countrymen, in hand? where you go
With bats and clubs? The matter? speak, I pray you.

First Citizen: Our business is not unknown to the senate; they have had inkling this fortnight what we intend to do, which now we'll show 'em in deeds. They say poor suitors have strong breaths: they shall know we have strong arms too.

Menenius: Why, masters, my good friends, mine honest neighbors,
Will you undo yourselves?

First Citizen: We cannot, sir, we are undone already.

Menenius: I tell you, friends, most charitable care
Have the patricians of you. For your wants,
Your suffering in this dearth, you may as well
Strike at the heaven with your staves as life them
Against the Roman state, whose course will on
The way it takes, cracking ten thousand curbs
Of more strong link asunder than can ever
Appear in your impediment. For the dearth,
The gods, not the patricians, make it, and
Your knees to them, not arms, must help. Alack,
You are transported by calamity
Thither where more attends you, and you slander
The helms o' the state, who care for you like fathers,
When you curse them as enemies.

First Citizen: Care for us! True, indeed! They ne'er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their store-houses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily, to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there's all the love they bear us.

20 December 2011

First tragedy; then farce

In light of the recent death of Kim Jong-Il, I had this stray thought that Pyongyang's dynasty is showing a remarkable resemblance to the first three emperors of the Roman Empire.

Kim Il-Sung => Caesar Augustus: The deified founder of the dynasty who created the political framework upon which it works (more or less) and saved the nation.

Kim Jong-Il => Tiberius: The reasonably competent despot who commanded the loyalty of the ruling elite largely because of his father's charisma, and whose suppport was broad but shallow and not heart-felt.

Kim Jong-Un => Caligula: The dissolute, far-too-young-to-have-this-job grandson of the first emperor whose reign will be short and bloody.

Fortunately for the world at large, North Korea is not the hegemon that Rome was in its day, but the prospects for the peninsula, at least, don't look promising.

04 December 2011

Malcolm - RIP

Malcolm - c. 2000 - 22 November 2011

Soon after moving in to the apartment complex where I live, me and Malcolm met. I work a second shift and normally get home around 11:45 or so in the evening. One night, I was walking along the path from the carpark to the apartment when I saw two feline figures run across the path and into the bushes. As I came abreast of the bushes, I saw that one of the cats remained under the bush - a black-and-white kitten who was mewling piteously. Figuring that mom would come back as soon as my offensive presence was removed, I continued on.

However, I grew curious about the kitten's fate so - after about 45 minutes - I went back outside only to find the poor little guy still under the bush, still crying. So - against common sense, which is often wrong anyway - I picked him up and brought him inside.

Malcolm (aka, The Niblet, as he was known while still a kitten) smoothly fit in with my other at-the-time four cats - Emma, The Monkey, Calvin & Meggie - and he proved to be a good natured, friendly and very special little cat (even if he never saved me from a life-threatening situation or parlayed his good looks into a lucrative (for me) career hawking pet-related products).

For the last six months he'd been gamely battling severe kidney disease. Part of his medical problems included increasingly severe anemia and uremic ulcers developing in his mouth (which made it difficult for him to eat and made his saliva bloody). On the 22nd, his mouth began bleeding uncontrollably and I rushed him to the vet's. Dr. Dais, our "family" physician, wasn't there but my second favorite vet, Dr. Kelban, was. She took a look at Malcolm and recommended that it might be best to put him to sleep. I had always known that we would reach this point sooner or later - At what point did his quality of life become so bad that I should let him go.

I just didn't wake up Tuesday morning expecting that this would be the day that I would have to make the decision.

But he was losing weight, the numbers in his blood/urine analyses were getting worse and worse, he could hardly eat and he was spitting up blood. The vet wrapped Malcolm up in a warm blanket and let me have some time to say good-bye. Then we put him to sleep.

He will be missed.

11 November 2011

Why Shakespeare really is Shakespeare...

I haven't seen the new film Anonymous, which purports to explore the question of who "Shakespeare" was, but I am squarely in the camp that believes that the man known as William Shakespeare wrote the plays that are attributed to him.

I subscribe to The New York Review of Books, and in Nov. 24th's edition there's an essay by Garry Wills, "Shakespeare and Verdi in the Theater," where he touches upon the issue while discussing Verdi's three Shakespearean operas. I found his defense interesting since it comes from the POV of theatrical logistics rather than a historical or literary one:

"Thus, in the modern theater, performers are fitted to the play, but in Shakespeare's time, the play was fitted to the performers.... Nothing could be more absurd than the idea of the Earl of Oxford writing a long woman's part without knowing whether the troupe had a boy capable of performing it. Only Shakespeare, who knew and wrote for and acted with and coached John Rice, knew what he could do and how to pace him from play to play....

"Shakespeare was not a full-time writer without other responsibilities.... But what might look like a distraction for such authors...was a strength for Shakespeare, since it made him a day-by-day observer of what the troupe could accomplish, actor by actor. The company was, after all, mounting plays with bewildering rapidity, studying, memorizing, and rehearsing in the morning and evening while performing in the afternoon. Without that experience, Shakespeare could not have written as he did. Lord Bacon or the Earl of Oxford, writing in their homes, could not have known such things. As Ivor Brown says, 'Shakespeare was a smuch on and around a stage as in his study.'"

24 July 2011

Book Reviews: What I read in the first half of 2011 (Part 2)

I would have gotten this second part of my now traditional biannual book-review blog out of the way Friday but I had a what-turned-out-to-be-minor medical emergency: One of my older cats, Emma, who suffers from Irritable Bowel Disease, began spitting up blood so I rushed her to the vet. As she was otherwise fine, Dr. Dais thinks she may have ruptured a capillary in her gut when she threw up that day's breakfast (usually Emma can keep her food down but I have now decisively proven that "beef" should not be part of her diet).

But now back to my reading in 2011 (the nonfiction shelf):

The Rise of the Greeks, Michael Grant: This was the usual Grant - a well researched, readable synopsis. In this case, Greece prior to the Persian Wars and the dominance of Athens and Sparta, when the other city-states tended to fade into the background. I enjoyed the work as it filled in a gap in my understanding of ancient Greek history.

Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, Bart Ehrmann: I've been less and less satisfied with Ehrmann's recent books. They read like slightly altered versions of his earlier stuff, which is well written and interesting. Truth and Fiction's problem is that I've read this stuff before and better written in his earlier books like Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture & the Faiths We Never Knew or Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible & Why.

War Is Not Over When It's Over, Ann Jones: This book recounts stories of the effects of war and its aftermath on (primarily) women. It's very graphic and very depressing - human beings can be extraordinarily inhuman, and the situation grows worse as the only response we seem capable of giving to the myriad crises besetting us is violence.

The Atoms of Language, Mark Baker: Baker wants to begin looking at language in terms of the elements (atoms) that it's composed of rather than historically. To that end he proposes a Table of Language Elements, and makes some interesting points along the way.

The Poison King, Adrienne Mayor: This is a biography of Mithradates VI of Pontus, who was the last significant opponent to Roman expansion in the East. It's OK but Mayor has an annoying tendency (which is becoming too common in many biographies) of overspeculation, imagining the thoughts of her subject without any support. Which is a shame, because when she's capable of informed, reasonable and supportable speculation when she bothers.

I'd still recommend it for all its flaws because they are relatively minor and when Mayor sticks close to her sources, the book has valuable information.

The Languages of China, Robert Ramsey: Moderately dated (1987) but an interesting overview of (naturally) the languages of China.

Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt: A collection of essays by the late Judt about the deterioration of the Left and the socialist and welfare-state policies of Europe and the US in the last 30 years. It's an indictment of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Left and a call to reorganzie and reaffirm the humanistic and Enlightenment theories that undergird socialism.

Endgame, vol. 1-2, Derrick Jensen: This book deserves a blog all its own (and it may get one eventually) but for now the interested can read my review on GoodReads. In a nutshell, Jensen argues that it was a major mistake for Paleolithic man to turn to agriculture. The only sustainable lifestyle is a hunting-gathering one, and the advent of civilization institutionalized and regularized exploitation and violence as the normal way of life; a way of life that is destroying life on this planet.

I followed this book up with Spencer Wells' Pandora's Seed, which essentially argues the same point, but from a decidedly more optimistic POV. It isn't on the "official list" only because I started it in July so I'll throw it up on the year-end book-review round up.

20 July 2011

Book Reviews: What I read in the first half of 2011 (Part 1)

Time management.

Competent time-management skills are something I have not cultivated to any great extent. If I had, if there had ever been some reason for me to do so, this post would be dated closer to July 1 than July 21.

But "better late than never," to use an over-ripe cliche:

The first six months of 2011 were, as one might expect, a mixture of really good reading, good but not memorable stuff, and prose that should never have escaped from the writer's word-processing program.

In fiction:

The Next Queen of Heaven, Gregory Maguire: The only other Maguire novel I've ever read is his debut, Wicked. In that book, I enjoyed the subversive take on the classic Wizard of Oz but wasn't blown away by the writing and haven't followed the subsequent book in the series. Queen was in impulse buy based on the book's blurb but what it promised wasn't delivered.

The Tablet of the Law, Thomas Mann: This was the first Mann work I've ever read and I was enthralled. It's a novella really - a very short read - but packed. It's Mann's retelling of the Exodus myth, and I highly recommend it.

The Duel (Pavear translation), Anton Chekhov: I picked up this English translation of the Chekhov novella at the same time I picked up Queen. I have been a Chekhov fan for years and I had read other translations but I've been hearing good things about the Pavear/Volokhonsky outpouring of translations for this author and others (I have to get my hands on their translation of Crime and Punishment) and the picture of the woman playing Nadya in the recent film version seduced me:
Beyond that, this story turns out to illustrate two of the things that I find most appealing about Chekhov. To quote from my GoodReads review: "Two of the several many reasons I read Chekhov are the realistic (if oft times depressing) depiction of human relationships - "the idea enters into no relationship with the ideas of others; each consciousness is isolated and impenetrable; there is a polyphony of voices, but no dialogue; there is compassion, but no communion" (p. xvi) - and Chekhov's "irrational intuition that there is meaning and beauty in the cosmos" (p. xiii).

The man was brilliant. It's a shame that I can't read Russian.

Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain: After years of loathing Twain based upon my experience with Tom Sawyer in high school English, I finally broke down and listened to this book on Audio CD. My resistance crumbled in the face of the controversy stirred up earlier this year by the publication of a bowdlerized version that replace "nigger" with "slave" in order to save the delicate sensibilities of the readers. And, after all, the words are practically interchangeable. Right?

Outside of that, I found the novel to be pretty good right up to the point when Tom Sawyer shows up, then it went downhill and any of its power was dissipated by the ending.

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi: I'd heard a great deal about the "amazing" Bacigalupi and was interested enough to check out this book when it became available at the library. He's good but not great. I may be persuaded to read other stuff by this author but I'm not anticipating it.

The Inquestor Tetralogy, S.P. Somtow: This is a SF series comprising The Light on the Sound, The Throne of Madness, Utopia Hunters and The Darkling Wind. I had read at least the first two books when I was a teen-ager, and I was curious about how I would respond to them today. They were OK but not great. I had a "Somtow Phase" and read many of his novels when I was younger but I've found that he no longer appeals to me.

'Tis Pity She's a Whore, John Ford: Ford was a playwright of Tudor England. His were the plays you went to see when a Shakespeare or Marlow or Jonson production wasn't in town. Whore is an over-the-top story about incest and full of bloody violence and it probably thrilled the groundlings that came to see it.

Collected Poems, Sylvia Townsend Warner: This is a collection of Warner's poetry (duh). As a devoted Warner groupie I can't review this dispassionately. I loved it.

Against All Things Ending, Stephen Donaldson: This is the latest installment in the Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Admittedly, Donaldson is scraping the bottom of the soup bowl to find anything new to say about the Land but it's still a pretty decent story and I'll be finishing the series when the fourth book comes out.

Best Served Cold, Joe Abercrombie: This novel is set in the same world as Abercrombie's The First Law series but it's a standalone. Abercrombie's vision is so bleak, cynical and hopeless that I - myself usually quite pessimistic - find it difficult to read. There's nothing to redeem anyone in this book. I'm probably not going to be reading more of Abercrombie's stuff.

The Last Ringbearer, Kirill Eskov: This is a retelling of Tolkien's War of the Ring and its aftermath. Short version: It stinks. The longer and more thoughtful review can be found here on GoodReads. The man took on Tolkien and he lost.

The Crippled God, Steven Erikson: The final book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Anyone who follows these reviews will know that Erikson is one of my favorite SF authors and that I was looking forward to the conclusion of this 10-book epic. And I was not disappointed - much. I think the author chickened out at the end with the final fate of Tavore Paran and the Bonehunters but it was still a good ending and there were a lot of great episodes getting there.

The Last Page, Anthony Huso; The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie; The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter; The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay: I lump these four together because they were "meh." Nothing much to recommend them, though only the last (Lions) felt like an utter waste of time.

The Dress Lodger, The Mammoth Cheese, Witches on the Road Tonight, and A Stolen Tongue, Sheri Holman: Holman joins my list of favorite authors. It's impossible to describe in this space the novels here since they take place in many diverse places (Lodger is set in 19th Century Britain while Tongue takes place in 15th Century Palestine, and the middle two take place in 20th Century America) but they're gripping stories that enthralled me. I eagerly look forward to Holman's next novel.

The White-Luck Warrior, R. Scott Bakker: Book #2 in Bakker's Aspect-Emperor series. I reread the first book, The Judging Eye, in anticipation of this one and found it to be better than I remembered. Like Erikson, Bakker has created a unique and original world, one where I don't know what's going to happen next. I look forward to the final volume, The Unholy Consult.

A is for Alien, Caitlin Kiernan: A collection of SF stories by one of my favorite authors.

Stonewielder, Ian Esslemont: Esslemont is Steven Erikson's collaborator on the Malazan books and has been carrying on the story thread of the Malazan Empire. He's just not Erikson's equal so his books are not as interesting. This is the weakest of the three so far but I'll continue to soldier on because he does show glimmers of talent and, being a Malazan groupie, I can't not read them!

Embassytown, China Mieville: This is Mieville's first foray into SF and it's one of his best novels in my opinion. READ IT. (Sorry for the shouting.)

I began Ruth Downie's mystery series about Gaius Petreius Ruso, a Roman doctor during Hadrian's reign (117-138), with Medicus, which I finished on June 30, so I'll lead off my year-end review with those books. And, yes, there will be "books." This is a sprightly written series much like Colin Cotterill's Siri Paiboun mysteries that is a delight to read and a good source of brain candy when the serious stuff becomes too much to endure.

As always, you can get more thorough reviews on my GoodReads page.

I'm going to have to come back in Part 2 to cover the nonfiction reading I managed through June, so stay tuned.

02 May 2011

Osama bin Laden dead: A day to celebrate? Really?

"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends." (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring)

So Osama bin Laden is dead. After 10 years, we've finally tracked the bastard down and killed him (maybe: people have been claiming he's been "dead" since at least 2006).

And all it took was the destruction of two nations, hundreds of thousands of innocent lives lost, millions become refugees, turning the Middle East and neighboring regions into a free-fire zone, setting up a concentration camp in Cuba, giving Israel even greater opportunity to oppress the Palestinians (see the latest outrage here), and the continued erosion of our civil rights and the on-going militarization of our country.

And then there're the self-righteous congratulations that our state-sponsored terrorists and their political allies are spouting.

Are we getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan? How much deeper are we going to get in Libya? When's Guantanamo closing? When's habeas corpus going to be restored? When is the "defense" budget going to be reduced?

When any of these things happen, then I may consider celebrating.

20 April 2011

Who's the "Devil" in "The Devil in the Dark"

I was watching the classic Star Trek episode "The Devil in the Dark" the other night and, for the first time, it struck me how arrogant the story's underlying assumptions were. It occurred to me that the "devil" of the title might not be the creature that menaced Kirk and his crew. It saddened me because I will never be able to enjoy the story in quite the same way ever again.

The plot is straightforward: Enterprise is called to Janus VI, a long established mining colony that supplies critical minerals to nearby worlds. After 50 years of uneventful and profitable mining, something begins killing the colonists, dissolving them with a powerful, corrosive acid. The miners' weapons are ineffective, and vital shipments are not going out. Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to investigate. Spock quickly figures out that the most likely agent of the attacks is a silicon-based lifeform that moves through rock like humans (or Vulcans) move through air. The only puzzle piece missing is "why?" Why, after a half-century, has the creature begun to attack the miners? Before any progress can be made answering that question, the alien steals the coolant pump of Janus' antiquated fusion reactor, and Kirk faces the utter destruction of the colony if he can't get it back. So Enterprise's entire security detail, Kirk and Spock begin combing the shafts, hunting the creature. Naturally, it's Kirk who stumbles across it but oddly it doesn't immediately attack him. Instead it shows him a wound caused by an earlier phaser shot, and appears to want something. Spock joins Kirk and uses the Vulcan mind meld to communicate with the creature. In the meld, he learns that the alien is a "horta," the last survivor of the previous generation of horta and the guardian of the eggs of the next. It turns out that the miners had recently breached the incubation chambers and were killing thousands; the horta was only trying to protect her children. There's a minor contretemps when the colonists overwhelm the security men and try to kill the alien but when Kirk explains the situation both sides come to a modus vivendi where the horta would live as they had always done, the humans would follow and use the resulting tunnels to extract the ores, and both would share in the profits. All things end happily for all concerned.

Or - realistically - would they?

"The Devil in the Dark" is one of Star Trek's best episodes but it raises some disturbing questions if thought about too deeply.

The first is the question of how "friendly" the horta is. Her change of attitude and good will comes suspiciously fast. Perhaps, having shared minds with Spock, she realized how outclassed she was and how easily Starfleet could wipe out her entire species. She doesn't make nice with the colonists because she realizes what a swell bunch of guys they are but because she's terrified that they'll slaughter her and her children if she doesn't.

And what of the future? The horta are not a hive mind - one consciousness, many bodies. It's hard to imagine that every newborn will accept their mother's solution to the "human infestation." Is is not possible that an insurgency could spring up dedicated to finishing what mom had started? And how would the Federation respond? Or let's consider this: A nonviolent movement arises among the horta that wants the humans off world. It gains enough support so that the Federation is formally asked to leave. How would the UFP respond to that? If the Federation were to live up to its ideals of freedom and noninterference then the answer is obvious: They'd leave. But, as we know all too well in the US, a country's founding ideals often founder on the shores of so-called vital interests and national security. After 50+ years, the interests vested in keeping the Janus mines open would exert enormous pressure on Starfleet to keep them open no matter what. And there's the horta who are OK with humans on Janus. Would Starfleet provide them with aid to suppress the anti-human faction? I can easily see the mining lobby explaining to the Federation Council that the anti-human horta don't represent the species as a whole and have no legitimacy. That Starfleet needs to aid the pro-human side because they're being oppressed.

And let's not even begin to think about what kind of consciousness a silicon-based lifeform that looks like this:

would be like. On its face, to assume the horta perceive and think like humans and Vulcans is absurd.

And what are the effects of a human presence on a silicon-based ecology? Assuming the horta are the only lifeforms is another absurdity never addressed by the episode, there must be a host of other creatures moving through the rock.

The point - if I can dignify this posting with a purpose - is that I've been thinking lately about the survivability of civilization-as-we-know-it and coming to some pretty gloomy conclusions. "The Devil in the Dark" is an example of the exploitative, extractive, consuming-all attitude that characterizes our culture. There's no thought to the long-term consequences of our appetites in our zeal to satisfy our short-term needs, and now that we're running up against the limits of our planet, we're beginning to see the price we and our descendants are going to pay.

Alas, for the days of my youth when Star Trek was just plain old fun to watch.

01 April 2011

REVIEW: The Crippled God, Steven Erikson

Spoiler Alert – Unlike some others who’ve reviewed this book on their blogs, mine is chock full of spoilers and references to events and characters from the previous books. You have been warned if you’re still set on reading further:

To paraphrase “Jerry Maguire,” Steven Erikson had me at Gardens of the Moon, a cool drink of water in the midst of an SF drought. I didn’t mind being thrown into the deep end of the pool and expected to swim. In fact, it was a refreshing change – an author who expected his readers to walk with him into his world rather than be led by the hand. I was immediately reminded of Glen Cook, one of my favorite authors, and the Dread Empire and Black Company series. Cook was one of the earliest authors to inject an element of earthy realism and moral ambiguity into the SF genre with characters like Croaker and Lady, who were more “real” and their actions more relevant (and understandable) to modern audiences. I sensed too, in Erikson’s work, an underlying complexity that promised more than just a medieval setting with fantastic trappings. From page one, Gardens of the Moon hit all the right buttons.

That would not have been enough, however, to keep me reading the nine subsequent volumes. Robert Jordan’s and George Martin’s ubiquitous series have similar elements but I don’t care about anyone in their worlds. Erikson displayed a knack early on for creating characters I cared about.

Unfortunately, he kept killing off my favorites.

Perhaps it’s a rebellious streak in me but I’ve never bought into the Anomander Rake “love” nor have I been interested in Karsa Orlong’s story nor have I been interested in most of the Bridgeburners. No, my favorites are Tattersail; the Imperial historian Duiker; Fist Coltaine; and above all Trull Sengar, the Cassandra of the Tiste Edur who saw the disaster his people were headed for but never lost his hope, compassion or humor. (See below for the B-list of favorites.)

Trull’s senseless murder at the instigation of the Errant was awful but consistent with Erikson’s worldview and viscerally effective. I was angry and upset, and was happy to see Draconus cut the Elder God down in The Crippled God.

Come book six – The Bonehunters – and I met the only character to rival Trull Sengar in my affections, Tavore Paran, Ganoes’ and Felisin’s older sister and Lorn’s replacement as the Empress’ Adjunct. The woman who took command of the 14th Army in the aftermath of the Chain of Dogs and ended the Whirlwind’s rebellion. Unlike the Bridgeburners, who were established and wiped out off-stage and in flashbacks, readers were with the Bonehunters from the beginning – from their forging in the literal fires of Y’Ghatan and their birth from the sewers of that holocaust to Laseen’s betrayal in Malaz City, where Tavore gave the following speech that set the tone for the army’s future:

“There have been armies. Burdened with names, the legacy of meetings, of battles, of betrayals. The history behind the name is each army’s secret language – one that no-one else can understand, much less share. The First Sword of Dassem Ultor – the Plains of Unta, the Grissian Hills, Li Heng, Y’Ghatan. The Bridgeburners – Raraku, Black Dog, Mott Wood, Pale, Black Coral. Coltaine’s Seventh – Gelor Ridge, Vathar Crossing and the Day of Pure Blood, Sanimon, and the Fall.

“Some of you share a few of those – with comrades now fallen, now dust. They are, for you, the cracked vessels of your grief and your pride. And you cannot stand in one place for long, lest the ground turn to depthless mud around your feet….

“Among us, among the Bonehunters, our secret language has begun. Cruel in its birth at Aren, sordid in a river of old blood. Coltaine’s blood. You know this. I need tell you none of this. We have our own Raraku. We have our own Y’Ghatan. We have Malaz City.

“In the civil war on Theft, a warlord who captured a rival’s army then destroyed them – not by slaughter; no, he simply gave the order that each soldier’s weapon hand lose its index finger. The maimed soldiers were then sent back to the warlord’s rival. Twelve thousand useless men and women. To feed, to send home, to swallow the bitter taste of defeat. I was…I was reminded of that story not long ago….

“We too are maimed. In our hearts. Each of you knows this.

“And so we carry, tied to our belts, a piece of bone. Legacy of a severed finger. And yes, we cannot help but know bitterness….

“The Bonehunters will speak in our secret language. We sail to add another name to our burden, and it may be it will prove our last. I do not believe so, but there are clouds before the face of the future – and we cannot see. We cannot know.

“The island of Sepik, a protectorate of the Malazan Empire, is now empty of human life. Sentenced to senseless slaughter, every man, child, and woman. We know the face of the slayer. We have seen the dark ships. We have seen the harsh magic unveiled.

“We are Malazan. We remain so, no matter the judgement of the Empress. Is this enough reason to give answer?

“No, it is not. Compassion is never enough. Nor is the hunger for vengeance. But, for now, for what awaits us, perhaps they will do. We are the Bonehunters, and sail to another name. Beyond Aren, beyond Raraku and beyond Y’Ghatan, we now cross the world to find the first name that will be truly our own. Shared by none other. We sail to give answer.

“There is more. But I will not speak of that beyond these words: ‘What awaits you in the dusk of the old world’s passing, shall go…unwitnessed.’ T’amber’s words….

“They are hard and well might they feed spite, if in weakness we permit such. But to those words, I say this, as your commander: We shall be our own witness, and that will be enough. It must be enough. It must ever be enough.” (Reaper’s Gale, pp. 381-82)

This is my kind of epic: Not only a near hopeless quest to save the world but a near hopeless quest to save that world that no one will ever know about, succeed or fail. And the point is driven home in Tavore’s speech to the Bonehunters before facing their final battle against the Forkrul Assail:

“Does anyone know you? You, who stood in the shadows of the heavies and the marines. Who are you? What is your tale? So many have seen you marching past. Seen you, standing silent and unknown. Even now, your faces are almost lost beneath the rims of your helms….

“Corporal Grid Ffan, Third Squad, Eleventh Company. Bonehunter. You carried Sample – the soldier on your left – on your back. The last day in the desert. And, before the Blood for Water, the only thing that kept you – and her – alive was your love for her….

“Where stands Wreck-Eye?...

“When Lostara Yil lost consciousness protecting my life on the day of the Nah’ruk, you led your squad to recover us. Myself. Henar Vygulf. Captain Yil. You lost a brother, and to this day you can find no tears for him. But be at ease. There are those in your squad who have wept in your stead. At night, when you sleep….

“Sergeant Ordinary Grey. When Sergeant Gaunt-Eye’s squad of marines broke and tried to murder him, you and Could Howl held them all off – you cut them down to save Gaunt-Eye. Because once, long ago on the Holy Desert of Raraku, he showed kindness to you….

“Who are you? I know who you are. What have you done? You have stayed with me since the very beginning. Soldiers, hear me! This day is already lost to history, and all that happens here shall remain forever unknown. On this day, you are unwitnessed.

“Except for the soldier to either side of you. They shall witness. And I tell you this, those soldiers to either side of you, they are all that matters. The historians’ scrolls have no time for soldiers like you – I know, for I have read hundreds of them. They yield a handful of words to speak of defeat or victory. Perhaps, if so warranted, they will make mention of great valour, extraordinary courage, but the weight of those words is no more and no less than those used to speak of slaughter and murder. Because, as we all know, one soldier can be hero and villain both.

“We have no place in their histories. So few do. They are not us – they were never us, and we shall never be them.

“You are the Unwitnessed, but I have seen what you see. I have felt what you feel. And I am as much a stranger to history as to any of you….

“On the day of the Nah’ruk, they stood for you. Today, here, you shall stand for them. And I shall stand with you, my beloved soldiers…. Say nothing. We are walls of silence, you and me. We are perfect reflections of the one we face, and we have faced each other for so long now.

“And the meaning of that silence is none of the enemy’s business….

“Bonehunters. Yield only in death on this day.” (pp. 846-47)

It reminds me of Henry V’s exhortation in Shakespeare: It stirs the same emotions and would have convinced me to follow this woman into a hopeless battle.

I have invested about six years in following The Malazan Book of the Fallen and the ending of their tale did not disappoint – much. Many of the threads that Erikson has woven together are finally and satisfactorily tied off: Onos Toolan and Hetan; the penultimate battle at the Spire, where Stormy’s and Gesler’s sacrifices free the Crippled God’s heart; Brys Beddict’s destruction of Diligence, the Forkrul Assail general; his rescue by Aranict, Faint, Precious Thimble and Amby Bole. Others – tangential to the Crippled God’s tale – still hang loose: What’s Grub’s future role? What is the fate of the Shake and the returning Tiste Andii? What are Shadowthrone and Cotillion’s motives for instigating this convergence? What of the reborn Imass? The Jaghut? The K’Chain Che’Malle? I could go on…

But, in the end, I think Erikson quailed before the demands of his story – the Bonehunters lived! For five books, for near 5,000 pages, Erikson built up the expectation that Tavore and her soldiers were doomed even if they succeeded but when the final battle played out…it’s a fairy-tale happy ending: Tavore lives and is reunited with her brother, Ganoes.

While a part of me is glad Tavore made it, another part (dominant at the moment) doesn’t think the story ended correctly – Tavore and the Bonehunters should have died unwitnessed! It’s as if Achilles survived the Trojan War or Lear regained his throne. Reading the final chapter, I felt similarly to watching “The Search for Spock.” It was nice to have Spock back among the living but it utterly undercut the visceral power of “The Wrath of Khan” – from a narrative point of view, Spock should have remained dead. From a narrative point of view, Tavore should be dead.

My disappointment is moderate, however – nowhere near that of watching the final episode of “Battlestar Galactica” – and I should mention some of the (many) positive things in the book: It is always better when an author and reader are more or less in tune philosophically, and I liked where Erikson went in his analysis of capitalism (Letheras) and environmentalism (the Imass, among others) and his take on the “meaning of life” (about which nearly everyone opined at some point) and his exploration of the paradox of civilization (which underlay the Forkrul Assail’s attempted genocide and leads to a moment of introspection on Karsa Orlong’s part (p. 750)). Another thing I found effective was Erikson’s hopping from squad to squad as the 14th marched across the Glass Desert, getting into their heads and building them up as distinct characters.

Skimming The Crippled God and contemplating the other nine volumes, I realize that I could talk about any number of things that make this series so good but my fingers grow cramped from typing and – let’s be honest – anyone who’s made it through the previous books is not going to be balked by anyone’s review, good or bad, from finishing. Suffice to say that The Crippled God brings The Malazan Book of the Fallen to a good enough conclusion. There are a few books I come back to again and again, so often that I know each scene by heart and every character is a comfortable companion, because I keep finding new things in them and I think that these books are going to join that company.

The B-list (by no means complete): Fiddler, Onrack, Masan Gilani, Sinter, Kruppe, Tehol, Bent and Roach, Apsalar (aka Sorry) and – of course – the elusive Nefarias Bredd.

Bonus thought – Most-unexpected-but-obvious-in-hindsight-reveal: Tavore (and probably T’amber as well) is a Talon:

“The lid creaked as Tavore opened it, startling Lostara.

Reaching inside, she drew out a necklace – a simple leather string and an eagle’s talon of brass or gold. Then she turned to the captain. ‘Would you tie this for me, please?’

But Lostara simply stared at the talon.


She looked up, met Tavore’s eyes.

The Adjunct sighed. ‘I am a child of the Emperor – what more is there for you to understand, Lostara Yil?’” (p. 844)

16 March 2011

The Clan = U.S. Healthcare in Microcosm?

This is Malcolm. One of the nine cats I live with. He is also the latest victim in the ongoing medical saga of the Clan.

First there was Calvin, who was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism about this time last year, and now has to take meds for the rest of his life. Happily, after a rocky start, we've found the right dosage and he's doing fine. But, of course, he does have to take meds for the rest of his life.

Then there's Meggie. She came down with a bad case of constipation a few months ago. Apparently, when cats get constipation their colons never quite recover so she's taking laxatives. This isn't so bad, either. What it amounts to is that I put about a teaspoon of human laxative (Miralax) into a big spoonful of wet food and she eats it. I don't know what - if any - piquancy the Miralax gives to the food but Meggie likes it, and it's become the morning ritual that as soon as I put out the day's dry food for the other guys, she and I repair to the bathroom and she gets her bowl.

Emma was the next patient. She's been losing weight. If you know Emma, this is not a good thing because she's never been a very hefty cat. If cats were susceptible to anorexia or bulimia, she would be a good candidate to keep an eye on. As it turned out, her weight loss seems to be tied to very early stage II kidney disease. Because of her all the Clan is now on a kidney-friendly diet (supplied by the vet at twice the price of my old, pet-store-supplied food (sigh)).

And now there's Malcolm.

Last week I took him and Meggie in for their yearly physicals and rabies boosters. Meggie is doing very well but Malcolm had lost a lot of weight. Way too much for the vet's comfort zone. (He had been 15 lbs when I brought him in 2 months ago when I brought him in because he had a bad cold; when he was weighed this time he was down to 13 lbs. - too much loss too quickly.) The doctor did a complete blood/urine analysis, and it turns out that my little buddy has late stage II kidney disease. Unfortunately, that entails a bit more than just changing his diet; it means the vet put him on what's called "subcutaneous fluids." Twice a week, I need to put a saline IV into Malcolm. Shane, the vet tech, demonstrated last Saturday (March 12) when I was at the clinic. Yesterday (March 15 - "Beware the Ides of March" takes on a whole new meaning for Malcolm), I did it at home. It went very well. Malcolm was calm throughout and only got a bit fidgety at the end, squirming around and jumping away as soon as I pulled out the needle.

For those unfamiliar with the procedure: I take a bag of saline and hang it up from a high point. I take Malcolm and put him in the bottom of a cat carrier (it's close and makes it easier to control him). Then I pinch up a fold of skin, slide the IV needle in, open the drip and let c. 150ccs flow. It takes only a few minutes, and he develops this weird little camel-like hump of fluid. But - apparently - it helps the kidneys do their job, and if it makes him feel better then that's a plus as well.

This also is something that I'll have to do for the rest of his life (and more frequently as the disease progresses).

It struck me how much like the U.S. healthcare system my Clan is: An aging, largely uninsured or underinsured population (only 10% - i.e., me - has coverage) that's facing increasing medical costs.

It's probably not wise to push the analogy too far, though.

06 March 2011

The Last Ringbearer more Smiley's People than Lord of the Rings

My friend Doug forwarded the link to The Last Ringbearer, a retelling of The Lord of the Rings by a Russian scientist. I'm enough of a social-media Luddite that this was all news to me though Tolkien-related blogs and whatnot have been buzzing about it for months. What follows is my review after downloading the free English PDF and persevering through its 270 pages (you can also read it and many other brilliant (IMO) reviews on my GoodReads page):

Saying that The Last Ringbearer is The Lord of the Rings told from Mordor’s point of view is not entirely accurate. True, the principal characters are an army medic and scout of Mordor and an erstwhile Ranger of Ithilien but all the action takes place after the War of the Ring. Middle Earth is recast as Europe during the Cold War, with Gondor and Mordor assuming the roles of the superpowers. The “magic” of Tolkien’s vision becomes window dressing, and the novel reads more like John Le Carré fanfic than Tolkien.

Essential plot: The War of the Ring erupts between Mordor (ruled by Sauron VIII) and Gondor (ruled by Denethor of the Anarion Dynasty*) primarily because Gondor wants to choke off Mordor’s trade routes and reduce it to vassalage. More fundamentally, the Elves and the Wizards are using Gondor to destroy the growing power of technology, which threatens to destroy the traditional balance of Nature and power in the world.** Eskov’s background as a scientist and enthusiasm for technology comes through clearly in his description of Barad-Dur:

“…that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle Earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic.” (Chapter 2)
The last survivor of the Order of the Nazgul tasks Haladdin and Tzerlag with destroying the Mirror of Galadriel and the palantiri, which will close off the world of the Elves (the Far West) and prevent them from enslaving Man and condemning the world to an eternal Dark Age. In order to destroy the Mirror, Haladdin and Tzerlag must acquire two palantiri, bring one into the presence of the Mirror, simultaneously throwing the other into the fires of Orodruin (Mt. Doom). The remainder of the novel is a confusing account of their efforts to fulfill the mission divided into four parts that focus on various aspects of the quest. Part I sets up the quest. Part II recounts Haladdin’s and Tzerlag’s efforts to acquire some Seeing Stones and introduces us to the Machiavellian politics of Gondor: Aragorn has spared Faramir’s life but he and Eowyn live under house arrest in Ithilien; Aragorn is trying to get out from under the Elves’ thumb (represented by Arwen, who is his nominal “wife” but whose presence in Minas Tirith is to ensure that Men don’t get out of control). Part III is – as far as I can tell – a largely pointless diversion to Umbar, where Tangorn (the Ithilien Ranger mentioned above) has to do something to advance the cause. I’m not sure why Tangorn has to be in Umbar or what the consequences of his actions are but this is the most Le Carresque section of the novel and the hardest to get through. Part IV moves to Dol Guldur and Lothlorien, and Haladdin’s ultimate success in destroying the Mirror.

There’s an Epilogue written in light of the utterly mundane world that results and has some amusing asides, e.g., Eomer becomes a religious fanatic of a heretical Harad sect and dies fighting in the South.

As a piece of literature, The Last Ringbearer fails at nearly every level. Stylistically, it’s all over the map. In some places, Eskov attempts to write in a lyrical style – emulating Tolkien? – but the results are not good. I reproduce my favorite of the many overwrought and unintentionally comic stabs at description:

“The shrimp were excellent. They sat on the tin plate like battle-ready triremes on the dim morning surface of the Barangar Bay: spiky rostrums in the tangle of rigging (feelers) threatening the enemy, oars (feet) hugging the body, just like they should in preparation for boarding.” (Chapter 36)
Even worse than having the author point out what concrete objects the metaphor is referring to is that this aside serves no point in the narrative.

Other times, Eskov writes in a colloquial, 21st-century idiom that jarringly plops this reader back into his easy chair before jerking him once again into Middle Earth. I can open the book at random and find numerous examples:

As when Aragorn kills the Commander-South (aka the Witch King of Angmar):

“‘Of course they won’t,’ laughed the Dunadan, ‘since they will be kneeling before the new King of Gondor! I beat you in an honest fight, one on one – so it shall be written in all the history books. As for you, they won’t even remember your name. I’ll make sure of that. Actually,’ he stopped in midstride, hunting for the stirrup, ‘we can make it even more interesting: let you be killed by a midget, some tiny little dwarf with hairy paws. Or by a broad… yes, that’s how we’ll do it.’” (Chapter 7)
Or in Umbar:
“The fat man shook and sweated, but remained silent. Having no time to spare – at any moment someone might start breaking down the door – Jacuzzi (sic) made his proposition short and to the point: ‘Ten seconds to think about it. Then I’ll start counting to five, breaking a finger at each count. On the count of six I’ll cut your throat with this razor. Look in my eyes – do I look like I’m joking?’

‘You’re from the Secret Service, right?’ the Senior Inspector mumbled mournfully, gray with terror. It was clear as day that he had not earned his stripes capturing criminals in the Kharmian Village slums.”
(Chapter 51)
Or this conversation between two Elves:
“‘Clofoel of the World! You’re under arrest for treason. Stand against the wall!’

They stood facing each other, the Mirror between them; the clofoel of Tranquility had his sword out – he was not about to give that snake any chances, she was mortally dangerous as it was.

‘Unclip the dagger from your belt…now the stiletto in your left sleeve…. Kick them away with your foot! Now, we’ll talk. The magic object that Star fool’s dancers can’t find is attached to the bottom of the “table,” right? One has to drop on all fours before the Mirror to see it – surely no one will think of that. It’s impossible to find it magically – the dancers are like a dog that has to find a perfumed handkerchief hidden in a sack of crushed pepper. An excellent idea, my compliments! By the way, what is it?’

‘A palantir.'

‘Whoa!’ He apparently never expected that. ‘Whose gift is it – the Enemy’s?’

‘No, Aragorn’s.’

‘What the hell are you talking about?’
(Chapter 66)
The attempt to create distinct and memorable characters also falls flat. The most successful effort (relatively) in that direction is Tangorn, who’s given some background and a love interest (a high-priced hetaira in Umbar). Haladdin, who you would expect to be the central character, practically disappears from the narrative after Part I, and only takes center stage again in Part IV when he orders a poor Troll off on a suicide mission and throws the palantir into Mt. Doom.

Eskov is equally ham handed at creating a sense of menace or moral evil in his bad guys. Case in point is an utterly gratuitous gang-rape and murder that establishes the villainous bona fides of Marandil, Gondor’s “chief of station” in Umbar. To Eskov’s credit, the whole vile episode happens off stage but it still reads … wrong!***

The biggest “sin” committed by Eskov, however, is that he misses the point of The Lord of the Rings and myth in general. I have read the translation of his blog post, where he laments at the “unreality” of Middle Earth’s geography and wanted to make it something that could have actually existed but that’s beside the point – and, in this case, reduces it to a novel of the Cold War. But that a limited view of what’s “real.” Myths don’t have to conform to the latest meteorological theories – if our Hero has to cross a blazing desert to find his Princess, then he rides from the Forest of Broceliande to the Sands of Araby in a couple of days. And myths aren’t meant to reflect the “real” world. As Ursula Le Guin writes in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”: “A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you (emphasis in the original). The Lord of the Rings addresses so many issues – the struggle between doing what’s right and resisting what’s wrong when you don’t know the correct path, the responsibilities of friendship, the promise of redemption, etc. – that when it is reduced to a spy thriller, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth.

I have no problem with de-mythologizing LotR (though I’m not sure what the point would be****) but if you’re going to reject the fantasy you have to reject all the fantasy, which Eskov does not do. He removes the magic he doesn’t need and keeps only what’s necessary to justify his storyline.

A retelling of the War of the Ring retains the mythic/fantastic elements of Middle Earth but would look at it from another’s POV or recast the myth into a different tradition. For example, an author could keep the essentially Christian Good/Evil ethic but tell it from an Orc’s point of view, or Gollum’s, or a Haradrim’s (as Sam himself asks in The Two Towers on seeing a dead Haradrim, “He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace...” (“Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”). Tolkien toys with this in “Aldarion and Erendis” and in the fragment “Tal-Elmar.”

Another option would be to recast Middle Earth in terms of another tradition, e.g., Ancient Greece. The Greeks (pre-Socratic certainly) were largely uninterested in our conceptions of Good and Evil, theirs was a mythology of Heroes. The analogy can only be pushed so far but in this vision, Boromir would be an Achilles figure; Gandalf would be Odysseus, the trickster; and the Witch King would be Hector (?). Or, as in Antigone, we could represent the War as a conflict between two admirable but incompatible visions of the good life. Eskov fumbles with this in the theme of preserving a more natural, spiritual way of life vs. the science/modernism and rationalism of Mordor but his clear preference for the latter makes the former a caricature.

In the end, I can’t recommend The Last Ringbearer to anyone. It’s a failed experiment that misses Tolkien’s purpose in writing The Lord of the Rings, offering no deeper understanding of that purpose nor anything to replace it.

* This brings up a pedantic point but there are curious lapses in Eskov’s understanding of the original story. Anarion was the younger son of Elendil and his son was the first king of Gondor. The Stewards were descended from Húrin, the steward of Minardil, and thus of the House of Húrin.

Eskov also seems to believe that Middle Earth is an alternate Earth when it is, of course, our Earth. If our myths of Atlantis are a much distorted understanding of the Drowning of Numenor, then the First Age ended around 13,000 BC, Numenor fell around 10,000 BC and the War of the Ring was fought around 6,000 BC. And talk about realism – The drowning of Beleriand was obviously caused by rising sea levels when the last Ice Age ended.

** Cf., Ralph Bakshi’s “Wizards.”

*** Also to Eskov’s credit is that he does not make the mistake of writing sex scenes.

**** I’m reminded of a creative-writing class I took as an undergraduate. I wrote a couple of short stories as SF or Fantasy and the teacher (a grad student) asked the very appropriate question – Why? What is it about your story that requires a nonrealistic setting? (This was before I had done much reading in mythic/fantastic criticism, including Le Guin’s essay, so I didn’t have a good answer but I think now I would say that I wrote in a fantastic style because I liked the genre.) Le Guin makes a distinction in the “Elfland” essay between “daydreaming” (TLR) and “dreaming” (LotR); I was daydreaming not mythologizing.

This brings up yet another reason why I’m not taken with Joe Abercrombie’s work. There’re daydreams with mythical trappings that could just as easily take place in Renaissance Italy or a thoroughly modern 21st Century. In Steven Erikson’s work, by contrast (and to bring in an author whose style is very far from Tolkien’s), the myth is integral to the story. Many scenes in the Malazan Book of the Fallen could be characterized as “daydream” but he also steps between Mundania and Faerie when he passes from the gritty realism of assassins stalking the night or the comic banter of Tehol and Bugg to the Warrens or Kruppe’s dreams, where every word carries portentous weight. And if the journey of Tavore and the Bonehunters isn’t primal myth then I don’t know what is.

FINAL NOTE: I couldn’t figure out where to put this thought above but my GR Friend Tatiana in the comments on my GR page mentions that “Orc” is not so much a biological category as a category of behavior, which reminded me of one of the many scenes in Jackson’s film version that really bothered me: The scene where Aragorn cuts off the head of the Mouth of Sauron. My first reaction was exactly that – This is how an Orc would react, not a Man of the West, and certainly not the Heir of Isildur. In the book this scene is so much more subtle and brilliant and the Mouth is cowed without a single violent gesture.

08 February 2011

Good English - It's not rocket science

I've mentioned before that I work for a media relations firm who wishes to remain anonymous on its employees' blogs, and I'll respect its wishes for the moment. There's no point in potentially stoking its paranoid fantasies of worker sabotage or industrial spying - not yet (heh, heh, heh).

Sometimes, however, I must report on things that happen around the office that strike me. A case in point happened last week when I was prepping a press release and came across the following:

"The company is well funded, and confident to have the financial support needed to achieve the established goals to move forward in the execution of the company's business plan."

Technically it is a sentence but aesthetically it's a Frankenstein monster of enormous proportions and should never have been allowed to see the light of day (unfortunately, I'm a glorified proof-reader and couldn't make the changes I longed to effect so it was distributed as is).

If I were a "real" editor, this is how I would have fixed the poor thing:

"The company is well funded, and is confident that it has the financial support needed to execute its business plan."

Is is Shakespeare? Does it even reach the level of Stephen King on a good day? Well, no, but it's certainly more readable and (dare I say) more exciting than the original. For one thing, I've eliminated 4 of the 5 prepositions that slowed things down. And I've made the verbs as active as they could be (sadly most of them were forms of "to be").

At any rate, the point is that it took me less than a minute to dramatically improve the readability and impact of an otherwise unreadable sentence, and it's an example of the worst part of my job - reading crap like this day in and day out. There's not much about my job I would want to change but the writing competence of our clients is certainly up there.

REVIEW: War Is Not Over When It's Over: Women and the Consequences of Conflict

I quote some graphic excerpts in the review below. If you have a low threshold for such, skip the italicized quotes. You’ve been warned.

It is impossible for me to objectively review this book for the reason that I do not think it’s possible for any sane human being to justify war, violence, or any culture or tradition that denies a voice to half of our species if they read this book. (Or similar ones: From my own bookshelf I can list The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (Robert Fisk) and Vietnam at War (Mark Philip Bradley), and there are more.) When you read books like this, it’s also difficult to swallow what passes for reasoned discourse in our public sphere where you see the appalling arrogance, ruthlessness and ignorance of our governing classes (who are only too happy to keep the hoi polloi equally arrogant, ruthless and clueless).

In War Is Not Over When It’s Over, Ann Jones argues that war is only the most visible face of violence and that its consequences destroy lives well after any peace accords have been signed and all the politicians have gone home. Even when it’s over, war ingrains the habits of violence and dehumanization, which leak over into civil life. Jones doesn’t address the issue in relation to the U.S. but you can easily find stories about increasing domestic violence and rape perpetrated by returning veterans or by soldiers in the field.

The origins of this book come out of Jones’ work with the UN and the International Red Cross (IRC) in their efforts to aide and protect refugees and the victims of the myriad wars afflicting our planet. Jones visited several countries where she organized groups of women who would photographically document their lives. It wasn’t meant to be a witness to the atrocity of violence (though that was a part of the project) but the women were meant to document their communities’ needs and the positives in their lives. At the end of the projects, the women hosted an exhibition displaying their efforts. In every case, Jones found that the experience made its participants more confident. In some cases it helped bring about real change. For example, in one village in Côte d’Ivoire, its chief, Zatta, declared that the violence documented in the photos must end and began including women in his council (which he continued to do even after the UN mission left, according to Jones). Among the Burmese refugee camps along the Thai border, the women learned to document rape and abuse cases and have made some progress in having offenders prosecuted. Both examples point up to the forces of inertia and tradition women struggle against. Everywhere she went, Jones faced societies that relegated women to second-class status and blamed their oppression on them (an attitude the enlightened West still falls prey to all too often).

I’ve written enough – let a few representative excerpts speak for themselves now:

From Sierra Leone:
“Official reports document appalling crimes: fathers forced to rape their own daughters; brothers forced to rape their sisters; boy soldiers who gang-rape old women, then chop off their arms; pregnant women eviscerated alive and the fetus snatched from the womb to satisfy soldiers’ bet on its sex. A brother is hacked to death and eviscerated; his heart and liver are placed in the hands of his eighteen-year-old sister, who is commanded to eat them. She refuses. She is told that her two children and her sister have been abducted. She's taken to the place where her sister and two other women are held. She sees them murdered. Their heads are placed in her lap. Such crimes deliberately violate primal taboos; they aim to crush not only the individual victims but also those who physically survive the violence. They are meant to destroy a way of life and the values that inform it. Yet the individual victims are important in their own right, and in most cases they are women and children.” (pp. 96-7)

From Congo:
“Charlotte had become a leader in CFK, working on the cases of young girls who had recently been raped, not by militiamen but by civilians right there in Kamanyola. A twelve-year-old girl was raped by her teacher. A nine-year-old was raped by a young boy. A seven-year-old was raped by a middle-aged man. An eleven-year-old was raped by her father. A seven-year-old was raped by her pastor. Charlotte was one of the women who visited the parents, persuaded them not to compromise, and helped them take their child’s case to court. But the rape of these young girls by civilians – by teachers, pastors, fathers – this was something new in the community, since the war, and the women of CFK were struggling to understand it. Later I told Charlotte and others about the way the habits of war carry over into peacetime, the way the habits of soldiers are taken up by civilians. I told them about the civilian rapes of little girls in Liberia, snatched even from church, and in Sierra Leone. Unknown before the war, civilian rapists and child rape in Kamanyola – like gang rape – were becoming normal.” (pp. 146-7)

And two examples from our “glorious liberation” of Iraq:
“The violence done by ordinary men to other ordinary men like Othman and Sayed destroys the victims. Men told me of being kidnapped as teenagers, beaten, confined without food or water, and coerced to provide sexual gratification to their captors. They spoke without apparent feeling, having retreated behind some psychic barrier where safety lay. Although most men won’t tell - `A raped man is not a man,’ one said – UNHCR in Amman had recorded nearly three hundred cases of sexual violence against men. Captivity and torture of men in Iraq always seemed to have about it this peculiar quality of homoerotic sadism, the effluence of a culture that adores men far more than women yet sets them officially out of reach.” (p. 215)

“Mona was attacked in her Baghdad home by a gang of men in black who broke down the door at four o’clock in the morning. They dragged her about by her hair and slapped her around, demanding to know where her husband was. She told them the truth, that he had fled to Lebanon for fear of kidnapping. She said she had stayed behind so that her children could finish school…. They told her to write down the names of people in the neighborhood and whether they were Sunni or Shia…. She refused. They broke her arm, they ripped off her nightclothes, they twisted her broken arm behind her back, and they raped her. She begged for mercy, saying, `I am Muslim, like you.’ One of them said, `You are a Sunni infidel. If you were a Muslim you would not let your daughter do gymnastics.’… `They raped my sister, too,’ she said, gesturing toward the corner where a skeletal figure lay on the floor, staring at us with vacant eyes. `She was an invalid; she couldn’t use her legs. The rape finished her. All those men. Now she just lies on her mat and pisses herself.’ That night, Mona feared for her children, but after the men left the house, the two little boys crept out of the cupboards, and she found her daughter on the roof, hiding in the water tank. She phoned her husband, and he blamed her. A year later, long after her brother helped her move the family to Damascus, her husband came to join her. He raped her too, and she became pregnant, but before long he beat her so badly that she miscarried. He left again for Lebanon and sent notice of their divorce. Her daughter was not able to finish school.” (pp. 223-4)

Jones also points out the iniquities and hypocrisy of the U.S. government. In Iraq we’ve (the U.S.) managed to refuse a significant number of refugees by the simple expedient of accusing them of violating the PATRIOT Act: “Families that had redeemed relatives from kidnappers were excluded on the grounds that paying ransom amounted to providing `material support’ to terrorists…” (p. 232). Refugees in Jordan get more aid than those “fortunate” enough to reach the U.S., and many of those advise their relatives still in Iraq to reject the U.S. if they can.

When you’ve come to the end of a book like this, the inevitable question is, “What can I do?” It’s a depressing situation, and it seems intractable. On my part, inadequate as it may be, the IRC has joined the list of charities I support. It’s amazing what they manage to accomplish in the face of misogynistic tradition and political indifference. And I’m going to pester my representatives to stop frakking around with our obligations under the UN and international law, and to support family planning even if it does include (gasp!) abortion counseling. (I’m fortunate in that all my reps are Democratic women so I hold out the hope that they might listen – an admittedly faint one, I’ll grant you.)

There are a few flaws in the book that, I believe, weaken its impact:

There’s a certain lack of passion or connection in the first few chapters that only begins to lift when we reach Congo and makes the second half more intense and memorable. Perhaps Jones had a more personal interest invested in these later venues. Whatever the case, the greater passion she’s capable of while still maintaining the necessary distance makes me want to see what she’s written about her experience in Afghanistan – Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan.

Not enough photos. I don’t mean that I wanted to see photos of torture or rape victims but I did want to see more evidence of the conditions these people endure and of the good things they were able to find in their lives.

I wish there was a section dedicated to resources and sources. They are there but buried in the Notes section.

These are decidedly minor quibbles and certainly shouldn’t deter you from reading this important witness to the atrocity of violence.

11 January 2011

Bowdlerizing Mark Twain

Next month, Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University in Alabama, will publish a critical edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Normally this would not raise any eyebrows or hackles except for the fact that this time he has "improved" the text and made it more "accessible" by replacing all instances of nigger (hereinafter "the N-word") with slave (or runaway slave) and injun with Indian (this last emendation has passed without comment, as far as I know, all the attention is focused on the N-word).

I caught an interview with Gribben on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" last week where he justified his actions on two grounds:

Mark Twain was constantly returning to his work to edit it - his Autobiography is notorious for this. In fact, Twain said "[t]he difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." So, according to Gribben, he is justified in determining the "right word" for modern audiences (perhaps channeling Twain's ghost?). If there were two or more readings of the text (as often happens with, e.g., Medieval manuscripts), an editor would be perfectly justified in choosing one interpretation over another (though they would be called upon to justify it). But here we have no disputed texts, no ambiguity about what word Twain thought appropriate (he uses it 219 times!), and Gribben is just plain, flat-out wrong, wrong, wrong to change it.

The second justification is that slave is a word with as many, and as powerfully negative connotations as the N-word. This last assertion is so wrong on so many levels it deserves no comment. While I don't believe anyone would enjoy being called a "slave," I think the reactions were you to go to an African-American community and call someone that would be bemusement and/or confusion rather than anger. On the other hand, were you to walk up to someone and say, "You lousy N-word!," the reactions would be quite different.

Marcia Alesan Dawkins wrote an essay at Truthdig, "10 Reasons Why the Slurs Should Stay in ‘Huck Finn’", which lays out the case quite eloquently. I reproduce here just the headings:

1. It’s Mark Twain.
2. Tampering with literatureis a censorship and it’s a bad idea.
3. Erasing racial epithets doesn’t erase race or racism.
4. It eliminates teachable moments.
5. Freedom of choice.
6. There were other options. Gribben could’ve rewritten the story from a different perspective.
7. You can’t fight censorship with censorship.
8. We’re not talking about the words that will replace nigger and Injun.
9. Offensive terms are being invented and popularized right now.
10. It’s coming from the “New South.”

We're back to the status quo antebellum

The fifty years between the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union were an unprecedented era of political comity in American politics. An epoch when the business class played "nice" with the working/middle classes in the face of the Communist "threat." When the threat became moot, the gloves came off again, and we can see the results in today's economic debacles, persistent economic malaise, and the unrelenting destruction of the middle class and a society based on the equitable distribution of wealth.

Anyone with a modicum of familiarity with American history knows that violent, over-the-top rhetoric was the norm from the beginning of the Republic. One of the most striking things brought out in Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy is the alienness of the notion that two (or more) opposing views can coexist in a functioning polity. The Founders envisioned a ruling elite that would dispute means but not ends; the quarrels would be gentlemanly disagreements, resolved amicably. And even the subsequent Democracy of the Jacksonian Era didn't envision permanent political parties representing the varied interests of the country. As a consequence, the politics of the time vilified the opposition as "traitors" and "enemies of the Republic," and it wasn't uncommon for political rallies to devolve into brawls.

I bring this up, of course, in reaction to what happened in Tucson on Saturday (Jan. 8), when a paranoid schizophrenic let loose on a political rally, killing at least five people (including a 9-year-old girl) and critically wounding the district's US Representative (Gabrielle Gifford took a bullet through the brain but appears to be doing remarkably well, all things considered).

The Left-leaning blogs and bloviators have been running with the idea that the admittedly poisonous Republican and Tea Party rhetoric of the last few years is to blame for Jared Loughner's actions; the Right wing is defensively (and at times hysterically) claiming that Loughner is a "lone gunman," a crazed individual who's actually a Leftie and drug addict.

Neither side is entirely right nor entirely wrong. To the Left's credit, they have a point that a political culture that tolerates candidates sponsoring a day where people can shoot M-16s at targets of his opponent encourages extreme, possible violent actions, and it might be time to tone the rhetoric down. To the Right's credit, Jared Loughner is not a Tea Party or Republican activist. Unlike al Qaida or the Red Brigades, there was no conspiracy to kill a government official. He really is a paranoic whose fantasies were readily fed by the crap spewing from Right wing outlets like Fox (e.g., Beck, Bachmann, Palin, etc.).

I think a sane and refreshingly cogent interpretation of what happened can be found in Harry Shearer's HuffPo post from Jan. 10. As he writes:

This country has had toxic political rhetoric since its birth pangs, and there has undeniably followed in the past two centuries an occasional outbreak of political violence. But now we're being told that toxic political rhetoric is dangerous, because of its possible effect on the less rational, more mentally unhinged folks among us. So, maybe it's time to ask this question: Why are they among us?

Loughner had been expelled from college and rejected by the military for mental instability, and yet he was able to buy 30-round ammo clips from the neighborhood Wal-Mart.

There's no simple explanation for what happened Saturday, nor is there a simple solution to the problems it pointed up but I think Shearer has hit upon an important factor that's being ignored.

03 January 2011

2010 - Last Year's Best Reads (part 2)

Bookwise, the second half of 2010 proved pretty good. My love affair with Sylvia Townsend Warner continued, I discovered an interesting new author, and boned up on my American history. As usual, most of these books have some sort of write up on my GoodReads site.

On the Fiction Shelf (in chronological order):

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson. Outside of “The Lottery,” I’d never read any Jackson but was intrigued by a review of this book in The New York Review of Books, and was very entertained by this quirky look at a decidedly odd pair of sisters. At the same time, I watched a film called “Spider Babies,” with Lon Chaney, that was similar and also (surprisingly) good. Both recommended.

Lorna Doone, R. Blackmore. I picked up a copy of this book at the library for 25 cents after watching an adaptation of it. This is a really good book, far better than I could have hoped.

Mock’s Curse, T.F. Powys, and Selected Stories, Sylvia Townsend Warner. Two short-story collections by two of my favorite authors.

Journey to Aprilioth, Songs from the Drowned Lands, The Sarsen Witch, Eileen Kernaghan. I first read Aprilioth when I was a teen-ager (early teens) and always remembered it as a really good book so, in one of my occasional fits of nostalgia, I scrounged around and got used copies of it and the subsequent sequels (which I hadn’t read). Aprilioth was about as good as I remembered it. I didn’t think the other two books were quite as successful but they were still good and I enjoyed reading them. The setting is early Bronze Age Europe: Aprilioth recounts the adventures of a young British Celt who sets out on a journey to the legendary city of Aprilioth (on the island of Thera in the Mediterranean), the last settlement of Atlantis; Songs is a series of linked stories about the drowning of Atlantis; and The Sarsen Witch is about a young woman in the generation after Aprilioth, when the Goddess-worshipping tribes of Britain were falling back against the onslaught of God-worshipping invaders.

I'd like to get Kernaghan's Winter on the Plain of Ghosts, which is set in Harappan India.

Gods of Night, Mere Mortals, Lost Souls, David Mack. David Mack is one of the best Star Trek novelists out there. This may sound light faint praise but it really isn’t. Mack has a knack for vivid description and writing a compelling story. Not great literature by any means but if you’re a Trekkie and/or looking for some brain candy to read, this is highly recommended.

And, speaking of Star Trek, another serendipitous find was Night of the Living Trekkies, Kevin Anderson and Sam Stall. I was apprised of this little gem from a GoodReads review. Normally, I wouldn’t bother with another entry in the latest vampire-zombie novel genre but it is Trek and it was recommended by a man whose opinion I trust. My Uncle Russ, who died a couple of years ago and was the family’s Uber-Trekkie (I’m just an apprentice), would have loved this.

Kraken, China Miéville. I liked this book more than Miéville’s The City and The City, which I also read during the latter half of the year. It’s fast paced, baroque and over the top.

The Marquise of O-, Heinrich von Kleist. Von Kleist is a little known (to English speakers) German author, which is unfortunate because he’s very, very good. As I noted in my GoodReads’ review, the translators managed to preserve the Teutonic flavor of the writing without sacrificing readability for Anglophones.

The Corner That Held Them and The Music at Long Verney, Sylvia Townsend Warner. Ooooh, I get goose bumps this woman is so good. Read her!

On the Nonfiction Shelf (also in chronological order):

Aurelian, Alaric Watson, and Diocletian, Stephen Williams. Routledge Press has a whole series on the Roman Emperors and in a perfect world, I’d have the resources to buy them all.

Empires and Barbarians, Peter Heather. A brilliant look at the Roman Empire and the barbarians along its borders. You may not agree entirely with his thesis but his description of society of both sides of the frontier is fascinating.

Dinosaur Odyssey, Scott Sampson. A fascinating look at dinosaurs and the worlds they lived in. It’s probably a bit advanced for very young people but I think it would be OK for the 13+ crowd.

God Is Not One, Stephen Prothero. This is an interesting discussion about the various traditions of the world’s religions and makes the case (a good one, I think) that our conceptions of “God” are not the same and that the drive to create an ecumenical faith is misguided, at best.

The Rise of American Democracy, Sean Wilentz, and Disunion!, Elizabeth Varon. These two volumes were the best of the American history books I read, particularly Wilentz’s look at the American polity up to the Civil War. Varon’s book was more focused on the anti-slavery campaigns but both are recommended to anyone who wants to understand how this country developed.

Shakespeare, Sex, and Love, Stanley Wells. This is a provocative look at sexuality in Shakespeare and is prompting a read (or reread) of several plays.

That’s it for last year.

The new year promises some equally good reads, including the concluding volume of the Malazan Book of the Fallen.