Saturday, December 29, 2007

Romance of 3 Kingdoms, Neon Rain, Bluebear, Night Vision, Out, Treasure Island

Last week was blessed vacation week, and a time, I thought, to catch up on a lot of reading. More fool I. Instead, I ended up halfway through 3 books, between reading to the kids and trying to decide what's a beach book and trying not to take my Japanese dictionary to the beach...

The one book I managed to finish was James Lee Burke's The Neon Rain. I had high hopes for this, because I loved Cimarron Rose, and Neon Rain is the start of his other long-running series, about Dave Robicheaux, a cajun detective. Unfortunately, I think Burke's reach exceeded his grasp in this one. The book wants to be all about the horrors of American policy in Nicaragua, and how immoral it is to use the Sandinistas, but that's hard to pull off when the vantage point is a policeman in New Orleans. As a result, it always feels like the real story happens before the novel, and Dave Robicheaux is just cleaning up some loose ends that don't really matter so much.

On the plane, I started reading The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear to the kids. This German novel is the story the adventures of a bluebear from his earliest youth through 13 1/2 lives (bluebears live 27 lives, the narrator tells us). Only a 100 pages in, because reading out loud is slow going, but the book is very funny, and the illustrations are very cute. (Drawn by the author). The book is very episodic, and Jenna tells me it remains so (she's halfway through), but that plays to the author's strengths, I think, which is that he throws one neat idea out after another. From a Giant whale that is also related to sharks, cyclopes, and saurians, to a carnivorous plant-island, to minipirates, the author's inventiveness drives this book, and it would be a shame to tie it down too much to a strict plot.

On the trip, I began reading The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I'm still only 140 pages in (the first volume is 700 pages -- argh!), and it's slow going. New characters are introduced at a moment's notice, only to be disposed of 5 or 10 pages later. Unfortunately, it's hard to tell when you first meet a character whether he's going to be a major character or not, and my Westerner's bias makes it hard to tell all the Chaos, Changs, Suns and Ts'aos apart. That having been said, once I hit my stride, I've been enjoying the book tremendously. One interesting thing to me is how amoral almost all of the major characters are (I'll call anyone who survives for 2 chapters a major character). They change allegiance for money on a regular basis, they ignore warnings from Heaven, they desert their underlings without a second thought, and, when someone finally comes along to punish them, it turns out that the new guy is just as bad as the one before. This is really different from, say, The Tale of the Heike, which has a very strong moral current--the author of that book always lets you know that the Taira clan deserve to be brought down. The author of the Romance is much more ambivalent about the movements of history.

I began Night Vision by Paul Levine, but there isn't much to say about it. It's kind of funny, and that's it. I also read more of Out, but nothing new there either.

I've been reading Treasure Island to Moshe, and it really is a wonderful book. Stevenson has a great knack for having his people speak very differently, which is something I always admire in an author. Dr. Livesey is very easy for the kids to understand, whereas the latest chapter we read is almost all Long John Silver talking, and it's in such a thick argot that I had to translate constantly for the kids.

Hopefully I'll make some headway on some of these books, and be able to give an actual comment on them later.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

More Leigh Brackett

Other than a brief foray into the Kugel book and a bit more with Passionate Marriage, I've been plugging steadily through The Sand Kings of Mars. I'm reading the third Eric John Stark story right now--I hadn't realized that she'd only written three (other than the Skaith books, much later). In some ways he's a Tarzan-like character, but I love how economically she skips over his early childhood in about 4 sentences of dialogue. It gives us the essentials (raised by aboriginals on Mercury who were killed off by miners, Stark was caged by those miners, then freed by Earthman Ashton and brought into civilization).

We skip a lot of the tedious details that, not only don't we care about (how did Stark end up with aboriginals? How did Ashton educate him?), but would at best weaken the story. The story of how Tarzan learned to read is pretty silly, and his learning to talk is even worse, and, in any case, we just want to jump to the scenes where he does things like lay a bet with the Englishmen that he can walk into the jungle and bring out a dead lion. This isn't deep literature, and Brackett knows how to focus on what's important for her story.

Brackett, of course, is constantly lumped in with C. L. Moore, since they were the 2 major women sf writers in the pulps, and they both did the space opera thing, as well as having a strain of feminism in their work. I probably need to read Moore again, but I think I like her stories better. Moore tends to be a bit more surprising about who's good and evil, and her stories have a more melancholy touch to them, where the hero may well be worse off at the end than at the beginning. (I'm thinking specifically of "Shambleau" and "Black God's Kiss," here, which I think are fantastic stories).

Maybe a trip down memory lane by re-reading the Northwest Smith stories is called for...

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Alta, Leigh Brackett, Kugel, Iliad

A real hodgepodge, and that's leaving out Passionate Marriage, which Jenna has me reading.

For whatever reason, I've started reading The Books of Great Alta to Moshe. I'd forgotten how amazing they are, a real showpiece for Jane Yolen's talents. She switches tones so effortlessly in these books that it's a joy to read them. Each section starts with a "myth" section, which tends to be grand and sweeping, then a "legend" that's somehow related to the story to come. Then she jumps in and out of the actual story to intersperse it with lullabies, histories, ballads, and so forth. It's a tour de force in the same way that Possession is. (Although Possession is the better book)

I picked up a book of Leigh Brackett's short stories from the 40s and 50s, and I'm into the fourth one. She was writing, of course, in the heyday of the pulps, and so it's odd to see how non-pulpy the stories are. Not the plots, which are very space operatic, but the writing itself is very sensual and adult, which is not something I tend to ascribe to the writers of the day (Van Vogt, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, et al). Then again, the fourth story is a collaboration with Rab Bradbury, which reminds me that he was also writing SF back then, and his writing is also beautiful, and not what we think of as pulpish writing (though Bradbury clearly had more literary goals than Brackett, which is why he managed to migrate to slicks like the Atlantic Monthly).

Oddly enough, all four of the stories I've read so far involve some sort of hypnosis or mind control--I've never thought of that as a particular trait of Brackett's style. But I haven't read as much of her work as I'd like, which I why I picked up this collection in the first place. I do see that most of her work was not sold to Campbell, who was the editor of the big SF magazine at the time, and whom Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke all credit with refining their styles. That may be why her stories stick out as so different from theirs (although it's interesting to speculate whether they're similar because of Campbell's interest, or whether Campbell just happened to work well with that sort of writer).

This shabbat I also read another chapter in Kugel's Jacob's Ladder, this one about the rape of Dinah. This one really feels like it was very little altered from an original paper that it's based on (not that I'm going to check...) He focuses very much on the Testament of Levi, an account from the second Temple period purporting to be Levi's recounting of his story to his sons. Apparently, there's a set of 12 of these, one for each brother, and Kugel talks a bit about the Testament of Simeon as well, since he was the other brother he slew the Shechemites. The issue of the Dinah story for early commentators is that Simeon and Levi seem to act pretty reprehensibly--they slay every man in Shechem after tricking them to undergo circumcision. Jacob disapproves, but it doesn't seem to go any farther--they're never actually punished for this.

Kugel traces a couple of different stories which aim to show that, in fact, Simeon and Levi acted according to God's will, where some versions even have them taking up special angelic swords for the occasion. He also shows how the commentaries can give an indirect view of the period; in this case, we can deduce something about different attitudes to intermarriage. (We can read Jacob's assent to the circumcision proposal as saying that he would've supported an intermarriage with Shechem, and then Levi becomes the (righteous?) avenger who says that this cannot happen).

I also read a bit more of book 13 of the Iliad, where Meriones meets Idomeneus in the back lines, and each tries to explain why he's there instead of in the front lines. It's kind of funny in it's own way, and Homer unquestionably ends it on a joke, so I wonder if it was thrown in as a bit of a break from all the fighting going on, before the aristeia Idomeneus which is coming up.