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I said I'd be talking about books, so... - The Lyorn's Den

Tue Nov. 21st, 2006

07:19 pm - I said I'd be talking about books, so...

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I'm working a lot at the moment and when I'm back at the hotel I often get lost in the internet, so I haven't read as much lately as I did in October. Still, there is a bunch of books to talk about.

First is Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August", which is in part responsible for my slow reading and slower reviewing. Because, what do you say about a classic?

Tuchman is a historian -- the more medievally minded of you will have read her tapestry of the 14th century, "A Distant Mirror". Now imagine a book the same size, covering not a century, but a single month: August 1914, the first month of WWI or "The Great War".

"The Guns of August" was published in 1962, when one could argue that the war was not yet over. One can, in fact, argue, that the war lasted 75 years, or the whole of the 20th century, depending on how flexible one is in one's history.

Tuchman doesn't do that and doesn't concern herself with it. She focuses on one month, and even there she cuts out nearly everything Austrian, following instead meticulously the events on the Western front, with a two-chapter excurse into East Prussia and one about the events in the Mediterranean. Her question is, "who did what, and how, and why did they do it", and the book is stuffed full of details, five hundred pages of plans and people and battles. It makes for very slow reading, and you might want a map and some markers handy -- especially as the maps in the Ballantine paperback of 1994 are not only small and have the most relevant things happening where two pages meet and you can't see it without breaking the book's spine, but they are also printed in faded shades of medium grey. But if you are interested at all in one of the topics (history, strategy, logistics, drama) it's worth it.

Before too long, a deep sense of déjà-vu, of "I heard that all before, rather recently, in fact" creeps over the reader, and it might be a good idea to remind oneself that foolishness is part of human nature (Tuchman has a book on that, too, aptly titled "March of Folly"), and these are no portents, only history, which, one hopes, repeats itself, if at all, as a farce.

The book is brilliantly written, alive in every detail, the images becomes like something out of a movie, not a book, and you want to bang your head against the wall the whole time because nearly everyone is unbearably stupid and gets thousand and ten thousands of people killed.

I have to admit that what fascinated me most were logistics and communications (or the lack thereof) and the book sent me in a flurry of world building. Which might be amoral, but I consider it constructive.

Will Shetterly's "Elsewhere" is something completely different. It is a young adult novel, but not patronizing, and it is about the place where our world and Fairie meet, where a river of red flows through a changed town of human and elfs, where the teenage hero is looking for his brother and lots of strange folks are looking for the lost heir of Fairy, and a mixed gang of half-bloods, elfs and human youths try to make that commune thing work. It's kind of Urban Fantasy with some punk-ish attitude, with magic and drugs but without the cyber, and even has a darned werewolf (kind of), and yet it works. One of the reasons is that the hero and narrator is witty, tough enough, and honest, but inexperienced enough to head for a train wreck the reader sees coming for fifty pages. A very likable book, and not as quick a read as it could be, because the boring parts are missing.

The "Borderlands" setting where this story takes place has been created by Terri Windling in the 80s, and there are several anthologies and a few novels set there. While some of the ingredients smell strongly of the 80s, the stories are about people and about art, not about gimmickry and coolness, so they still do quite well.

While "Elsewhere" seems to have a lot going against it, yet succeeds and makes it look easy, "Darwinia" by Robert Charles Wilson takes the other direction. The story starts in March 1912, at the hero's 14th birthday, when suddenly strange lights fill the sky, and when they are gone, so is every town and every house, every street and railway, every plant and animal and human in Europe. The land is still there, but the plant life and the animals that now life there have never before been seen on Earth (and are, of course, quite nasty). The shock (and the lack of input and dialogue, one suspects) discredits science in America, and the official line becomes that this miracle proves God's existence. And not just any god's, but the vengeful old testament guy.

And here the problem starts, even if the reader doesn't realize it yet. Because this touches, of course, a very modern and very political topic, and one wishes that this be not the explanation -- not only for political reasons, but also because the story is not set up this way, and only characters which are not likable or respectable are ardent supporters of faith-based biology, Noachian geology, and other strange fields of study. But for now, one ignores it, because eight years have passed and our hero has joined a scientific expedition which plans to travel up the Rhine into the heart of the new Old World.

Politics isn't sleeping, either. The British (what's left of them in the colonies) want their isle back, expatriates want their land back, and the Americans want a war. While this is central to the story, it seems a little half-hearted (especially if you have read "The Guns of August" the week before), our hero never even knows, and his wife, who ends up in the middle of it, is a very uninteresting person.

The expedition is great, classic pulp science fiction in the best sense, full of strangeness and wonder, and the book still looks as if it could become very good. Only the explanation, or the lack thereof, is gnawing at the edge of one's thoughts, but as an experienced reader of SF, one can think of several styles of handwaving which would do just fine for an explanation and let one enjoy the story.

And then, unfortunately, one gets the explanation. And it is extremely blah. It is too fashionable, for once, while the book so far was pleasantly retro. It is so fashionable that it has become old already. It also has the wrong size compared to what has been going on before -- not only a complete WTF?-moment, but the certain knowledge that there is no way for the author to make this work with less then half the pages of the book remaining.

In the end, it all fast-forwards much too fast, and the gods and the demons are fighting it out with machine guns and trenches and barbed wire, and the whole thing looks very much like a computer game, down to the useless, senseless, menacing town-like structure of easy-to-render square blocks.

I see at T.M. Wagners SF Reviews page that he had the same problems with Darwina that I had, and yet enthusiastically recommends "Spin" by the same author. If Wilson is playing on his significant strengths in that one, I can imagine it being worth reading. But "Darwinia" was, while not boring, in a way worse than that: It was a "could have been".

I also read a book with short stories by Dorothy Sayers: "Hangman's Holiday". Some Lord Peter, some Montague Egg, two others. One of the Montague Egg stories was too complicated for my taste (and required a lot of knowledge about the English railway system in the 1930s, which I lack), and two were too simple, but the rest was just fine and they were all new to me.

Finally, I read "The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien" (not front to back, more browsing), and marvelled at Unwin's patience. Those guys waited 17 years for Tolkien to write "more about Hobbits". And the best thing is, he did, and it was good.

At work, I spend most of my time writing scripts at a leisurely pace, which is the most relaxing thing I have done at work in years. And in only ten days I'll be flying back, and then to Tenerife, and I haven't even opened my Spanish textbook yet.

After so many words, I'll finish with a comic: Galactus is Coming -- a Marvel/Chick tract crossover.


Date:November 23rd, 2006 04:56 am (UTC)
I'm sorry about being poking my nose into your journal after reading that good post of yours at Fanficrants, but now that the damage is done, I wonder if you'd like another book rec? If you enjoyed The Guns of August, I think you might also like Frumkin's A Peace to End All Peace, which is mostly about the consequences of WWI in the Middle East, but has the same kind of exploration of personalities and richness of detail and sharp eye for the exposure of folly as Tuchman's work.
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Date:November 23rd, 2006 06:10 am (UTC)
I'm sorry about being poking my nose into your journal

No problem at all, if I didn't want people reading my journal, I'd lock it ;-)

Thanks for the tip, I'll have a look at it next time I hang out in a bookstore (that would be tomorrow...)
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Date:November 26th, 2006 09:45 pm (UTC)
Did you
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Date:November 26th, 2006 10:20 pm (UTC)
hmm, sorry tried to log in while I already wrote some text *arg*
next try *g*
Did you know Christopher Tolkien is publishing "The children of Húrin" in April 2007 at Houghton Mifflin?
(for the US, for UK it's Harper Collins, bur I found nothing yet on their site)

aand ... I'm waiting for the NEXT book in the Dune more-ology to hit softcover.
They finally (after doing 6 prequels) did a SEQUEL!
And a part 8 will be out after that sometime ... I hope that it's good and answers the open questions *excited-squirrely-skipping*

Maybe I'll get you a to-buy-list after new year *g*
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Date:November 27th, 2006 03:19 am (UTC)
Hm, the Narn i Hin Hurin is not exactly my favorite story (mostly because Turin is such a moron... Yeah, sure, Morgoth made him do it, whatever...) but I'll probably still buy it. Tolkien fangirl, that's me.

BTW, I'm home for New Year's and most likely some days after, and I'm thinking about throwing a party. Interested?

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Date:December 20th, 2006 08:57 pm (UTC)
Welcome back home! Hope you two had a nice trip.
Yes I, ehem we, would be very interested in your party ;)
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