Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams
This is a natural history book, subtitled Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. It chronicles parts of several years—summers, mostly, but also some days in winter—that Lopez spent in Alaska and the northernmost parts of Canada, often traveling in the company of biologists, zoologists, or Eskimo/Inuit natives. Interspersed with this is information on the life histories of several of the big species in the North, such as polar bears, narwhals, and musk oxen, and histories of human exploration into the region and how it affected the environment, and, come the Europeans, the humans who were already there.
I glutted myself on this. (The only chapter that dragged was the one on the nineteenth-century Arctic voyages, which named so many individuals it lost the personal focus that makes the chapter on Elizabethan voyages so enjoyable). Lopez’s prose is precise and clear, and he’s interested in everything; here’s a sample from Chapter 1, which lamentably has a few typos. There’s no wide-eyed innocence here, and most of the information is likely out-of-date—the book was published twenty years ago—but there is wonder. In some parts, Artic Dreams would make an excellent handbook for a fantasy writer who wants to conjure a northern landscape in another world to life.
A random quote that stuck with me: “We know more about the rings of Saturn than we do about the life of the narwhal.”
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
This book explores the seasons that Abbey spent as a park ranger in the Arches National Monument in Utah in the late 1960’s, welcoming tourists, exploring canyons, falling down ledges, denouncing automobiles, and, in two memorable chapters, trying to capture a feral horse and helping to transport the body of a tourist who’d died of the heat back from the far reaches of the park. He loves a land that not many people are going to find poetic, and it shows. He was also really upset about plans to pave the park so that more people could reach it, and that also shows. There are strong arguments in this for whether the National Park Service should cooperate in paving the parks, and whether people should visit national parks in such numbers, when the numbers tend to destroy the very beauty they came to see. Abbey is at least of the opinion that they ought to leave their automobiles behind if they come, and that there’s no point in bringing along all the comforts of home when this isn’t home.
Abbey’s prose is robust and violent and misogynistic. At least part of the narrative “I” is probably a character of his own creation, but it’s impossible to tell how much. He doesn’t care that people don’t like him, or that they’ll think him opinionated. A typical quote:
“There may be some among the readers of this book, like the earnest engineer, who believe without question that any and all forms of construction and development are intrinsic goods, in the national parks as well as anywhere else, who virtually identify quantity with quality and therefore assume that the greater the quantity of traffic, the higher the value received. There are some who frankly and boldly advocate the eradication of the last remnants of wilderness and the complete subjugation of nature to the requirements of--not man--but industry. This is a courageous view, admirable in its simplicity and power, and with the weight of all modern history behind it. It is also quite insane. I cannot attempt to deal with it here.”
So, in some senses, despite the fact that Abbey doesn’t write ornate prose, this isn’t an easy read, but I’m glad I read it. This is one of those books where reading it is like a battle, or a wrestling match, because the ideas refuse to compromise. I had a great time arguing with several parts, or raising a cynical eyebrow at them.
Steven Brust, Dzur
The problem with this book is that just about every single cool thing is also a spoiler of major proportions. Besides, since it’s the tenth in an ongoing series, and set immediately after the book that preceded it—which isn’t always the case with the Vlad Taltos novels—discussing it in detail also spoils the Momentous Events in book nine, Issola.
Other than that, I can say without fear of spoilers that it’s set in a restaurant, and every chapter begins with a flashback to the meal, in lovingly described detail. Vlad likes food, is an accomplished cook, and tells the story in first-person, so the details make plenty of sense.
There’s less detail elsewhere. Brust expects his reader to meet him halfway, or more than halfway. For example, there’s a scene where another character comes into a room and startles Vlad into dropping a cup, which smashes. The dropping of the cup isn’t described; you have to infer it from what the other character says and the fact that Vlad is now cleaning up pieces. I don’t mind this at all, so I was quite happy. Other people might not be as thrilled.
The book ends on what could be considered a cliffhanger, but I liked it so much I didn’t care. Besides, it was not a cliffhanger where you don’t know if a character is alive or dead, and any cliffhanger is better than that.
Ursula K. LeGuin, Always Coming Home
I have heard this—a future story, history, set of interviews, poems, and descriptions of a “people [who]…might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California”—described as a book that nobody likes. I suppose I am nobody, then. This, of course, comes from someone who read all the Appendices to LOTR and then went on to read The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. So take it with a boulder of salt if you need to.
The major connecting thread of the book is the life history of a woman named Stone Telling, one of the rare Valley people—the starring culture of the book—who not only has a parent who comes from outside the Valley, but actually ventures outside it herself. Her perspective is necessarily biased and limited, which is one reason it’s nice to have everything else involved, including sections narrated by someone from our own time and a “Back of the Book” appendix to shed light on some of the multiple cataclysms that have happened to our world. You still don’t get a complete picture of everything, including the Condor culture Stone Telling visits, which won’t satisfy a lot of readers. Other pieces of the world stay as shadowy stories in the background, including the enormous artificial intelligence that is busily engaged in making itself into a perfect replica of the universe. I like this fine. But, as I said, biased is me.
The Valley culture is nature-oriented, female-dominated (at least in the sense of being matrilineal and matrilocal, and having some condescending proverbs about the way men act and think), and, while making use of technology, sets strict limits on what should be adopted. And yet I don’t think it’s a caricature. The work LeGuin poured into it shows, and succeeds in giving it a flavor of its own, which I believe elevates any created world above a caricature, however opposite the author’s beliefs might be to one’s own.
Lynn Merrill, The Romance of Victorian Natural History
This is technically literary criticism, but a lot of what Merrill does is defend and describe and praise natural history in an effort to rescue it from ignorance. Natural history is not science—it’s too literary for that—and it’s not literature—it’s too scientific for that. Merrill tries to dredge it from the void because she finds it interesting, and because it offers a perspective on Victorian culture you can’t get anywhere else.
You certainly can’t. I was aware, in a vague way, of the fact that Victorian literature has a lot of natural historian characters—there’s one in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, which actually takes place in a city, and the natural historian in question is distinctly working-class—but I didn’t know how widespread it was. Thousands of people went to shores, searching for seashells, anemones, coral, and drops of water that contained unknown animalcules. There was a “Fern Craze.” Children’s books about natural history casually included the Latin names of species, under the expectation that children should know both how to pronounce them and what they meant. And natural historians wrote books that delighted in collecting names, recommending beauties, and exploring the microscopic world, as opposed to biology, which, as it developed during the nineteenth century, was increasingly focused on the larger animals.
Victorians did not mind natural history, Merrill writes, because it was considered educational, moral, able to point out natural theology, and got you out in the fresh healthy air. So it was a morally enlightening pursuit, and not a dangerously knowledgeable one. Women and working-class people could pursue it without being morally corrupted; in fact, one quarry worker, Hugh Miller, wrote a book called The Old Red Sandstone which traced the geology of the formation in question through its rocks and its fossils and was enormously popular.
The natural historians contributed enormously to the developing sciences, but mostly separated themselves from scientists; they were often unable to cope with what science started saying about God, especially after 1859, and they were focused on collecting and naming and pointing out how beautiful the things of the world were, not analyzing them. Still, I find myself persuaded by Merrill’s argument; natural history does deserve to be read, not only because it covers a whole immensely popular strain of Victorian culture, but because there’s nothing else like it.
Raymond Williams, The Country and the City
This is a sinewy book that traces the development of country and city tropes through British literature from the pastoral “country-house” poems like “To Penshurst” down to twentieth-century writers like D. H. Lawrence. It’s written mainly from an economics perspective, and it is not a book to read if you want to be in a warm and fuzzy mood. Williams notes the absence of laborers from just about any depiction of the country ever--for example, “To Penshurst” makes it seem as if the bounty of the land comes directly to the lord’s table because he’s such a good lord, without taking account of the people who actually do the work—and the assimilation of them into the landscape when they do show up, not really separate from animals. He also digs up interesting historical facts about how, often, the “country gentry” who have “always been there” just bought the house fifty years or so back, and could be as abusive and negligent as the “invading gentry” who “were going to change everything.” But because the literature didn’t portray them that way, it became hard for later generations to remember it.
There are other interesting ideas. I think the most interesting, for me, was the “escalator effect.” This assumes that the golden days are always just out of sight, probably in the days when our grandparents were children. Those were the days when people lived in harmony with nature, village life was communal, the gentry treated with the country people in honor and obligation instead of by law and fiat, etc. Williams traces the process back to the 1370’s, when there are complaining peasants in “Piers Plowman,” not like those good old peasants who didn’t complain. Merry Old England never truly existed, and neither did the idealized upper class that pastoral literature tends to portray—except in the minds of their authors. But though many people might admit that if pressed, the impression that it did exist at some point has done enormous damage, mainly by masking the operations of power.
I’m not sure if I agree with everything in this book; I’ll need distance for that. But it does offer a different perspective on poetry and novels I’ve heard praised without compunction in many of my literature classes, and has made me rethink some of my own worldbuilding centered around lords and villages, so there’s that.
Sarah Monette, Mélusine
I really liked this book. I’d deliberately read some reviews of it beforehand, though I stuck to non-spoilery ones, because I’d heard it was “odd” and wanted to know why. As a result, I went in expecting to dislike some things I turned out to like, such as the disjointed narration of Felix Harrowgate, one of the two main characters.
The book alternates between these two narrators exclusively, both first-person: Felix Harrowgate, a court wizard whose dark past comes out of the shadows at the beginning of the book and who is driven insane by his old mentor, and Mildmay, a cat burglar who lives in the lower city and becomes involved, almost by accident, in the affairs of those socially above him. The chapters are long, but the individual sections often quite short, creating a pendulum effect. I didn’t mind this, since not every section ends with a cliffhanger. Felix and Mildmay don’t meet for several hundred pages, though, which might annoy some readers.
I was able to take an interest in most of the characters, even those I didn’t really sympathize with (such as Felix at some points in the book, and Steven, the lord of Mélusine, who dislikes Felix and is an obstacle at several points in the story). There are settings in the book that you don’t see every day: a graveyard, a madhouse, wide grassy plains. [There seems to be a Rule that, most of the time, when characters in fantasy go traveling, it’s through either forests or cities]. There are shadowy wizard cabals whose different practices are never fully explained, rival nations about to go to war, necromancers who attempt to summon dead murderers, and a background sense of a living world, though that dims somewhat when the characters leave Mélusine. It’s a book with a true sense of place, and that doesn’t occur often, so I was happy to see it.
I did have three problems with the book, two minor (I’ll get to the big one in a second). The first is that the world is a jumble of different place and personal names, from the folklore reference of the city’s name to personal names of characters like Astyanax. This is done for a Reason, obviously, but I couldn’t tell whether the Reason was to give flavor or to suggest stronger correspondences between parts of our own history and mythology and the history and mythology of Mélusine’s world. It was a bit jarring to recognize the name of Hector’s dead son on a snotty teenage kid. The second is an action sequence in the middle of the book, dealing with a murderous spirit, that I can’t figure out the point of. It’s ostensibly a way to get Felix and Mildmay in the same spot, but it peters out too easily for as strong a foe as the spirit’s supposed to be, and the meeting could have been handled another way. Luckily, I didn’t think this went on long enough to ruin the story.
The bigger problem, for me, is that the characterization of minor characters unexpectedly runs out at some points, and they’re victims of the Chessboard Plot—simply moved around for the plot’s needs, without an attempt to explain their actions. This is most noticeable with Felix’s mentor, Malkar, who is Evil, the only person in the book that I can really say that about. Even one of the nonhuman, people-eating monsters Mildmay meets comes off better. The other situation where it really stood out was with Shannon, Felix’s lover (spoilers white-texted): He abandons Felix on finding out about his past, which isn’t that much of a problem, given that it happens early on in the book and we don’t know him. But, much later, Felix refuses to have sex with him, and that leads to Shannon stomping out screaming like a petulant child and taking delight in tormenting Felix for the rest of the book. I could not understand why that happened. They’d been lovers for years, and Felix cares for him. So it came off much more as Shannon doing what the plot needed him to do—inflict more suffering on poor mad Felix—than a reaction that made sense. (spoilers end). The characterization in other parts of the book struck me as very good, letting people make mistakes and inconvenient decisions even when it proved counterproductive to the advancement of the plot. I’m not sure why so many minor characters around Felix fail to come off convincingly. It’s not just the fact that he’s an unreliable narrator, since they’re still behaving strangely when seen through Mildmay’s eyes. Perhaps the reason is explained in the next book of the series, The Virtu, which I do plan to buy when it comes out in paperback. Despite some of the problems I had with the execution, Monette sold me on the story and (most of) the characters.
Megan Whalen Turner, The Thief
I liked it. I do not have the massive amounts of love for this book I’ve seen in many places, but it was pleasantly written, made me laugh at several points, contains some of the more credible “scrambling around in a deserted place searching for a lost artifact” that I’ve seen, and does not let the artifact or a prophecy take over the story from the characters. Those are all pluses for me.
Gen is the best thief in the city, apparently. But he winds up in the dungeons for his bragging, until the king’s magus offers him a deal: if Gen comes with him to try and recover an artifact, Hamiathes's Gift, which will make the monarch who possesses it seen as the rightful ruler, he can get out of the dungeons. Gen has to travel with the magus, his two apprentices, and a guard to the secret location of the stone, a labyrinth, and stands a high chance of being killed if he disobeys, ventures into the labyrinth, or doesn’t make it out on time with the Gift.
Gen is a very rare thing: a protagonist who can complain about his situation and not wear on me. It helps that he complains about things like hunger, cold, and lack of sleep, instead of gazing into his navel while he wails about his past and how life is so hard like the typical whiny teenager dragged along on a quest. Also, when he antagonizes his companions and they snap back at him, he can admit (mostly) that part of it is his own fault. The other characters largely get a chance to be human and to change in Gen’s perceptions and their actions, instead of staying exactly as they were at the beginning.
The book is famous for its surprise ending, which I won’t ruin. I will say that I wasn’t particularly impressed with it, nor with a few other revelations that happened along the way. Looking back, it’s possible to see clues for most, but they weren’t set up well enough for me to believe in them, and the fact that Gen is a first-person narrator decreased my patience for his not thinking of certain things quite sharply, in ways that an omniscient or tight third-person narrator could have escaped. But I have this newly developed skill, now, where I can often become indifferent on the aspects of a story I don’t like, such as the Obligatory Romance, and, in this case, the ending. I like it for 90% of the story. That will do.
Currently reading: Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville, which is a book that I’ve stalled on before and which I’ve now decided has to be attacked, rather like a literary criticism book, so that’s what I’m doing.