Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The better (and worse) angels of our nature

The Rebel Angels

Robertson Davies


Reviewed by: Terry
4 - 4.5  out of 5 stars

Some books are comfort reads. They are old friends whose familiarity provides us with a sense of stability and well-being, and they fit like a glove to the intellectual, emotional, and purely personal elements of our psyche. Sometimes this is because we came to them in formative years when their mode and message could be deeply impressed on us, sometimes it is because they simply express aspects of our nature that we ourselves may not be fully aware of, but to which they harmonize completely. The books of Robertson Davies are these kinds of books for me. I did come at them at a young age, but they also showed to me a world, and way of looking at the world, that I found utterly appealing and deeply satisfying.

Like all of his books _The Rebel Angels_ is a book about art, about the intellect, and about secrets (both personal and professional). It is populated by the kind of characters that Davies knew so well and whose portraits he painted unerringly (if on occasion a little too neatly): they are intellectual elites, connoisseurs of art and artistry, but they are also unique, often bizarre, individuals whose quirks and manias may be the result of heredity, upbringing, or a judicious combination of both. Having said this I would have to admit that perhaps the only reservation I have is in the range of these characters. They are certainly unique, quirky and individual, but they do seem to generally be cut from the same cloth. Davies himself was a true old school Upper Canadian (though indeed one with a decidedly forward-looking bent) conversant with the rituals and mode of the intellectual and social elites and this is very much the place where his characters live. Trying to go outside of this range is something he doesn’t seem to have been very interested in, and this was probably for the best. My only qualm with any of his characters is actually with Maria in this trilogy. I’m not sure how successful I think he was in embodying a feminine voice in her and often wonder what women who have read the series think of her? I don’t exactly find her unbelievable, but I sometimes wonder if some of the things she says and does wouldn’t sit more comfortably with one of Davies other, male, characters.

For me perhaps the most alluring feature of this book is the fact that it centres on the life of a University; indeed, of the university which I not only attended but where I now work and whose buildings, halls, and (most importantly) odd individuals are only thinly disguised. It stands to reason, then, that this book holds a unique place in my heart. In some ways this book is an academic satire, showing us the strange rituals, obsessions, and quirks that are unique to the world of academe. We are primarily concerned with the perhaps parochial world of a small college within a larger University, the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (or more colloquially “Spook”) and are immediately thrust into the midst of the action as the whispered refrain “Parlabane is back!” echoes throughout the halls. Everyone loves some good gossip and academics are no less a party to this than anyone else. It appears as though John Parlabane, one of the college’s former stars in the intellectual firmament (now disgraced much to all of his contemporaries’ delight), has returned to the alma mater as a defrocked monk in the hopes of clawing his way back up, and perhaps stirring the pot of scandal and intrigue. In the midst of this is Maria Magdalena Theotoky, a promising graduate student who has the misfortune not only of being the research assistant of one of Parlabane’s old ‘friends’, but of being in love with him. Said scholar, Clemence Hollier (an ‘ornament to the university’), is pursuing his research interests with single-minded assurance that is broken by only two things: his role as co-executor to the vast estate of the recently  deceased millionaire and art collector Francis Cornish, and his nagging remembrance of an indiscretion the year before with his beautiful and intelligent RA on his decrepit office couch. Finally we have Professor the Reverend Simon Darcourt, scholar in New Testament Greek, lover of homely comforts, and also both an executor of Cornish’s will and newly smitten teacher of the lovely Miss Theotoky.

From here Davies takes us into the tangled world of academe, which is more cutthroat than outsiders might believe. The narrative is first person, split between segments narrated by Maria and Darcourt respectively, each of whom view the culmination of events that grow around the death of Cornish and arrival of Parlabane from parallel tracks. There is intellectual intrigue and thievery, bizarre research interests, passive aggressive bullying, and a most interesting view into the household of a gypsy family of means who straddle the old world and the new, the criminal and the respectable. As is to be expected of Davies his Jungian interests come out in a few ways. First, and most importantly, each of the characters wrestles with what Parlabane calls their “root and crown”: the tension that exists between the chthonic forces of our heredity & deeply buried psychological foundations and the outward face we present to the world bound up in our more conscious needs & desires. In addition the tarot and other mystical and mythological aspects of art and scholarship flow in and out of the characters’ lives proving themselves to be more real and applicable than they would ever have previously given them credit for. Sometimes this is manifested in a benign & revelatory way, sometimes through fear and premonition, but always enlightening them about themselves and the world.

All in all this is a great start to a great trilogy. Highly recommended.

Also posted at Goodreads

Latro's back and he still doesn't remember you

Soldier of Arete

Gene Wolfe

Tor Books

Reviewed by: Terry
4  out of 5 stars

Latro continues his journey across ancient Greece in search of his memory in Gene Wolfe’s second entry in the “Soldier” series _Soldier of Arete_. As implied in my review of _Soldier of the Mist_ I am finding this series to be the easiest for me to ‘get into’ of all of Gene Wolfe’s work that I’ve read thus far. I think it’s because many of the elements Wolfe employs in nearly all of his fiction really seem to make sense here. Latro is naïve and ‘unreliable’ as a narrator, but he’s suffering from memory loss due to brain trauma…I can accept that a lot easier than I can the apparent naïvete of characters like Severian (an apprentice torturer and would-be saviour), Silk (an annoying man-child saint)or Able (a young boy transported to a fantasy world, but a boy who seems to have grown up in some kind of very sheltered ‘Leave it to Beaver’ childhood…he certainly never seemed to have the experience I would expect of even a ten-year-old from the modern era). When those characters ‘leave something out’ of the tale they are telling it seems willful to me, Wolfe purposely obfuscating the narrative via his narrative tool, but when Latro does it I can accept it as a natural part of the story due to the fact that he just can’t help it, he really does try to be the best reporter of the events going on around him that he can. Of course this is all really just smoke and mirrors: Latro is just as much the ‘narrative tool’ of Wolfe as the others and giving me a ‘plausible’ excuse for accepting unreliability from him as a character perhaps doesn’t really mean that he has any significant difference from Wolfe’s other protagonists, he is still performing the same ‘sleight of hand’, but somehow it does make a difference to me. I'm willing to accept Latro for who he is and I find that much more difficult with Wolfe's other protagonists.

Wolfe’s ever-present erudition is also on full display in this volume (as in the previous) and we are immersed into the world of ancient Greece at the time of the Graeco-Persian wars. As is usual with Wolfe he pulls no punches and much is left for the reader to make sense of on their own, though Latro’s own need to explain some things to himself in his scrolls, as well as my own interest in the civilizations of this era, made the often frustrating obfuscation and explanation-by-way-of-implication endemic to Wolfe less of an issue for me here. Be warned that spoilers for _Soldier of the Mist_ follow.

The previous volume ended in a cliffhanger: upon leaving the besieged city of Sestos Latro was tricked into a battle that seemed likely to kill him. Although he managed to survive (he is touched by the gods after all) and met a dying soldier who seemed to recognize him, calling out the name “Lucius” only to expire before he could enlighten him beyond this, Latro seems to be no closer to finding his home and identity than he was before. Latro is once again thrown into companionship with some old friends (and enemies) and this time journeys across Thrace, through Athens, and finally to Sparta guided both by the hands of the gods and those in whose company he finds himself. It becomes even more obvious here that Latro is a pawn, both of the gods and the other people with whom he must live. I’m still not sure what the end game of the former group is, or why they view Latro as such an important tool. The human players are much easier to read as they jockey for political and personal power and see Latro’s abilities (both as a soldier and as one who can see the invisible world) as useful tools for reaching their objectives.

It is interesting to see that a character like Latro, one who loses the memory of each day as it recedes into the past, is actually still capable of growth. I would definitely say that the Latro of Arete is a slightly different man from the Latro of Mist and the sorrow and perplexity of his condition are truly beginning to weigh on him. It is also touching to see the way in which many of the people around him truly care for this man (though he would be, and is, horrified at their pity of him) and much of the manipulation of Latro is done with the best of intentions, “for his own good”. Deep down in his heart, though, Latro appears to know better what it is that he needs and how he ought to live and thus, in the end, he makes his own decisions about what he shall do and where he shall go…perhaps to his own detriment, but even a man with no memory wants to feel that he has made his own choices, however well-intentioned the choices made on his behalf by others.

The ending of this volume is an even bigger cliffhanger than the one in Mist and the last chapter is even told in slightly confusing poetic prose by a character other than Latro…a flourish of Wolfe’s that no doubt left the readers at the time of publication thoroughly frustrated (these readers would be forced to wait 17 years for the final volume of the series, a volume that they perhaps never even expected to appear). While this could be validly considered a typically Wolfean ending to a series loaded with ambiguity I am glad that I have the third volume at hand and can see where Latro finds himself in the final fragment of his story without further delay.

Also posted at Goodreads

The Forbes 25 Reviewers - #14 Richard

Today's guest is Richard.  Richard also posts at  Shelf Inflicted and Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud.

How did you discover Goodreads?
Like all the best stuff in life, I learned about it on the streets. Hey, isn't that where we learn about sex, drugs, booze? So I got mugged by a Goodreader when I was minding my own business over on LibraryThing. She dragged me here, plopped me down, and said, "See?" I didn't, really. I joined in 2010, and midway through 2011 made a friend who changed things around here for me.

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences?
Becoming friends with Stephen, another of the Forbes 25, introduced me to the wider world of wingnuts he hung with. The rest is history. One thing Goodreads taught me was that one gets out of social media what one puts into social media. Show up, make a contribution, lather rinse repeat. Over time, that makes both friends and enemies. But for someone like me, basically homebound and not very boredom tolerant, Goodreads has expanded my social reach and stimulated my ever-questing readerly brain.

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of.
Only one? No. Sven Penkevich writes beautiful, closely reasoned dissertations on books and authors I've never heard of, but now want to read. Rose Summers keeps me in touch with the youth market. Steve Kendall writes love letters to books that make me weep with jealousy. Jeffrey Keeten! Carol Siewert! Will Byrnes! My feed seethes with wonderful reviewers who read and discuss books I would never have heard of otherwise, making me long for more hours, more eyes, and an unlimited book budget.

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads?
Negative. Amazon is a sales organization, and I am a customer of theirs. Goodreads is a social media site, and I am a member of theirs. The concepts are different. Goodreads made money by collecting data on my tastes in books, aggregating it, and selling ads to publishers and authors to keep the lights on and buy cat food for the founders. Now that Amazon directly owns Goodreads, their already extensive knowledge of my book-buying habits can be deployed at AND at I use AdBlocker to keep the screaming blinking buyme-buyme that assaults me to a minimum. Now it can be made more insidious, oh dear I mean more convenient for me to shop.

I detest Amazon's reviews. I don't trust them...anyone remember Harriet Klausner?...and I vigorously dislike the thuggish culture of five-stars-or-else that's allowed to flourish there. There is some of that on Goodreads as well, as anyone who has ever posted a review critical of the Book of the Moment knows. But here's where the social part of social media rescues the outliers: Friends rally to one's defense. Because they do, others in their circle notice one's reviews, and read them, and come to one's defense with "Like"s and troll fighting. Never happen on Amazon, speaking from old experience.

So, being cynical and believing the worst that can happen is but a prelude to the true hell to come, it seemed and seems to me likely that Amazon's ownership of Goodreads will mean happy-clappy fivestarland with extra soma for all is but a breath away.

How many books do you own?
Fewer than I used to, but an accurate count is impossible. Over 1000, under 3000.

Who is your favorite author?
Vladimir Nabokov. Pnin, Ada, or Ardor, these would be the masterworks of another writer's career. For Volodya's career, they're second rank works after the perfect beauty and creepy repulsiveness of Lolita.

Close second is Virginia Woolf, whose Mrs. Dalloway is another perfect book, and whose Orlando is breathtaking. (See? I can't pick Just One of anything!)

What is your favorite book of all time?
HA! Limiting this to TEN is too hard! But to avoid re-listing the catalog of the Library of Congress, I'll say this: Books saved me from a difficult childhood, and one book above all others shone a beacon of hope for me: The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith. The original, not one of the abridged and bastardized Disnifications. Escape and rescue and support...all the things I think every kid in difficult circumstances desires. Forty-plus years on, it's not aged well, being racist and sexist and so on. But it helped me then, and I love it for that.

What are your thoughts on ebooks?  What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
Treating these as one question, because they're so interrelated.

I have a Kindle and an Android tablet and read on both of them. I don't read books for review that way, since the highlighting features are arcane and overcomplicated for my two-volt nervous system. Ink on paper plus Book Darts (wonderful things, those, since I ***HATE*** writing in my books).

What will ebooks mean to publishing? New paradigm. The end of the consignment model of book sales (about goddamned time too). The end of gatekeeping, a decidedly mixed blessing. No longer does a rejection from Putnam, Farrar Straus & Giroux, The Dial Press, and Knopf mean your collection of interlinked short stories telling the life of Madame Blavatsky in 420-character chapters mean that no one but your lover and your dog will hear your words. But unhappily it also means your work is less likely to be edited, copyedited, and proofread by people whose job this is.

This problem is rife in the ebook world, and not just among indie authors and small publishers. Major houses are putting out books with, for example, plurals formed by apostrophes, both ebooks and tree books. This is not trivial and it's not at all a good thing. Not only does it dumb down the readers who come to accept it, it deprives the editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders of jobs, and makes passing on those skills to the next generation less likely. And then comes the day when it's not important anymore because no one knows any better.

See? Told you I was cynical.

Any literary aspirations?
No. None. Why, do you think I should? (said in best Tim-Curry-as-Dr. Frank N. Furter voice)