Saturday, March 5, 2011

Friday Reviews, 3/4/2011 (one day late)

Two books (and a short story!) this week.

Leonard Wolf - A Dream of Dracula

No image for this one - it's too old. This was the last of my vampire month books, and I finished it on Monday. It's a non-fiction exploration of Dracula and vampire myths and modern blood drinkers (wherein modern = the 1970s).

The book isn't awful. His discussion of Dracula is pretty standard now, I think - it's all about sex and Christianity - but I gather that it was provocative when it was written. His exploration of vampire stories and films produced after Stoker is far more interesting, if only because I had not heard of many of the books he mentioned. His over all thesis, though, is that vampirism is about transgressing social mores about sex - perhaps, but I think, as a metaphor, it can be much broader than that.

In addition to a fairly narrow interpretation, Wolf does two things that bothered me. First, he wanders through his material without a great deal of organisation. A particular example -  chapter 4 addresses myths about vampires. Wolf is exploring the thesis that vampires exist in a variety of societies. After several pages presenting vampires, or at least blood drinkers, from around the world, Wolf begins to present an argument for why we (as human beings) are drawn to stories of vampires. Then, suddenly, he stops to insert the following sentence:

"In Malaysia the vampires are mostly females, and are credited with a great fondness for fish." (p.128)
With no context or discussion, he returns to his early discussion of our human attraction to vampires. This was the most egregious example, but this sense of wandering is evident throughout the book.

The second thing that bothered me - Wolf inserts himself into the text - in addition to exploring myths of vampires, he also spends some time talking to people in his immediate surroundings about vampires - he attempts to find a modern vampire (and partially succeeds). This is perhaps acceptable, but there are also several passages outlining Wolf's sexual escapades - they get tied in, but I'm not sure why they needed to be there in the first place.

The overall impression that I got was that scholarly writing was less formal in the 1970s than now. The book was  interesting, and a fine addition to Vampire Month, but I'm sure there are more recent, and more formal, texts covering the same material.

As I said, I finished this on Monday. Wednesday evening, I sat down, and realized I hadn't started anything else, which is why only two books this week.The second:

Robert Conroy - Red Inferno, 1945

The American army stopped at the Elbe River in March, 1945, allowing the Soviets to capture Berlin - this was part of the Yalta accords. The Yalta accords were agreed to by FDR, but by March of 1945, Truman was in office. Stalin seemed unlikely to keep his part of the accords, especially in regards to granting free elections in Poland and other Soviet controlled states. FDR was inclined to use soft pressure on Stalin, rather than risk an open confrontation. Truman was more confrontational - what if Truman decided to send the army across the Elbe to show Stalin that the US meant business? That is the turning point in Conroy's alternate history. The result is a hot shooting war between the US and the USSR, instead of the protracted cold war that actually happened.

Conroy is clearly an American chauvinist - England and France are both quite useless against the Soviets, and the Soviets have few, if any, redeeming characteristics - a clear "good guy/bad guy" environment, which doesn't sit well with the historical record as I understand it.

Further, there was a strong sense that Conroy was re-fighting battles. There is a reworking of the incident at
the Bridge at NoGunRi - in the Korean War, US troops massacred Korean refugees trying to cross a bridge. The justification was that the refugees were being used as cover for North Korean soldiers, out of uniform - evidence exists on both sides of the debate, but there is no conclusive sign that the massacre was (or could ever be) justified. In Conroy's re-presentation, the Soviet soldiers are clearly evident. While the US troops are remorseful, they have a clear case - shooting the German refugees prevents the US position from being overrun by the Soviets. I'm not at all sure that this justifies the actions, but it is less ambiguous at any rate.

A second battle which Conroy re-fights is histriographical. One of the debates about the atomic bomb is over whether it could have ever been used tactically - that is, against soldiers in the field. If not; if it was only ever effective as a strategic weapon, for use against civilians, then it is an illegal weapon. Conroy depicts the use of the bomb against a Soviet field army, with only minimal damage to the US forces facing the Russians - again, cutting through significant debate without discussion.

In the end, it was a troubling book. There was a lot of fun there, in a mil-fic sort of vein, there was a cute romance - indeed, two cute romances, some acts of heroism, and a happy ending, but there was a heavy dose of nastiness as well. I think, by and large, I'd say give this one a miss.

Short story! posted a short story by Steven Brust, set in the Dragaeran universe, detailing a first meeting between some familiar secondary characters. Very interesting, and definitely worth a read if you are a Brust fan. I can see how the story might be confusing if you are not already familiar with the world and Brust's writing style.