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.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

addenda, 3/1/2011

I failed to mention that hapax sent me some ARC's on Saturday (well, they arrived on Saturday):

Holly Black, ed - Zombies vs. Unicorns

A collection of short stories devoted to answering, once and for all, the timeless question - "who would win in a fight, zombies or unicorns?" This looks like goofy good fun.

Amy Chau - Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

You may have seen something about this - The Wall Street Journal caused a stir with an artistically edited excerpt which made Chau's thesis out to be that Asian parents, in their harsh parenting style, raise better kids. Chau, and some of her reviewers contend that the book does not conclude anything of the sort; that it is, instead, a story of a journey away from that model of parenting. We shall see.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Monday Library Day, 2/28/2011

So, I've got a small stack of books that I've been waiting to read because they don't have vampires in them:

From today's trip,

Walter Jon Williams - This is Not a Game

I read Williams' discussion of his second novel at John Scalzi's site. He discussed his first book (this one), and it sounded fantastic. This is the story of an augmented reality game - you sign up to play online, and suddenly you're being sent missions and getting phone calls and text messages - you play the game in real life, in real time. The game in this book spins somewhat out of control, and turns into a revolution. Anyway, it looks good, it was at the library today, I grabbed it.

From earlier:

Andrew Lane - Death Cloud

Andrew Lane decided to write the story of how Sherlock Holmes became Sherlock Holmes - an adolescent detective solving crimes and becoming Sherlock Holmes as we know him. Lane suggested that the novel would put Holmes through hell, and that it wouldn't end well.

The Honey Month, Day 28 (2/28/2011)

eta: The last of the links is now up.

"Day 28 - French Chestnut Honey

Colour: Sunshine in Ottawa, and a little paler still.

Smell: More than a flower, something else, something earthy and nutty and malty at once. Hints of green and smoke, substance.

Taste: A burnt wood taste, hints of anise; this is a honey that tastes very brown and black, dark with slants of light in it."

Today's piece is a glorious one to end on, a lovely bit of fantasy about a girl who forgot how to kiss. It fits very neatly in with much of the rest of the collection - the Cranberry honey boy and the Manuka honey girl, even, perhaps, the harbor bees from Day 3. It's sweet, and poignant, and, in the end, hopeful.

This is the last day of the Honey Month, so I hope you all enjoyed it. I've had lots of fun re-reading Amal's work; a little at a time is the way to approach such a book. If you've wandered in from one of the places where Amal's DVD extras showed up, I do hope you'll stick around; maybe even participate a little?

I've really enjoyed the process of posting something daily, and would love suggestions for something I can continue this process with - a book of poems or short stories, or meditations. Several people whose blogs I read are engaged in long-form literary criticism, taking a book or even a series of books that the blog writer dislikes, and picking the book to pieces. I do not want to do that. However, if you had a collection - perhaps it's your collection - that you feel needs some exposure, I'd love to attempt to continue what I started this month.
A note on what's been going on here. Two years ago, Amal El-Mohtar began a month long exploration of a variety of honeys, tasting and describing each, and then writing a short piece of fiction, or a poem, or something of that nature which was inspired by the honey of the day. Last year, these posts were collected into a short book - more formal than a simple chapbook, perhaps - called The Honey Monthwhich I reviewed when it came out. My biggest problem, at that time, was that I ploughed through the book too quickly, and so I resolved to do a more careful reading of it at a later date. That later date is now - the posts were originally a February project, and so there are 28 honey days. This is now February, and I cannot think of a better time to slowly read poems and stories about honey. The material in quotation marks is the description of the day's honey, from the book (so that you get a good taste of Amal's lovely writing), what follows that is a brief thought about the piece of poetry or fiction of that day from yours truly.

In addition to my daily reviews, Amal has been re-running the original posts with what she is describing as "DVD Extras," some commentary on the piece for the day, some discussion of the differences between the original post and the finished piece in the book, and some delicious LJ Honey Month icons. The first of the re-runs is here, and I have been linking the appropriate post via the daily title, above, as the post becomes available. Amal is currently in England (because she is fabulous), and so her sense of what time it is and my sense of what time it is are somewhat askew. And that's ok.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 27 (2/27/2011)

"Day 27 - Leatherwood Honey

Colour: Chardonnay. I look at its pale yellow-gold and imagine the buttery aftertaste. Beautifully, stickily liquid and clear.

Smell: Candy-sweet with a creaminess to it, white flowers and sugared milk.

Taste: High sweetness; on the register of sweetness this would [be] a top note. A sweetness you taste behind your eyes. Petals and light."

Today's piece muses on a (mythical?) Victorian language of honey.* It's short, and an interesting exercise in world building, but I found the messages that Amal associated with various honeys to be a little unpleasant. I think this is my least favorite piece in the book, and it comes right at the end, which is a shame.

*I can't find anything in a cursory look to indicate a Victorian language of honey, but there was a secret language of flowers, and of fans, and of hair styles, so why not honey?

Late post today, so Amal has already posted her DVD extras - link in the title, above.