Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Potpourri Month Wrap-up - 5/31/2016 - World of Prime (M.C. Planck), _Children of the Earth and Sky_ (Guy Gavriel Kay), and _The Jewish-Japanese Sex and Cookbook and How to Raise Wolves_ (Jack Douglas)

OK, I've been a bad blogger, not keeping up to date and such. I'm less sorry about this than I should be, perhaps. It was a busy week, and Friday was not a great day to sit and write a post - plus, as the title suggests, I read a LOT of books. Before I get to reviews, I'd like to give you all (I assume there is a you all) a heads up for the June format. I've decided to do a poem a day through June (because I'm crazy, perhaps?) and would love suggestions from you all (still assuming that there is a you all) - toss any suggestions into the comments. Favorite poet, favorite poem, favorite collection of poems, anything like that. I've got several collections of (very) random poetry to address. I may, should I feel motivated, record some readings and offer those to you as well. It could be exciting!

OK. Three quick reviews. First, I'd like to talk about the first two books of M.C. Planck's World of Prime series (the third book is not published yet). When I was in high school, I discovered, and devoured, a series of books by Leo Frankowski - The Crosstime Engineer series. I even purchased them as I found them in used book stores - I had all five of the books at one point. The premise was fairly simple - a 20th century Polish engineer is accidentally transported back in time to Poland just before the Mongol invasion. Using his advanced knowledge, he transforms Polish society and technology, allowing him to defeat the Mongols and make Poland into the dominant global power. The books have a lot of problems, which derive from the fact that they are grounded in a white heterosexual male power fantasy. Conrad (the engineer) has lots and lots of sex - women throw themselves at him - and his followers also have lots of sex. At one point, because there is a surplus of women, multiple wives are allowed. (The Catholic church has some issues with that, naturally. I don't remember how that is resolved.) There is at least one instance of sex (not with Conrad) which is non-consensual (which is handwaved with a "it's ok, because he totally loves her, and actually she discovers that she loves him too" - ick.) As a heterosexual teen male (also white and cisgendered), I wasn't really bothered by this. As a more enlightened and educated man ... enh. I'd like to smack my teen self upside the head.

All of that in in support of my observation that Planck's World of Prime (Sword of the Bright Lady and The Gold Throne in Shadow) has all of the good stuff from Frankowski's books (complete with the principle character reworking a medieval society through technology and a different understanding of economics) without any of the bad sexual politics. In fact, as I read the second book, I found myself saying several times (to myself, inside my head) "this is a direct response to Frankowski - like Planck is saying 'see, this is how a REAL hero acts!'" I really wish my teen self could have read these instead.

Also, magic! Planck is clearly drawing from a rich history of Dungeons and Dragons - the monsters are clearly based out of that environment, for one thing, and Planck has an interesting take on the (much maligned [rightfully!]) moral alignment system and the idea of character levels. It's excellent world building and I would totally play in this setting.


I am a huge Guy Gavriel Kay fan, as you may know. I saw Children of the Earth and Sky on the new book shelf at the library and felt some trepidation - Kay does not write short books. Instead, this is a huge door stop of a novel, and I didn't think I had time to read it. I was wrong - when the book was still there a week later, I borrowed it. Set in the Mediterranean analog from the same world as The Lions of Al-Rasan (referenced within the text) and the Sarantine Mosaic duology (referenced heavily - this book is set much much later than the Sarantine books, Sarantium [Byzantium, you know] has fallen to the Muslim analog). Kay tells a deeply complex story (when doesn't he?) of piracy, trade, politics (personal, national, sexual), and the human experience. His characters live in the litoral world where empires meet; the trade empire of the Republic of Seressa (Venice), the distant but still potent empire of Obravic (Holy Roman Empire), the non-Jaddite (Christian) empire of Asharias (the Muslim/Ottoman analog), and the tattered remnants of the old Sarantine empire. In that litoral space, pirates from Senjan and traders from the Republic of Dubrava (part of the Balkan/Croatian/Serbian analog - it's not a direct correlation) struggle to play off the more powerful trading empires, holding strong to their Jaddite faith, or being willing to compromise by trading with the Asharite "infidels". As always, Kay has done extensive research, and presents a book which is satisfying on the level of narrative and on the level of history (even if this is NOT historical fiction, it just has the depth and flavor of historical fiction). All that, plus strong female characters, some of who defy their socially constrained position to get what they want, and others who leverage their social status in a subversive way. Did I mention politics? Lots and lots of detailed politics - delightful! If you like Kay, you'll like this. If you've read no Kay previously, but enjoy historical fiction, this is a perfectly good place to start - the references to Al-Rasan and Sarantium are bonuses for long time readers, and you do not need to have read the other books (although you should!) before reading this one.


Finally, because I promised that I would review it - Jack Douglas' The Jewish-Japanese Sex and Cookbook and How to Raise Wolves. Notable primarily for its absurdly provocative title, this book is a mildly amusing memoir of a Hollywood writer with a wolf obsession. It was published in 1972, and is an artifact of the period - Douglas is able to legally purchase a wolf in Connecticut, and raise it on his property. Later, unwilling to keep the animal in captivity, he releases the wolf, its mate, and their five wolf puppies in Northern Ontario. I'm sure that there would be significant obstacles to this behavior now. The time period is also reflected in the language used, today, much of Douglas' work would be politically incorrect. Douglas, writing in the 1970s, was not trying to be provocative (in his derogatory presentation of gay men, women, and non-whites, at least), he merely reflects the mores of his time - indeed, he seems to be mocking the attitudes towards minorities more than the minorities themselves; arguably a necessary step. However, his caricatures of his friends and neighbors (and his Japanese wife, Reiko) are jarring to a modern ear, and feel overly broad and crude. At best, the humor approaches a Dave Barry-esque knowing smirk at the follies of modern life. At its worst - well, humor is subjective, I suppose, but there were several places where I felt like Douglas wanted me to laugh, but I simply could not.

The wolves are the best part, and clearly the point of the book - there is no sex, and nothing that one might consider a cookbook here, so if you were looking for that, look elsewhere. Douglas presents himself, convincingly, as invested in the long-term preservation of a species he finds beautiful. He recognizes that other people find wolves threatening, and sympathizes, but disagrees. His actions in regards to the wolves - releasing them into the wild - are presented as well reasoned (perhaps), and Douglas' qualms about releasing them (will they be able to transition from semi-domesticity to life in the wild? Will they be able to feed themselves? Will some idiot shoot them out of frustration over not being able to find a moose?) are rendered well, and sympathetically. I like Douglas-the-Conservationist in ways that I do not like Douglas-the-Humorist, and would like more discussion of wolves from that point of view, without the trappings of 1970s sit-com humor. Perhaps it's time to re-read Farley Mowatt.