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My preferences are not important. Just look at what I've read, note what's lacking, and tell me to read it posthaste.

The Mists of Avalon - Marion Zimmer Bradley

I hesitated to review such a darling of the fantasy genre. I have encountered fanatical devotion to a piece of fiction before, but the affection for this book possesses-- or possessed until two years ago-- a religious pitch that I haven’t seen even in Lord of the Rings fans. Thus it was naturally a source of great heartbreak for fans to hear of the crimes that their heroine had committed, and understandably left many of them wondering what to think, not just of Bradley, but of her book, so I thought I would offer up some thoughts. Before enumerating the novel’s flaws, I will first say that in its pages Bradley did transcend her megalomania to a degree. She wrote a solid, accessible book in which the heroine learns something valuable about taking one’s preconceptions too seriously, but due to selective historical research and lack of literary inventiveness, the improvement was not a superlative one. Bradley offers a handful of insights concerning her core themes of evolving religious beliefs, but lacks the nuance provided by other fantasists.

 

The first opportunity that Bradley missed when writing this novel, was her use of anachronism. Now, anachronism was a part of chivalric literature even in the 16th century when Malory wrote his version of the Arthurian Myth. This is why Arthur and his knights fight in tournaments even though tournaments were not likely held in the fashion depicted until 500 years or so after the time Arthur allegedly lived, and why they wear armor that was likewise not invented until almost 1,000 years after that time. So anachronisms are not necessarily flaws. They can be a useful device for making the story more accessible. They can also make the characters, plot, theme, and symbols more focused and purposeful, but they can also make these elements dull and reductive.

 

To give an example of how anachronisms can go wrong, we can observe a debate that has been going on in The Society for Creative Anachronism, the living history group that Bradley helped found and name in the 1960’s. One of the society’s more noted members, David Friedman commented on this schism in his essay, “A Dying Dream.” In it he discusses the opposing attitudes of the society’s participants when they gather in period costumes at events modelled after medieval festivals and tournaments. There are some participants who view these events completely literally: that is to say as gatherings of present day hobbyists playing pretend, and they don’t bother to hide their present day awareness during the event. Others construct an allegedly true-to-period persona, and refuse to break character all throughout the event. While Friedman places himself in the latter category, he admits to the error which those in the second group potentially open themselves: those who acknowledge the charade for what it is often have the potential to create a costume, a recipe, or a craft with greater authenticity than someone who takes the feeling of authenticity at face value, and thereby commits all kinds of unintentional-- and ironically uncreative-- anachronisms in the process. You can’t, after all, create an authentic piece of medieval art unless you first acknowledge that it comes from a time very different from your own, and that a painstaking degree of research will be necessary to create it rather than resting on one’s preconceptions even if that may appeal more readily to one’s emotions.

 

So what anachronisms does Bradley use in The Mists of Avalon, and does she use them well? Bradley’s only anachronisms per se are actually the theonyms she uses. For example, she refers to The Horned God instead of Cernunnos, and the Goddess instead of Eostre or the Matres. Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with using 20th century synonyms for medieval gods. However, we must ask ourselves what aspects of the Celtic beliefs that inspired Bradley did she fail to mine for her novel, and what did it potentially take from her characters, plot, and theme? After all, while purpose and focus are admirable in a novel, so too are scope and a sense of strangeness, especially in a 900 page epic that has to provide many challenges and revelations for the hero. The Britain through which we travel in Bradley’s novel is one in which only two religions vie for the collective soul of the land: Goddess worship and Christianity. But Britain wasn’t home to just Christians and followers of the Matres. It also nourished more localized cults, limited to small regions or even to a specific city or landmark, along with veins of animism potentially having run through the spiritual landscape.

 

Knowing that these other beliefs existed or at least could have existed, one must ask why Bradley only depicted the two most obvious and formal religions in a novel that is specifically about how personal, unpredictable, and multifaceted spiritual belief can be? Why are the religious rites in Uriens’ kingdom exactly the same as they are in Avalon, and as far as the reader is given to understand, everywhere in Britain? What might have happened if, when Morgaine moved to Wales, she encountered a completely different set of rites, customs and deities, or encountered the same core beliefs, but with a touch of regional personality that separates it from the religion that we have already seen depicted? Had Bradley done so, it would have gone a long way in more gradually and more fully exploring the central theme of spiritual belief and how many forms and names a goddess or god may take. This would have given Morgaine a series of revelations about the nature of belief leading up to her exchange with the sisters at the abbey in the novel’s final pages, and thereby lent her final revelation more weight and believability. Instead we have a series of arguments between Taliesin and Patricius or Kevin and Morgaine that, having made their cases early on, swiftly become mawkish and redundant. While Bradley does mention different classes of Christians and Druids intermingling peacefully, Greek gods and heroes, and the Roman influences still present on the island, it’s all relegated to stuffy-sounding dialogue rather than integrated into the characters and plot.

 

Compare Bradley’s awkward two-sided approach to religious belief with that of comic book writer, fantasist, and ceremonial magician Alan Moore:

"‘Ah! Well the thing about magic that appeals to me is its difference to religion. The two words are very different. “Religion” is from the Greek or Latin root religari, which is the same root as “ligament” and “ligature,” and so it means “bound together in one space.” Now that always feels a bit unnatural to me. It seems very unlikely that any two human beings on the face of the planet would believe, be bound together, in exactly the same thing. So…alright, magic is a language but perhaps a better analogy is to say: Each religion is a language, and magic is linguistics. In the sense that, if you are a linguist, there’s no such thing as a “false language.”’"

In Bradley’s novel there is only a minimum of variance from character to character in their beliefs, and how they view those beliefs in relation to those of the other characters.  Most of Bradley’s narrative perspective rests with Morgaine and Guenhwyfar, and so we spend the lion’s share of the novel looking through the eyes of someone who thinks their religion is the one true religion, and the only other religion that matters in the story is an insulting facsimile or a misanthropic falsehood. Rather than a multi-layered exploration in which each new story beat reveals some new religion or “language,” we get a repetitive exchange between two religions that are “bound together” in the same conversation over and over again.

 

Another, simpler tool Bradley could have used to spice up her novel would have been a sense of lightheartedness or satire. Alan Moore also has something to say on that score, and how it relates to the way we approach the ontological implications of the gods we worship:

"The first experience I had, and this is very difficult to describe, but it felt to me as if me and a very close friend of mine, were both taken on this ride by a specific entity. The entity seemed to me, and to my friend, to be…[sighs]… to be this second-century Roman snake god called Glycon [...] Now, the only references there are to him, which are very disparaging, are in the works of the philosopher Lucien… Lucien explains that the whole Glycon cult was an enormous fraud, and that Glycon was a glove puppet. And I’ve got no reason to disbelieve that whatsoever. It sounds absolutely true, that yeah, the false prophet Alexander, who was the person putting on the Glycon show, had a large tame boa constrictor and he had the head of it tucked under his arm and draped over his shoulder he had a speaking tube that had been designed to look like this inhuman longhaired snake’s head with articulated jaws so that it would seem to speak. Yeah, that sounds about right. [chuckles] Of course, to me, I think that’s perfect. If I’m gonna have a god I prefer it to be a complete hoax and a glove puppet because I’m not likely to start believing that glove puppet created the universe or anything dangerous like that. To me, the IDEA of the god IS the god. It doesn’t matter what form it takes."

Rather than take a similarly humorous approach, Bradley strikes a tone of deadly earnest that sometimes moves one to genuine emotion, but nearly as often just bores or frustrates. Bradley does does deliver a self-revelation to her heroine by the end, and does concede that truth can come from surprising sources, but the book does not feel very magical in the sense that Moore offers. Only two religions are ever given center stage in the action, only two “languages” are used to speak about spiritual matters, and there is no pleasant undercurrent of subversive humour to help communicate just how inexhaustible the modes of communicating with the spiritual world truly are.

 

As I mentioned briefly before, this lack of breadth, nuance, and humor in spiritual expression manifests itself most in the dynamic between its protagonist and its antagonist, which is where the novel ought to be strongest. Ideally the antagonist should be someone who can offer the best possible opposition for the protagonist, not just on a political level, but on a moral level as well. The best antagonists don’t just oppose the hero physically, they force the hero to reevaluate their whole basis for right and wrong action. While Guenhwyfar does possess enough status and power to challenge Morgaine on a political level, she is not an insightful enough opponent to make a very strong case for Christianity on a moral level, which makes Morgaine’s acceptance of its value at the conclusion feel awkward and contrived. Bradley should either have given Guenhwyfar the smarts to go toe to toe with Morgaine, making for a more compelling conflict, or given the role of chief antagonist to Kevin or some other intellectual equal. By writing the two main characters in the way she did, Bradley lavished pages and pages on an antagonist who serves more to flatter the protagonist than to challenge her.

 

All in all the book was not without its moments. There are some good uses of the different points of view in the novel to redeem the shortcomings of the protagonist/antagonist dynamic. Though Morgaine is clearly the author’s favorite, she is able to extend some empathy towards Arthur, Guenhwyvar, Lancelet, Morgause, and the rest. Unfortunately these strengths are only enough to make the book readable rather than superior, and shouldn’t superior be what we ask for whenever possible? If you’re someone who has not read the book, and was considering giving it a try, Alan Moore is not the only fantasist to explore the themes Bradley does, and Bradley is not the only female fantasist to have explored them at all. Evangeline Walton’s reimagining of the Mabinogion gives a far more elegant take on the consequences of a matrilineal society giving way to a warrior ethos-driven patriarchy. If you want sexually explicit, but more well thought out feminist reimaginings of old magical tales, I would probably check out Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber collection. And if you are an Anglophile with a love of alternative, female-centric supernatural histories, then you should probably pick up Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories.

 

Final Score: 5.8/10

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller - John Truby I can recall when I was still in elementary school, being given by my grandfather a tackle box, a fishing rod, and an assortment of flies and lures. While I was quite fond of handling all these brightly-colored goo-gas, and imagining myself on the shore of a lake, luring in some cantankerous pike or walleye, the truth was that I was not even an aspiring angler. So the equipment lay unused in our garage. My grandfather and I, though blood relatives, were never close, and so the gift reflected his interests more than mine. As I have grown into my own interests, which I have seen flower into more focused and purposeful passions, I have cast about for the proper tools to bring them to fruition. Opening up Truby’s “practical poetics” for aspiring writers was like opening up that brand new tackle box with its sparkling trove of imitation minnows, but this time they were the rights tools-- or toys-- at the right time for the right person. For the past year and a half I have been tentatively and gracelessly trying to write, and I have searched for a set of rules to learn, the better to discover where they may break in a compelling fashion. Truby’s strictures for good storytelling are specific enough and plentiful enough to provide a great deal of guidance, but not overbearing to a degree where they stifle one’s creativity. I feel as excited as a kid with his starter chemistry set or first set of wrenches. Not only do Truby’s ideas provide one with useful tools for bringing out the best in one’s own ideas, they also provide invaluable means with which to break down other stories into all their disparate working parts, the better to see what makes them work.
Main street : the Story of Carol Kennicott - Harcourt Brace and Howe, Sinclair Lewis

In my mind I’ve often likened the qualities of literature to the influence of spirits-- in both meanings of the term: an agent at work in our lives that has the ability to both intoxicate us and to haunt us. Lewis’s Main Street often goes down more like Robitussin than Glenlivet, but though the novel has stretches wherein one suffocates along with Carol Kennicott more than one would prefer, there is always some subtle variation on the mundanity that besets Lewis’s heroine for the reader to contemplate. Though they come at points where the reader may well feel at the end of their endurance, Lewis does enrich the experience with much-needed alternative perspectives from the supporting characters. Just when one feels that there is no possible break in the town’s small-mindedness and meanness, Lewis transplants his narrative voice behind the eyes of Carol’s house-girl, her best friend, and then her husband. Though these characters have their own shortsighted conclusions, the overall picture they give when set alongside Carol’s existential agonies provide blessed wafts of fresh air to the novel.

 

The protagonist, Carol Kennicott née Milford, is an intelligent young woman, but also a self-conscious and a fearful one. She is neither Mary Sue nor unreasonable shrew. Lewis’s depiction of the Midwestern small town likewise balances empathy and criticism. One must admit that Lewis’s criticisms of Gopher Prairie do outweigh his compliments, and the book is foremost a nigh unforgiving satire. Lewis illustrates in galling detail the stew of puritanism and materialism that comprise Gopher Prairie’s culture. As Carol navigates a gauntlet obnoxious townsfolk over the course of several years, Lewis anatomizes nearly ad nauseam the gossip, sexual double-standards, exploitative local politics, jingoism, and self-righteousness that often carry the day on Main Street. By the time the final page has turned, the picture of the American small town that Lewis has painted is obviously not a saccharine ode to God’s Own Country, but neither Carol nor Lewis himself have lost hope.

 

Carol grows to understand that as loathsome as a certain society can sometimes be, never is that society comprised of people who cannot and will not change. Neither does change come at our every beck and call. It is something that is often brought about slowly, and with great endurance, and no small dose of perspective and humor, not just about the world around us, but about ourselves. I wouldn’t say that Main Street is a delight to read. The humor is often bitter as gall, and the reprieves from anxiety and frustration that we feel through Carol often come later than one might like. At its heart, however, the novel is one written with compassion, and the heart feels sturdier and wiser for having read it.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - Lynn Varley, Frank Miller, Klaus Janson

When reading this book, I often imagined Frank Miller reading aloud from one of Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir scripts to a live audience; I would listen to Miller butcher every joke in a Tom Waits-like croak, and pause to wonder at the laughter he drew from the audience in the house of the Fitzgerald Theater. A lot of Miller’s fans feel that the lighthearted take on the World’s Greatest Detective à la Adam West blatantly betrayed the character’s gothic overtones. Unfortunately, by veering so far back in the opposite direction, Miller makes the character a target for laughter just as often as the old T.V. series did, but this time without meaning to. By writing the Dark Knight in such an unironic fashion, he just goes to show why the character was so ripe for parody in the first place. A man as single-minded and uncompromising as Bruce Wayne cannot help but be brought down a little by an idiosyncratic and surprising world. A writer who wants to write the character convincingly has to treat him a little irreverently, whether through means comic or tragic. Miller’s mancrush on the Caped Crusader is so overwhelming that anyone not as childishly trusting in Wayne’s psychopathic vigilantism as he is, cannot help but cringe ever so slightly. That said, there is still enjoyment to be had from the book. Even though Miller has a blind fondness for his subject matter, the character of Batman is still compelling, and the Chandleresque hard-boiled detective prose has its moments.

The Worm Ouroboros - James Stephens, Orville Prescott, Keith Henderson, E.R. Eddison

Eddison wrote this somewhat marginalized fantasy classic as a 40-year old, but though he was a highly educated philologist when he committed it to paper, the story had been brewing in his mind for the better part of thirty years. I would like to say that the amount of time Eddison spent on the story shows in many admirable ways, but its most lauded appeals are also the things that keep it from being as sublime as other classics like Lud-in-the-Mist or The King of Elfland’s Daughter. I would still hold it in high enough esteem to set it above Tolkien’s even more indulgent Lord of the Rings, but the last vestiges of Eddison’s juvenile glee gall as often as they delight.

 

The only character that rewards a more adult eye is Lord Gro, but the other characters are so populous and their deeds so numerous that Gro’s more realistic motivations are almost completely drowned out. By the time the end of the book rolls around, and the overall narrative offers its pleasant undercurrent of insight, the vigor for the mighty deeds of its heroes are all but in the grave already. The heft of the book’s insight into the cyclical nature of both conflict and storytelling would have been far more intriguing if the rest of the characters had possessed more idiosyncratic personalities.

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

This marks the second of Dickens’s novels that I have read of my own accord rather than by the dictates of a class curriculum, the first having been David Copperfield. I can recall that, when reading Copperfield, I understood better the criticism of sentimentality often levelled  against Dickens. Even with the occasionally saccharine touches, however, the novel never flagged in its enjoyability. There were still very sympathetic moments, the pathos of which felt earned and powerful. The ending was where the convenience of sentimentality reared its head, and made the book good rather than great.

 

Having now consumed Great Expectations I found the opposite to be true. the novel’s first half, though possessing some of the signature charms for which he was known, and said to have revived after a more serious batch of novels, is actually rather sere and dull when stacked up against Copperfield. Much of the drama and tension flags from a complete lack of revelation in each early turn of the story. I began to despair of the book’s ever redeeming itself, thinking that perhaps the book’s reputation as one of Dickens’s masterpieces-- some would say THE masterpiece of his oeuvre-- stood more on its seriousness and less on any wit or insight. When Pip’s convict returns to the action, the drama picks up again with a vengeance as well as setting the stage for Dickens’s truly witty and insightful revelations of character and situation.

 

The ending of Great Expectations-- particularly the alternate one appended in this edition-- strikes more honestly at the heart than the denouement in Copperfield. I have yet to encounter the novel in which Dickens successfully weds his ability to sustain drama in the bulk of Copperfield with the less sentimental, but still optimistic and kindly take on humanity demonstrated in Expectations’ conclusion. I still have yet to delve into Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend, though.

Richard the Lionheart: King and Knight - Jean Flori

Flori’s book is very informative for those looking into chivalry in general, and in the role chivalric ideals played in the reign of one of England’s most iconic monarchs. Flori’s prose and his book’s larger structure is occasionally pedantic, making the book feel like like its subject was stretched too thin. 100 pages or so could easily have been cut from the book; Various subsections of the chapters could have been conflated, and not all of the context provided had immediate bearing on the principle subject.

The Annotated Brothers Grimm - Wilhelm Grimm, Jacob Grimm, Maria Tatar, A.S. Byatt

After soldiering through the preface, the introduction, the essay on the stories’ origins and cultural effects, and the first 19 tales, I skipped ahead to the biographical essay, the Grimms’ original prefaces, and the collected quotes on fairy tales; then I went back and read two more of the more iconic tales, carried it around in my messenger bag for another week or so, and tapped out, returning it to the library. I knew that it would take me a while to read the entire collection, but it was not the volume of tales to read that tried my patience in the end. It was the sterile imagination of both the Grimm’s versions of the tales and Tatar’s annotations.

For many, the Grimms’ accomplishment as the saviors of these iconic stories goes appreciated from a distance. Because the stories are known to most of us from their Disney incarnations, and from the versions that our parents told us from memory at bedtime, we don't feel the need to look into the Grimms’ versions. I had heard several times that the Grimm Brothers supply a darker, more realistic side of the stories that Uncle Walt and co. painted over in bright pastels. Having now read many of the tales, I have to say that the promised darkness is mostly absent. These versions are more violent, certainly, but the violence lacks stakes, just like the violence Kevin McCallister uses against the Wet Bandits, Harry and Marv.

The darker undertones of the stories were not excised by Disney from the Grimms, but rather the Grimm’s had already done most of the sterilizing for the sake of children by the time Disney got to them. The Grimms were not writers of fiction; they were researchers and collectors, and it shows. There is little to no narrative craft evident in any of the stories here present. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were not interested in taking on the roles of raconteurs, but instead collected simple, emblematic versions of the tales that serve as blueprints for invention, rather than as engaging acts of storytelling in their own right.

These stories only really come alive when gifted storytellers bring their own unique voices to bear on them. Even Disney’s aggressively family-friendly animated classics are actually an improvement on the versions collected here rather than a disservice to them. Only serving to compound the Grimms’ unimaginative and didactic narratives, are Tatars annotations. Among the many side-notes littering the page margins are such gems as “the Grimms added maxims like this one to strengthen the moral backbone of the tale,” and "Maternal love, protection, and security are established from the start as a sharp contrast to the threat embodied in the wolf, who will be introduced as a predator whose gluttony knows no limits. The mother is nurturing and loving; the wolf is interested only in indulging his desires. The distinction between mother goat and wolf takes concrete form in the quality of voice and color of feet. The mother’s voice is sweet, the wolf’s is rough; the mother’s paws are white, the wolf’s are black."Not only have the Grimms already employed the most transparent and hamfisted means to get their point across, Tatar then talks down even more to the reader by pointing out these techniques as though they needed clarification. It’s not unlike questioning a parent’s decision and getting the response, “Because I said so,” rather than an actual explanation for their decision, and then having a nosy spinster aunt chirping in to say, “Listen to your parents. They know what’s best for you.”

Especially offensive is the degree to which the Grimms pervert Nature to assure their protagonists’ triumph. Nature is not something that the characters observe and try to understand, and then use to their advantage when possible, and occasionally find has bigger concerns than them. Nature in these fairy tales-- both human nature and nature in general-- is not a wilderness, it is a garden that is carefully pruned, and groomed into a more pleasant form. I do not hold that the fairy tale moniker is excuse enough for these grievances. One can write a story that is uplifting and optimistic without being insulting, and the Grimms failed to do so. An individual who views Nature as the Grimms did will most likely find themselves greatly disillusioned when faced with the real thing.Writers like Angela Carter have shown that it is well within the capability of a fairy tale to reveal the complexities of human nature and the role of humans in nature with far more insight.

Perhaps at some point I will return to this collection to peruse some of the lesser known stories for some hidden gems, but for now my patience is spent. If anyone can give me a specific recommendation that gives the lie to the accusations I have laid out, I would hear it gladly. Until that time “A Jew in the Brambles” can wait.

Defiance: The Bielski Partisans - Nechama Tec

For a long time I have been looking for a version of the Robin Hood story to blow my socks off. When I was little, I watched Disney’s Robin Hood, and also saw Kevin Costner’s infamous turn as the Prince of Thieves. I can clearly recall the romantic emotions those versions of the story drew out of me. Time and perspective have, as one may guess, tarnished my view of those films. Since then I have kept my eye out for a work of fiction whose objective quality lives up to the character’s impact that has lingered, despite the early versions of Robin Hood’s story to which I was exposed. I have seen the iconic Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, and I even gave BBC’s Robin Hood television series a try. None of them struck home. The Errol Flynn version was wholesome to the point of obscenity, its Technicolor pageantry far better suited to a spoof than a straight romance. The BBC series tried for a playfully anachronistic approach, but that was equally underwhelming. Ridley Scott, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland tried a sober tack with a tie-in to the origins of the Magna Carta just for a twist: an interesting idea, but disappointingly carried off. As I understand it, Hollywood is taking yet another stab at the character, and trying for a still darker approach.

It is no surprise, given the glut of gritty and realistic treatments that have been administered to characters like Batman and James Bond, that Robin Hood was due for a makeover. We all grow up with a certain number of romantic ideals and role models, and as we grow older, discouragement can easily shake the high regard in which we hold them. We know that the world is different from the one we grew up believing in, but our idealism and romanticism are stubborn. People plagued by discouragement clamor for heroes they can believe in, that somehow reconcile the world as they once knew it to be, and the world as they have come to realize it. Many artists—often discouraged adults looking for a hero themselves—rush to give the people what they want, and pick up a nice fat paycheck in the process.

Characters that we gravitate to as children, like Robin Hood or Batman, are just asking to be revitalized for the sake of not just children, but for all the discouraged adults. Grown-ups want their heroes to prove that they can exist just as vitally in the real world as they can in an idealized one as children do. Sometimes these efforts bear surprisingly moving and insightful results, but often our attempts to revitalize our heroes and make them real only throws their superhuman and unrealistic accomplishments into sharper relief; rather than successfully allowing our heroes to grow up along with us, we have only regressed into childish fantasies.

Having been disappointed in my search through fiction’s boundaries for a Robin Hood story that rings true, I have been forced to do what many lovers of romance, fantasy, and other such fiction, like myself are reluctant to do: delve into actual history. The story I found in Nechama Tec’s excellent book is moving and engaging in a fashion not often accomplished by a reimagining of a masked martial artist or a disenfranchised Saxon nobleman.

As one may guess from the paragraphs above, I can’t help but feel a tad out of place in this book’s readership. I am no WWII buff, and am certainly not the reader Tec had in mind when she researched and wrote this book. Though I was, of course, eager to learn about a neglected dynamic of the struggle between the Jews and the Third Reich, I was eager, first and foremost, to read the story of a charismatic leader who was forced to retreat into the wilderness, overcame the odds, and rose to the defense of the helpless; in short, I wanted to read the story of the real-life Robin Hood my 12-year-old self had been craving for so long.

The story of Robin Bielski of Locksley Belarus is every bit as moving and insightful as I could have hoped. Tec makes no bones about the high regard in which she held her subject, along with Bielski’s followers. Though not interested in giving some poor geek a revitalization of a superhero or folk legend, she was very clearly interested in the idea of heroism. She wanted the world to know that there was a man who achieved something extraordinary, and a group of individuals who struggled through desperate circumstances, and rather than resorting to survival of the fittest, they practiced a radical breed of compassion, and lived to tell the tale.

There is always the danger, equally real when contending with historical heroes as it is with fictional ones, that admiration may so overcome us that we may swallow whole our hero’s faults along with their virtues. We are often tempted to dismiss critiques leveled against them, afraid that the good they achieved will be overlooked. Tuvia Bielski bore his share of faults and missteps, both on a personal level, and in his capacity as a leader. Tec gives voice to dissenting opinions among the surviving partisans along with the prevailing and positive view held in the Bielski otriad.

Bielski, though dedicated to his cause of helping people incapable of rendering him like service—women, the very old, and the very young—, struggled to make sure that everyone was looked after equally. There were often imbalances in the treatment people received in camp, some ostracized to a degree because they could not fight or contribute as craftsmen. Hierarchies formed, preferences were given—not always justly—and discontent often arose. The noble creed of “steal from the rich to give to the poor” was also not always in perfect practice. Bielski and the people he protected were desperate for provisions, and the local peasants often suffered raids from his scouting parties, even though they were poor and struggling themselves.

The conditions were harsh. Bielski and his partisans became harsh because of them, for all the compassion they sought to live out. Tec lays all these complications out for her readers, giving accounts as given by Tuvia Bielski himself, his inner circle, and several of the more discontented partisans as well. The account herein is all the more heroic for its humanity, its struggle, and its imperfection. I am not alone in saying that Bielski was a hero, and I don’t think it an act of blind hero-worship to say so. Handing out this appellation need not open us up to making an icon, a saint, or a deity of someone who was only a human being, and trying to dress their faults up as virtues. I am not ashamed to say that discouragement plagues me as much as the next person, and reading Tuvia Bielski’s story gave me another reason to fight discouragement.

Cultivating a Personal Canon: How to be True to Your Personal Taste Without Becoming a Solipsist

The most worthwhile knowledge is perennial. If something is truly good, then it remains good, and relevant for all people in all times, and in all places. At least that is the ideal that any writer, or any artist ought to strive for. It is with this frame of mind that academics construct canons of literature. Many people feel intimidated by this labyrinthine library of books. Many times it feels alienating because it appears at first glance to have the same cemented status as a religious canon. This misconception is unfortunate, since it does not encourage people to find their own path to cultivation and self-improvement. Touting the notion that all the things you need to know are contained not just in a single set of books, but one book, period ties one unnecessarily to all manner of pedantic obsessions that put up roadblocks to understanding what is truly universal. This too is a pity, considering that the canon of western literature-- as opposed to most religious canons-- is not cemented, but constantly evolving: new writers continue to add to it and occasionally some of the old writers lose their relevance. Even so, these great books often feel as if they have just as little bearing on people's lives as some of the outdated notions in the Bible or the Quran. People who feel alienated by this body of literature either devalue themselves by saying, "Oh, I can't understand those books; they're too smart for me," or they  devalue the books, insisting, "I can't understand a word of those books; they're so pretentious!" The argument for an objectively good canon of literature is made doubly hard to argue by the presence of a still ongoing generation of writers that have taken the subjective "write what you know" mantra to unhealthy extremes. Rather than try and get outside of their own heads, these writers would rather write some of the most solipsistic fiction in the world. They are a symptom of an attitude toward fiction with which writers and readers have always struggled.


These two conflicting attitudes concerning perennial wisdom, are that of the dogmatist, and that of the relativist. The dogmatist says that truth is absolute, and you have to imprint indelibly on your memory what those truths are so that you always have them in mind, and can live your life accordingly. Unfortunately such thinking often ties itself not so much to the underlying principles of any given truth, but the superficial facts by which people once came to identify them-- usually the facts as they were known to a group of people living thousands of years ago. These are the people we would say operate according to the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law. The relativist offers the counterpoint to this stance: there is no absolute authority on anything, so everyone has to just learn to live and let live. Unfortunately this approach, though offering a much nicer alternative to dogmatism on the surface, is just the other side of the same coin. Whether we like it or not, the decisions we make every day are going to have some basis in fact-based reality, and those decisions are going to effect the people around us. Not only that, but the live-and-let-live creed to which the relativist allegedly adheres often fails to endow the relativist with any kind of self-restraint when they come across an opinion that counters their own. One need not seek out a relativist, and attack them personally to draw their ire. All you need do is soberly state an opinion with sound logic, and if it in any way goes against their own opinion-- which, according to their own ideology, has no authority anyway-- they will try to undermine the relevance of what you say with a very polite, but ultimately condescending thought-terminating cliché. They will say that they are only intolerant of intolerance, but simple disagreement is not the same thing as intolerance. Disagreement and debate are normal and healthy symptoms of a group of people trying to live harmoniously together.


 If we deny that there is some objective truth to strive towards, fraught though the journey may be  with mistakes, then there is no reason for us to communicate, and we actually find ourselves clashing fruitlessly, rather than constructively with some shared understanding being reached. Since there is such a thing as perennial truth, and fiction has a role to play in how we acquire it, there is also such a thing as good and bad fiction. Resorting to relativist clichés of how beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how everyone has a right to their own opinion, or how opinions are like assholes and everyone’s got one, is pointless. It’s true, opinions are like assholes, and some stink more than others. It just depends on what you’re eating and your sense of hygiene. Devolving into relativism encourages the same solipsism and self-involvement that plagues any dogmatist; it just wears a different face. If there is one truly ennobling benefit to fiction, it’s the ability it grants to connect the people who read and write it to other people. True there will always be the problem of who knows what is good and what is bad. Who has the right to pass judgment? People who care enough to keep curing their ignorance one page at a time, every day, and never feel like the work is done have the right. These are the people who are truly trying to find common ground with those around them. If we don't try and do the same we only end up retreating into groups of people that already agree with us. You may say, “But I can’t help liking what I like. Can I help it if I read something, and it makes me happy?” Of course you can’t, and I am not suggesting for a moment that you feel bad for having enjoyed something. Every happy moment on this earth is a gift, and it’s in very poor taste to return a gift. However, the more one reads, the more one discovers how our ideologies-- our values, prejudices, hang-ups, and fears-- contribute to what we like. Since no one is perfect, and life-long self-improvement is the only way to engage constructively with the world, constantly testing the boundaries of what we like to read is a rewarding and enjoyable way to cultivate ourselves. You cannot truly be sure of what you like unless you have experimented with your personal taste.


Any number of rewarding experiences are opened to the reader who chooses to explore. Perhaps you felt alienated reading those novels in school that your teachers assured you were great. If so, read something that bears the appellation of great literature that your teachers haven’t required you to read. The simple act of making a book a choice and not a chore lends pleasure to the experience in and of itself. If you do so, you’re bound to come across something that strikes home in a potent way at some point. Also, don’t be afraid to return to a book that bamboozled you in school after a few years have passed. You will be delighted at what a few years’ fermentation will do to your understanding of a book. If a specific genre has made its home in a beloved corner of your heart, explore the history and boundaries of that genre; if you like crime thrillers don’t just read the Michael Connelly paperback that you bought at the airport for a fifth time. Read John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels instead; read Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s pioneering works of hardboiled detective fiction; read Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

 

When I first started to branch out, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden was one of the first literary novels I read from which the alienating veil of respectability fell away. In it the narrator says, “If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. And here I make a rule—a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.” What Steinbeck taught me in East of Eden, and what many other great authors have taught me-- several of them falling into my favorite genre, fantasy-- is that you do have to learn about yourself, but you are a part of something larger; you are a part of the human race, and you live in a complex, fascinating world. Eden’s foundation rests on scads of Steinbeck’s personal life and family history, but the beauty in the book comes from how Steinbeck goes on to erect a narrative that concerns itself more with people removed from Steinbeck himself by several degrees. Steinbeck himself appears only briefly in the novel. Steinbeck’s empathy travels backwards in time, until he walks in the shoes of his relatives, their friends, and people he  would never have known otherwise. Throughout the multi-generational narrative, Steinbeck’s characters try to make sense of where they fit in their families, their communities, and the world at large. By using his own experience as a point of departure rather than the destination, Steinbeck reveals to us the universality that binds his characters not just to himself, but to us as well. Not only that, but through these characters we come to know our own families and friends in a way we might not have otherwise. More exciting even than that, we are now conscious of a connection we share to people we have not even met. Had Steinbeck been content to live inside his own head he would not have written a story that quickens on the page the way Eden does. Likewise, if we as readers do not step outside the boundaries of our personal taste as it already stands we rob ourselves of the ability to nurture our empathy and compassion. If we don’t seek out where the ties that bind lie underneath our differences, we find ourselves drawing back from each other, often angry and afraid when we need not be.

 

But, just as Steinbeck had to grow his Eden from the seeds of his own life and family history-- as do many writers-- so do we as readers have to start from our visceral reactions to the books we read. This is why broadening your understanding of your favorite genre is a great way to cultivate your taste, and learn more about yourself, and how you relate to other people. If you pick a favorite author, and find out what writers inspired them, you’re already on your way. Not only will you discover exciting new stories that already have a comforting note of familiarity, often the strains of influence tie immediately back to great pieces of literature. If you like A Song of Ice and Fire, presumably you must be interested in the nature of war. You therefore already have a reason to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Frankly, if I may indulge in a curmudgeonly aside here, you really ought to be ditching Martin’s overrated fantasy epic for a novel that says more in 1,200 pages about the nature of warfare than Martin has yet done in the 3,800 pages of his still unfinished series anyway.

 

Most of us gravitate to a favorite genre as adults because of the books we liked as kids. When you’re a kid, real life feels ordinary, and we read books that offer an escape to a reality that is extraordinary, and filled with characters and places that are more exciting than the people and places among which we find ourselves. We all understand on some level that this is a wild goose chase, yet the number of people who continue as adults to try and fill the shoes of the larger-than-life characters to whom they are drawn as children is staggering. Certainly there are people who understand that an ideal is just an ideal, and you can never faultlessly embody it; they are able to enjoy escapist tales for what they are and live their lives with a happy minimum of dysfunction. The fact remains, however, that we learn by imitating role models, and the fiction we consume contributes models for imitation whether we like it or not. Fiction is not the sole source from which we draw the blueprints for our relationships, our livelihoods, and our other endeavors, but it is an important one. When someone reads a story that lays out a schematic for how to resolve a conflict or engage in a relationship that is overly idealized, at best it’s often a waste of time, and at worst it’s a debilitating opiate that draws someone into a way of living that leaves them dissatisfied and frustrated. They are drawn to imitate people that they know deep down they can never measure up to, but they feel as if they don’t know where else to turn. “Isn’t it better,” they may ask, “to at least pretend for a little while that we can be a knight errant, a cowboy, or a superhero, if it’s all in good fun?” Not if it comes at the cost of living a life that is sheer drudgery, and your only joy comes from escaping it. 

 

None of us can help but be drawn to a stories about the world as we would like it to be rather than the way it is. For those of us who spend a great deal of time reading fiction, chances are we have been drawn to visions of the world as we would like it to be because we want to test how much we can make the real world like the worlds we encounter in books, and how much like our favorite characters we can be ourselves. We know that the real world always falls short. Sometimes we can laugh it off, but the symbols by which we come to understand the world through fiction are embedded in our brains, and they are not going to go away. The characters we admire are as close to us as our own family, and we often spend as much time in a watered down feudal Europe as we spend out and about in our own neighborhoods, but we have to venture out. Since we all have to start somewhere, there’s no shame in just walking out the front door. If, like me, you love fantasy, and the world around you is always competing with a world full of wizards and dragons, there is a far-reaching genre that you’ve already begun to explore. Fantasy is chock full of conventions that aren’t just recycled, but subverted, deconstructed, and sophisticated. If there is no conventionally respectable book that you have an interest in, just see what else there is to read that draws on traditions you already understand, but that complicates those traditions. Read something that shows you a new side of something you thought you knew, or turns a character archetype on its ear in such a way that you find there are sides of yourself you never knew could be tapped into. If you do that, then you may find yourself letting go of an ideal that was just a millstone around your neck rather than the uplifting source of inspiration you thought it was. You may find yourself not lost in a time and place that you can never reach, but connected to the time and place in which you already live; you may discover that you don't have to pretend to be someone you like, but actually transform yourself into someone you like, and that the raw materials from which you build that person are already there.

Tales of Hoffmann - Vernon Humphries, Stella Humphries, R.J. Hollingdale, E.T.A. Hoffmann

What role does art play in the pursuit of happiness? Does it mine all the beauty in the world and then refine it until the ore has been purified into unadulterated gold, or does beauty only enchant us the more because of the dross from which we try to separate it? Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, though a Romantic compelled by beauty, rarely, if ever, rewrote the world to fit an ideal. He chose rather with horror, humor, and happiness all distilled together to write a compelling string of tales in which the ideal of beauty compels characters to extraordinary deeds, but often confounds those same characters by allowing beauty to slip through their fingers as they try to perfect it, or presenting them with the ore whole from the earth, and finding that one possess happiness by accepting the mundane along with it.

 

Hoffmann’s casts of beautiful lovers, and horrific grotesques muddle through a series of adventures in which their artistic aspirations, their worldly concerns, and their erotic endeavors all swim together like milk, oil, and water, dovetailing one moment, and flying asunder the next as each gallery of characters tumbles on into a thoroughly satisfying denouement. The eight variations on a theme here present, though overlapping in many obvious ways, never fail to intrigue as one reads on. It is a treat to see which shape the protean beast will take, always the same at heart, but so fascinatingly fickle in its choice of form. The vein of melancholy that runs deep in a lot of great horror is in these stories, but what strikes one most is the shared presence of joy. Happy endings and tragic both populate the collection, and each is always tinged with a little of the other.

Twelfth Night - William Shakespeare, Barbara A. Mowat, Paul Werstine

A young person’s introduction to a Shakespearean comedy induces a common knee-jerk evaluation: the elaborate skein of misguided affections hurled to vertiginous heights leaves one with an impression of some contrived pretense of life. As modicums of experience come to such a young person, they find themselves in situations that leave them smiling at the likeness their circumstances bear to the most farcical of fictions. Until one witnesses or experiences such a confluence of hilarious and heartbreaking events, one might well take Shakespeare’s comedies as throwaway confections; Shakespeare’s own alternative title, What You Will, understandably leads one to think that the author thought very little of the play himself. I rather think that this flippant attitude does not evince a cavalier evaluation of his play’s quality, but rather the cavalier attitude Aphrodite and her son Cupid take with all of us. How often has real life taken on the form of What You Will? How often has a circle of friends, family, casual acquaintances and complete strangers found themselves all in love with the wrong person, only to find themselves with someone that they would never have expected?

 

Love is rarely a puritan on the straight and narrow, and finds many of us by the most tortuous path. The ridiculousness of love is the subject matter of Twelfth Night, and though many of the characters all end conveniently in wedlock by the end, the true quality of the play lies in the complete picture filled out by the supporting players. The romance between Toby and Maria offers a more straightforward, but sweet and endearing love story to counterbalance the acrobatics of plot in which the six major characters are all embroiled. There is a sad grace not offered up by the befuddled Andrew Aguecheek who was once beloved and seeks to be again though we never see his desire fulfilled. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all is the fate suffered by Malvolio. True he is an arrogant blowhard, but we have no reason to doubt that the love that infects him is no less sincere than that which strikes all the other more likeable characters. There is much laughter to be had very deservedly at his expense, but when he comes before Olivia towards the end of the play, having suffered some truly vindictive torments at the hands of Feste, Toby, Andrew, and Maria, he cuts a truly pitiable figure, and when he takes his leave of Olivia’s house, we can see a little more of ourselves in him than we may be comfortable admitting.

 

Throw it all together, and you get a work of drama that is befuddling in its twists and turns, but by no means as contrived as we might believe at first. The collective character arcs provide nice neat little denouements for some, but for others love still lies on a road yet to be traveled. This bittersweet comedy stands just as tall in its insight into the human condition as any of Shakespeare’s more conspicuously lauded tragedies, and it is a comfort and a joy to any whom love has bedazzled or bedeviled.

The Gunslinger  - Stephen King

It makes sense that Stephen King would choose the trappings of a Western to put a unique spin on epic fantasy. The iconic image of a lone gunfighter riding on horseback, rescuing damsels, and facing off in single combat against the villain, are direct descendants of the tropes found in Arthurian and Carolingian Romances. Drawing explicitly from the imagery of both these traditions also gives King greater leverage in dealing with the religious themes of his story. Religion does not figure nearly as prominently or specifically in the westerns of Sergio Leone and John Ford as it does in the poems of Malory and Ariosto. Funnily enough the sense religion makes in the context of the genre conventions borrowed from chivalric romance appeal very readily to American readers, who are often either raised on Christian values or are at least aware of them through cultural osmosis.

 

The irony of the religious overtones of the quests undertaken by knights errant is of course that the namesake of their religion was non-violent, and the hypocrisy of the faith professed by the heroes and their violent way of life is always present, either to make a mockery of the story without the author’s knowledge, or in the best examples of the genre played upon with a knowing wink to the audience, which actually sparked some controversy when some of these poems were written, drawing condemnation from the clergy for its portrayal of courtly love, and other such secular concerns.

 

Likewise King uses a great deal of religious imagery only to show what a cruel farce it is to carry a religious code on the point of a sword or the barrel of a gun. King’s Gunslinger, Roland, takes part in a series of adventures in which Biblical stories illustrating a loving and omnipresent god are turned crudely on their ear. He makes his way through a hallucinogenic wasteland, a wild frontier where a tall stranger turns out to be as bad and ugly as he is good, a Palestine with no infidels to distract our paladin from the infidelity of his own nature. The setting is a purgatory in which no angels descend to take the knife from Abraham’s hand, and a man in black comes to show you that the devil is just the name you give to what was inside you all along.

Hood  - Stephen R. Lawhead

Lawhead was a staple of my high-school reading diet, and I remember feeling at the time that his tie-ins to actual Celtic mythology and historical events and individuals was a refreshing change of pace from a lot of other fantasy fare I was reading. Returning to him now has been something of a drag. Lawhead’s voice is rather a dry one that allows his research to take command of the story. There is nothing wrong with placing your novel in a well researched setting, but there is a fine line between research that adds verisimilitude and flavor, and research that tries to make your fiction a substitute for actual history. Lawhead never quite dissolves into eyelid-drooping catalogues of detail that interrupt the story for multiple pages, but he does tend to add one or two details more than necessary whenever describing weapons, clothes, food, or buildings that bear on the characters and their situation only in passing. Mostly these details are there to appeal to reader looking for the vague overall feel of a “well-researched novel.”

 

More disappointing than the details that crowd the action, are the stale story and characters. Lawhead tries to freshen everything up, but while the setting is technically different, and a few slight details are rearranged, the characters never achieve any sense of depth beyond, or arguably even equal to, a generic sword and sorcery yarn from the 30’s pulps. The novel’s protagonist, Bran, takes his name from one of the Mabinogion’s heroes, whose story Lawhead completely rewrites, and not for the better. He is the archetypal young layabout who must rise to his circumstances. In this case he accepts the responsibility for his people, but Lawhead spends almost no time at all preparing the reader to accept that a character who almost runs away from his responsibility suddenly becomes a competent and charismatic leader and freedom fighter. The only allegedly transformative occurrence that takes place between the inciting incident and the rest of the novel is Bran’s convalescence under the care of an old sage living in the woods who recites bloodless doggerel that turns Bran’s goals almost completely around.

 

Even these shortcomings might be forgiven if Lawhead just regarded his story as nothing more than a jaunt, tried to liven up the poetry, and give the characters some flair, but the whole thing reads like your celtophilic Sunday school teacher’s attempt to make a sermon more accessible. The book isn’t really didactic, but neither is it especially insightful. Fortunately the novel concludes under 500 pages. I hold out a shred of hope for some improvement over the two remaining books in the trilogy, but I must confess the desire to get to them is not as strong as it was before I started reading Hood.

All the King's Men - Robert Penn Warren

Warren is clearly out to impress with this novel, and mostly he does so, unfortunately at the cost of that evasive final stretch of insightfulness and humanity that separates the very good from the great: the feather in the cap of any novel that aims to be especially rewarding for dealing with the very subject of greatness. Warren’s goal of drawing a great man, the individuals in orbit around him, and the importance of his deeds are so obvious from the outset that every new development in character and situation lacks a real disarming sense of revelation. Warren seems so infatuated with the respectability and the importance of his subject matter that he seems to hold his characters at arm’s length taking out a  great deal of the troubling closeness to the character’s flaws that is so essential to his thematic preoccupations of the blood and dirt out of which great accomplishments are built.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft - Stephen King

I have never read any of Stephen King’s fiction, certainly not from any snobbery on my part. I had always heard great things about his storytelling from plenty of people, but the horror branch of speculative fiction was always the one I spent the least time exploring, and even though King has written plenty of quality material outside the limitations of that particular genre, the sheer length of his oeuvre kept me at arm’s length along with the several movie adaptations of his novels that I had already seen, which lessened my interest to go back and revisit the same story in its original medium-- a pleasure that has always paled for me next to approaching a story for the first time when you crack the first page of a book.

 

King’s voice is straightforward, welcoming, and no bullshit. The emotionally written passages on the magic of writing are never cringe-worthy; King isn’t selling you something in which he has no personal stake, nor does he regurgitate stale platitudes. Lending further credibility to the magic partly is the second portion’s practical counterpoint to the book’s earlier autobiographical section. The unexpectedly perfect cap to this book, that took me completely off guard was the final postscript in the postscript, “On Living”:

Some of this book-- perhaps too much-- has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it-- and perhaps the best of it-- is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.

Brothers and sisters, what more or better encouragement could you need? I have yet to encounter a book that better tempers that same encouragement with the advice to bring about the accomplishments one craves.

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