Thursday, December 30, 2010

Legends of Our Time

I’ve just finished reading The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade by Peter Carroll. The book tells the tales of some of the 2800 Americans who volunteered to fight in Spain against the fascist revolt led by General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Carroll, who served as official historian for the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) organization, had access to a great deal of source material, some of it previously unpublished, and took advantage of the opening of Soviet archives in the 1990s to examine materials long unavailable to historians. His focus is unique, detailing the lives and struggles of the men and women involved during, but also before and after their service in the Spanish Civil War. What emerges is a collection of biographical vignettes, lives in brief, which also serve to reveal the history of the radical movements in the United States from the Great Depression to Gulf War I.

Carroll is, of course, dealing with a limited sample, primarily composed of the people who remained politically active or who returned to such activism after a period of time, and the reader is well advised to remember that perhaps the majority of Spanish Civil War veterans who returned to the US (some 930 died in Spain), became depoliticized and often unconcerned with VALB or other organizations. It is well too to remember what I consider to be perhaps the most fascinating element of the late 1920s through the mid 1940s: the astonishing belief in the power of ideology and political systems to change the world for the better. The Great Depression seemed to reveal a fatal weakness in the traditional Western capitalist system, and most national political systems appeared to be incapable of ameliorating the suffering of their citizens. People began to look for alternative systems, and found them in the radical movements of the Left and Right.


What is difficult for the modern American reader to understand is the depth of belief among those involved in these radical movements, and the unity of purpose imposed by socialist, communist, and fascist party structures. The political cynicism that is so common today was often wholly absent among the primarily working-class followers of the radical movements. These men and women saw communism or fascism as solutions to the problems of their nations and the world, and truly believed that these political systems would really work, if everyone just got behind them. They were possessed of a socio-political naivety that is almost incomprehensible to the modern reader. And their views were widely held. Think about it: when was the last time you heard of 2800 Americans volunteering to go and fight in a war that the US government actively avoided involvement in? When was the last time you read about American citizens defying the State Department to travel across the Atlantic and sneak into a country in order to fight against a cause that they found abominable?

Readers Mine, between 1936 and 1939, elements of the armies and air forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy deployed in Spain on the side of their fellow fascist Franco, while the US, UK, and France held to neutrality laws that insured that the forces of the legally and democratically elected republican government of Spain would not receive the support and weapons necessary to defeat these fascist forces that in less than four years would plunge the world into the largest, most horrific conflict in human history. Arrayed against these forces was a small Spanish Republican Army, bolstered by International Brigades composed largely of radical leftists, with some support from the Soviet Union. And in the XV International Brigade were 2800 Americans, many of them communists, who chose to stand up to Hitler and Mussolini and Franco when their government would not, because they believed that people working together could make a better world than dictators, and they were willing to put their very lives where their mouths were.


Oh, I’m not saying that the American Communist Party and the Lincoln Brigadiers were angels. Their party line came from Moscow and Stalin more often than not, and duplicity and secrecy were standard operating procedure in party politics, but the individuals who risked everything to fight in Spain by and large did so because they truly believed that it was the right thing to do, because the Spanish people should be allowed to determine their own fate and their own government. They were naive, and young, and they were defeated, coming home to take up their lives again, many fighting bravely in World War Two in the US Armed Forces, only to face the terrific persecution of the Second Red Scare and McCarthyism, and eventually to emerge as the elder statesmen of the protest movement, working for the Civil Right Movement and protesting the Vietnam War. They are remarkable people, though now all but passed from the earth. They will not pass from memory though. In the words of La Pasionaria, Dolores Ibarruri, in her farewell address to the survivors of the Lincoln Brigade in 1938:


“You can go with pride. You are history. You are legend.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Other Decembers

There’s a rest stop at mile marker 100 on I-85 southbound in North Carolina, roughly between the towns of Thomasville and Lexington. Once upon a time these were furniture factory towns turning out tons of beautiful wood pieces every year. People came from across the country to shop the outlets and factory stores for everything from end-tables to bedroom suites, and enjoyed the local BBQ in bustling Southern downtowns. Today most of the factories and outlets are deserted, and there are more empty storefronts than not. Like a lot of industry in North Carolina, furniture making has gone elsewhere, or gone so upscale that you don’t need many people to produce the few pieces you sell every year.

But back to the rest stop, where you can stretch your legs, grab a Coke and some Cool Ranch Doritos, use the facilities, and pop your back after a few hours on the road. While you’re there, you can also visit the North Carolina Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Yes, Readers Mine, at the rest stop. Just a little bit beyond the bathrooms and vending kiosk, there’s a brick walkway leading down in a series of broad steps to a kind of tumulus of banked earth formed into a grass-covered toroid, open at one end. Here there is a low stone dais over-flown by the national, state and POW/MIA flags:

“Dedicated to the 216,000 North Carolinians who served and the over 1600 who were killed or missing in the Vietnam War.”

I was there on a chilly fall day, when most of the leaves had already blown off the trees, and the wind was enough to make me turn up the collar on my pea-coat and pull my watch cap down over my ears. It was mid-afternoon, and the rest stop was moderately busy, but there wasn’t a soul in the memorial. Inside the earthen walls, the memorial is a great circle with a brick walkway running around the circumference, small brick benches placed here and there and a central field of grass already turning yellow-brown in preparation for winter. At the far side of the enclosure from the entrance is a brick wall, maybe 10 feet high, and inscribed on the inside bricks of this wall are some 1620 names, arranged alphabetically. At my feet as I stood before the wall were more bricks, these inscribed with the names of the 100 counties of North Carolina, all of which had sent native sons and daughters to war.

It wasn’t exactly quiet there – I-85 was just a couple of hundred yards away – but the sounds of the interstate and of kids released from cars to expend some of their built up energy was muted by the earthen walls. About as peaceful as you’re going to get in such a setting. I found out later that the land for the memorial had been donated by the state’s Department of Transportation, which went some way towards explaining the location. Plus, I’m sure, the same state crews who take care of the rest stop also tend to the memorial grounds, so the memorial may well be more sustainable over the long run than others. Still. An interstate rest stop. Oh, there’s a big statue-memorial in the state capital, Raleigh, but this is the official state memorial. At a rest stop.

I’m really not one to get overly emotional at memorials (though I defy anyone to make the long walk down the length of Maya Yeng Lin’s national Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C. and not be moved), but I think it’s good that there are such places. Good to remember those who served and those who died or disappeared, perhaps especially so in the days before the all-volunteer military and in a war that seems so horrifically pointless. I admit I’m a bit irked at the placement of this memorial. It seems… disrespectful somehow. I could be wrong. In fact, being at a rest stop on a major North-South route may well bring the memorial more visitors than it would get otherwise. Probably does, as a matter of fact.

I’d like to think that the reality would be different though, that people would want to travel some distance to visit the memorial, take the time to make a deliberate trip and stand before the wall, read some of the names. I’d like to think that we’re better than we are, and that we’d make a point of remembering and, yes, honoring the people whose names are on those bricks, and all the rest who, thank God, don’t have to be listed on bricks or in polished black stone because they made it back home alive. That maybe we’d take a minute to ponder what causes or interests are really worth 1620 lives, and dedicate ourselves to the proposition that such bloody currency only be spent with the greatest reluctance, most meticulous care, and deepest grief.

In December of 1968, there were 540,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines deployed in Vietnam. By the time the last serviceman was withdrawn in 1975, some 58,000 Americans had died there.

To absent friends, past and present.

Good luck, and Godspeed.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Buffy's Been Good To Me

Well, after working hard for two whole weeks, my good intentions here were shot to hell for a solid month and more. What can I say: the end of the semester is a dumb time to try to develop a new weekly writing habit. However, there’s some good motivation for developing this habit in the coming months, so I’d better get started.

First off, it’s my great pleasure to announce that I have been asked to take part in The Great Buffy Re -Watch of 2011. To sum the idea up, every Tuesday in 2011, the lovely, talented, but sadly, Canadian Nikki Stafford will host various guest writers to blog on an average of three episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The pool of talent Nikki has put together is really impressive (okay, besides relative unknowns like me and this English bloke at a pub), and includes scholar-fans/fan-scholars from Slayage and the Whedon Studies Association, writers on sports, popular culture, feminism, life, the universe, and everything. There will be single writer posts and team-efforts, including one by Mockingbird and me in August. Long time readers of this blog (all three of you) will already know about the handy-dandy link to Nik at Nite under “Solomon’s Blogs” at left, and I’ve just told everyone else about it. Use it and grab your Buffy DVDs or redo your Netflix queue and join in on the fun.

In other news, it seems I’m to be published! Watcher Junior: the Undergraduate Journal of Buffy Studies, has graciously accepted my essay “’We Just Declared War’: Buffy as General” for publication next year. This, Readers Mine, is the time on Sprockets when we dance! The essay started out as my first presentation at an academic conference and has morphed into my first published work. Kinda makes me wonder what the world’s coming to -- ah, bullshit -- I worked hard on that piece, had a blast every step of the way, and hell yeah it’s getting published!

Finally, on the home front, I’m wrapping up the semester with a pleasing average, and Mock’ and I have gotten the tree up and the various boxes of Christmas d├ęcor down from the attic, and she is merrily distributing them about the nest. I’ve got to hunt down our Christmas duck, though I’m considering trying Cornish game hens this year with a recipe from a book given to us by Librarian Who, and I am looking forward with great longing to actually being home for a month before resuming my academic adventures.

Good year, 2010. Really, really good year.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Art of the Mental Health Day

One of the keys to being a responsible adult is the careful exercise of the Fuckits.

There is nothing so liberating or relaxing as giving oneself permission to not do something, provided that such permission is not given with too much regularity. My parents called it “declaring a Mental Health Day,” the idea being that, if you are in a position where it is possible to do so, sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to take a day off. Like all super powers, the ability to declare a Mental Health Day comes with great responsibilities, and it is vital to insure that these responsibilities are met before taking action.

First, always remember that taking too many Mental Health Days can lead to the loss of your powers and transformation from “hardworking guy who deserves a break”, to “that loser over there.” Being a productive member of society and involved in the real world is a good thing, despite the inherent element of pain-in-the-assness that comes with it. The point of the Mental Health Day is to regroup and recharge by taking a short break, so that you can return to the workaday world in a state of mind conducive to not strangling the witless sons-of-bitches you have to deal with every day. Hence, Mental Health Day, rather than Mental Health Month. Also, bear in mind that a Mental Health Day cannot be part of previously scheduled vacation time, or bank holiday, or long weekends. We’re not talking about carefully saved-for and planned time off here, Readers Mine; we’re talking about playing hooky. It can, however, be the day before your scheduled break when you say “Hey, there’s no reason I can’t take today off and go ahead and head down to the beach early!” Or the extra day spent at the beach when you decide it’s just going to be too nice to leave tomorrow and what the hell, you can afford it, so fuckit. Both good examples of the Mental Health Day.

Now, one of the most important things to remember when considering the declaration of a Mental Health Day is to not fuck over someone else when you do it. Life in the real world is comprised largely of relationships with other people which are as necessary to your continued existence and basic sanity as they are for everyone else. Needlessly damaging these relationships is not just counterproductive, it’s stupid. So remember the Social Contract: Don’t Be A Dick, Be A Dude. One of the prerequisites for a Mental Health Day is making sure that you’re not going to flush someone else’s day down the crapper by laying out. Often, this can be accomplished by a simple phone call or e-mail the day before: “Say, Bob, we’ve finished up the Jones Account nicely, so I’m thinking about fucking off tomorrow if that won’t put you in a bind.” If Bob comes back with a reminder about your joint presentation the next day, or that the staff meeting has suddenly become mandatory, don’t be a dick, be a dude and plan to come to work. If Bob says that it’s no problem, take him at his word and don’t sweat it, it’s probably a good time for a Mental Health Day.

You must also be sure that your own shit is together before declaring a Mental Health Day. If you’ve just received a “D” on your last Western Civilization exam, most likely you are not in a position to declare a Mental Health Day, as you’ve probably taken a few too many already, so suck it up and get your ass to class. If, on the other hand, you’re averaging high “A’s” across the board, and there’s not an exam or entirely new concept coming your way, take a fucking break, Poindexter, you deserve it. It can thus be seen that another vital prerequisite for declaring a Mental Health Day is consistently meeting your responsibilities daily, and even working a little harder in order to get ahead so that, after a Mental Health Day, you’re not at all behind. Remember this is supposed to be a reward for all of that grown-up stuff you’ve been doing day after day after day, and so it only really works, only really gives you that slightly naughty Tom Sawyer with a fishin’ pole feeling, if you’re actually playing hooky from a responsible life.

Finally, Mental Health Days are not about catching up in other areas of your life. Don’t clean the house, don’t wash the damn dog, don’t grade papers, or put together schedules in Excel. Take the fuckin’ day, man! Stay up late and sleep in. Grab your honey and make the beast with two backs in the middle of the afternoon. Go to the beach early, read a novel instead of primary source documents from the Late Roman Republic. Spend the day in pajamas or hiking somewhere beautiful. Go see a matinee, or that art exhibit you’ve been meaning to get to. Have a cappuccino at a coffee-house and make fun of the pseudo-Beats writing in their hand-made journals with their Mont Blancs. Lay in beer and nachos and spend some quality time with ESPN, whatever fires your phasers, just get your head into a different space and play!

We all have a vested interest in our collective sanity, and the proper and careful declaration of Mental Health Days is a valuable tool in the continuing effort to avoid going completely batshit.

Use your power wisely, Grasshoppers.

By the way, I’m going to the beach with Mockingbird tomorrow, so I won’t be in. Have a good one!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I'm Baaaaack!

Time to jump-start this blog, I think. My goal will be to put something out here every week. Often it may just be the standard W3dnesday or 3fer-Thursday book reviews, but they count, after all, and I can almost guarantee an occasional bit o’ different every now and again.

Sorry to have been gone so long, Readers Mine, but I’m back now.

Violence: My reading has taken be down some darkly fascinating roads lately. Most recently, with Warren Hammond’s novels KOP and Ex-KOP. Reviews on Amazon tend to refer to them as “SF-noir,” but I think I’d class them more as “Mike Hammer on a Crappy Planet.” The main character, Juno Mozambe, is an aging, alcoholic enforcer for a corrupt police organization on a planet several light-years from Earth. Definitely some Hammer meets the Continental Op, with plenty of sultry brunettes, staggeringly brutal character backgrounds, and a city that seems to be the bastard child of Calcutta, Singapore, Bangkok, and Mexico City. Crime, violence, and murder ensue, with Juno’s anti-heroic moral code determining what gets investigated. Over all, it's not a bad series so far, but nothing really jumps out, either. Hammond does a remarkable job of portraying active alcoholism, but I began to wonder more than once how in the Nine Hells Juno remained standing. These novels go on the hard-boiled brain candy shelf. Interesting and entertaining, but not a series I need to follow devoutly.

In the world of non-fiction, however, I picked up something special. Richard Rhodes has written several books, using his skills as an investigative journalist to provide detailed and compelling works on a variety of subjects. Not too long ago I wrote here about Masters of Death, Rhode’s unflinching look at the operations of the Nazi SS Einsatzgruppen in Eastern Europe during the early years of World War Two. An excellent treatment of a horrific subject, the book also brought to my attention the work of sociologist Lonnie Athens, who has used case-study methodology to investigate just what, exactly, makes violent people violent. Athens’ subsequent theory of violentization as a process of socialization was applied by Rhodes to try and reveal how the members of the Einsatzgruppen could perpetrate such brutal, malefic violence so callously, carelessly, and regularly. I’ve read more than a few books on the Holocaust, not to mention the other attempted genocides, mass murders, pogroms, ethnic-cleansings, etc that stain human history like rotting blood, and I have never run across any explanation for the behavior of the perpetrators that rings so true, or that is applicable in every case throughout history, as Lonnie Athens’.

So I picked up Rhodes’ Why They Kill: the Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist which details the life and work of Lonnie Athens, and applies his theories to a number of high-profile violent criminals, historical periods, and even shows it at work in the training of military and police forces. In brief, Athens proposes that individuals are socialized to violence, just as we are to any other behavior, that this violent socialization, or violentization, occurs in identifiable stages in specific sequence, and that the process is observable in every violent person. Athens’ work focused on scores of case studies of violent criminals through hours of personal interviews which Athens collected and analyzed over a period of years. The interviewees were convicted criminals serving time, and Athens’ was able to use careful study of their criminal records to cross-check their stories for accuracy. His discoveries included that violence was not a product of “passion” or temporary lapses of reason brought on by great stress, but a definite, conscious choice on the part of the actor. An individual’s readiness and willingness to use violence depended upon the level of violentization experienced, which process served to alter the way in which a person interprets a situation. In other words, a non-violent person might interpret a friend’s joke about his developing gut as good-natured ribbing that perhaps arose out of a genuine concern for him. A fully violentized person might interpret the same comment as a suggestion of weakness, softness, and conclude that the person making the comment was considering attacking him, or was disrespecting him, interpretations that would lead to violence in order to demonstrate the actors continued strength and to keep the speaker in his place.

The above is just a brief taste of Athens’ work, and some of his most significant work transcends criminology, to provide truly great insight into the psychological sociology of human beings. Athens clarifies Mead’s tentative idea of a “generalized other” into a far more concrete concept of “phantom communities,” the people in our lives who’s voices, outlook, and attitudes we internalize into our own decision making process. Ever seem to clearly hear your mom’s voice in your head when you’re thinking about doing something she’d disapprove of, even though she’s nowhere around? That’s a part of your phantom community talking to you. In later work, Athens examines dramatic self-change, and the presents the idea of the self as soliloquy, affirming that we are indeed, in large part, the stories we tell ourselves. Rhodes provides a truly fascinating, readable account of Athens’ development of these ideas, as well as the struggle he has faces professionally to have his work taken seriously, an area in which he has had far more success with professionals in law enforcement than with academics. Rhode’s applications of Athens’ theories to criminals and history are enlightening and bear out his work. Emotionally, it’s not an easy read, and I found myself reaching for some brain-candy about ¾ of the way through, just to take a break from the darker side of good ol’ homo sap’, but I honestly think it’s an important read. In fact, Athens’ The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals, the scholarly work where he presents his theory of violentization, is now on my to-be-read-pile. Lonnie Athens opened a new window on human behavior for me. How often does that happen?

What’s next? Well, with several exams looming next week, I’ve returned to H. Rider Haggard and The Treasure of the Lake to follow Allan Quatermain and his wise-cracking Hottentot servant Hans on another adventure into lost African worlds. Brain candy, to be sure, but really, really rich and yummy brain candy. The same way Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are brain candy. I am constantly amazed at how much more intelligent late 19th/early 20th century adventure/young adult literature is compared to its modern descendants. After that, I may delve back into Athens with The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals, or go in an entirely different direction with Jeanine Basinger’s The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre, as a continuation of my education in media studies. Also in the pipeline are more essays by David Lavery, and Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances.

After all, it’s good to let the mind romp about a bit, I think.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Exsisto Me Minerva!

For most of my life, a large Audubon Society-style print of a great horned owl has hung at the head of my bed. In fact it guards the bed in Mom’s guestroom today. The piece is massive, the frame extending a good foot and a half beyond the edges of the print itself, which is not exactly small, either. The entire thing literally takes up most of a wall. I have no idea where it came from, or why it wound up on my wall. No doubt it struck my fancy as a kid, but if so, this occurred in the time of my life before memory. The owl has always been there, alert, watching, guarding me as I slept and greeting me as I woke.

So.

A few years ago it became necessary for me to reacquaint myself with God. Now, don’t go scurrying off into the hills just yet, Readers Mine, I haven’t gone and got Religion, just a relationship with a higher power, if you will. This was not a process of discovery, but rather one of restoration. God and I had known one another before, but I’d done my best to walk away from the relationship over the years. Early on my personal theology had been heavily influenced by the writings of Joseph Campbell, particularly the idea of “masks of the Divine.” Simply put, there is one divine source (call it what you will), but we humans, with our little pea-brains, simply cannot comprehend Its totality. By definition, God is well beyond any human’s ability to understand It. Therefore, we approach God -- and It us – indirectly and incompletely through symbolism of one kind or another, with God revealing Itself to man in various ways that are accessible given the time, place, and culture.

Think of it as a Tiffany shade surrounding a white light bulb. Viewed from different angles and distances, the light has various colors, but the source of all of the colored light is the same, white bulb. Yahweh, Allah, Jesus, Odin, Shiva, Brahma, Zeus, Ahura Mazda, etc, are all attempts at understanding between humans and the Divine. For one reason or another, at one time or another, they all spoke to us, were recognized as containing some truth, or some part of the Truth (the Tao which can be perceived, after all, is not the true Tao). They are symbols of something larger, facets of Tiffany glass tinting the light.

That’s how I see it, anyway. If you see things differently, good on you. I’ve got no quarrel with you, Atticus.

So, a few years ago, I found myself well away from the Road and in the woods with Dante. We’ll call it a bit of rough going and leave it at that for now. I was beaten and broken, and I would have to be bloody and terrified before I realized that I wasn’t doing so well with this life stuff all by my lonesome, and that maybe it was time to get some help, both human and divine. Being chock full of knee-jerk prejudice which I had carefully tended as a kind of bullshit world-weary-and-wise-cynicism, the traditional religio-spiritual paths of my area of the U.S. weren’t going to work as viable lines of communication between God and me. I wasn’t going to hear anything that used that symbology. Something different was needed.

What came was an owl. An ancient owl stamped into the reverse side of a late 5th/early 4th century BC Athenian tetradrachma. It’s a symbol I first ran across in a novel by Neal Stephenson called Cryptonomicon, and which I later found out is also used as the signet for the curator of the Smithsonian Museum. In any event, it appealed to me strongly. The owl is traditionally a symbol of wisdom, and I really needed some of that. So I ordered a replica of the coin and put it on a chain around my neck where it dangles to this day.

Now there are two sides to a coin, and the obverse of this one had a profile of the goddess Athena, patroness and namesake of Athens, of course, but also, the entity to whom the owl of wisdom belonged. The owl is one of Her symbols. Another is the olive branch, representing peace and prosperity. Of course She is usually depicted with an Attic helm, and often with a spear held confidently, symbolizing her role as Goddess of War. Not the bloodlusting savagery of Ares, though, but the arts of tactics and strategy, Odysseus rather than Achilles. Here was strength combined with wisdom. More of what I desperately needed. And let us not forget the Aegis, at times depicted as a gorgon-faced shield or cuirass, and providing impenetrable protection. Oh that sounded good! Finally, Athena is also the goddess of crafts, for which you should think “technology”. Considering that my life had been saved by a combination of medical knowledge, skill, and high-tech, and that I believe in technology’s potential for our little species, that was perfect.

One could do worse than to call out to God and have It appear as a Warrior Goddess.

So Athena (Minerva in the Etruscan-Roman traditions), became my Patron, and my primary symbolic route to a relationship with God. Over time, my ability to accept and hear the wisdom in other symbologies has slowly grown, and hopefully will continue to do so, but Athena remains my guide and comfort. Imagine my surprised joy then when I walked onto the campus of the University I began attending this fall and in wandering about came across a quiet little place with a swing-set and trees and benches surrounding a granite plinth atop which rises a two meter bronze statue of Minerva in the classical style, Attic helmet tipped back atop Her head, reaching out as if to bestow wisdom on any who are willing to have it. I stopped dead, smiled and raised my right hand to my lips. Kissed it.

That is how one salutes the Goddess, after all. And She deserves such salutes for all of those years that Her owl spent on silent guard over an unwitting, unwilling soul.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

3-fer Thursday

I know it’s late (again), Reader’s Mine, but here’s this week’s bookish post.

Wars and Aristos: It’s been a busy weak, reading-wise. I finished up Masters of Death by Richard Rhodes. As I wrote last week, the subject matter (the mass murder of the Jewish populations in Eastern Europe by special SS “task groups” in the early years of World War II) makes this book a difficult read, but an important one. Rhodes does a good job with a difficult subject, and his history is rigorously researched, detailed, moving, and horrifying. Which is why I decided not to read it in bed at night right before going to sleep, since, after all, I wanted to sleep.

So I picked up a beautiful Everyman’s Library edition of Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, translated by Vladimir and Dimitri Nabokov. Yes, that Nabokov. Who’s brief introduction illuminates the text brilliantly, as well as revealing Nabokov’s view on the duty of a translator to render the original language as exactly as possible even and especially when the language as used does not conform to “proper” usage. The work itself is wonderful, and riveting. Lermontov draws the reader progressively deeper into the psyche of his “hero” Pechorin, who is a thoroughly unlikable, manipulative, chauvinistic, and aristocratic ass, and while showing us the truth of these character traits, nonetheless somehow makes us like the guy anyway, and even root for him. Just lovely and (according to Nabokov) this is accomplished in the original with rather unpolished, rough Russian. Lermontov reads like a light novel, but what he does earns him a place among the greats, revealing with each chapter another layer of Pechorin, and as we come closer and closer to knowing this character as well as we can know any person, and in addition come to like him, despite of -- in fact because of -- his faults, the reader is forced to wonder if, perhaps, the same might not be true for all people, if we could but know them as well. Good stuff.

Last, but by no means least, I did something unusual for me by picking up a fantasy novel. More, it’s the first novel in yet another frakkin’ series, and one that has only just begun to come out. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good fantasy tale, but it is here more than perhaps any other genre that I get really picky. Tolkien not only plowed this particular field, but he also, sowed, watered, weeded, and reaped the crops. Thoroughly. Most fantasy, particularly series fantasy, boils down to Tolkien redux, only far less skillfully done. There are exceptions, however, and I have come to realize that my taste in the genre runs to what I am calling hard fantasy, where (odd as it may sound) there’s a solid vein of realism running through the narrative. Where the hero’s marriage can fall apart, where life is hard and generally unfair. Where bad guys often win, war is blood and shit and horror, and people who make their place in the world with weapons are violent people, for good or ill. Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains suits my preferences to a tee. Morgan has long been one of my favorite contemporary novelists, having brought hard boiled and gritty back to SF in a big way with books like Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, and Market Forces. The Steel Remains is his first venture into the fantasy genre, but he does not disappoint, giving us a homosexual protagonist who revels in violence despite a marrow-deep war weariness and a world that is as chaotic, confused, compromised, and real as our own. Plus, unlike so many authors who launch a series, Morgan actually gives us something more than the usual build up to a cliff-hanger ending, wrapping up a plotline in blood and still leaving plenty of room and desire for more. Morgan is not for everybody, but I think this is some of the most original fantasy writing out there. Great stuff.

Along with Colonel Jackson: Currently I’ve started Union 1812 by A. J. Langguth, a highly-touted history of the War of 1812 and the events leading up to it. I just read the first few pages this afternoon, so it’s too early to give any sort of informed opinion, so I’ll save it for next week.

Next: There are always… possibilities. I’m off to the beach for a glorious two weeks of delayed honeymooning at the end of the month, and I’m really trying to save the rest of Haggard’s The Treasury of Allan Quatermain Vol. II for the beach. The fiction pile is getting pretty small, though, so I’ve joined the Science Fiction Book Club, and there is a shipment of books coming my way soon. As always, I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

W3dnesday

By now, Readers Mine, you know the drill: today is all about books. What I’ve been reading, what I’m reading now, and what I’ll read next.

Genre-ally Speaking: I finally finished The Television Genre Book, edited by Glen Creeber. I have to admit this was not the most gripping read, but it was an excellent introduction to the use of genre theory in the critical analysis of television. As I read, however, I became more and more convinced that genre theory today has limited applications. Modern television often thoroughly mixes genres (generic hybridization in academese) to the point where attempting to analyze a show on the basis of genre is fruitless. For example, was The X-Files horror, science fiction, fantasy, soap opera, cop show, or character drama? Well, yes. Containing elements of all of these genres and more, The X-Files defies generic analysis and classification. This is not to say that genre theory is irrelevant. As Stacey Abbott points out in Angel, television shows can often push the generic envelope, particularly when it comes to network censorship by a kind of Trojan horse technique, as when the results of physical violence are graphically depicted in the police procedural CSI, or body penetration horror in the loosely noir-detective framework of Angel. Still I doubt I’d be able to philosophize along these lines without having read Creeber’s book, so it’s worth a look.

Historical Horrors: Currently, I’m not quite half-way through Masters of Death by Richard Rhodes. Masters of Death details the history of the Nazi SS-Einsatzgruppen, or “special task groups,” on the Eastern/Russian Front during World War II, and the emergence of the Holocaust. The Einsatzgruppen followed the German Army east after the invasions of Poland and the USSR. At first used to “decapitate” the political leadership of conquered territories as well as elements that might serve as rallying points for resistance to the Nazis, the groups quickly became the vehicles for the execution of the Jews by mass shootings. These are the creators of the hundreds of mass graves and burial pits throughout Eastern Europe, for atrocities such as Babi Yar, and for the development of the truly industrial means of mass murder eventually used at places like Auschwitz.

This is an excellent history, but a hard one. Rhodes details the psychology and methodology of both the highest and the lowest, from Hitler and Himmler to the rank and file. It is brutal stuff, men women and children shot to death by the tens of thousands day after day. Entire villages wiped out in a morning, and children tossed into the air before being shot lest the bullets, passing completely through their little bodies should cause dangerous ricochets. The book overwhelms the reader, and I think I’m going to start something very light and fun to read before bed, relegating Rhodes excellent work to hours long before sleep. As difficult as such histories are to read, though, they are of vital importance. We cannot turn away from the darker places in our past, lest we create a sanitized version of history that allows or even encourages us to forget the people who didn’t have to worry about reading the history because they died trying to live through it.

Next Up: Lord God, something light! Some more Jack Williamson, maybe, or H. Rider Haggard, even Lermontov, but definitely fiction, and hopefully with a nice, happy ending.