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


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.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Recently some close friends asked me to become Godfather to their daughter. Take-the-cannoli jokes aside, I was touched to be asked, and really quite honored, and so I agreed. Then, Readers Mine, I realized that I really didn’t know what a Godparent was supposed to do. I mean, none of us are Catholic, so the traditional role of someone who sponsors a child at baptism and oversees the kid’s growth in the Church doesn’t apply. Not to mention that Ramona (a pseudonym based upon an uncanny resemblance to the Beverly Cleary character) was baptized several years ago anyway. Then there is the fact that, while Ramona’s parents and Mockingbird are all at least semi-regular churchgoers, I only tend to show up on the highest holidays, and then only if and when Mock’ asks me to. So as a religious guide I’m less than ideal, though I have some experience with undertaking a spiritual journey. Still, it leaves me wondering: what’s the deal with being a Godparent in the modern age?

Well, after some quick and dirty internet research, I found an article on by Steven Shaw that defines the basic responsibilities of a good godfather as follows:

“It is absolutely essential that you be a positive role model to the child. This means ensuring that you display all the positive characteristics that the child should develop. This ranges from basic things such as having excellent manners and high standards of behavior to things such as good personal grooming, being health-conscious and fit. It also means that you should not smoke or swear in front of the child, nor should you drink to excess. Being a positive role model also means having great self-esteem -- if a child looks up to someone with good self-esteem, it is more likely that he will also grow up with good self-esteem and will benefit from all its advantages, both socially and professionally.”

Me. A role model.

Readers mine, I tell you true: a few years ago, the very idea of me as a role model would have been ludicrous. The idea that doing the hard work that it takes to be a good man is truly a worthwhile endeavor is a fairly new one in my life. That I might have something to teach or pass on to a kid strikes me as unlikely, but it’s flattering as hell. Maybe I’m looking at it more deeply that I need to, but I’m unlikely to have a child of my own and if I’m going to be a Godfather, I probably ought to take the responsibility seriously. Which means more soccer games (yay!) and dance recitals (ugh) in my future, and more work, and getting to watch a beautiful, intelligent little girl grow up, with, potentially anyway, a chance to help her out now and again. Not to mention the opportunity to spend lots more time thinking of Ramona rather than myself.

Which brings us back to that spiritual journey I was talking about, doesn’t it?

Good deal, this Godfather gig.