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.

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