October 23, 2009

Reads & Reviews: September & October 2009

I am finally settled back in a groove back here in southern California after my long 3,000 mile photography road-trip in mid- to late-September. I realized that it is time to update the blog with all of the books I've read, I'm reading, and those in the queue. I found some great new stuff too.

1. Freedom & Necessity, by Emma Bull and Stephen Brust - This was a fabulous book; and I have no qualms recommending this at all. I really have to give it up to Emma Bull and Stephen Brust on this one. The epistolary style; comprised of correspondence, journal entries, and newspaper articles; works perfectly with the plot.

This is an exciting historical mystery set in 1849 in Victorian England. It is loaded with political intrigue, budding romances, murder and mayhem, and a healthy dose of Hegelian philosophy. In and amongst the very engaging fictional characters, Emma Bull and Stephen Brust have realistically inserted some well-known historical figures. The novel does an excellent job of educating the reader on the Chartist's movement that caused significant angst among members of Her Majesty's government, as well as in other European monarchies. One can tell that Bull and Brust did their homework in developing the plot; it just feels right and seems completely plausible. Finally, Susan Voight is one of the most likable, brilliant, and witty heroines I've encountered in a novel in a long, long time. She is a giant in this novel! I will definitely read this book again!

2. Beowulf, translation by Seamus Heaney - This was incredible! First of all, the story was told in the spare, sparse, and gritty language of Seamus Heaney's bilingual translation of the Anglo-Saxon original. Second, the plot of this elegiac poem was absolutely epic. The horror of Grendel and his Dam was palpable; and the heroism of Beowulf and his spear-fellows timeless. Finally, the ability to carefully study Heaney's translation, alliteration, and interpretation and then compare it to the Anglo-Saxon was almost surrealistic. It was an amazing experience to have the ability to look at and study the root language of modern English.

My younger brother recommended the Heaney translation to me, and now I know why. This has become a poem I intend to visit, and revisit, many, many times in the years to come. From the perspective of my personal enjoyment of poetry, reading Beowulf has been transformative. Reading Beowulf has led me to go back and reinvestigate the ancient Icelandic poetry of the Poetic Edda (or "Elder Edda"), including the Volsungasaga. From epics like Beowulf and the Poetic Edda, it is abundantly clear what a profound influence these early writings have had on the literature of the English language.

In conclusion, I cannot believe that it has taken me this long to actually sit down and read this beautiful poem. All I can say is "Bravo!" "Bravo!" to the original eighth or ninth century poet, and to Seamus Heaney for his beautiful relatively new presentation of this early treasure of the English language.

3. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, by J.R.R. Tolkien - As soon as I found this hardbound edition in the bookstore, I snapped it up. This 350-page book contains J.R.R. Tolkien's interpretation of two of the ancient epic poems from the Poetic Edda (or "Elder Edda") of the Icelandic peoples. Tolkien's son, Christopher has compiled and edited his father's work on the "Lay of the Volsungs" and the "Lay of Gudrun." This is earthy and spare poetry; rich in story and tradition; and provides a tangible connection to our ancestors and their mythology more than a thousand years ago.

This is a book to read, re-read, and study; and, I have to say, it somehow feels canonical, as "Beowulf" is considered to be. Christopher Tolkien's notes and comments on his father's work help place these poems in their proper context. Finally, I see that some of the ideas and concepts developed in Tolkien's fiction (e.g., The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion) are the direct result of his life-long fascination and study of the Poetic Edda. I highly recommend this book; it is real a treasure!

4. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville - This was an awesome book! First, Mieville elevates the sci-fi/steampunk genre to an entirely new plane of existence. It is almost as though Charles Dickens were writing with a view to the future. The characters in Perdido Street Station are some of the most amazing you'll encounter in fiction. The horror associated with the main plot of the novel is virtually beyond imagination, and is some of the most terrifying stuff I've ever read. I simply could not put this down once I started; even though there were times when I was absolutely scared spitless! This book may not be for everyone; but it has left an indelible mark on me. I look forward to reading the next two novels in this series of three set in the world of Bas-Lag. Somehow the energy of China Mieville's writing feels right for the time. This is some seriously good stuff!

5. Isis, by Douglas Clegg - A gripping, poignant, and truly macabre tale. The perfect read for late-October, or when you feel the need for something on the scary side. Douglas Clegg has given us a superb retelling of the Osiris and Isis myth, set in Cornwall during the Victorian Period. This is no tale for young children either; it is gritty, realistic, and terribly bittersweet, with moral lessons throughout. The scenes and plot remind me a bit of Poe, but the writing is superb and brings to mind Edith Wharton's ghost stories. This little novella is one to read aloud to family and friends while safely ensconced in a warm living room in front of the fire. The illustrations are beautiful and complement the plot exquisitely.

6. The Affinity Bridge, by George Mann - This was rollicking good fun to read! Is it great literature? No; but then it is not meant to be. It is a wonderful page-turner, with engaging characters, a superb mystery plot, and set in the interesting alternative world of a 'steampunk' Victorian London. This is the first in a series of three proposed mystery novels featuring Sir Maurice Newbury and his fetching assistant, Miss Veronica Hobbes. Fun stuff to read, and I look forward to reading the second in the series, "The Osiris Ritual."

7. The Court of the Air and The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, by Stephen Hunt - In my humble opinion, don't waste your time (or money) on these two books. Here are my thoughts on the first two books in Stephen Hunt's 'steampunk' world.

"The Court of the Air" - I liked the cast of characters in this novel (there's a lot of 'em), and the plot was, at times, intriguing. I can't quite put my finger on what it was, but the novel never really fully engaged me. I read it with an eye toward simply finishing it, and moving on to something else. I was kind of hoping for an epic experience similar to Susanna Clarke's brilliant, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. In my opinion, this is not it. If your looking for some really serious steampunk, go directly (do not pass 'Go') to China Mieville's three-volume Bas-Lag series.

"The Kingdom Beyond the Waves" - A middling effort by author Stephen Hunt. I liked this even less than his debut novel, "The Court of the Air." While some of the characters were interesting, the plot really seemed overly contrived. Not too much else to say about this book. I think I'll take a pass on reading the third volume which has yet to be released in the U.S.


Here's what it is in the queue to be read in the very near future:

1. Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography, by Jan Marsh - The author of several books on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood has written what is acknowledged to be the seminal biography of Christina Rossetti, one of my all-time favorite poets. I have been carefully reading and studying Christina's poetry contained within my copy of the Penguin Classics edition, Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems. So, I am very much looking forward to reading this biography and going back through her beautiful poetry. If you're interested, I have several earlier blog posts here discussing Rossetti's poetry.

2. The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt - This is the latest novel written by A.S. Byatt, one of my favorite modern authors. Byatt is the author of the Booker-award winning Possession. The Children's Book was also shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Award (won by Hilary Mantel for her novel, Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell in the Tudor Court). Apparently, Byatt's novel spans a period of time from the late-Victorian period, through the Edwardian, and through the First World War; and follows several generations in two families in England. I am very much looking forward to reading this novel.

3. The Poetic Edda - The Poetic Edda or Elder Edda is the collection of ancient Icelandic alliterative poetry containing much of the mythology of the early Norse peoples. It is generally thought that this poetry was written late in the first millennium, and existed as an oral tradition. It is from these beautiful poems that J.R.R. Tolkien received much of his inspiration for many of the primary elements in his tales of Middle Earth. Additionally, the Poetic Edda was the source of inspiration and material for Richard Wagner's operas in the Ring Cycle. Having read Beowulf, I am very much looking forward to reading this collection of ancient Norse poetry.

4. Ice Land, by Betsy Tobin - In the same vein, this recent fantasy novel by Tobin incorporates a lot of the mythology from the Poetic Edda, described above. I have heard that this is a fun book that describes life in Iceland in the 700-800 A.D. time frame and involves the eruption of the great Icelandic volcano, Hekla.

5. The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser - I have been derelict for most of my adult life for not having read this ageless epic poem. Harold Bloom said, "One is tempted to maintain that a reader who cannot apprehend Spenser's voice as being, at its best, the voice of poetry itself is not capable of reading adequately any poetry whatsoever." About the knights and ladies in The Faerie Queene, the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, felt that they were fastened "with allegorical nails to a big barn door of common sense, of merely practical virtue." Suffice it to say, that Spenser's The Faerie Queene is high on my teetering To-Be-Read pile.

6. The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova - I have heard nothing but wondrous things about the poetry of Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), is one of the best known Russian poets of the 20th century. She was also known as "The Queen of the Neva," and was a member of the "Acmeists" or "Guild of Poets." The Acmeists were a confederation of Russian poets that met in The Stray Dog Cafe in St. Petersburg in the early 1900s before the Russian Revolution. Akhmatova's poems range from short lyrical poetry to her long epic, Requiem, about the Stalinist purges. I have a feeling that I am going to enjoy her poetry immensely.

7. The Complete Poems of Emily Bronte - I have read several of Emily Bronte's beautiful poems; and I am now ready to embark on a wholesale reading and analysis of all of her poems. I read her single novel, Wuthering Heights; which I recognize for its Byronic and Gothic passion and intensity, but have always been profoundly unsettled by the horrifying dysfunction in the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff. Whilst Charlotte and Anne Bronte also wrote poetry, it is my opinion that Emily was, far and away, the better poet of the three sisters. Stay tuned, I'll let you know in a month or two.

Well, that's it for now. I hope you enjoyed this quick tour through the novels and poetry that I have sampled over the past six weeks or so. I'd also like to acknowledge and cite the use of biographical material from the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia and from Dr. Harold Bloom's recent poetry anthology The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Robert Frost.

Finally, the photograph I have attached to this blog entry is entitled, "Golden Grasses" and is a photograph that I took in late fall 2008 on the flanks of Bear Mountain in the southern end of the Sierras here in California. Fall around here, while it can still be warm, is incredibly beautiful; especially in the Sierra foothills. Please feel free to click on the photograph for a much larger view.