Friday, February 15, 2019

The Whale Rider

The Whale Rider, by Witi Ihimaera

I was pretty excited when I spotted this novel on the donation table; it's currently not that easy to find in the US.   It's also shorter than I expected!  This cover make it look kind of like a kid's book but I would say that it is maybe more YA.  It's one of those novels that kind of defies age categories, really.

The story is told in two interlocking parts: one side is mythic, about the far past and about the whales.  The other is narrated by a young Maori man, and it's really about his niece, Kahu.  She is the first-born of her generation, and the family patriarch, Koro, is extremely displeased, because he expects a boy to be the chief and carry on the family heritage -- they are descended from the legendary whale rider.  Kahu adores Koro, and spends her childhood following him around, bouyantly ignoring his indifference.

 When an entire pod of whales beaches near the village, Koro believes that it's a watershed moment for his family.  If the whales can be saved and persuaded to go back to the sea, it will be a new birth for the humans of Wharanga too.  If they can't, it will be the end.  But the ancient bull whale that leads this pod misses his wonderful rider.  Is there anyone to take his place?

It's a beautifully crafted novel, and I enjoyed every bit.

A film was made in 2002, and I'd like to watch it.  They made Kahu older (which makes sense; the novel takes her from infancy to maybe 10 or so, and they would have needed five or six actresses), and this film seems to have more martial arts than the story does (which is none).  Looks pretty good, yeah?  It won an award at Sundance.

Monday, February 11, 2019


Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths, by Emily Katz Anhalt

What?  Why would a modern, 21st-century society need stories told by a bunch of Greeks over 2000 years ago?  Well, Emily Anhalt is here to tell you, and she is dang good at it.  I enjoyed this book a lot!

Anhalt's thesis is that human beings are just the same as they always were, and the ancient Greeks gave these things a lot of thought.  She analyzes the Iliad and the plays Ajax and Hecuba for themes that hit close to home for us today.  All of them are about rage, and there's a lot of that going on right now.  She doesn't talk specifics -- there's enough rage to go around anyway

The Iliad is all about rage.  Achilles and Agamemnon both have a lot of it, and it has tremendous effects -- none of them good.  Achilles' rage leads directly to the death of his best friend, and that's only the beginning.

Sophocles' Ajax covers an episode just after the Iliad, in which Ajax and Odysseus have contended for the right to Achilles' armor.  Odysseus used his rhetorical skill to convince a panel of warriors that he was the best, despite Ajax' obvious better claim.  Humiliated and enraged, Ajax goes mad and kills a lot of cattle in the delusion that they are the Greek leaders.  When he comes to his senses, he falls onto his sword.  Anhalt shows that Sophocles was meditating on the limitations of democracy -- a majority vote will not always be the correct decision.  In order to work well, democracy must be accompanied by the willingness to see others' points of view, to compromise, to work together.  Ajax, an old-school aristocrat to the core, can't understand democracy or its necessary corollaries...but he can point out the problems of democracy badly wielded.

Euripides' Hecuba is even more violent and despairing.  Hecuba, the deposed queen of Troy, is now a captive slave.  She has one daughter left to her, and the hope of her youngest son's survival, since he was sent to live with a friendly king.  As the Greeks are encamped, about to leave, Odysseus arrives and requires the daughter, Polyxena, for a sacrifice to Achilles' shade.  Hecuba warns him that the powerful should not abuse the powerless or think they'll always be victorious, but Odysseus takes the girl anyway.  Hecuba's son's body, murdered, then washes up on shore just before the friendly king shows up, pretending innocence.  Mad with grief, Hecuba has his two children murdered before killing him; having been denied justice, revenge seems her only option.

(In 1995, I went and saw a prestigious production of Hecuba that starred Olympia Dukakis.  I had only the barest idea of what a big deal that was supposed to be, but it was certainly an excellently-staged play.)

Enraged is a great read, because Anhalt is wonderful at demonstrating the meanings and nuances of Greek literature.  I'd love to hear her lecture.  This book is packed with fascinating insights.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Dancing With the Viper

Dancing With the Viper, by Amy Beatty

A few months ago I told you about my friend Amy, whose novel Dragon Ascending was published last October.  She also has a second series going, and I bought myself a copy of this first installment in the Viper series.  It's available in paperback and on Kindle, and there are a couple of short stories on her website too!

This is Amy's 'complicated politics in a galactic empire' story, but it doesn't start that way.  We start at the edge.

The Talessanin made contact several years ago, and they have an embassy on Earth now, but Hanna has never actually met one of the aliens before.  Now she has a Talessanin for a neighbor, and she's not entirely sure she wants the company on her cherished lonely country road.  Still, one must be neighborly, so she takes a welcome cake over and meets Jon, a retired soldier, and his two friends? assistants?, Chance and Tomin.  Pretty soon Hanna (and her friends) are getting to know the Talessanin guys well, and while she is drawn to Jon, she's also wary of getting involved with anyone at all.  Jon, for his part, has a lot of secrets of his own, and he's not just any retired soldier -- plus he has a bunch of relatives and family connections with very definite opinions on what he ought to be doing with his life.

So here we have a romance/SF/thriller, and there's a good bit of romance.   Apparently the genre-crossing kind of stymied publishers, who loved it but didn't know what to do with it.

I really enjoy Amy's storytelling.  She's just really good at drawing the reader in.  Even though I was reading on my phone -- normally something I will do anything to avoid -- I could hardly put it down.  There are bits I've gone back and read several times now.  I don't usually do romance, but I liked this one.  I may buy it in paperback too.  If you like romance/SF, give this one a go.

Monday, February 4, 2019

A Most Dangerous Book

A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus's Germania From the Roman Empire to the Third Reich, by Christopher B. Krebs

I've been pretty excited about this book.  Once I finished reading the actual Germania, so that I could understand this one, I was able to get started.  (I shall continue the chain by reading about one of the terrible consequences in Timothy Snyder's Black Earth.)  Krebs packs his book with lots of fascinating information, but it's quite dense and I went pretty slowly because I found it hard to concentrate sometimes.  The second I drifted even a tiny bit, I'd lose the train and discover that I had no idea what the last two pages had said.

Krebs starts off with plenty of background for Tacitus and what was going on in the Roman Empire at the time.  Of course, Tacitus never set foot in the unconquered territory of the barbarians; he didn't study the Germanic tribes in person or anything.  He draws the tribes as the descendants of an autochthonic earth god, Tuisto, and his son Mannus (which just means 'human'); they've remained 'pure and unmixed' with other tribes because their land is so grim and cold and unpleasant that nobody else wants to live there.  Tacitus wrote with his eye on contemporary Roman government and society, not on anthropology; he wasn't so much describing actual Germanic tribes as drawing a contrast with his own society.  Germania proved to be a popular work and hand-written copies were sold at bookstores.

We then have to skip ahead over a thousand years, to Renaissance Italians excited about finding old manuscripts in monasteries.  Books had been preserved carefully in monastic libraries, but they were not necessarily known to the outside world.  Certain Italians made something of a competition out of digging up unique books, and one of these was the Germania, hidden away in a German monastery.  This was a wonderful find, but humanists took it a little too seriously as real ethnography and went right ahead applying it to their own day.  Italians sneered at the 'uncivilized' Germans, and German humanists grasped desperately at a chance to prove that they too had a proud and ancient heritage of strong, honest, loyal warrior-farmers.  This required a good deal of twisting of the actual text, but never mind.

Krebs then traces a complex and ever-growing movement of Germanness through several hundred years.  Tuisto was remade as a Trojan prince and even as a son of Noah.  Perhaps German was the Adamic tongue?  Well, if not, it was definitely ancient and pure and passed down from the Tower of Babel.  Whatever the favorite issue of the day was, scholars could use Tacitus and their imaginations to prove that Germanness was whole, unmixed, and unique to itself (in a never-ending, endlessly expanding repetition of that one single paragraph from Germania).

In the 19th century, the racial theories came in and scholars started arguing that Aryans (what we would think of as Indo-Europeans, except racialized) were the drivers of history, and Germans were the highest example thereof, indicated by being tall, blond, blue-eyed, and dolichocephalic (that is, having a long and tall head).  "As a mythical race -- rather than as a linguistic group -- Aryans were believed to have conquered, colonized, and acculturated the world."  They'd taken an ancient belief in the possibility of an autochthonic god siring a race of humans, and turned it into a pseudo-scientific racial theory that meant nothing whatsoever.  It all intensified in the 20th century...

It's all pretty depressing, but reading it all at once like this is also a salutary exercise.  Krebs traces the development of this belief, which became pretty much a religion to some, from its beginnings, and in doing so shows how very hollow and insane the whole thing was. The whole racial superiority thing developed from a wish to show those snotty Renaissance Romans that Germans were just as good as they were, and that developed from a pamphlet written to remind a certain few ancient Romans that tyranny is bad.   I guess there's no limit to the human ability to invent and rationalize reasons to do nasty things to each other.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Favorite Podcasts

I've been listening to some really great language or literature podcasts lately, and I thought I'd let you in on the fun in case you didn't know about these yet.  Probably you do, because I cannot claim to be terribly knowledgeable or cool about podcasts!  My list is not long, and I mostly only listen to them when I'm walking on my own, am alone in the car, or possibly sometimes while folding a mountain of laundry.  Still, I really like these, and here they are:

The History of English, by Kevin Stroud.  This might be my very favorite podcast.  Kevin starts with Indo-European and takes us on a detailed, fascinating trip through the history of the English language.  I'm on episode 62 and we're almost to the Norman Conquest, so there is a lot of information!

Medieval Death Trip, by Patrick Lane.  I'm the last to know about this fabulous podcast; my mom told me about it.  In every episode, Patrick reads a selection from a lesser-known medieval text and then talks about it.  It's great and anybody with the slightest interest in medieval history will want to listen to it.

Clear and Present Danger, by Jacob Mchangama.  I listen to several free speech podcasts, but this one is the most relevant here.  This is a global history of free speech, starting with the ancient Greeks.  It's pretty great information, and there's the bonus of listening to Jacob's homey (to me) Danish accent.

Slightly Foxed, by Gail, Hazel, and others.  While I adore the Slightly Foxed books and ideals, I am not a subscriber.  I do the next best thing and listen to this podcast, which is still in its infancy but so far has been lovely.

Shedunnit, by Caroline Crampton.  This is my newest discovery; I've only listened to one episode out of the eight.  It's a very new podcast too!  It's about the Golden Age of detective fiction and the women who wrote the books.  My coworker, a true crime podcast addict, hooked me up with this one.

I have other, non-literary, podcasts I listen to as well, but I figured those were not as relevant.  Maybe you'll find something here to enjoy.  Do you have favorite bookish podcasts to recommend?