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I actually just finished a book that I loved unreservedly! or well, I think I had some reserves, but I forget what they were, so that's close enough. The book was Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, which is about - well, it's about New York, and love, and magic, and winter. I can't summarize, and I'm not even going to try. My point is, everyone should go read it. Also A Kingdom Far and Clear, which is a "kid's book" but whatever, it's gorgeous in prose and presentation.
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I have just finished Pierre Pevel's The Cardinal's Blades. And I will admit that half the reason I bought it is because the cover is pretty. Also because it seemed trashy and hilarious. I was in fact underestimating the trashiness. Also the bad prose. Maybe it’s the translator to blame, but “Long and high-ceilinged, the room was lined with elegantly gilded and bound books which shone with a russet gleam in the half-light of the candle flames” is completely awful.

FURTHER: Agnès de Vaudreuil (which, admittedly, is a pretty awesome name) a. sleeps around to compensate for some Tragic and Mysterious Event, which we never get to find out about, and b. wears a red leather corset and has a special sword made just for her. Also “emerald green eyes, which burned with a cold flame” seriously. Well, at least she’s not half dragon too, although I think she may be a werewolf. (she is not.)

“Remaining by the door, he again avoided meeting the young man’s gaze as though something dangerous and troubling emanated from him, his elegance and angelic beauty nothing but a façade disguising a poisonous soul.” REALLY.
And now there’s a guy fighting a duel against four people with two swords. I cannot take this remotely seriously.

THERE IS A BAD GUY NAMED MALENCONTRE cracks and shards, this is ridiculous

I am not sure that a code consisting of Latin words and Greek grammar would be that hard to crack. The grammars are much the same; it’s a question of form. Does he mean that when you conjugate verbs, you’d use Greek endings? Like amomai or something? Because that is just terrible.

I am actually not sure on this point: it sounds like something that might be historical, but thinking about it from the point of view of knowing both Latin and Greek, I really don't think it would work. At best, you'd disguise the tense, and that doesn't sound all that effective. (enemies trying to figure it out: oh no, I don't know whether this is subjunctive or some horrible attempt at Latin optative! Surely this will COMPLETELY HINDER my attempts to foil your plan.) this would work even less well with nouns: OH NO the accusative ends in -an instead of -am? THIS IS A DISASTER.

I am also not sure that an ivory sword would work, even though it’s magic ivory. Seriously. Magic ivory from a dragon's tooth.

“Sometimes, throwing yourself into the lion’s jaws was the only means of finding its den.” I don’t know if that sentence would work better for me if I had been swept along by the prose up to now; I doubt it. No matter what the style, the sentence would stand out like a single perfect gem of melodrama.

And then the end got kind of awesome in a totally ridiculous way. Rescue from a burning castle on wyvern-back! Unexpected people are reporting to the bad guys!

Thus: if you don't mind some truly atrocious prose, the cover promises The Three Musketeers - with Dragons! and it delivers. Pretty much everyone is ridiculously overpowered and can shoot straight with 17th century weapons, though.
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Blood for a Borgia is quite awful. This awfulness resides mainly in the prose, since the plot, although it starts a little more than halfway through the book, is quite good, and there are no egregious mistakes in characterization. (Although Giovanni Sforza goes from limp-wristed to killing Giovanni Borgia pretty quickly.) So yeah, quotes:

“The heavy dews of passion drowned all else in her as she thrilled to him.” From, what else, a sex scene. A sex scene that starts the book and in which Giovanni Borgia tells his lover all about contemporary politics.

“That’s the trouble with Italy. There’s no national army.” Man, that is possibly the most anachronistic sentence I have ever read. It’s like “And then Caesar disposed of the assassins with his laser gun.”

“He was fabulously wealthy, ambitious, well-connected, powerful…and now he was dead.” Because really. That sentence happened.

“You daren’t trust yourself. You live the life of a zombi.” Did they even know about zombies in renaissance Italy? Or does zombi mean something else that Google and I know nothing of?

“There’s enough circumstantial evidence against him.” Evidently renaissance Italian justice systems worked exactly the same as 20th century American ones.

"Amazed, he confronted her, surprise in every feature of his face."

Also, pet peeve alert! Italian thrown in to "make it more authentic" or something. As in "Diavolo! I must now say some stilted exposition!"

And Iago Lanuto is referred to as Giovanni Borgia's "evil genius" more times than you can shake a lamb's tail at. Further "ugh": Iago Lanuto is not a historical character. Real subtle there, Mr. Gaunt.

I also disapprove of Lucrezia showing up very briefly and being characterized as a silly child. Of course. Because I like Lucrezia as a schemer, because it's cool.
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So this is a total love post. There are not all that many things that can make me turn off the analytic part of my mind. Steven Brust is one of them.

I first read The Phoenix Guards a while ago. Not ten years, for sure, but close. Since then I've read it multiple times; let's call it five. It was the first of his books I read, which, if you, the putative and likely non-extant reader know anything about his world, is a bad plan. If you don't, his world is populated mainly by "elves," who live thousands of years and look down on "humans." I was very confused when his main character was said to be "barely a hundred," to say the least. But even unaware of his world, the book drew me in and made me seek out the rest.

So. Things he does well: Female characters, oh my god. And not just main characters - yeah, Tazendra's awesome, but if you've got one female character in a world that supposedly has gender equality, it doesn't mean much. But there's multiple supporting characters, a mixture of evil and non-evil. Tazendra herself sleeps around and doesn't get shamed for it, has an attitude of unmitigated braggadocio, and just generally kicks ass. Jenicor e'Terics is concerned with her appearance - and a fine blade, which rarely happens. Seodra and Lytra are terrible scheming people in a way that has nothing to do with their gender.

He builds a history for his world without doing infodumps. My favorite historical character is the Empress Undauntra I, who is snarky and smart. Further, there are references to works of art and legendary figures; his world feels real, like there are people and a history in it who aren't directly connected to our main characters.

He has a bad king who is a good person. Well, for the most part. Poor Tortaalik is really just trying to do his best, at least in Phoenix Guards. He's sort of more of a disaster in Five Hundred Years After. But he really is trying to be a good king, but doesn't know how - which is unusual in a genre dominated by wonderful or awful rulers.

Also I love his style. It's been said that people talk too much, but I really like it when people talk, so I'm hardly an impartial judge.

(Also I read Iorich over the weekend as well and it was AWESOME. While I'm sure Vlad wandering around the east finding out about his history is wonderful, we need to get back to the heart of the series - Aliera being cooler than you.

OH GOD what does it say about me that my favorites are Orca, the banking drama, and Iorich, the courtroom drama?)

(Also also I have determined that I probably belong in either the House of the Tiassa or the Lyorn. Although I am a bit of a Dzur when I play rugby.)
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I'd been eying "German Literary Fairy Tales" for a while. It's always interesting to see attempts to write fairy tales, because they hardly ever work. A while ago, I read Goethe's attempt, simply called "The Fairy Tale,"* which is beautiful and strange, but fails as a fairy tale because it's too complicated. It's part of the nature of fairy tales that there are strange things, but that not everything is strange, and very little is symbolic. In Goethe's fairy tale nearly everything is fantastic: the ferryman can't accept gold as a fee, but only living things; the old woman can't carry living things, as they appear heavy to her, but stones are light.

The earlier tales are similar to Goethe's. Novalis' Klinsohr's Tale is evidently a response to the Goethe, but is not nearly as well translated, so it seems weaker. A common theme is the need to reject the worlds show in the stories. In "The New Melusine," the hero marries an elf princess** and puts on her magic ring, which makes him minuscule like her, but grows tired of his life as an elf prince, saws off the magic ring with a file, and goes back to his life as a poor layabout. In several of the stories the hero is presented with a choice between a supernatural woman and a good peasant girl. The supernatural woman is invariably the wrong choice.

Two stories stand out: Theodor Storm's "Hinzelmeier: A Thoughtful Story" and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's "Tale of the 672nd Night." In the first, a young man grows up with apparently ageless parents. He discovers the secret of their eternal youth: his mother is a Rose Maiden, and his father has fallen in love with her and found her, which grants him her immortality. There are certain men who are destined to be Rose Lords, and fall in love with the Rose Maidens, if they can find them. If he doesn't, both he and the Rose Maiden are doomed. Hinzelmeier, distracted by the World and the promise of the Philosopher's Stone meets his Rose twice but cannot keep her. Not only is the premise original, the prose, even in translation, is lovely, and the conclusion sorrowful: Hinzelmeier has failed and has lost his grace forever.

The second story is remarkable not for its plot, since nothing much happens, but for Hofmannsthal's creation of atmosphere. The theme of isolation, too, is apparent, as it often is in his work. The main character of the story, a merchant's son, sees a beautiful servant girl, but her beauty "fills him with longing but not desire" - he is not truly part of the world. At the end he is killed by accident by a horse, and as he is dying he hates everything: there is no revelation.***

This, like many of the stories, is not really a fairy tale. The term is used because the authors certainly wouldn't have thought of themselves as writing speculative fiction, even had the term existed.

*While trying to find the text online, which it no longer seems to be, I have found this, which involves Roscrusians. No but really.
**If "The New Melusine" were a current fantasy story, it would be universally panned. So the elves were among the first creations of God, but they tried to take over the world, so God created dragons to fight them. But dragons were accursed, so He created giants to fight the dragons. The giants tried to take over the world too, so He created good knights to fight them and live in harmony with the elves.
***Both stories I enjoyed are beautiful failures.
polutrope: (work habits)
I've realized that the characters in the myriad stories that start in my head and never actually go anywhere are nearly always very, very good at what they do. Like the Queen's Champion, who is the best swordswoman in the land and knows it, and is very uncomfortable with being idolized, because she's also acutely aware that she's not a good person. Or the mercenary who's competent and good at her job, but runs up against magic she knows she can't beat.*

This transfers to the kind of characters I like to read, too. Let's talk about Phoenix Guards, because I really want to re-read it. It's fairly clear that Khaavren is awesome from the beginning, just inexperienced. He gets more and more awesome as the book progresses, but not past the bounds of reason (and to be honest, I don't really mind "past the bounds of reason", as long as the world and plot can justify it. I mean, that part in Anvil of the World when Smith has the knowledge and power to destroy the world? AWESOME. Rhapsody having the crown of every country under the sun and beauty that literally causes accidents? Less awesome.)

In other words, he's not like, say, Harry Potter, whom I never liked. I am over (and really, started out over) the hero who's not particularly good at anything. The argument I've heard for this type of hero is that people identify with them more easily. But I've never exactly wanted to identify with my heroes: I want them to be sympathetic, for sure, but not close to me, particularly.**

And, and this certainly points to a large character flaw, I'm pretty good at what I do. But I've been good at things by having large amounts of natural talent, and I tend not to go past where my talent takes me. Skating, for example. I was second nationally, on three practices a week, when my peers were doing six. Looking back, if I had been willing to put in any work off the ice, I'd probably have been in Vancouver a couple of years ago. But I wasn't, and I'm still not particularly willing to put hard work in to anything: I barely know how.*** There are certainly things I am bad at. Art, for example, or really anything to do with my hands and creating things. More relevantly to my life, math. Like, "can't-do-basic-algebra" abysmal. And I've tried to pay attention in class and stuff, but it just doesn't work, which can't be right. And I don't know how to fix it, and I have to because I need to pass a math class to graduate.

All personal flaws aside, I like my heroes talented - and preferably older, for some reason. Even as a young adult, whenever I read YA I sort of balked at the idea of trusting the Fate of the World to some teenager. I think it's telling that in about 8th grade I wrote this terrible story about an old warrior who hears the call (magically, of course) to go back for her**** last battle against the Forces of Evil*****.

Other things I am over: the heroine (usually) who has grown up in a court setting and complains about but is also vaguely proud of not fitting in. I would totally read a book about the sister these heroines tend to have, who is supposedly only interested in boys and clothes, but who is probably actually learning how to manipulate the court setting she lives in.

Arranged marriages as an excuse for inappropriate fieryness. Most of the stories in my head that will never be written are attempts to make tired tropes work for me. This one works best if she disagrees with the political motives behind the marriage. Once I think the marriage was being used to cement a deal to betray the king, which Our Heroine, being a good monarchist, of course, is against.

Speaking of kings, the idea of the Lost King, because unless you're being deliberately medieval, it's creepy and weird. Like, the stewards or whoever have been doing the best they can, but because they're not royal, it doesn't matter. Or they've been being evil, for no particular reason.

Evil people in general. Because usually they've got no reason to be evil - they've just decided "today I shall destroy the land, for funsies." Or "Today I shall attempt to take power for no real reason and then run the country into the ground. For funsies." And it makes no sense at all.

So this sort of evolved into My Issues With Fantasy, but whatever, I think it's valid and fun.******

*My characters are also 99% female. Because my head is full of kick-ass women.
**I mean, I fantasize about my life being a TV show sometimes, but really it would be super dull.
***yeah, am currently procrastinating on my junior independent work, due in a week and unstarted , because it's not coming easily.
****99% female. I meant it.
*****I have also gotten over Forces of Evil. And major battles.
******It's also a "sharing still-born ideas" post. So I had Good and Evil, right? Only it was time for the world to be destroyed, according to Good's timeline, but Evil was having none of this, because Evil needed a body to be bound to, while Good could sort of nebulously exist. So they hire a hard-bitten mercenary to do, well, I'm not entirely sure what, to stop the forces of Good from destroying the world.
polutrope: (in ur troy!)
Because I'm a sucker for anything set before 1500 and written before 1990, I read Miranda Seymour's The Goddess, which is about Helen of Troy. It was kind of a letdown: I was picturing awesomely bad, and it gave me mediocre. Also I have realized that I probably shouldn't read anything with Homeric characters because I will probably nitpick it TO DEATH.

The main problem was that her characterization was all over the place. It was really hard to tell if Seymour knew that her main characters were kind of unpleasant people or not, which is always annoying. Like, Paris sleeps with everyone (and so does Helen) and by everyone I mean everyone. For Paris it's Penthesilea, for Helen Odysseus. And neither of those makes much sense, especially Odysseus. I MEAN. This is not the place to go into My Ideal Odysseus (ok, it's basically Homer's minus the infidelity), but I think it's a big deal that he turned down Helen.* And I'm pretty sure that the deal with Penthesilea is that, well, she doesn't really have a point, but whatever. Not sleeping with Paris.

So anyway, she sort of reinvents Paris as this great warrior, in the face of all Homeric characterization. Remember that time* when Paris destroyed Menelaus in a duel and Menelaus had to be saved by Aphrodite? I don't either, because exactly the opposite happened. Also evidently Paris is the first to think of using archery from horseback, which I am pretty sure would be difficult with no stirrups. Also remember when Helen gets sick of Paris and doesn't want to sleep with him? Yeah, that doesn't happen.

Which brings us to oddities in the storyline. It starts out with Helen's childhood, and a poor man's Renault/Graves female vs male cult. Seymour can't seem to decided between Helen being basically nice but inhumanly beautiful or actually a bad person. She may or may not have gotten Castor and Pollux killed by encouraging them to go out on a raid (but really Menelaus killed them. or something). Skipping the oath Odysseus makes everyone take to go to war if Helen is ever kidnapped, which you might think would be kind of important, Helen marries Menelaus but he humiliates her and is really upset when she turns out to be barren and then he sleeps with a slave girl and Helen is miserable.

And then Paris comes and, you know, is kind of a douche (actually we get a taste of his douchitude when he's growing up and then when he actually goes to Troy. And I really can't tell if she knows he's a douche or not.) and Takes Her Away From All This. So they go to Troy and chill there for a while. The start of the war isn't actually in Homer so I don't really care, but then she decides to condense the ten years of the war into about two, which bothered me in the movie and bothers me now. And she skips Diomedes and Odysseus' night raid, which is quite important to the fall of Troy. And Helen doesn't fall out of love with Paris.

I know I'm harping on that a bit, but it's a fairly important part of her Homeric character that she feels bad about going (Many men have been slain for the sake of bitch-face me) and that she doesn't love Paris anymore.

Also I really hate her Hector and Andromache. Actually I just hate her characters in general. To really follow Homeric characterization, you'd have to have everyone be basically good: Hector is especially good, Agamemnon sometimes less than good. But Homer doesn't do villains (except Thersites) or just nasty people, which Seymour does a lot of.*

In any case, Helen helps Odysseus come up with the Trojan Horse idea, when she meets him disguised as a beggar (and then sleeps with him). This episode, if not the conceiving of the Horse, is purely Homeric and show a thing that happens very often: Seymour mixing good Homeric events and weird things that didn't happen. So then Helen goes home with Menelaus, his slave girl kills him, Helen gets exiled and then hanged as an offering to the Goddess by her old childhood friend. Really.

The end is basically a whirlwind tour through all the myths about Helen's return: Odysseus and Menelaus make up the Helen in Egypt story to save face, the Helen Dendritis thing is her being sacrificed by the friend.

So I didn't hate it, but it wasn't very good at all, and not even entertainingly bad. But it did make me think about characterization in Homeric novels. You, the generic Bronze Age listener, wouldn't raise your hand, in the circle around the fire, listening to the bard, and say "Excuse me, honored bard, but last week we had a guy here who insisted that Odysseus was faithful to Penelope. And clearly he is righter than you." So why do we hold modern writers, who are essentially carrying on the bardic tradition in written form, to higher standards? Except that Paris' unmanliness probably would have been constant.*

Indulging a bit here, I've always been Team Menelaus at least a little bit, and I don't know why. But really, is there anything wrong with her liking him? Menelaus is not a bad guy in Homer, really. He's a typical warrior, but he doesn't do anything actively douchey, unlike pretty much anything else.

IN SUM: I don't know if I'd recommend it. Maybe if you had free time and wanted to take my copy off my hands.*

*Actually quite a bit of what I'm complaining about isn't Homeric and I'm not sure of the sources for it (it was in d'Aulaire's!) Like, did you know that the thing about Thetis dipping Achilles in the Styx was a 1st century AD thing? I did not.
*Iliad 3, 1-37
*Especially women, which is a whole other story. Look, I understand your point that all the women hate Helen for her beauty, but it's still kind of awful that none of your women have characters outside Helen or their husbands.
*Seymour has him fighting with a bow, and being praised for it. People. The Greeks thought that bow-fighting was unmanly for, like, ever.
*This is me steadfastly not mentioning that kind of embarrassing and pointless scene in which Chinese people and Nubians show up to be Trojan allies. Yeah, I dunno either.
polutrope: (sleep is for pussies)
I'm currently reading selections from the de Goncourt journals, which are, well, often casually misogynistic, but also a fascinating look into the literary world of 1850s Paris. The de Goncourt brothers are fairly clearly mediocre talents who hang out with better writers, like Flaubert, and the journals are full of clear attempts to be aphoristic, which often miss the mark. But then sometimes they come out with something like this:

I feel convinced that every political argument boils down to this: I am better than you are, every literary argument to this: "I have more taste than you," every argument about art to this: "I have better eyes than you," every argument about music to this: I have a finer ear than you."

all of which is very true and very depressing. It's a chestnut that it's easier to critique than to praise, but one that's always held very true for me. It's very easy to be dismissive of things that you don't like, and wonder how anyone could ever like them. Personally, I love tearing things down, especially when they're hilariously bad (see also: my post on the guy who was really into the Real Historical Merlin and really this whole tag) but I do try to stay with things that are objectively bad. And yes, I do believe in the concept of "objectively bad." The Merlin book, for example, has shoddy research and is clearly written from a parti pris.

"Objectively bad" is harder in fiction, obviously, and the distinction needs to be made between "I don't like it, but it's good," "I don't like it because it's bad," "I like it but it is bad (guilty pleasures)" and "I like it because it is good." The first category is the hardest to fit things into, I think, because it's easier to find faults in a work than in yourself. I think for me at least Kazantzakis' The Odyssey: a Modern Sequel falls into this category. It's beautifully written, or at least translated, and it's a pretty good imitation of Homer, but I couldn't finish it because I detested his characterization of Odysseus. I also have trouble with "I like it but it is bad" - I suppose Sword of Attila works, but I am willing to lower my standards for things that aren't supposed to be Great Works of Fiction. The prose is readable, the characters are decent (no heroes you want to shake out of frustration, no cardboard cutout villains), so I don't think you can legitimately call it "bad," just "not literature" - but it had no pretensions to being literature, so you can't fault it for that.

In fact, I think most of my guilty pleasures are just things that are low culture and not trying to be high: operetta, trashy fantasy novels, trashy historical fiction. Of course, it's possible to be bad even admitting lower standards: The Blending series, despite some gorgeous cover art is truly awful. The first sentence is "Lorand stood in the farmyard just at dawn, watching the sun rise like the great ball of Fire magic it was," and it just gets worse from there. The characters are awful, the world makes no sense, and the prose is terrible. It also shades into "so awful I like it," but that's another story.

On another note, it really makes me wonder when people praise the worldbuilding in "Europe with fantasy names!" books. Not when it's like, Generic Medieval Setting, which is annoying but can be tweaked to make it interesting (and to be quite honest, I don't really mind medieval fantasy, as long as you make an effort), but when it's actually, literally Europe but with different names. Like the Kushiel series, or Guy Gavriel Kay's Sailing to Sarantium. I liked Sailing to Sarantium, I really did (although not enough to read the second one, but that's partly because I was broke), but you can only really praise the worldbuilding if you don't know the first thing about Byzantine history. Like, the fact that there was a Byzantium. And I know people are, you know, less into Byzantine history than me, and don't know about the who Amalsuntha thing, but really, Kay takes most of his plot points whole from history. I'm not saying I hate the idea, although it does make me wonder why you can't just write a historical novel with magic, but it's not good worldbuilding.

So to be completely elitist, because I believe that is the whole point of this post, I do have more taste than you. Or well, not "you" you, but the general person.
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I'm going to justify this by saying that I need something to read while I'm on the bike, but really that's a lie. Anyway, I read "The Sword of Attila," whose tagline is "He feared no man, no god, and no nation - and now Rome itself would know his wrath." And it's pretty much as melodramatic as that makes it seem. Nonetheless, by the end I was really non-ironically into it.

There were problems, yes: I wish he had better female characters. Honoria is a hilariously terrible person in history - she proposes to Attila because her brother imprisoned her!* And so you could and probably should do a lot more with her than having her be defined by sleeping with/wanting to sleep with people. Aetius' wife, while not important to the story historically, could be fleshed out in a novel, and, well, I forget her name. I think it's Priscilla. Also there's a developmentally delayed man who can barely manage one word at a time, and of course he sacrifices himself heroically for our hero.

But Our Hero is pretty damn heroic (it really should have been called "The Story of Aetius' Awesome or something. I am not good at names, but the point is it's less about Attila and more about Aetius.). And likable, or maybe that's just because he's my type, to a tee. I mean, he's 1. fiercely loyal to a doomed cause 2. he's a great man who is surrounded and subordinate to lesser men 3. he's lean and dark-haired. And he goes and learns Hunnic fighting! and one of the Huns has a life-debt to him! In short, Aetius is awesome and makes the book. Attila, tbh, is kind of boring, although there is a pretty awesome scene at the end in which he begs Aetius to kill him after being defeated at Châlons.

Even the prose wasn't too bad. Not great, and with a certain tendency to purple when it was aiming for lyrical, but not awful, the way too many historical novels are.

So as a whole, I'd recommend it, if you're looking for a quick read and like awesome Roman generals.
*NB: Facts may well be drawn from the Huns Age of Empires II campaign.**
**fun story about that campaign: there's one scenario where you get gold for destroying minor settlements. I always ran out and ended up having to attack Byzantium.*** So Byzantium totally got destroyed by the Huns in my alternate history.
***Attacking Byzantium is a pain. I can see why it didn't fall till 1453.
polutrope: (sleep is for pussies)
School started a while ago, I guess. And I guess it's been going fairly decently, though I'm not as into it this year as I have been. For one thing, it cuts into my reading time, and when I do read I'm really sleepy. I don't know about the rest of you, but I have very short patience when I'm sleepy. Not always in a snappy way: in fact, I am like a happy bear when I'm sleepy. What I have little patience for is media of any sort. I can only watch TV when I'm not tired, which is annoying, because otherwise it would be a great way of killing time. I can barely listen to music; only my very favorite songs can penetrate the fog surrounding my brain. And books. If I can even look at them, I get snappy with them more easily than I did over the summer, say*.

So now I am tired and really only read at meals** or when I have some spark of intelligence left in my sad brain (not often). I was reading A Pillar of Iron for three weeks or so. And it was ok, I guess. I might have been either more or less annoyed with it if I had read it in one or two sittings. It was about how Cicero was a perfect martyr whose only crime was loving his country too much and swerved from dull to awesome every few pages.

Then I started The Volcano Lover and was pretty annoyed by the style, and again I couldn't tell if I'd like it better when I was more alert or if it would grate on me in any mood. I made it about 15 pages. Now I'm 100-something pages into City of Saints and Madmen and well, it's not bad or anything. There's some pretty decent world-building, and the man can actually write decent English, though I have some quibbles with his chosen narrative voice. But really, the first story is about a man who falls in love with a mannequin in a store window. And didn't Hoffmann do that already, minus the slightly forced humor? The second is a history of the city, which is interesting, but in my current state at least, the humor grates on my nerves.

So I'm never entirely sure what's me and what's the sleep deprivation when I don't like something, for now.
*and even over the summer, I was harsher than I usually am. I had a lot of books to read; even if you read fast, it's not worth reading something you don't like at all.

**because I have no friends who aren't paper and ink, duh
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I recently read Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, mainly because George Steiner really liked it. And I really didn't. Or rather, I didn't really. I don't know why; the prose was actually quite lovely, which is very important, and there was a plot. It bothers me quite a bit that I don't know why I dislike it. I usually know - in fact, I usually dissect it here. While it is "allowed" to dislike something simply because you don't like it, it rarely happens to me. For example: things I dislike: Puccini, because his music tends to be pretty but not particularly memorable, or even different; Stephen Saylor, because his characters are unbelievable for their time; Vergil, because I find him to be lacking in poetic spirit*.

So since I finished the Durrell, I've been trying to put my finger on what exactly made it hard to get into. Perhaps the distance - the narration is a certain type of lyrical that reads as detached; but there's also a lack of distance on the narrator's part, perhaps related to the small scope (the novels are about a set of about six ex-pats, of various patriae, in Alexandria). Maybe the novels are better read with more time between them; I had an omnibus edition. Serial books tend to be better spaced out. Or maybe I just don't really care about the lovelives, no matter how dramatic, of other people, especially rather self-involved people. This self-involvement contributes to the lack of distance, I think; the narrator takes himself very seriously, and while there are some portions of the text that conflict with this self-presentation, Durrell is very much of the narrator's party.

Even after all that, I still don't know what exactly bothers me - and that bothers me greatly.

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Day X- The first novel you remember reading

No, really, I have absolutely no idea. I suppose it depends on what you count as a novel, for one thing, and even if you have a fairly loose definition of "novel" that includes "kid's book," I still have no idea. I suppose The Hobbit is pretty close to the first; I think I read Great Expectations fairly early on, but I don't really remember when. Perhaps E. B. Nesbit, Five Children and It, which is great and which I shall read to any hypothetical children of mine.
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Day IX- A Book you’ve read more than once

I re-read books. Not so much lately, because I've had very little time for re-reading, what with all the universe of books that awaits me, provided by the lovely university library, the dollar section of Strand, and various sellers on Amazon. But when I was younger, broke, and too lazy to go the library, I totally did. So it was not so much a mark of respect for the book as an indication of my boredom that I read things multiple times. I think I've read Sabriel eleven times.

But I suppose I've read Invisible Cities enough times to have practically memorized it because I love it; because it's beautiful, elusive, etc.

As a side note, I'm listening to the Lerner and Lowe Camelot, and god knows it's sappy as all hell, and the lyrics are not actually all that good, but damn if "Before I gaze at you again" and "I loved you once in silence," not to mention the finale, make me weep like a child.
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Day VIII- An unpopular book you believe should be a Best-Seller

This is problematic. I suppose it refers to something you think everyone should read; but I fully admit that my criteria for books are different than most people's. (does it have decent prose? is it set/written before 1900? is this a totally ridiculous historical novel? is it The Last Days of Pompeii?) I like lots of action as much as the next person, but the books I like are often dismissed as "slow;" Name of the Rose is a perfect example.

But anyway, I can answer this question! Conan Doyle's already popular, though more people have heard of Sherlock Holmes than have read the stories. The Brigadier Gérard stories, however, are not, and really should be. They're hilarious - in one, the Brigadier has been entrusted by Napoléon with Papers of Great Importance, which he must carry through enemy territory. When, with great difficulty, he does so, he finds that they were false plans, and the real plan was for him to get captured and mislead the English - and some of them have a certain pathos, and many of them have ridiculously complex plots, and some have adorably Gothic elements. All is carried by the figure of the Brigadier, who is overly full of himself without being a figure of ridicule, and dashing enough to justify at least half of his bravado.
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Day VII: A book that’s hard to read

What's this? a chance to complain about Thucydides?

Thucydides is very important. The Peloponnesian war is very interesting. The History of the Peloponnesian War is dull as ditch-water. No, that's unfair. 70% is uninteresting, because it consists of battle order and other things I couldn't follow in English. In Greek, people opened their mouths and it got harder. Unfortunately, those were the interesting bits. So it was a trade-off between interesting but grammatically overly complex and boring but readable.

In fact, it made such an impression on me (scarred me?) that here I am three months later, with memories of pain fresh in my head, even after I am done, and will hopefully never have to read him again. So yeah. Literally hard to read, and a book I can safely say that I am glad to be done with.
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Day VI- A Book that makes you cry

Oh dear. A better question would be "a book that doesn't make me cry. It is pretty easy to play on my emotions. I cried at the end of Rienzi, for God's sake! That can actually be justified, though, for the most part. Rienzi is my type of character: noble, surrounded by people who don't understand him, chivalrous and proud to a fault, and of course trying very hard to establish a decent kingdom for his people. And of course he can't, and of course he falls, and of course he dies alone and in shame. That was in fact pretty much calculated to tear at my heartstrings.

But what really makes me bawl every time is La Morte d'Arthur. Seriously, I'm looking at the end now, and tearing up. This passage "Ah Launcelot, he said, thou were head of all Christian knights, and now I dare say, said Sir Ector, thou Sir Launcelot, there thou liest, that thou were never matched of earthly knight's hand. And thou were the courteoust knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrad horse. And thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman. And thou were the kindest man that ever struck with sword. And thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights. And thou was the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies. And thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest" sums up the whole work, "And thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman" especially. Lancelot's downfall is in the contradictions that Lionel lays out here. I think part of why Lancelot and Guinevere's story is so tragic is that it's not the young, pure love of many stories. In parts it borders on the sordid; and certainly Lancelot commits great crimes for Guinevere - the deaths of Gareth and Gaharis, in particular - yet nonetheless it's true love, in a way that, say, Aucassin and Nicolette isn't.

The greatest tragedy, and the one that makes me weep even over Camelot the musical, is that everything falls apart, and more that the seeds of the tragedy are there even at the height of the glory of Camelot. No one's allowed to be happy, except maybe for a little while. And the result is nothing - the best knights gone in the Grail Quest, and Mordred left at court to be mean and petty - and after Mordred's treachery, nothing. The last knights gather at Lancelot's grave and then disperse, and nothing is heard of them.

So I'm actually kind of a wreck now, because I looked up the end, and the death of Gareth and Gaheris, and Gawaine's last letter to Lancelot. And it's all so sad!
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so I was "camping" yesterday. In a cabin with a/c and electric lights. The less said about that, the better. And my mac is out of commission, having had limeade and cheerios spilled on it. Yes, I was eating the cheerios with the limeade. We had no milk. So I'm on my Dell, which will give me eyestrain, since half of the screen is very dim. Anyway,

Day IV- A Book that reminds you of home.

I have certainly done a lot of reading at home, and there are certainly books that I associate with certain places or times. Unfortunately, these two statements don't coincide. Home is my default, and after a while you don't really notice the default. However, Lord of the Rings makes me feel that I've come home. The first time I read it, or rather had it read to me, was when I was four and five*. Since then I've read the whole trilogy at least ten times. The places and history are as familiar to me as the history of, say, Byzantium or Rome. Every time I read it, I feel happy (and then I cry buckets at the end, whatever). In fact, I'd be reading it now, if re-reads weren't lowest priority in the long tale of the forty-six books I have acquired and not yet read*.

And Day V- A Non-fiction book that you actually enjoyed.

Well, I take exception to the "actually!" I've been reading quite a bit of non-fiction lately*. In any case, The Castrati in Opera was pretty entertaining, although totally trashy. Much of it was essentially an 18th century gossip rag, though there's nothing wrong with that. Along with Opera and Sovereignty, it decided where I'd go first with my time machine - man-on-the-street interviews about Zeus with Athenians can wait, I'm going to the opera! Half for the baroque no one's recorded (yet, I hope!*) and half for the singer-drama. Farinelli refused to sing an aria because it was written for Caffarelli, and singing it would make it look as though Caffarelli were the better singer! One castrato said he wasn't going to sing, for the audience effect when he did show up! Two singers got into a physical fight onstage! However, while the music would probably be great (well, some of it at least. I admit, some baroque can be dull), I have a feeling that today's singers would be better - probably better trained, probably bigger voices. Nonetheless, going to an 18th century opera house would be an Experience that I would totally love, and maybe I'd get to see/hear Adriano in Siria without paying seventy dollars*.

Anyway, Opera and Sovereignty was much deeper, and while I was hoping it would put more focus on libretti, it was still very interesting. While seria libretti clearly uphold the picture of the world as governed by a just king (Clemenza di Tito is quite explicit), the very fact of opera's existence also supported the world order - in fact, the nobles were quite unhappy when the burghers opened their own opera house. Also, anything you may have heard about silence in the opera house being a Wagnerian thing is not exactly true: the Duke of Naples also had a list of rules and regulations for opera-goers in his house. Like you couldn't wear your sword.

*Dad read it to me as bedtime stories, and of course had to stop every so often. After beginning one night after a cliff-hanger, he asked me if I was worried, and I replied that no, I had read ahead.
*If I keep going at a book a day, I'll have seven left when school starts. Alas, at least two of them are over 1000 pages.
*The History of Byzantium I'm reading right now so does not count, as it reads like the back-story to a trashy fantasy novel.
*Someone has recorded Pergolesi's Olimpiade, but it's not available on Amazon. GOD I AM SO BITTER.
*Man, I would kill for that Adriano in Siria on Amazon. Bitter Pergolesi fan right here.
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Day III: A Book that completely surprised you (bad/good)

The ABC of Reading. I had started it quite a long time ago, and, having read only what was anthologized in the shorter Norton, I was predisposed to dislike it, as Pound was pretty much everything I hated in the twentieth century. And I got about halfway through and did, in fact, hate what I read. Although I did recognize some of his points, they were mainly lost in the swirling atmosphere of smugness. Like, you should read Provencal, Italian, French, and I believe Latin and Greek in order to consider yourself well-read in English. And really, that is a fair point: many of the forms of English poetry were imported from the Continent, especially in the Renaissance; many early sonnets are free translations (did you know that Whoso list to hunt is a free translation/imitation of Dante and also about Anne Boleyn?); and so on and so forth. But there is the assumption that, essentially, anyone can teach themselves Provencal. And hey, I probably could. I guess. If I had but inclination enough and time*. But the majority of people can't - if there's one thing we need it's for the idea of "being well-read" to be more exclusionary.

Anyway, despite having spent a decently long paragraph complaining about one of its main theses, I did enjoy it - mainly, however, for Pound's acerbic comments. (did you know Pound had a sense of humor? he parodied Housman pretty entertainingly.) Of course, even while being entertained, I was slightly put off. The following quote about Whitman is quite amusing: From an examination of Whitman made 12 years ago, the writer carried away the impression that there are 30 well-written pages; he is now unable to find them. And really, I agree, for the most part. I could never get behind Whitman. But the dismissiveness is unfortunate, and assumes that the reader accepts Pound as the ultimate authority. And I don't know that I trust anyone who likes Walter Savage Landor to be that authority. Pound claims that Landor doesn't waste words, or something of the sort, and likes him. I don't get it, as much as Pound must not get people who like Whitman. Landor wrote Past ruined Ilion, which is pretty much that operetta aria that is totally sappy and terrible and you love it anyway. But the "sappy and terrible" must be recognized. He did sappy a lot: Exhibit A and Exhibit B. He's basically the Salieri of poetry: pleasant enough, but you'd never mistake him for a master.

So when you have large lapses in your judgment like that, it's hard to take your word for things. And looking back, it's hard to say why I enjoyed it so much - but anyway, I did. Maybe it was the analysis of Renaissance English translations of Vergil - that was pretty interesting. And, I suppose, the put-downs, as much as they kept me from truly being behind his project. In any case, it surprised me, because it did not catch into flame from the sheer power of my burning hate.

*Actually, I totally would, and then speak only in Provencal, because it is a lovely language.
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Day II: Least Favorite Book

I don't really have one. That is, there are books which I have disliked, and disliked intensely, for various reasons. I can't stand Toni Morrison, for example, in part because we read her out of white guilt in high school, as far as I can tell. Obviously what she's trying to do is important, but she doesn't have characters so much as points, and she doesn't suit her narrative style to her narrator, and there's at least one scene per book that's there mainly to shock. I realized, in 10th grade, that I couldn't write an essay about Song of Solomon because none of my points would stand, because she wasn't consistent enough. So I suppose you could say that that's my least favorite book. Certainly it has very few redeeming qualities that I can see. But "least favorite" to me implies that you think about it more often than when people ask you what your least favorite book is - I can't think of any books that I think about and think "God, that was awful," unless prompted. And in fact, some of the books that I think about and think "God, that was awful" are highly entertaining, because they were awful. (Shout-out to Karleen Koen's Through A Glass Darkly goes here.)

I have in fact been very lucky, or perhaps very good at choosing things I would like: out of the 30something books I've read this summer, I've disliked maybe five actively* and thought, "oh, this isn't really very good" about a couple more*. But I've absolutely loved a couple, been educated by some, and entertained by most.

So that was more positive than a least favorite book post probably should be, but really, livejournal, what is it about your fatal charm that makes it so...fatal?
*Ugh, Ibid: A Life in Footnotes. Cute idea, terrible, terrible execution.
*The Warrior Prophet: Very rapey, includes the line "his/her skin pimpled"(from fear, cold, etc) about a million times, includes the line "his eyes blazed glory" (at all) but I think twice. In fact, probably due a post.
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So I think I'm doing the 30 day book challenge*, only here instead of tumblr, because my tumblr is for pretty pictures, not words! And the first challenge is "your favorite book."

Now, like, I hope, anyone who reads a lot, I have a lot of trouble with this. There are books that I love, and books that I have loved, and books I've read to pieces. But I have trouble putting my finger on an absolute favorite. Setting aside what could be said about the display of choosing a favorite book - do I want to seem like a nerd (Lord of the Rings!) or slightly pretentious (Invisible Cities) or slightly unimaginative (Sherlock Holmes)- it's nearly impossible for me to actually decide. The three aforementioned books are the ones that spring to mind when asked for "my favorite book;" all three are from the recesses of my childhood. I read the last of them ten years ago. Of course, there's also The Once and Future King clamoring at my elbow, and The Bull from the Sea, and Eco's Baudolino. More recently, I loved Helen in Egypt: H. D. achieves the quality of a dream and evokes mystery, in the way that a priestess of Demeter at Elusis would call up the mystery of her site, all the while working with deep knowledge of the myths.

Such are the contenders for my heart and love, and I am hard-put to choose between them. Let us just say that my favorite book is one that keeps mystery at its heart, that takes place in a world not of today, and that has a certain beauty of language.

*May not actually happen


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