Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Robert Bly's Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations (Pitt Poetry Series)

In brief Bly states that "a poet who is leaping makes a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance." He argues that ancient poets leaped naturally; however, over the centuries formulas and rules killed the "leap." Now, however, certain poets are reviving the "leap."

Through the presentation of his thesis, Bly uses several rhetorical devices to define his concept. He compares and contrasts. For instance, he points out the difference of the Spanish poets and the French surrealists and finds the Spanish writers more satisfying. He provides examples of Leaping poets: he discusses Blake, Wallace Stevens, Neruda, Vallejo, and Rilke. He illustrates "leaping" through poems that he has translated and he explicates the jumps.

In summary, Robert Bly's "Leaping Poetry" is important for several reasons: (1) he creates an evocative and simple image (leaping) for a concept that poets of a certain ilk have been trying to explain for centuries; (2) he examines and meditates on the concept with plenty of examples from poets like Lorca, Neruda, Rilke, Vallejo; (3) he shows the similarities of leaping poetry to Lorca's concept of duende; (4) he finds a physiological source of leaping by discussing the work of Paul Maclean; and (5) he presents us with some fine translations of poets from around the world.

Testimony to the Invisible: Essays on Swedenborg, edited by James Lawrence

This volume from Chrysalis Books (1995) contains seven essays by diverse but well known thinkers, mystics and poets discussing the importance of an obscure--for most of us--Swedish thinker, Emanuel Swedenborg.

Swedenborg was born in Stockholm in 1688. As Borges states in his essay, "this peerless, solitary man was many men." He was a cabinet builder, a mathematician, a scientist, and inventor. However, and most important to us, he was a mystic. Wilson van Dusen in his essay defines a mystic as "one who experiences God." When Swedenborg was fifty-six an event occurred that Swedenborg called the "discrete degree." From that point on he dedicated himself to the life of the visionary. During the next thirty years--he was quite long-lived--he produced the incredible works that influenced, inter alia, William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Sr., Carlyle, Dostoevsky. Jorge Luis Borges, Czeslaw Milosz, and countless other poets and mystics.

Each one of the essays in this collection sheds a different light on Swedenborg and his influence. For instance,Kathleen Raine's "The Human Face of God" is particularly illuminating. In it she discusses William Blake's dedication to and study of Swedenborg but she also discusses the way Blake's ideas, influenced by Swedenborg, informed the works of Carl Jung and Henry Corbin. Another strong essay in the collection is Eugene Taylor's "Emerson: The Swedenborgian and Transcendentalist Connection." After reading Mr. Taylor's essay, I was reminded of how saturated 19th American literature is with the visionary ideas of Swedenborg and how close to the Mundus Imaginalis such writers as Hawthorne and Melville are.

If you are interested in the visionary experience, I highly recommend this collection of essays.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Historical Review: Abnett's "Traitor General"

In 1967, Alistair MacLean published "Where Eagles Dare." The book was made into a film with Richard Burton and a young Clint Eastwood in 1968. The plot involves an elite force of British and American Commandos who go behind enemy lines to rescue a United States general captured while enroute to Crete to meet with Russian counterparts. The story is replete with secrets and betrayals plus wholesale mayhem.

As a young man in 1968, I was enamored with the film and even today I will happily re-watch it. What does this have to do with "Traitor General," you may ask? Just this, the plot of the Maclean Book and Abnett's book have the same plot. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. The two works may have the same skeleton but Abnett makes the material definitely his own.

In "Traitor General" Gaunt and twelve of his "Ghosts" drop onto a planet controlled by the enemy. This planet, Gereon, an agri-planet within the Sabbat system is brilliantly and I would say beautifully rendered through Abnett's almost perfect prose. In addition, Abnett looks behind the curtain and begins to develop the Chaos world. In a recent interview, Abnett shows that he has been contemplating the workings of the forces of Chaos carefully. He has puzzled out the irrefutable conclusion that in order to function, it (the Chaos worlds)needs organizations, bureaucracies, and technologies. In this novel he illustrates the working of the world and the mind of the people trapped there and living there.

I cannot praise this novel enough for its execution and its depth. Abnett creates believable characters throughout. It doesn't matter if the character is a Ghost, a Chaos Space Marine, or a partisan; they are all roundly and soundly developed.

Finally, no one writes about the mechanical and technical aspects of modern war better than Abnett. I could smell the oil on the barrel of the las-guns while I was reading the novel.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Nathan Long's "Zombieslayer"

Growing up on the Louisiana/Texas border in the fifties, I use to watch men, women, and children picking cotton. The process involved their snatching the bolls and placing them in long bags that they dragged behind throughout the day. Every since I have imagined certain tasks (pleasant or otherwise)as metaphorical cotton picking. Usually, these thoughts emerge when the task becomes so tiresome, heavy, and unmanageable that its existence hampers my ability to move. When following long fantasy series, I sometimes see the continual accretion of volumes as being like the bag: the author over decades creates so many characters, so many themes, and so many plot threads, that the work becomes turgid and dense. More often than not I cease following the series, never to return. Sometimes, however, a series continues to be fresh year after year. Two series that continue to delight me are Gaunt's Ghosts and Gotrek and Felix. Both are from Black Library. Dan Abnett writes Gaunt's Ghosts and Nathan Long pens Gotrek and Felix.

The Gotrek and Felix series began with Trollslayer (Black Library 1999), a collection of short stories or episodes written by William King in the eighties and early nineties. The stories introduce the two main characters: the dwarf troll-slayer, Gotrek Gurnisson, and his human partner, Felix Jaeger. The novels fall within the genre category--sword and sorcery--and share many similarities with the Gray Mouser stories of Fritz Leiber. If you like the pulp fiction of Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, and Fritz Leiber you will enjoy these stories. More to the point, Nathan Long, perhaps, more than any of the other Black Library writers--most of whom seem to embrace the Gothic and horror aspects of the Warhammer universe--seems to channel the sword and sorcery style of the American pulp writers of the fifties and sixties. His prose, as well as his plotting, seem lighter and more pulp-ish than some of the other fine novels from Black Library. This is not to say than Long cannot describe the macabre and the dark, which seems to be de rigueur in the Warhammer universe; he can. He did an especially ghoulish job in his Black Heart series.

Long joined the series with Orcslayer and in Zombieslayer and Shamanslayer, he has hit his stride:the two books, although stand-alones, are seamless in their presentation.

At the end of Shamanslayer,the necromancer Heinrich Kemmler reveals himself and unleashes his zombie army against Gotrek, Felix and soldiers of the Empire. Zombieslayer begins with a retreat from the onslaught of the living dead to the Castle Reikguard, where a disparate band of troops defend the Castle against the invasion of the Kemmler's army.

Although Kemmler and his zombies launch attack after attack against the defenders, the novel's real strength lies in the interplay between the various factions,the leaders that control them, and an underlying mystery that does not involve the zombies. There is also an internal dispute between the dwarfs: Snorri Nosebiter can no longer remember his shame and therefore cannot meet his doom. Consequently, Gotrek has asked Felix to accompany Snorri to Kadrak Kadrin on his pilgrimage to the shrine of Grimnir. It looks like the fellowship might be broken.

Long is particularly good at creating stories within stories, complications upon complications. And in the Warhammer tradition, the novel rests upon the truth that corruption is everywhere. As the problems multiply, Gotrek's plan fails and it appears that he may meet his doom in the castle.

Without giving any more of the plot away, the strength of the novel lies in the conflict between the men and dwarfs. Additionally, on the basis of a siege novel--which almost seems a genre in itself--Long has done his homework. He has obviously studied how to take a castle and those scenes are realistic and vivid. I also like the character Kat. Kat first appeared as a child in Trollslayer, reappearing in Shamanslayer, as a quintessential hunter/warrior.

Finally, it is quite obvious that the novels are working toward a climax of sorts and Long does a good job making each novel independent but also fulfilling the series' mandate to move toward the conclusion, toward Gotrek's doom. All-in-all a good fast read.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Harry Turtledove's "Give Me Back My Legions"

Harry Turtledove is known primarily for his alternate history novels. In fact, he may be one of the most qualified writers in the world doing it: he holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. However, in Give Me Back My Legions(St. Martin's Griffin 2009), he eschews alternate history and plays it straight down the middle, writing a novel about Publius Quintilius Varus' defeat in Germany in 9 A.D. at the hands of the German chief Arminius. Arminius, known in Germany as Hermann, was a Roman citizen of the equestrian class, and an officer in Tiberius' auxiliary in the war against the Pannonians on the Balkan Peninsula. Because of his familiarity with the Roman Legions and the trust he engendered in Varus, Arminius was able to deceive Varus and trick him, destroying three legions in the Teutoburg Forest (some say Teutoburg Pass).

Turtledove's stylistic choices make Give Me Back My Legions an interesting example of historical fiction: he does not try to create a fictional milieu in which one feels he or she is inhabiting a historical period; instead, he ignores the anachronisms of style that are almost inevitable when writing historical fiction and embraces them. Examples of this type of approach can be found in the BBC production of I, Claudius, where legionaries speak in cockney accents, or in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, where the nobility dance to rock music. Ironically, through this blatant disregard of anachronism something new emerges that seems both fresh and exciting.

Although Teutoberg Forest has been listed as one of most significant battles in history and its conclusion resulted in a freezing of further expansion of the Roman Empire across the Rhine and Danube rivers, there is surprisingly little written material on it. Additionally, although Varus was quite visible in Roman history, primarily because of his role in what Josephus called the Varian Wars, the facts surrounding the battle are sketchy at best. It was not until the British soldier, Tony Clunn, an amateur historian, discovered the actual battleground in the 1980s that our understanding of what happened to the three Legions began to gel.

The source material includes the work of Velleius Paterculus, a retired military officer, in his Epitome of Rome, brief sketches in the work of Florus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, and three historical studies in English: Tony Clunn's The Quest for the Lost Roman Legions: Discovering the Varus Battlefield (Savas Beattie; New York 2005), Peter Wells'The Battle that Stopped Rome (W.W. Norton & Company: New York and London, 2003), and Adrian Murdoch's Rome's Greatest Defeat: Murder in the Teutoburg Forest (The History Press 2009). Of the three, I found Murdoch's the most informative because he traced Varus' life and placed the battle within a political context. However, his work would not have been possible without Clunn's.

Unlike Harry Sidebottom or Simon Scarrow, Turtledove does not create any new or fictional characters; he uses the real actors to analyze the facts. His artistry arrives in the answers he propounds: why did Arminius betray Varus; was Varus incompetent; how long did the battle last; why did Varus wait three years to attack; did Augustus use the battle to achieve political ends; what was the importance of wine. By asking these questions and many more like them in his narrative, based on the actual chronology, and actually providing plausible answers within that same narrative context, Turtledove delivers an entertaining novel.

Although it is quite entertaining, the novel lacks one of the four legs of historical fiction. Stephen Pressfield states in the preface to Wallace Breem's Eagle in the Snow that historical fiction involves a "four-part hat trick;" the fourth part is that it has to "mean" something. Telling a story or enumerating the facts is not enough to elevate the novel into the higher echelon of historical fiction. However, sometimes you just want a good, fast read on a subject that fascinates you; that is what Give me Back My Legions is to me.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Harry Sidebottom's "Fire in the East"

Fire in the East (Overlook 2008) is the first book in a new series, entitled Warrior of Rome, by Dr. Harry Sidebottom. The story takes place in A.D. 255 during the dual reign of Valerian and Gallienus and concerns a siege of a city on the Euphrates called Arete. Arete is based on a real city, Dura-Europos, which was besieged by the Sassanid-Persians in AD 256, and which has been the subject of a great deal of research and excavation.

The novel begins with Marcus Clodius Ballista, a former war leader of the Angles and now the Dux Ripae, appointed to defend Arete from the Sassanid and traveling by trireme to the east. As Ballista journeys from city to city, Sidebottom introduces us to the Roman world, its subjects and its enemies.

Much better than most novelists writing historical fiction, Sidebottom is soaked in the details and workings of the ancient world. This lends a certain and solid verisimilitude to the novel and satisfies one of the criteria of historical fiction: we want to learn something new. In Fire in the East we do learn things, many things, quite interesting things about late Rome.

In addition to being an interesting read, it is also an exciting read. The majority of the book involves the preparation of the city for an attack and the attack itself. Consequently, there is a similarity in narrative structure to popular books and films on last stands. I could not help but compare the work to John Wayne's The Alamo, Cy Enfield's Zulu and David Gemmell's Legend. Nevertheless, even though the end is known, Sidebottom keeps the suspense taut and the action fresh.

If you are fan of Simon Scarrow, Bernard Cornwell, or Patrick O'Brian you will like Sidebottom. I like him and his characters a great deal and I have started the sequel, King of Kings. But my enjoyment of it is based on its appeal as an action-thriller, as an escape into an exciting past, not as a historical novel.

As I say this, I have to ask: Has there ever been a man better trained to write a historical novel about Rome in A.D. 255 than Harry Sidebottom? He is a Fellow of St. Benet's Hall and Lecturer in Ancient History at Lincoln College, Oxford, author of Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2004), and an avid student of historical novels. His favorite writers, he states in his appendix, are Cecelia Holland and Mary Renault, and in an interview he referenced Alfred Duggan and Patrick O'Brian as influences. However, as I read the very entertaining Fire in the East, I found myself continually thinking about Jorge Luis Borges' short-story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," where Borges writes that Menard abhorred "these useless carnivals, fit only ... to produce plebeian pleasure of anachronism or . . .enthrall us with the elementary idea that all epochs are the same or different." More precisely I realized that even though Fire in the East is heavily-researched, it is a very modern novel, which cannot help but be, in essence, an entertainment filled with anachronisms, not anachronisms in detail, but anachronisms in spirit, tone, and plot. The question then is: can anyone really write a historical novel that captures the essence of the epoch in which it chooses to imitate. In other words, can an author find a method to cause (or trick)the reader to feel (more important than thinking in this context) as if he or she is situated in a certain historical period or, at best, hope that through the willing suspension of disbelief the reader will not suspect he or she is simply reading (watching) a book (film) that purports to be set in a historical period. The answer is "yes" an author can accomplish this Herculean task; an author can overcome the anachronism of modernity but only through a trickery of technique and probably at the expense of popularity. Sidebottom is a very talented entertainer, who is going to be very successful, but he fails to compose the Quixote itself.

What are the anachronisms in the novel: foremost, it is a trilogy (perhaps it will be a series, almost de rigueur in a modern genre series; it includes an elite team of warriors; it employs memes from detective fiction, fantasy fiction, as well as thrillers; it describes graphic sex acts; and it elongates the action and maintains an overarching arc to sustain the novel through several books ( à la O'Brian, Cornwell, and Scarrow). But is it so wrong that the novel is anachronistic? No, especially if you want an adventure story that causes you to read throughout the night and then hope they print the sequel soon. But if you want to sink into the slough of the past and smell its pungent odors, it may not be your best choice. I, for one, sometimes just want a great adventure story (most times in fact). But every once in a while I am surprised or seduced by an author that drags me into a world that seems authentic, dark and dank. Four novels that have seemed to capture and re-create a certain time for me and in fact avoided the anachronisms of modern adventure fiction are Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridien, Pressfield's Gates of Fire, William Faulkner's The Unvanquished, and John Williams' Augustus. Interestedly, Sidebottom states in an interview that he has just discovered the novels of Cormac McCarthy and I suspect that the historian/novelist is growing and changing. No writer worth his or her salt is not constantly studying the technique of other writers.

Finally, if you like adventure tales situated in Roman antiquity, I recommend: Rosemary Sutcliff's Frontier Wolf, Alfred Duggan's Family Favorites and Wallace Breem's Eagle in the Snow.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Twitter Reviews

I swore that I would never use Twitter but I have decided because of the height of my to-be-read and to-be-reviewed piles to use Twitter to do mini reviews. So I now have a presence at RedRookReviews on Twitter, where I intend to note observations and mini-reviews. May God protect us all from technology (cf Heidegger).