Thursday, June 22, 2006

Book 43: The Virgin of Bennington

With the title of The Virgin of Bennington and knowing Kathleen Norris as a contemplative Christian author, one might expect something of a coming of age memoir on the heathen campus of Bennington.  After all, Norris has written The Cloister Walk.  Some of that expectation is met as Norris describes how a not very worldly girl arrived at the very worldly New York City campus.  But Norris also writes about how she was accepted at Bennington for who she was and her meeting other poets (Jim Carroll, Stanley Kunitz, etc) and how she wanted to be a poet as well.  But, more specifically, The Virgin of Bennington is about poets and poetry and most of all about Betty Kray, Norris’s mentor and a guiding voice in American poetry. 


I held off on reading this for years even after I was enthralled by Dakota, The Cloister Walk, and Amazing Grace; and so I was pleasantly surprised by my enjoyment of the book.  In a sense, it is nothing like her other non-fiction because it does not focus on religion or spirituality, but rather on the other love of her life: poetry.  There is a major treatment of her relationship with Betty Kray and how important Kray was to the shaping of American poetry even though Kray was so unassuming that if you didn’t know her you didn’t know of her. 


Think of this book as a prequel, of sorts, to Dakota.  It tells of how Norris went to Bennington, was immersed in the poetry scene, but finally ended up at her grandmother’s home in South Dakota and truly found her voice.  I found it most interesting because I am already familiar with her other non-fiction, but this book lacks the impact of her other work.  There is enough to interest those looking to read about poets and poetry, but not nearly as much for fans of Norris’s non-fiction.  Fans of her poetry may very well find value here. 

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Book 42: Ship of Destiny

Ship of Destiny is the concluding volume in Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders Trilogy. Here Hobb brings together the disparate storylines she has been weaving together in the previous two volumes. Three generations of Vestrit women are at the center of this novel. Ronica Vestrit, the matriarch of the family, remains in Bingtown after the town has been ravaged by the betrayal of the New Traders and the Chalcedeans and she is working with the other Trader Families to rebuild something of Bingtown and keep something of the legacy of the city. Her goal is to bring her family back together and to restore Bingtown, and to avoid ruin for all. She is a proud woman. This may seem to be a large section of the novel which is left to political wrangling, and in a sense it is, but Hobb writes this all so well that I feel that the world is enriched rather than this political wrangling slowing down the novel. Hobb's pace has always been slow, but it is also always steady.

Althea Vestrit, Ronica's daughter, is now aboard the Liveship Paragon with Brashen Trell and is still seeking to reclaim her family's Liveship Vivacia. Althea and Brashen have to deal with their feelings for each other while maintaining discipline on the ship and they also strive to survive on Paragon, a Liveship with only a tenuous grasp of sanity. The Vivacia is now happily in the service of the pirate Kennit, but Wintrow Haven (son of Kyle Havan and Keffira Vestrit) is on the ship also willingly serving Kennit. Things are not as simple as they once appeared in Ship of Magic. Kennit is managing to make himself respectable.

Malta Vestrit, the daughter of Keffira and niece of Althea, is lost somewhere in the Rain Wilds with the Satrap of Jamailla. The Satrap is, ultimately, the distant ruler of Bingtown and it is his disappearance that has caused much of the problems now plaguing Bingtown, that and the fact that the Satrap is an ineffectual ruler. In Mad Ship Malta had released a dragon from its cocoon and thus began a major changing force into the world.

Three storylines, plus the Kennit/Wintrow/Vivacia storyline, plus a side storyline or two, plus the ever present passages regarding the sea serpents comprise Ship of Destiny. The novel is far richer than I have been able to get across. Nearly every character in the novel has developed in some way far beyond who they were when we first met them. Hobb has performed an outstanding job of character development. The villains are no longer so clear and the heroes are much changed. Even some minor characters whom have been developed. The novel is not all simple development, however. Robin Hobb has written some exciting action sequences here and some high tension sea battles. Ship of Destiny moves along at a faster pace than her previous two Liveship novels.

My only quibble with this novel is how pat Hobb ends the trilogy. I understand that a conclusion has to conclude and wrap up the storylines, so I appreciate that. My quibble is that the ending is excessively upbeat despite all the changes the characters go through (is that vague enough?). Even the negatives for the characters are tempered by a greater positive. Back to what I really like: Robin Hobb is absolutely brutal with her characters. I know I just complained about too much positive in the ending, but to get to that ending some of the characters have to go through a form of personal hell, each one different. There is always a lingering question on whether the characters will make it out of a given situation and if they do, if they will make it out intact (physically, emotionally, and mentally).

The final report: Mad Ship may be the strongest entry in this trilogy, but collectively the Liveship Traders is superior to the very fine Farseer Trilogy and Ship of Destiny greatly enriches the Realm of the Elderlings and changes much of what we know and understand about the world and what might possibly come next in the Tawny Man. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Book 41: Darksaber

Uh oh. The remnants of the Empire are gathering together to form a threat to the New Republic. Uh oh. There is a giant superweapon being constructed using the original plans and scientists who worked on the Death Star. Sigh. Out of all the possible stories that able to be told in the Star Wars Universe (see the Medstar Duology and the Republic Commando novels for examples), this is the story that Darksaber tells. For Star Wars, one must say "how prosaic". It's all been done before. Two movies and danced around in the novels. This is the best that Kevin Anderson and Lucasfilm could come up with for the novel?

Oh, well. Here's the deal: The Hutts are gathering components to build said superweapon, the title weapon. Remnants of the Empire, Admiral Daala and Pallaeon (second in command to Grand Admiral Thrawn) are pulling together various warlords to strike at the heart of the New Republic and hurt the New Republic bad. Luke Skywalker is seeking to find a way to restore the Jedi Powers of his love Callista. Leia, Han, and Chewbacca are investigating the Hutts to find out what the Hutts are planning. This all comes together with a major threat to the New Republic.

If it wasn't for the fact that this book is much of the same old same old for Star Wars fiction Darksaber wouldn't be that bad. Kevin Anderson has crafted a fast paced classic feeling Star Wars novel. The word "classic" is used here in the sense that the style is reminiscent of the original Star Wars trilogy. So, the action is fun and there are quips and back talk and little guys vs the Big Bad, but the novel just felt like a retread. It is a tired story. Anderson's writing isn't strong enough to overcome a story that does not add anything significant to the Star Wars Universe. It's middle of the road Star Wars. Nothing special to see here. Not truly worth the effort.

Book 40: Cesar's Way

According to Cesar Millan most dogs in America do not suffer from neglect (though many do), but rather that they suffer from too much affection. It is an odd malady, but one that unbalances the dog. Dogs in America do not truly know what it is to be a dog because humans often treat them as little humans, toys, but not as a Dog.

Cesar's Way is specific: Exercise, Discipline, Affection. In that order. Dogs, like wolves, roam in packs. They need to be walking a lot. So the walk is the primary part in helping to balance a dog and it also works as discipline because it shows who the pack leader is. Cesar is also big on packs.

The entire book is based on this basic principle with examples of some of Cesar's famous clients (Oprah, Will Smith, etc). Cesar also tells his personal story of how he got to be where he is and why he believes the way he does. His love of dogs really comes through and because the principles he lays out are very basic, for general "issues" the walk and the exercise, discipline, affection (affection only when the dog is calm and has done something to earn it) is what everyone can use. The owner has to be 100% committed to being the leader always.

There are objections that the book is too simplistic and that the pack mentality is not realistic and that Cesar isn't letting owners love their dogs...but Cesar is trying to bring a new mentality: that the true needs of a dog is different than that of the owner and that meeting the owner's needs may not meet the dog's needs. With my dog, it has been helpful. My dog is getting much more exercise in the form of walks (and not just play) and he walks better than he ever has.

I'm convinced Cesar knows what he is talking about.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Book 39: Memories of Ice

Memories of Ice is the third volume in Steven Erikson's epic Malazan Book of the Fallen series. This volume picks up after the events of the first book Gardens of the Moon. Book 2 dealt with mostly a second set of characters in a different part of the world. It all starts to come together, though, as there are brief references made to characters we know.

Dujek Onearm and Whiskeyjack are the leaders of a now renegade outlawed army. They lead Dujek's Host against the invading army of the Pannion Domin. The Pannion Seer is pushing north to the city of Capustan. Dujek's Host is pushing south and has allied itself with the former enemies of Malaz the Tiste Andii, a nearly immortal non-human race of powerful beings.

So, one aspect of this novel is the impending great clash of two armies and how to stop the Pannion Domin. Another aspect is the rapidly aging child Silverfox who has the souls of at least three mages inside her. She is called abomination, but she is clearly an individual of great power and import. Yet another aspect is Ganoes Paran, a captain of the legendary Bridgeburners in Dujek's Host. He was not trusted by the Bridgeburners when first given the command, but they don't trust anyone. By this point he is truly becoming their captain but he is also becoming so much more, a major player in the mystical realm and quite against his wishes.

This is a novel of hard men and women, of magic and common soldiery, of mystical beasts and gods, of leaders and followers. Memories of Ice, like the previous two Malazan novels defies description. This is a great military novel, but it is also a great magical novel, but above all it is a hard, grim novel with flashes of humor. The actual plotline is unclear (in this volume it is the fight against the Pannion Domin) because while an individual novel might be clear it is unclear where the entire series is going.

But the quality of work here by Steven Erikson is staggering. It isn't for everyone and it takes some work trying to figure out what is actually happening, but it is worth the effort. I think that Memories of Ice is better than the first two volumes and characters the irritated me in the past are now favorites. It is an epic of world building even though it is hard to get a sense of the world. This is challenging fantasy and Erikson is an author who has no fear in killing off a popular character. While each volume has been described by the publisher as standalone, I do not think it is. Each volume tells and individual story, but without having read the previous volumes it would be much more difficult to understand.

Bottom line: The Malazan Book of the Fallen is among the top of the fantasy genre. It is quite excellent and quite challenging and it is a major time investment and brings with it an expectation that the reader takes the time to work out the relationships and figure out what is going on...and then Erikson turns our previous notions on their heads by changing how we view characters. Well done.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Book 38: Death Comes for the Archbishop

I have a different kind of relationship with Willa Cather's novels.  I read My Antonia for a class in college and loved it.  It was one of the better books we read that semester and there were a few good ones.  Later, on my own, I read O Pioneers! and it felt like I was dragging my feet through quicksand trying to get through the book.  There was no connection, no spark.  So, I didn't know what to expect from another Cather novel.  When I picked up Death Comes for the Archbishop I had no real expectations except that it couldn't be as good as My Antonia
It is. 
It is a very simple story.  In the mid 1800's the Catholic Church sends a young Bishop out into New Mexico to take over a diocese there which covers hundreds and hundreds of square miles.  Perhaps thousands.  The Church is moving the seat of power from hundreds of miles to the south in Mexico to Santa Fe.  Bishop Jean Latour is sent from the Lake Ontario region and he travels across the country with his friend, the Vicar, Father Joseph Valliant to put together a parish and diocese in the still wild region of New Mexico.  The span of the novel covers the next several decades as Latour and Father Joseph work together ministering to the local Mexicans and Native Indians.  The novel is as much a collection of stories regarding Latour's time in the Southwest as it is a coherent novel.  There is no "plot" as one would traditionally understand plot.  But it is an examination of the grace and faith of Latour and his interactions with various personalities and confronting individual conflicts in a true Christian manner.  If one was able to choose what sort of man would be a Bishop, Latour would be the first choice.  He did good work and left a positive mark on everyone he came in contact with.  There is no overarching conflict through this novel, but the conflict is the building up of the diocese and the small conflicts that any Bishop must face. 
For such a character piece as Death Comes for the Archbishop, I have to say that I loved the novel.  Published in 1927 and set in the mid to late 1800's the struggles felt contemporary even though they are specific to a region still being settled.  The attitudes and viewpoints of the characters felt appropriate to the setting, though they might grate a little harsh to the modern ear.  Even so, I felt more grace coming from this novel than I did the occasional harshness from an outdated viewpoint which fit the characters.  In this novel we get to see the growth of Latour and his diocese which he runs with a very hands on and honest befits a man of the cloth.  We do see the examples of what a bad priest would be like. 
Overall, I think Death Comes for the Archbishop is an excellent book and now puts me two up on having read excellent Willa Cather novels. 

the end of Angel

I would say that the end of Season 5 of Angel felt very rushed, but I know that's because it was.  Angel was cancelled midway through the season rather unexpectedly and Joss had to hurry to put together some closure.  I do think it is somewhat crappy that Sarah Michelle Gellar wouldn't do a guest spot in one of the closing eps of the show (supposedly Joss wanted her for the next to last episode), it would have been a nice way to round out the series and considering that Buffy made Sarah any kind of star it would have been a nice gesture.  Alas.
So, Joss kills off Cordy.  I liked how she came back for one episode as a nice send off.  Kills Fred.  Wesley.  I'm pretty sure Gunn didn't make it out of that battle.  So, we figure Angel, Spike, and Illyria walked out alive somehow.  Personally, I like the idea that everyone died at the end.  Even Spike and Angel.  It would allow for this great sacrifice as the team took out so many top level baddies and accepted the cost of doing so. 
But I know they didn't.  Faith (she should have shown up, even though I assume she was in Europe training Slayers) and Spike have been rumored to get their own show for a while or television movies. 
I still can't stand Spike, though I did like the Angel/Spike dynamic. 
It's fantastic that Harmony walked away at the end. 
"You've never have faith in me"
"You don't have a soul"
"I would if you had faith in me"
What?  That's ridiculous and yet perfect. 
Really, I want a Fray movie/series.