Saturday, September 29, 2007

Four books: "The March", "General Dann and Mara's daughter", "Bridge of the Separator", "The Penelopiad"

Originally posted March 25, 2006

I took "Cell" back to the library the same day and checked out a random stack of books for brain scrubbing.

First, I read E.L. Doctorow's Civil War novel, "The March" (2005.) Sherman marches to the sea, but with a close look at the people in his path. The many characters feel real, despite his deliberate anachronisms in speech and possibly in attitudes. Details are beautifully brought in and even the smallest event is beautifully written and pulls the story along. He seems to have a firmer grasp of what the white southerners are thinking than what the liberated bondsmen are thinking, but the character of Pearl, the girl whose father is her slaveowner, is memorable.

It's easy to repeat the cliche "the horrors of war" but much harder to look at an individual living through that horror. The war itself is made to seem like something unending, the pillage and looting and strategizing and suffering and survival going back through all human history.

Suggestion: Read it. Much better than the overrated "Cold Mountain."

I still was feeling the "ick" from "Cell" though, so launched into reading the rest of the pile, one after another. Wasn't I supposed to be doing something else? Probably.

I read Doris Lessing's "The Story of General Dann and Mara's daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog" (2005.) This is a sort of sequel to "Mara and Dann" but not very similar. As in that book, the next ice age changes the world, with the center now in Africa. Europe is buried under ice, but the ice is melting, and the Mediterranean sea is beginning to refill with water. Survivors of various wars have gathered at a building complex that was intended as a repository of ancient knowledge, but the building is settling into the thawing mud with its knowledge unlearned. Dann is expected to lead them, but cannot reliably handle his own suffering and is constantly tormented by the knowing how much of what had been previously known has been lost, and that learning it again will only lead to its being lost again. Griot (who isn't) holds things together with unfounded optimism and unreturned love. The snow dog is oddly emblematic, but I'm not sure why he is there.

There is a photo of Lessing on the back flyleaf, looking off into the distance, old as time, a great-great-grandmother on the prairie or just come in from the steppes. Something comes through about Lessing's old age in this book that is not exactly despairing, but rather a way of looking clearly at human nature that is disturbing and haunting. Lessing doesn't hold out much more hope for humanity advancing than Doctorow does.

On the whole though "The Story of General Dann..." is not nearly as good as "Mara and Dann"; the characters are not as appealing and the story seems more like an epilogue.

Next I was lured off the literary path by Harry Turtledove. His latest is "Bridge of the Separator" (2005); winged thingys and a guy with a sword in Roman armor on a rearing horse on the dust jacket alerted me to the fact that this was not one of Turtledove's historic "what if" novels. The history is there though, a tour through what seems to be the Byzantine Empire and its religion, in a fantasy setting (and with a fantasy religion, but a pretty real archbishop.) In a few jolting plot twists he takes a glancing look at the nature of good and the pervasive pull of evil. His main character and the descriptions of the city on civilization's frontier are detailed and fascinating. Unfortunately, the book is a series book, with the end of the story put off for another novel and the characters let off the hook.

If you already like Harry Turtledove's fantasy history and plan to read the next one, go ahead and read it. Otherwise, I'm not responsible for any disappointment.

The last book in this pile is Margaret Atwood's "The Penelopiad." A small short book that tells Odysseus' story from his wife's point of view, with the twelve hanged maids providing the Greek Chorus. Very entertaining, amusing, disturbing, and beautifully written, as one would expect of Atwood. She has, to the best of my knowlege, never written a book on writing, unlike Stephen King.

Read "The Penelopiad", you will be pleased. And don't read "Cell". The characters and plot are forgotten; only the "ick" remains.

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