Robinson Crusoe: Afterthoughts

Robinson Crusoe
by Daniel Defoe
340 pages
three and a half

 

 

One of the most frequent difficulties I have with reading classic works is finding a way to reconcile historical context with reading for pleasure. Like many others, Robinson Crusoe is a book which reflects its times, and receives much of its fame for the literary firsts it accomplishes. That being said, it’s likely to be more enjoyable if read academically, rather than casually. By modern standards, Robinson Crusoe is a long drawn out adventure novel about an English imperialist with more wanderlust than common sense, told in such bland language as to nullify the ‘adventure’ part near completely. There were parts that I enjoyed, but lengthy passages of this novel are so boring that I found myself fighting a yawn every other page. It took me nearly a month to finish reading it, which I did by sheer force of will and the desire to finally be reading something else.

Robinson Crusoe

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.”

Robinson Crusoe is a difficult character to stomach, even with the historical context. He epitomizes English colonial attitudes, racial and cultural superiority, and just plain dickish behavior. Who is he a dick to? Well, everyone, really, except for maybe the Portuguese captain and the widow he entrusts all his money to. He disobeys the wishes of his parents and runs off on a sea adventure, wherein he’s shipwrecked and told plainly by the captain after they make it to shore that he’s going to be unlucky at sea. But he doesn’t listen, and runs off on another voyage where he’s captured and made a slave for two years. Slavery, to Cursoe, is apparently too unbearable for him to deal with for longer than two years (but perfectly fine for other people, later in the book), so he escapes with a boy names Xury, and they rock around the African coast for a while, shooting lions and such, until they’re rescued by a Portuguese captain. (Well, Crusoe is rescued, anyway. He sells Xury with the upstanding promise of the boy’s future freedom if he converts to Christianity. Yay.)

The Portuguese captain then drops him off in Brazil and helps him buy a sugar plantation, which he raises up quite nicely and is, by all accounts doing quite well for himself, until it’s suggested that he needs some slaves to work his plantation. After about two seconds of thought on the morality of that, and no reflection on his own time as a slave, Crusoe agrees to sail to Africa again to pick up some slaves.

Well, wouldn’t you know it but he’s shipwrecked again, and this time, everyone dies but him. He instead washes up on the shore of an uninhabited island where he spends a dreadful few days before picking himself up and pillaging what he can from the wreck before it finally is broken up in a storm. What he manages to collect is, conveniently, everything that he needs to survive, including wood, sails, iron work, some food, seeds, guns, knives and the like. He also picks up a dog and two cats, though the later he is forced to shoot when they breed with the local wild cats and become pests. So he’s a dick to cats too.

He sets up shop in a sort of dug out cave, where he packs in all of his things, but becomes alarmed that lightning might strike all his powder, so he squirrels it around different places on the island. Then he’s nearly killed in a cave in caused by an earthquake, so he picks up his stuff and builds himself a new shelter, where, I’m pretty sure he contracts salmonella from eating a turtle, falls into fever and has a religious experience. Or rather, he realizes “Oh shit, I could die here, I better prostrate myself before God, just in case.” So he reflects on how utterly impious he has been in his life and vows to change that, and thank God for all the small blessings in his life.

For the next twenty or so years, he makes his home on the island, raising goats, grains, teaching himself rudimentary crafts like agriculture, wood working, leather tanning, tailoring, ship building, herding etc. It’s okay if we skip over these years, because the book does too. Suffice to say, he’s miserable, but manages to convince himself he’s not because God.

After these twenty-odd years of living all by himself, convinced there’s no one else around, he finds a footprint in the sand on the other side of the island, and after much hand wringing, he finally goes to spy on the spot and finds that it’s been used by native cannibals as a feast area. Well, this throws him into a panic and not wanting to be discovered he stops using his gun, and takes great caution when lighting a fire so that they don’t see his smoke. At this point I have to wonder: he’s been living there for twenty years, both him and the cannibals going about their business without care of discovery and, strangely, without ever having discovered the other. There’s a lot of contrived events in this story, but this one takes the cake.

Anyway, he waffles for a while between, “I must kill the savages” and “they don’t know any better, poor ignorant fools”, and finally decides on the latter, and resolves to leave them very much alone, until another group of cannibals arrives on his side of the island with their captives to eat.

At about this time, Crusoe begins to fantasize about how nice it would be to have a couple servants in his ‘kingdom’ and puts a plan into motion to rescue one of the captives, which he does by killing all the cannibals. Turns out, their captive is a cannibal from a rival nation, and that just won’t do. So after assuring himself that Friday, as he calls him, is well and truly bound to him in gratitude, he begins his re-education, mainly by informing him that his religion is all a bunch of hogwash meant to keep him subjugated under a ruling class of kings and priests, while Christianity on the other hand, is 100% not that.

Right. Anyway, Friday eats it up and converts and is thus finally allowed to carry weapons, is taught English (along with being taught to call Crusoe ‘master’) and is from that moment on, ordered around like a servant, because that is the natural order of things.

sigh

They live like this for another couple of years until they spot some more cannibals with captives. So they repeat the same plan, killing all but two of the cannibals and taking two of their captives, one of whom is a Spaniard, and the other is, conveniently, Friday’s father, only it really could have been any native at all, for all the point their being related has. Crusoe nurses these two back to health and the Spaniard tells them that there are a bunch of other Spaniards on the mainland who have also been ship wrecked. Seeing his escape, Crusoe convinces him that all the Spaniards should be brought back to him so that they can build a boat together and sail to a civilized port. At first the Spaniard isn’t too keen on the idea, but Crusoe reminds him that he owes him his life, so he capitulates in the end, and sails off with Friday’s father to go get the other white men.

While Crusoe and Friday are waiting, an English ship comes into view, and by God, an English ship is like, 100 times better than sailing away with those half civilized, slave owning, inquisition doing Spaniards, so Crusoe goes to make friendly with them. The only problem is that the ship has mutinied, and the captain is a captive.

Well, Crusoe by now is now well practiced in freeing captives, so he does what he does and captures or kills the mutineers and frees the captain who is most gracious and agrees to whatever plan the crazy bearded man dressed in haphazard goat skins lays before him, and before long, they’re all sailing away, happy as clams on the ship back toward England.

But what about the Spaniards, you ask? Fuck them, that’s what. Crusoe doesn’t so much as spare them a thought as he sails away for home.

When he gets there, however, he finds he’s got no money anywhere, which sucks, expect for his plantation. So he goes to see the sea captain, who doesn’t recognize him at first, but then finally does, and is told at length how he might reclaim his portion of the plantation. He does this, and rewards the captain, and the widow who was holding his money for him before, and then heads back to England. But not by boat, because he’s had nothing but bad luck that way. No, he decides to go over land, but because he’s an idiot, who doesn’t take the well placed advice of anyone around him, he decides to hike through the mountains in the middle of winter to get home and he, and Friday and all their guides are nearly eaten by wolves because of it.

But he manages to get home alive, and marries and has some kids before he ever thinks about what may have happened to the Spaniards he’d sent for with an escape plan. So he hires a boat and sails off to them, and finds them still alive, still trapped on the island. To this he thinks, “Huh. All’s well that ends well, you’re now my colony, here’s some livestock and some women. Bu-bye!” He then sails home again, leaving them on the island he has been calling up until the end The Island of Despair and ‘my prison’.

The End.

Now, if you’re like me, you may be thinking that Robinson Crusoe is a self-serving asshole who is a master at self justification and selective thinking in which, when bad things happen to him, they are well and truly evil, but when the same bad things happen to other people it’s time to take advantage of their misfortune. I would give the book more credit for having been written in the time it was (published in 1719), however Crusoe as a character is so contradictory, and so blind to his own hurtful hypocrisy that he’s just not likable. I didn’t root for his success at any part of the book. I kind of wanted him to be eaten by his parrot, whom he also abandoned pitifully. He’s arrogant, self-serving, with an admitted lip-service to religion until he very nearly dies; he’s racist and misogynistic, and above all, learns nothing of moralistic value from his hardships.

Stylistically, the book is bland. While Defoe does describe things in great detail, the parts which should have been exciting and adventurous are told in the same tone one might use to describe the weather. What is, for all intents and purposes the prologue and the epilogue are way too detailed, and drag the story out longer than it needs to be with unnecessary events that add little to the character (though if they were meant to showcase the evil morality of imperialism, I could stomach them more). The capitalization of every noun (at least in the edition I read) was also hard to get used to at first, but it stopped bothering me by about halfway through the book.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to, which always upsets me a little. I hate being disappointed by books, especially by classics, but you can’t love them all. I suppose if you take it as a political satire it’s digestible, but on its own it’s not very savory.

Read more pokes and prods at Robinson Crusoe at this nice blog:

Fighting with Fiction

and have an academic look at the colonialism and racism in Robinson Crusoe here:

British Literature 1700 – 1900, a Course Blog

The next book on my reading list is The Man With the Knives by Ellen Kushner.

Tastes of Japan: Yaki-imo

With the days shortening, the nights cooling and mellow winds bringing in the smell of farmers burning their leaves, autumn is arriving in Japan. The first bright orange leaves are a welcomed sight around here, signalling the final days of oppressive heat and unpredictable summer storms and giving the residents of Kyoto a much anticipated–if brief–reprieve between the temperature extremes of summer and winter. Seasonal dishes are also changing around now, and perhaps no other food in Kyoto is a better symbol of the coming of autumn than the sweet potato.

Sold in convenience stores all over the city, yaki-imo, or baked sweet potato is as ubiquitous a sight (and smell) as oden between the months of October and February. Wrapped in foil and baked over embers or in burning leaves, this simple, fragrant snack is incredibly popular in Japan, and a perfect food for keeping the chill out of the body. When cooked to perfection is it soft, hot and flaky, with a sweet and starchy flavor that is sure to fill you up fast.

Unsurprisingly, sweet potatoes aren’t native to Japan. They were introduced in the early 1700s and quickly became popular as a reliable crop when violent summer storms could wipe out other staple foods. They are used in the Tsukimi autumn moon festival, where they are cooked in a variety of ways and offered to the moon in hopes of a plentiful harvest for the year. They are also sometimes used in shoju liquor, and are frequently baked in pastries around this time of year. Personally, I like the caramelized sweet potatoes with the black sesame seeds best.

Japanese snack foods also capitalize on the popularity of yaki-imo during the autumn months. Calbee brand Osatsu is a light, baked sweet potato snack which is yaki-imo flavored. They are one of Alex’s favorites. It’s incredibly easy to go through an entire bag of these without even realizing it.

Autumn is a great time for visiting Japan. The weather is mild, the colors of the trees are stunning, and the food is flavorful. If you happen to be in Kyoto during this time, have a taste of yaki-imo, fresh off the embers, to warm yourself up in between the gorgeous sights of the changing of the seasons.

A New Release and Some Life Updates

After days of waiting in anticipation after the first announcement of its release, I give you, for your reading pleasure, Darkly Never After in both electronic and paperback formats. All proceeds from the sale of this anthology will go to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, so I encourage you to buy paperback (but if you don’t have the coin in your pocket for it, I completely understand). Do anything but pirate it, I beg you. No one got paid for this. Our editor and formatter gave up pieces of their soul for this book, and all our authors are now scrabbling under couch cushions for loose change and stray ramen noodles for want of sustenance. At least let some money trickle to the charity.

Right, dramatics aside, all proceeds are going to the St. Jude charity, information for which can be found here.

I hope the book gives you delicious nightmares and oh, don’t forget to check under your bed and leave a light on. I’m told that helps.

darkly never after coverClick me!

Ends

Moving on. Last week I celebrated what was the beginning of my last year as a twenty-something. I’ve got one more year to party, live it up, drink excessively and make bad financial decisions before I have to finally settle down and become an adult. You know, I think I said something very similar to this a decade ago and that would be very troubling and worrisome, if I actually did party, drink excessively or make bad financial decisions. All things considered, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned about being an adult, it’s that there’s a lot of grey area concerning what ‘adult’ actually means, and even more when we start throwing adjectives like ‘responsible’ and ‘well-adjusted’ into the mix. I certainly don’t feel like an adult, but I wouldn’t know what to expect that to feel like anyway. I still make some pretty immature decisions, mixed in with some more moderate ones, but mostly I’ve learned that no one ever really knows what the hell they’re doing. Twenty-nine feels like an age in which I should have all my ducks in a row and a clear path planned out for me, but I’m still not entirely sure what the right path for me even is. I don’t know if anyone does. At my age, my parents already had three kids and our family was surviving on one full-time income and one part-time income only. There’s no way in hell I can picture myself doing the same thing, but people do what they have to do, as the situation calls for it. That’s what I’m doing, and I’m fortunate that the decisions I’ve made so far have netted me positive results. I hope they continue to do so.

In any case, Amber sent me a bottle of Chartreuse for my birthday, and you know what that means:

IMG_1779

Ends

Finally, I’m in the final stretch for a double deadline at the moment, so I’m going to disappear for a little while. I’ve put Bone Wall on hold ( I know, I KNOW) to write a short story. I’m going through the up and down roller-coaster ride of “This is the greatest idea I’ve ever had” and “OMG, this is crap, everything I’ve ever done is crap. I’m just going to sleep forever”. Eventually it’ll even out into a nice sort of sour optimism as I finish revisions. So yeah, not a lot of time to read or review or blog. I shouldn’t even be writing this post right now, but I’m hoping if I get everything off my plate tonight, I’ll be able to spend my Sunday writing.

 

The Black Horse: A Darkly Never After Short

Once upon a time, when the world was still young and the Sun was still just a moon, there lived three brothers. The first was fantastically wealthy, the second was fantastically powerful, and the third was neither of those things, but he was passably clever, and unlucky enough to get involved with the black horse.

Darkly Never After is a collection of thirty-one dark stories and poems. There are no happy endings here. Villains and wickedness, dark magic and evil deeds preside in this anthology of adult fairytales. If you have a penchant for the fiendish or an interest in the dark stains on basement walls, Darkly Never After invites you to return to the magic and fantasy of youth, leaving the rose tinted glasses behind.

Darkly Never After

darkly never after cover

Available Now!

As I Lay Dying: Afterthoughts

As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner
267 pages
3-stars-out-of-5

 

I’m not sure if the rating that I gave this book is entirely fair, because I can’t say that I knew what the hell was going on in the book half the time. Between the dialect, the propensity for each chapter to start in media res, characters losing their marbles, and strange shifts in time, this may have been the hardest 267 pages to understand that I’ve ever read. And for the love of god, Kate, give it a rest about the goddamn cakes!

As I Lay DyingYour mother is not a fish.

OK, so Faulkner apparently wrote this book over six weeks between midnight and 4am, and pretentiously did not change a word of his original draft. This may explain why it’s so hard to understand. I don’t know about you, but 4am is not a time in which the thoughts in my head are, shall we say, coherent. Not only did Faulkner not edit it at all, he considered it a masterpiece work of genius. This tells me some things about his character. The narrative is told through the first person point of view of fifteen different characters. Alex tells me that the voice of each character is authentically Sounthern, and I’ll have to take her word on that.

The story is about Addie Bundren, who, for the first fourth of the book is laying in her bed dying. After that, the story is about the attempt of her five children and her self-centered husband to bury her in her native town.

Right.

Let’s start with the kids. Cash is the eldest, and either a little slow or the most prudent character in the book. I alternated between the two. He’s a carpenter by trade, and he’s busy sawing and nailing up his mother’s coffin outside of her window while she’s held up in bed. We meet his brothers Darl and Jewel as they come up the hill with the wagon. Darl is the second eldest, and has a bit of an inflated sense of his own intelligence (sounds a bit familiar). Jewel is the third in line, and is both his mother’s favorite and her secret shame. We don’t get introduced to the final two children, Dewey Dell and Vardaman until a little later, but Dewey Dell is the only daughter, and she’s got bigger problems then her mother’s impending death. Vardaman is the youngest and is in heavy need of either some counseling or a lesson in biology by the end.

Then there’s Addie’s husband Anse, who sort of starts out as a bit of an indecisive idiot and slowly morphs into a self-centered asshole by the end. I suppose he was an asshole from the start, but I had a bit of sympathy for him in the beginning that was blown all away by the end.

The cast of characters is rounded off by Cora Tull, her husband Vernon and her cakes which, I’m sorry, get so much unnecessary mention in the story that I’m including them as characters. There are others, too, but they only exist to fill in plot details and are not worthy of mention.

While Addie lays dying, and Cash builds her a coffin, Jewel, Darl, and Anse are outside discussing whether or not Jewel and Darl should go off to earn three dollars. On the one hand, their mother could die at any minute, she wants to be buried out of town and the weather looks like it could start storming at any minute. On the other, three dollars! So the boys skip off to get paid, and Addie dies without any of the people she wants to see with her. The doctor arrives too late to be of any help, because he is also an asshole and delays leaving, specifically so Addie will die, and be free of her good-for-nothing husband. (Is this something doctors do in the South, because that’s terrifying.)

Vardaman, who has spent the afternoon fishing, walks in to see his mother breathe her last and is instantly scared for life. He takes it out on the doctor’s horses, beats them and sends them scattering because he believes the doctor is the one who killed his mother. I’m inclined to agree that, while he’s not guilty of murder, he’s at least guilty of gross neglect.

Meanwhile, Dewey Dell’s thoughts on the whole matter largely boil down to, “I wish the doctor could read my mind and give me an abortion without me having to ask him.” Yup.

The boys finally return home with the three dollars fresh in their pocket to learn that their mother has died, they take it a bit hard. Darl seems quite shocked at the event, as if, you know, she hadn’t been sick, in her bed, on the verge of death these last few weeks. Cash still isn’t done with the coffin, either. It’s explained that it’s because he really wants to make his mother the pimp’nest coffin in the world, but I think he’s just a shitty carpenter. Anyway, this causes a very large delay in getting her even in a box, and dead bodies don’t stay fresh for long. Keep that in mind. It’s important for later.

By the time Addie is finally in her coffin, staring off on her way to her final resting place, it’s started raining, and hard. Jewel insists on bringing his prized horse along, and Cash insists on bringing his new tool box, presumably for all the touch up work on the coffin he’s going to have to do.

Fast forward through a lot of Anse refusing the help of his neighbors, and they finally reach the river. But oh noes! The bridge has been washed away! So they go a little upstream to cross a different bridge, but it too has washed away. GASP! So Anse finally has to give up and head back to Tull’s land to cross his bridge. By this time, Addie has been dead for a week. Mmmm. In this time, Vardaman has come to the conclusion that his mother is a fish, and Darl doesn’t help this by telling him that Jewel’s mother is a horse. Darl also starts losing the plot around this point.

Anyway, Tull still has most of a bridge left over from the flooding, and fast forward through a bunch more shuffling and indecisive waffling, and they decide to unpack all unnecessary persons from the wagon to have them walk across the half a bridge, while Cash attempts to ford the flooded river with Darl’s aid from the opposite bank. Jewel walks his horse along side of it, and they would have gotten to the other side except the log of fate rises up, gets tangles in their lead rope and capsizes the whole wagon. So Addie in her coffin, Cash, Jewel and his horse and an entire team of mules get swept away. Jewel and his horse escape because the horse is necessary to the plot later, but Cash winds up unconscious with a broken leg, and all the mules drown. The coffin is recovered, along with every. Single. One. Of. Cash’s. God. DAMN. Tools.

So now they have a fresh problem. They have a rotting mother, a carpenter with a broken leg, and a wagon and no mules. Tull refuses to give his mules to the cause and frankly, I don’t blame him. The man obviously knows a disaster when it washes up on his lawn. So Anse’s solution is for Jewel to sell his horse to buy new mules. This is where any sympathy for Anse died in me. This is a man who is willing to sacrifice anything, so long as it doesn’t actually cost him anything to do so. So Jewel tearfully, angrily sells his horse (which, by the way, he worked his ASS off to buy in the first place) and buys new mules to finish the journey.

So now we’ve got a rotting mother, one son with a broken leg, two sons losing their marbles, one angry son, one daughter who could care less, and a very self satisfied father. So far so good? OK, onwards.

Somewhere around here, Addie starts monologuing from within her coffin. She confesses that Jewel is not Anse’s son, and oh, how she has been suffering for that, but after she made it up to him by giving him two more kids, she realized that she’d done her life’s work, and could just go ahead and die.

As the weather worsens, they are eventually forced to stay the night in someone’s barn. Poor Addie has been dead nine days by this point and is stinking to high heaven. Everyone outside of the family is mortified. They’re being followed by a pack of buzzards, which have captured Vardaman’s attention away from thoughts of fish mothers, and he vows to go see where they roost at night. This is rather fortunate, for while he’s off buzzard hunting, he happens to see his brother Darl setting fire to the barn. Good ol’ Darl, always looking for a solution to life’s little problems.

Obviously this doesn’t sit well with the man who owns the barn, but thankfully Jewel has a soft spot for animals and with super human strength hefts up the pimp coffin and his (presumably oozing) mother, and carries it out on his back. He then busts back into the barn, and into every single stall there to lead the animals out of the blaze, one by one.

So now we’ve got a rotting mother, one son with a broken leg, one criminal son, one son who’s lost his damn mind, one angry, burnt son, one daughter carrying multiple secrets, and a very self satisfied father. Still with me?

So without laying blame to anyone, even though everyone knows damn well who burnt down the barn, they set out again. Jewel, who is obviously pissed right the fuck off, refuses to ride in the wagon with Darl. I’m sure Cash wishes he had that option, because by this time, his leg is getting much, much worse. Obviously they need a doctor, and quick, but Anse is in a bit of a hurry by now, so any old doctor will do. Hell, what about a veterinarian?

When they finally get into town, everyone’s temper is a little frazzled. Jewel picks a fight with a random passerby, who dares to speak ill of his decomposing mother in the wagon, and is nearly knifed for it. Dewey Dell tries to buy her abortion with the $10 her lover gave her, but the first pharmacist she sees refuses her.

They decide to set Cash’s leg in cement, because cement on unprotected skin never hurt anyone. Predictably, Cash’s leg turns black, and they become in desperate need of a real doctor.

Next, Jewel and Dewey Dell jump Darl and have him arrested for arson, which messes with Vardaman even more. Dewey Dell tries another pharmacist, but gets hoodwinked by the assistant instead, who gives Dewey Dell a shot of turpentine, a bunch of capsules filled with talcum powder and a roll in the sack to ‘cure’ her. Presumably he kicks her in the ass and laughs at her on her way out.

Somewhere in this jumble, Addie is buried in a footnote.

Yup.

Cash’s leg is then cracked out of its cement cast which sounds about as pleasant as the book explained it, and Anse, upon discovering that Dewey Dell has been hoarding ten whole dollars, all to herself when poor Anse has been surviving oh these last few years without any teeth, declares her the worst daughter in the world, and steals her abortion money. This he uses to go get himself cleaned up, get new teeth and get remarried, all while his broken family waits for him on the wagon that still smells like dead mom.

The end.

Now, I realize that there’s a lot more going on in this book than what is presented on the surface, but the book went to such pains to hide those meanings that I find myself disinclined to care. For a book that details the trials involved in burying one’s mother, The Stranger is better. For a book that tries to make its point in the least possible sense, Slaughterhouse Five is better. For a book that tries to relate what life is like in the South, To Kill a Mockingbird is better. This book was a very frustrating read, and I’m glad it was as short as it was. Honestly, I don’t think I could have read it to the end of it was over three hundred pages. If you’d like a more academic analysis of the book, pop on over to Alex’s blog here, where she reviews As I Lay Dying with bigger words and less swearing.

The next book on my reading list was going to be Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart, but the first five chapters were such a tremendous disappointment that I abandoned it to read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe instead.

 

The Essential Bordertown: Afterthoughts

The Essential Bordertown
Edited by Terri Windling & Delia Sherman
379 pages
five-stars

 

Having just finished this book, I feel as though I’ve come home from a week spent walking the wild, gritty streets of Bordertown. The memories of madness, desperation, beauty, grime, and magic still cling to me, and I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to easily shake them off. Thirteen authors take the reader’s hand in this urban fantasy collection, lead the reader to the city limits and thrust them into a world of street kids, rock and roll, elves, enchantment, dreams and disappointments. The sheer story-telling talent in this book is undeniable, and the same goes for the gleeful imagination in each story. Make no mistake, the Border will change you, but this is a book I highly recommend.

the essential bordertownNo spoilers this time, so feel free to read right on through.

There is a lot in The Essential Bordertown that endeared me to it straight away. Stories by both Ellen Kushner and Steven Brust provided the initial attraction, and additional stories by recognizable names such as Delia Sherman, Charles de Lint and Patrica A. McKillip definitely kept that flame of interest going strong. As I started into the book, the strength of the shared world itself was a huge draw. Without being well read enough in the genre to give a definitive opinion, I can nonetheless say from my small experience that this may be urban fantasy at its best. What Bordertown gives us is a city like any other large industrial city: a mix of uptown well-to-dos, cold, dirty slums, and a rocking, flashy nightlife. Oh, and elves, because what Bordertown has that no other city has is its namesake: the border to Elfland.

Bordertown sits right in between the World (what we would call normal, human habitations) and the True and Only Realm (which is whatever you would call the place where fairies and elves come from). Because of this, the area exhibits some strange confusions from both lands. Both technology and magic, for example, work sporadically at best, and disastrously at worst. Fashion, art, music and culture also mix in some strange ways, creating something unseemly to those living on both sides of the Border. Every street, corner and landmark breathes with its own personality, from the Mad River to Dragontown to Mock Avenue, and the authors of these stories work magic of their own with descriptions and sensory titillations that pull the reader from where they are sitting and place them directly in the streets of Bordertown to live, breathe, taste, smell, and hear every heartbeat of the city. In fact, one of the things that tugged at my heart strings most about this book was the similarity of the setting and the otherworldly characters to those of Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite–gritty, dirty teenagers addicted to sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and freedom, clashing with the beautiful, dangerous world of supernatural beings.

I’m not going to review each story on its own like I usually do with anthologies, because the stories in this book are all fantastic, and without seeking the aid of a thesaurus, I’m going to run out of ways to say, ‘brilliantly written, evocative, spell-binding, and surreal’. I’ll talk briefly about a few of the stories that really captured me, however, though that too is going to be difficult in itself.

First there’s Oak Hill by Patricia A. McKillip. What I loved about this story was its charmingly innocent protagonist and her interactions with the elves she meets upon her arrival. If this is your first introduction to Bordertown, it’s an apt one. The peculiarities of humans and elves, as well as the tensions, mistrusts and racism are showcased here, without letting the story, tone or reader fall into despair.

Midori Snyder’s Dragon Child also had me hooked, with its daring opening and a protagonist who brings pieces of both the human world and the elflands to the story. The beauty of the elf lord cut into the soot of the city makes for some stunning, and shocking juxtaposition.

Exposing the truly tragic conditions of Bordertown’s runaways is Delia Sherman’s Socks. It also addresses another thing I loved about Bordertown: that beauty is idiosyncratic in the extreme. Where a lot of fantasy takes pains to paint their characters as conventionally beautiful, or maybe sporting a single, easily overlooked blemish, Bordertown and Sherman’s Socks shows us that fantasy can be just as brilliant, just as relatable and damnit, just as enjoyable with characters who aren’t slender, fair-skinned and fit.

The story Hot Water: A Bordertown Romance reminded me how important openings are, and just how amazing Ellen Kushner is at writing them:

Thumper first noticed the voice coming out of his teapot and Thumper did not like that, because that was an elf-type thing, and Thumper was not deeply into elves.

Hot Water shows us that love, who we love, and where we can find love are not always in the places we expect, or from the people we most want. Love is a strange, tangled emotion and magic certainly doesn’t help that, especially not Bordertown magic.

I really liked Caroline Stevermer’s Rag, though I think I’d be hard pressed to give a definitive reason why. It may be because the first person perspective of the story is everything that first person ought to be, and yet which is so often lacking. The character dynamics and relationships as well are unique enough that I enjoyed the reading. The pace is slow at first, but builds to a satisfying, if not altogether dangerous climax, and the ending left me with the (by then) familiar Bordertown aftertaste of the freedom and satisfaction in anarchy.

When the Bow Breaks took me by surprise. It wasn’t the sort of story I had expected from Steven Brust, though it nonetheless didn’t fail to entertain. Taking the strange, sometimes accidental interactions of magic in Bordertown and applying them to shipping, Brust not only demonstrates his ability to convincingly write a range of characters and situations, but also the scope of his imagination and cleverness in metaphor turned into reality.

Finally, the anthology ends with How Shannaro Tolkinson Lost and Found His Heart by Felicity Savage. This story as well surprised me with its characters and its ending, and I mean that in a good way. Just as I was starting to groan at the direction of the plot, it picked itself up, danced a country jig and became something different, very different from the rest of the book. To say that Savage writes beautifully is a terrible understatement. This passage, for example, resonated particularly well with me:

I thought I had followed it through Soho, away from the lights, out of earshot of the terrified screaming of guitars, when I arrived at a pier half eaten away by a muscular, rain-dimpled river.

And that isn’t even yet mentioning her characters. Shannaro is a protagonist unlike any of the others in Bordertown. He is a True Blood, but low born, and doesn’t want anything to do with Bordertown, except to find his fiancee and return home. In his innocence, his naivety and his singularity of purpose, Shannaro explores Bordertown in the way perhaps we all wish to–to step in, take a look around, steal a bit of its magic and return home.

The next book on my reading list is As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Jul/Aug 2014: Afterthoughts

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
July / August 2014
Edited by C.C. Finlay
256 pages
4 stars

 

The stories in this volume were deeply visceral, diving to the core of that invisible organ the pumps human emotion. Guest editor C.C.Finlay chose works that grip the reader with their imagery, and place them firmly in those places we sometimes fear to shine light on. Many of the stories in this issue are disturbing and not for the squeamish, but incredible reads all the same. As much as I missed seeing some of my usual favorites in Fantasy & Science Fiction, the new names and the titles that go with them were refreshing and entertaining all the same.

MoFSF jul augNot to be read while eating.

Palm Strike’s Last Case
Charlie Jane Anders
four_half-stars_0

In this very well written superhero/sci-fi crossover, Charlie Jane Anders mixes the two genres without making either of them feel campy. In fact, aside from a few familiar tropes sprinkled here and there, the interconnection between the two is seamless.

Luc has been fighting against the drug lord Dark Shard for years now, ever since he lost his son Rene to their foul underworld. He’s getting old, and tired–but even then it takes some heavy pushing to get him to actually retire on a newly colonized planet far, far away. At least, retirement was on his mind before someone sabotaged his cryo-module, someone who knows he’s the crime fighting vigilante Palm Strike. Someone who has brought the drug war to what should have been a fresh, new start.

Told masterfully in present tense, something which is difficult to pull off at the best of times, Anders succeeds in placing the reader directly at Luc’s side, silently cheering for the old guy to put a fist to one more bad guy, and save the new world from certain disaster.

Subduction
Paul M. Berger
five-stars

This is easily the best story of the issue, and not just because I have a lingering soft spot for dragons from my high school days. Berger’s story of subterranean reptiles and tectonic plates and the destruction of Earth scenarios really puts the realism in magical realism.

Oliver doesn’t know who he is. He woke up in a bus stop with no memories of anything before that moment, and a pretty damn strong wanderlust. Following the pull from California all the way to a small fishing island on the north Pacific, Oliver isn’t sure that he’ll find any answers for the strange tingles of familiarity and flashes of a life previously lived. But one thing he does know is that he doesn’t like the earthquakes that are coming stronger, and more frequent than they have any business doing. And the pretty baker Moira is giving him more attention than any single stranger in a small community ought to get.

The amnesia element of the story gave it a wonderful sense of mystery, and while I wasn’t entirely sold on Moira’s role when she was first introduced, by the end of the story, I was quite attached to her, and more so to Oliver, who is just the sort of helplessly likable character I can easily fall for.

Seven Things Cadet Blanchard Learned from the Trade Summit Incident
Annalee Flower Horne
three and a half

I liked the narrative structure of this one, even if the story itself was short, with a very Scooby-Doo feel to it. Told in the first person by smart-ass cadet Blanchard as a sort of confessional, the events in the story take a distant second to the personality of the characters.

A stink bomb has gone off in Blanchard’s ship, Stinson, right in the middle of a trade summit. As the ship’s resident prankster, she naturally gets blamed for it, but of course, no one believes her when she insists she’s not the one responsible. It falls to her now to explain her side of the story, of how she and her group of plucky friends uncovered the real culprit, and the reasons behind the unfortunately hilarious prank.

The Traveling Salesman Solution
David Erik Nelson
3-stars-out-of-5

Here’s the thing: I distinctly remember studying the traveling salesman problem in university, but either my memory is terrible (always a possibility) or I wasn’t paying attention in class, because I had no idea what the problem was in this story. Understanding the math isn’t necessary to understanding the story, but if you’re like me and like the science in your science fiction to at least be accessible to the layman, it can be a little distracting. It’s possible that I may go back and read this one after glancing through my old textbooks, just to see if I might pick up something more on the second pass.

Being confined to a wheelchair isn’t all that much fun, especially when your brother-in-law is a marathon runner who won’t shut up about his most recent upset. But when our protagonist* gives in and finally agrees to hear the man out, it’s clear that he’s got good reason to be upset. Someone is cheating on marathons, and it looks suspiciously like teleportation.

Don’t ask me to explain any of the technical details of this one as even though there’s a lengthy passage describing it all, I still don’t get it. It was an entertaining read all the same, and the ending was something I absolutely didn’t expect, which earned my respect.

*One of the difficult things about reviewing stories written in first person is that I don’t get a name to latch onto, and when I do, I’m often too engaged with the story to write it down. If I missed the protagonist’s name in this story, my apologies.

End of the World College
Sandra McDonald
3-stars-out-of-5

I wasn’t too impressed with this one at first, but its tongue-in-cheek qualities saved it, in the end. It is, as the title suggests, one massive collection of every doomsday scenario come to life.

Bad things don’t come in threes. They come in hundreds, and they bring about the destruction of the world. But even in these trying times, the value of a good education is undeniable. Thus, the End of the World College is here to serve, and its course calendar neatly explains to readers everything that has gone wrong in the world, and what can be done to continue to survive in it.

I loved the style of this one, but it unfortunately seemed to stray in a few places into a more traditional narrative that bounced me around a bit, and reminded me of the story I was reading. Also, not being a huge fan of post-apocalypticals, this one wasn’t all for me.

The Girls Who Went Below
Cat Hellisen
3-stars-out-of-5

I’ve thought about this one for a while now, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, it has a very unique setting among most fantasy and sci-fi I’ve read, as well as a somewhat unique storyline. However, especially near the end, it felt somewhat uncomfortably familiar, though part of that might be how well Hellisen captures the adolescent experience in fiction.

Lucy and Milly have always been close. As sisters living with their aunt out in South Africa, they’ve had a life far removed from the polite society of an England they don’t know. It seems that nothing can split the two apart. That is until the strange boy Mallery appears in their lives. Suddenly Milly is acting all sorts of strange, and pushing Lucy further and further away. Of course, Lucy isn’t blameless in this as well. As much as she hates Mallery for what he’s doing to her sister, she can’t help but feel there’s something about him…

Deeply disturbing by the end, this is one of those stories that you can see the road its taking. You pray it won’t go where you know it’s going to go (but secretly you want to see the traumatic crash at the end).

The Day of the Nuptial Flight
Sarina Dorie
4 stars

This one surprised me. I really wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did. The alien narration at first put me off, but as the story progressed, I found I liked the characters more and more, even if they story itself is very familiar. I don’t want to talk too much about this one, because the charm of it is definitely in the narration, and it should be taken as a whole. It is a very good story, though.

The Aerophone
Dinesh Rao
two-star-rating

There were a couple things about this story that niggled me as I was reading. Part of it was the language used was in places too cliche for my tastes. (Though, to be fair, in other places the imagery is stunning and very beautiful.) The plot also seemed to be loosely connected and not satisfactorily concluded. Finally, the main character was too inwardly leaning for the direction of the story, I felt. Not introspective or self-centered, per se but for a third person narration that didn’t seem at most points to be particularly close to the main character, only he felt developed. This made the secondary characters’ personalities and actions appear inexplicably erratic and ungrounded. It made me feel as though the protagonist was the only living human among a cast of marionettes.

Shanker is in a bit of a bind, at the moment. His research isn’t going very well, and he’s still struggling with the effects of an accident a few weeks prior. When his wife Julia introduces him to Dr. James, and indirectly, to Dr. James’ research, Shanker’s life takes a turn toward the supernatural. But what possibly could he have expected, blowing into a skull shaped aerophone, he was explicitly told not to blow into? Certainly not whispers and strange visages haunting him in mirrors. But that’s only the beginning.

The Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence 14-22 June, 1818, with Diagrams
Ian Tregillis
five-stars

First of all, I want to point out that this story is disappointingly lacking in any diagrams. I almost knocked a star off just for that, but for the fact that it was amazingly entertaining, with a clear, unique voice, and a trembling tale of seafaring horror. Still wish it actually had those diagrams, though.

Call Samuel Frobisher crazy if you must–certainly everyone else must have already–but he solemnly swears that everything he has written in his report is the truth. It came from the ocean. She… it, whatever it was, it came from the ocean, and bewitched the entire crew. Only an unfortunate accident spared Samuel from her spell, but not from her wrath.

If you like horror and 1800’s sailors’ narratives, this is just the story for you. Again, the story goes where you expect it will go, but it doesn’t bore the reader in the process. In fact you might just feel a slimy tentacle binding you to the pages.

Five Tales of the Aqueduct
Spencer Ellsworth
4 stars

I admit, as much as I enjoy reading surreal fantasy and science fiction, half the time I have no idea what’s going on. I think that’s why I like surrealist fiction, actually. I can disappear for a few pages into the free falling imagination of someone else’s brain, and experience what the disconnected world feels like from a different mind.

Five Tales of the Aqueduct is self explanatory. It’s five tales from the unnatural reservoir in the middle of the Californian desert. The tale takes you from the point of view of a drunk old woman and a talking catfish to a fishing pterosaur; from a young man and his elusive dream girl to a politician and a talking koi; and finally, all the way back to a catfish again.

Belly
Haddayr Copley-Woods
4 stars

I have a soft spot for fairytales, even dark, horror tinged fairytales (as most of the early ones were anyway). Belly, with its disgusting imagery, its helpless, trapped feeling, its down to the guts nauseating setting was no different. I loved it. I loved the narration, and the character, and while the ending went to places I hadn’t been expecting, it kept the fairytale feeling throughout the entire story.

Our protagonist has been swallowed by a witch. You’d think that was bad enough, but it’s far from the worst. See, this witch seems bent on making the protagonist’s life hell by swallowing all sorts of fowl, disgusting things, and making the poor girl swim around in it. But went one day a goat swallowed whole nearly thrashes a hole through the witch’s stomach, our protagonist gets an idea. One way or another, she’s escaping, but no one is going to be happy about it.

The Only Known Law
William Alexander
4 stars

This is maybe the most bitter-sweet story in the issue. For a while I was sucked into the protagonist’s indifferent, almost apathetic voice, but this is the trap. I was so moved by the end of the story that I couldn’t read the last one for a few hours while I recovered.

Nicolao doesn’t particularity dislike the jelly-like alien puttering around in a nutrient tank in his lab, but he doesn’t particularly like it either. Or maybe it’s just because his wife Yaretzi is going down to a new, uncolonized planet without him. And no, he doesn’t want to go with her. But Yaretzi is big on taking risks, and there’s nothing Nicolao can do about it except wait. And talk to this strange little alien Messenger who has some secrets to reveal, when it’s good and ready.

A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i
Alaya Dawn Johnson
three and a half

In A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i, Johnson gives the reader a vampire story that isn’t unlike many other vampire stories that have been written. We still have a protagonist who, for most of the story, longs to be a vampire and is in requisite love with one (I suppose that vampires are good at inducing Stockholm syndrome). The vampires themselves reminded me of those from the movie 30 Days of Night, which also placed the undead blood suckers in an unfamiliar environment. It is the Asia-Pacific setting that injects any newness into the story, and keeps it fresh enough to make it palatable. What endeared me to this story wasn’t the vampire element, or the human element–I’ve read that story before–but the Hawai’ian setting, and the way, as the title suggests, that fruit plays its part in preserving what remains of the human spirit.

Key is an overseer at a middle grade feeding facility for vampires. They’ve come, they’ve conquered, and now humans all over the world are but bottles in an endless bar chain. For Key’s part, being an overseer is better than being a bottle, but she still longs to see the man she loves, a vampire, perhaps the vampire who started all this on her Hawai’ian islands. When one of the humans in her care slashes up his veins and bleeds out all over the floor, Key might just get a chance. Her boss Mr. Charles sends her to investigate a similar suicide at the high end facility her vampire love Tetsuo runs.

The next book on my reading list is The Essential Bordertown edited by Terri Windling and Delia Sherman.

Blending Arts

Today was supposed to be my first day back at work after a week long holiday. Then my student caught a cold and my class was cancelled, so woohoo! Extended holiday! Armed with a cup of tea and an empty house, I did what I’d been doing for the last week: I was creatively productive for Bone Wall. I tickled out another 1700 words today and that combined with what I wrote over the break put me at just over 33,000. Awesome. But it’s still only a fifth of my word goal, which is actually a good thing considering I’m 33k in and I still haven’t gotten my main character’s butt out the door.

To be fair, things are a little rough in that protagonist role I gave him. Specifically, he doesn’t have all the much to do in the first half of my outline. Mostly, things happen around him that frustrate him until he does something stupid. Which is fine. But set up needs to happen via the other characters, and one of them in particular became so amazing that I accidentally gave her an 8000 word chapter, all for herself. For real.

That chapter wasn’t even supposed to be there. It wasn’t written into the outline at all, but a she had to take a three day journey through the desert that I had originally intended to be a time jump until I realized hey, this is a good opportunity to set down some scenery and toss in a few world building seeds for later. Well, it turns out that those seeds grew like hyperactive bamboo, and the next thing I knew, I had a whole other subplot in my arms, wailing and soiling itself. Fortunately it’s an easy enough thing to tie into the main plot later on, however, I now have 8000 words devoted to a secondary character, while my protagonist, for all intents and purposes, is at home twiddling his thumbs. It’s a problem, and I’m struggling to find things for him to do.

“Well, why don’t you just make the more interesting character the protagonist?” I hear you say in my mind, because my readers have suddenly become telepathic.  The answer to that is, because the secondary character has nothing to do in the second half of the book, and the protagonist is running around having all the cool adventures. It’s a tag team; they’re working together to frustrate me now, and I won’t have it! Hardship and turmoil all around. That’ll teach ‘em.

Return_of_Syn_by_SynSpyder

Because I had a week to kill and no plans to go anywhere or do anything other than turn my brain off and drool for a couple days, I thought I’d flex my art fingers and do some sketches for my WIP. Drawing is a nice way to relieve some pent up creative energy that won’t go easily into writing. Mostly, I wanted to do some costume design. I have a sort of a vague notion of what the cultural costumes for the characters are, but because I’m absolute shit at retaining images in my head for more than a few seconds, it really doesn’t hep me unless I can physically see what I’m trying to describe. It also doesn’t help that every single costume book I’ve bought has this bizarre idea that, aside from France and England (and the rest of the western European counties to a lesser extent) no one else in the world wore clothes.

Anyway, I’ve based my designs on what I could scrounge up on Pinterest of Turkish costumes, as those are as close as I can get to the vision in my head. At the moment they borrow heavily, but I can’t branch out creatively until I fully understand the root of what I’m drawing.

Before I self-consciously reveal my artistic soul to the whole, cruel internet, there’s a few things you should know:

1) I’m not phenomenally good at visual art. It’s not a skill I’ve spent a lot of time honing in recent years. As a child, I drew and drew and painted and painted, and there were some offers to attend art school and all that, but my father told me again and again that there was no future in art, and I stupidly believed him. (Lesson here, kids: if anyone tells you that you’re a fool for pursuing what you love, stick your fingers firmly into your ears and shout “LALALALALALACAN’THEARYOU!”). Anywho, in the end I decided I wanted to be a writer more than I wanted to be a painter, or a banker, or a veterinarian, and so I’m aware that my art will never make it into any beautiful galleries. I’m fine with that. (Really *sniff* I am *sniff*.)

2) Copics aren’t my usual medium. I get the most satisfaction with the finished product of my artwork from pencil or acrylic. But I now live next to an art store (just as dangerous as living next to a bookstore, believe me) and a whole world of medium has opened up to me. Copics are a sort of alcohol based marker that are more versatile than regular old Crayola felt pens. You have more control over transparency and blends and they can combine to form some really cool visual effects. I like working with Copics when I want to put some quick color onto a drawing, or experiment with color combos, but I am by no means fluent in their use. I’m a two year old finger-painting on the wall with my own diaper leavings compared to some of the art that can be drawn up with them.

3) These were mostly done as an experiment in design and color. Not a great deal of planning went into any of the designs here. I messed around with different pens and markers until I got something close to satisfactory, and changed my strategy for each new picture I did.

So, with that in mind, here is the product of three days of tinkering:

IMG_1742I started with this one. At this point I was just messing around, considering how my characters might dress. It’s not all that spectacular.
Things I Learned:
– I really need to find my outlining pens. Regular permanent markers bleed like a stuck pig when used with Copics.
– The colorless blending marker is not very good at blending. It is, however, somewhat decent at highlighting, if you can control the bleed.
– Textured paper is no good for Copics.
– Small detail work in a vastly different color needs to be done with another medium. Copics bleed together too easily. Probably because of the paper.
– I’m not skilled enough to make large shoes not look like large feet.
– I need to learn how to draw proper folds in clothing.

 

 

IMG_1744This one I had much more success with. I had a mission: to actually create something aesthetically pleasing. Something with some cool design elements. Something flashy. I ended up flubbing the pencil sketch, but the coloring turned out all right.
Things I Learned:
– As much as I shudder at assigning different poses to different sexes, drawing a noblewoman in a skirt with her legs spread looks awkward.
– Boobs mess up perspective.
– Either a cloth is all the way shear, or all the way opaque. Combining the two looks confusing.
– Light source is important.
– As is knowing the direction of the cloth fall.
– The colorless blender is boss at making something look like damask or brocade. Especially when used with a jell or milk pen.
– Reds bleed like, well, blood. It’s very messy.

 

IMG_1746With this final picture, I had a lot clearer picture in my head when I started it. I went in it with some clear ideas as to what I wanted the final product to look like.
Things I Learned:
– Screw finding my old outlining pens. Let’s by a new, expensive Copic drawing pen… that bleeds just as badly as the permanent marker.
– Even if you’ve got no other shade to use for shadows, don’t go with one that’s radically darker than your base palette.
– It doesn’t matter if it works in the photograph, the design has to make sense on your own page.
– Don’t get lazy with shading and highlights.
– White milk pen makes amazing patterns for cloth.
– Lighter Copic colors are easier to work with than darker ones.
– Outlining designs in fabric doesn’t work. Line art is best reserved for outside boundaries only.
– Don’t use shadows sparingly. There are three different shades for each color for a reason.

So that was a little view of my artistic endeavors for the week.

How do you blow creative steam?
Have you ever had a story hijacked by a side character? What did you do about it?

 

Home for the Holidays

Originally posted on Out of Print:

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Home for the Holidays
N J Magas

All her neighbors were already in the streets, but Mariko was still pacing in front of her window, watching their lantern lit outlines disappear into the darkness. Laughter and light conversation trailed after them as the crowds thinned and finally left the cobbled road deserted. Mariko let the curtain fall away from her hand and tapped her fingers against the sill impatiently.

“Hurry up Tetsuyo! Everyone is leaving!”

“Now hold on, I can’t find my hat.”

Oh, just leave it.

“It’s over by the window, next to the lilies.” Mariko poked her head out the door. Stragglers who trickled out of their homes hurried to catch up with the crowd and were quickly lost from sight. If Mariko and her husband tallied any longer, there wouldn’t be a seat for them on the boat.

“I looked there. It’s not—Oh, there it is. Now…

View original 2,827 more words

The Book of the Courtier: Afterthoughts

The Book of the Courtier
Baldesar Castiglione
189 pages (269 with afterword and references)

3-stars-out-of-5

 

For a book that’s only 189 pages long, it took a really, really long time to get through this one. Partly because it’s very dense, and partly because it was originally written in the early 1500’s, so much of the book drags in elegant language that tends to lose my twenty-first century attention span. It picked up in the middle where the dialogue gets heated, but it still took me close to two hours to get through twenty pages. In short, it’s not a book that lends itself well to casual reading.

the book of the courtierI’d say that I’m about to spoil this for you, if I was 100% sure that I understood it all.

To begin with, I liked The Prince better, if only because Machiavelli actually gives advice on how to be a good ruler, where The Book of the Courtier only goes as deep as “One ought to be good and fair”. How does one be good and fair? By doing good and fair things, obviously. It’s not very helpful in a lot of respects, but I suppose there aren’t many people these days who need to know how to be a good courtier or an effective prince.

The Book of the Courtier is a courtesy book, which is to say, a book meant to teach the reader about manners. What it has ended up being for modern scholars and historians is a great look into the life and times of the Italian court in the early Renaissance. Castiglione wrote the book as an extended letter, in four parts with each part representing a different night on which these dialogues supposedly took place. Now, apparently the people in the book are all real, however the dialogues themselves are fictional. The edition I read (pictured above) helpfully lists the characters in the beginning of the book. They are as follows:

Elisabeth Gonzaga: Duchess of Urbino, hostess of the dialogues.
Emilia Pia: Elisabeth’s friend, court agitator.
Ludovico da Conossa: Count, relative of Castiglione; another court agitator.
Giuliano de’ Medici (Magnifico): exile from Florance; highly suspected of participating in the dialogues to get laid.
Ottaviano Fregoso: suspected mysogynist.
Peitro Bembo: very much a poet; possibly also in this to get laid.
Cesare Gonzaga: relative of Elisabeth; possessor of good sense.
Gaspar Pallavicino: Count; most definitely a mysogynist.
Lots of other men and women who didn’t impress me enough to mention.

The dialogues begin when the courtiers present get tired of dancing and singing and music playing and all come together to play a game, which in this case means, ‘let’s sit together and nettle each other under the pretense of a debate’, which is pretty much how I watch movies with friends. The more things change. For a while the courtiers can’t decide what the heck it is that they want to talk about, all topics apparently having been exhausted, or being too exhausting. The Duchess puts the decision of what the night’s entertainment is to be to her companion Emilia, who immediately becomes drunk on power and takes cheap shots at the men as they give their suggestions. Finally–and with some exasperation–it is suggested that they talk about what the perfect courtier might look like, and Emilia jumps on the suggestion, and puts to task the poor man who suggests it. Honestly, I didn’t really like Emilia until Gaspar opened his mouth, which is kind of like disliking cabbage moths in your garden until you discover the wasp nest in your attic.

The first part of The Book of the Courtier is rather short and mostly deals with what the perfect courtier ought to be skilled in, which is pretty much everything. I mean, these are the first things you’d think of when putting together the perfect man: he’s got to be athletic in all the popular sports, given to masculinity over femininity, though he must also be sensitive and courteous, and well learned and well read, intelligent and prudent, likable and generous, skilled in the arts etc. etc. Draw up your vision of Prince Charming and that’s pretty much the beginning part of this book.

The second part of the book slides into the topic of how a courtier ought to speak to the various people in his life. This ends up becoming a very long (very long) discussion on what humor is, and all the different kinds of humor. And it wouldn’t be a good discussion if they didn’t include examples of each kind of humor, from puns to practical jokes. I’m sure the jokes were hilarious (actually no, a great deal of this chapter was very, very unfunny) except that the punch lines were in Italian, and so all the humor was lost on me. The chapter ends with the courtiers regaling each other with all the times they behaved like asshats at the expense of someone else. This, too, is apparently incredibly funny. However, Gaspar then decides to bring the entire mood of the evening down by suggesting that it’s totally unfair that women can play practical jokes on men, but men can’t play practical jokes on women. At which point a few of the other courtiers point out that it’s not really fair to play those kinds of jokes on women, seeing that men don’t lose much in the joking, but women stand to lose their honor, which, let’s face it guys, is all that women have of worth. But Gaspar has had his sudden woman rage ignited and won’t let this issue go, so he keeps railing on how unfairly women treat men, until finally Elisabeth says, “Since Gaspar can’t seem to find anything nice to say about women, one of you guys needs to step up and tell us what the perfect court lady is like.” (I paraphrase, of course.) This causes the assembled men of court to collectively pale and shit their pants, and request that the discussion be held off until the next night. Elisabeth and Emilia agree, and the evening is called to a close. One assumes that Gaspar is later given a swirly in a chamber pot by all the other men for getting them involved in his bullshit.

Part three is probably the most amusing portion of the book. It’s certainly the part I was most awake for. Emilia opens the conversation requesting that someone defend the honor of women from their enemies (Gaspar and Ottaviano, who takes his side). Throughout this, Gaspar continues to insist that he’s not an enemy of women, and that, in fact, he’s doing them a favor by telling them how truly inferior and wretched they are, instead of heaping on ‘false’ praises. At this point, the eyebrows of everyone in the court are raised at him and Ottaviano in an expression of Really, dude? Finally, the Magnifico has enough of Gaspar’s unfettered mysogyny, and takes it upon himself to give example after example after historical, literary and courtly example of how women are at least as accomplished, capable, intelligent and ruthless as men are. Apparently no one ever told Magnifico not to argue with the trolls. Predictably, Gaspar meets each of Magnifico’s examples with a host of logical fallacies and goal post shifting. Gaspar says women are weak; Magnifico gives him examples of women being strong; Gaspar says women are overly passionate; Magnifico gives him examples of women’s temperance; Gaspar says women are too cold; Magnifico gives him examples of women who have gone to incredible lengths for love; Gaspar says women are naturally inferior, and onward ad infinitum. Here are a few of my favorite moments from part three, again paraphrased:

Duchess: Ok, we’ve spent two nights talking about the perfect courtier. Since Gaspar wants to be an ass about it, you all have to talk about what the perfect court lady is like.
Courtiers: *pale* We…. we couldn’t presume to–
Duchess: I’m waiting.
Courtiers: But–
Duchess: Are you unable to?
Courtiers: Well, no, but–I mean… we could describe the perfect woman, but she would be a queen, not a court lady.
Gaspar: She doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as a perfect woman, because they’re all incompetent and stupid.
Emilia: So, which of you fine and noble gentlemen is going to defend us against our enemy here?
Gaspar: Hey, I’m not your enemy.
Magnifico: *steps in to give 30 pages of examples of worthy women in history*
Gaspar: Like all women, they do things in extremes. You’d never find a man doing things in extremes. Also, current stories or they never happened.
Duchess: I notice, Gaspar, that over the previous two nights you never once raised an objection that all these fine and noble traits of our phantom courtier can’t be actually all be found in one man today, yet when Magnifico gives up examples of what a perfect lady might be, you’re quick to jab in “No such lady exists today.”
Frisio: I’ve never heard of any of the women you’re talking about, Magnifico, so your evidence is invalid.
Magnifico: You’re all retarded.
Gaspar: Women are stupid, imperfect defects of nature.
Duchess: Gaspar, I’m sitting right here.
Gaspar: I beg your pardon, my lady, but it’s true.
Magnifico: Dude, you seriously hate women.
Gaspar: No I don’t.
Magnifico: You totally do. You can’t say a single line about them without laying on the hate.
Gaspar: Look, it’s true that women are imperfect, and stupid, and without good reason or judgement, but they can’t help it, nature made them that way, thus, I accept that, and respect them for their natural deficiencies.
Magnifico: You are such a mysogynist.
Gaspar: I’m not, I’m just telling the truth, unlike you who unkindly flatter them.
Duchess: Still sitting right here, Gaspar.
Gaspar: Women will never be as perfect as men.
Magnifico: Are you serious? Here’s ten pages on how you’re wrong.
Gaspar: And here’s a paragraph on how husbands are abused by their wives.
Magnifico: Are you F***ING kidding me?! We’ve institutionalized women into a weaker role than men and you villainize them for occupying the role WE put them in?
Gaspar: Women are stupid, imperfect defects of nature.
Magnifico: ARGH!  I’m tired of talking about this. My Lady Duchess, can I stop debating with idiots now?
Gaspar: He only wants to stop because he can’t think of anything else good to say about women.
Magnifico: I could do this all night, Gaspar. You wanna take this outside?!

Gaspar: The greatest virtue of a woman is her chastity, without which no one could be certain where his children came from. That’s why women aren’t permitted loose living as men are.
Magnifico: I have no argument there, Gaspar, but tell me, why is it that we only say that women ought not to live loosely? Surely if men were as perfect as you say they are they should find it easy to live chastely as well. See, the thing is, we men make the rules, and we make them in such a way as to make ourselves blameless of everything we do, while sitting in a position to cast blame on women, as you do now, who are unable to defend themselves.

Frisio: You speak in generalities, give us some specific examples of virtuous women.
Cesare: *Gives several specific examples of virtuous women*
Frisio: Just because one woman is virtuous, doesn’t make all of them virtuous.
Cesare & Magnifico: =__=;

Cesare: You guys keep railing on women, saying that their appetites are so much stronger than men so that we have to put a bridle on them to keep them pure and chaste, yet ignore all the countless ways that men then attempt to lure women away from their chastity; with flattery, guile, threats, entreats, and violence even!
Gaspar: *Opens his mouth to retort*
Ottoviano: Oh, for the love of God, just let him have this argument, Gaspar! You’re not doing yourself any favors. All the women and most of the men already look ready to knife you in your sleep.
Gaspar: Hey, they should be thanking me! If I hadn’t goaded Magnifico and Cesare so much they’d never have heard all the praises and flattery of women.

So, yeah. Part three is a full of all the mysogyny and arguments for equality that we still see today. The more things change, am I right? By the end of this bickering between Gaspar and Magnifico, everyone is pretty exhausted, so they leave off on their chosen topic for the night again, tasking Ottaviano to speak finally on how a courtier ought to behave in regard to his prince, and how he must behave in love–both in youth and in old age. Ottaviano ends up arriving so late to the party that everyone figures he’s chickened out on the thing and prepares to just dance the night away. When he finally does arrive (likely hoping that everyone has forgotten all about his topic) the court immediately sits again to resume their conversation. Ottaviano pretty much describes that the courtier’s job in relation to his prince is to instruct him in all ways to be a good leader, which is fine and dandy until Magnifico points out that in doing so, he makes himself greater than the prince, which is unbecoming. A few conversation tangents later and they’re discussing the spiritual nature of beauty, and how (bizarrely) all beautiful people are automatically good and all ugly people are automatically evil. Unsurprisingly, Gaspar leaps in with some more mysogynistic comments, but is told to sit down and shut it, because everyone has heard enough out of him. Peitro has a sort of religious experience while describing beauty, and becomes so overcome by his own words that he turns it into a sermon (small wonder he later becomes a cardinal), and has everyone else so transfixed that they want to hear more, but he says the spirit that moved him has gone, and that is the end of the dialogues. Except that Gaspar tries to throw in a few more jabs at women, and Elisabeth warns him he’s on thin ice.

The Book of the Courtier was interesting from a historical point of view, and in a small way for picking up some cues for voice when writing nobility, but as a pleasure read it was dull and dragged in too many places to get through easily. It’s a good book for academics, not so good for anyone who wants to read an actual story.

The next book on my reading list is The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction July/Aug guest edited by C.C. Finlay.