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Fri, 1 May 2009

April 2009 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In April 2009, I read the following books:

1. Alamein to Zem Zem, by Keith Douglas

This first-hand account of the battle of El Alamein by a tank commander who was also a well-regarded poet is well worth reading. While it is rather more gung-ho, the closest parallel I can think of is some of Wilfred Owen's poetry from the Western Front of the previous round of Unpleasantness. I was particularly struck by something that is very common in real military memoirs but almost entirely absent from fictional ones: that soldiers - even officers - rarely know what's going on, are frequently confused, spend far more time waiting around than they do fighting, and that their biggest enemy is often the environment as opposed to the other side's soldiers. Some of the confusion seeps through to the pages. In a very short book, it is sometimes hard to keep track of who is who in Douglas's squadron, but whereas in a work of fiction that would be terribly important, in this true account it really doesn't matter - the overall impression is what counts. In short, this is one of the few books that I can whole-heartedly recommend to absolutely everyone, no matter whether your normal diet is great literature or formulaic pot-boiler thrillers. Buy it. Now.

2. The Iliad, by Homer

This is the third time I've read this. Well, the third time I've started reading it, and the second time I've finished it. The first was when I was at school, when we had to translate the first book from Latin into English. I hated it because I resented "wasting my time" on Latin - something that I deeply regret now. The second was an English prose translation, and I hated it, for reasons that I shall enumerate later. This time was, again, an English prose translation (the Project Gutenberg edition, translated by Samuel Butler) and this time the things that I hated previously were merely irritating, although Butler introduces a new irritation.

That new irritation is that although he's translating a Greek tale from Greek into English - not going via an intermediate Latin rendering - he uses Roman names for the gods, whereas I'm more familiar and comfortable with Greek names. And worse, Jupiter is rendered in the English familiar form Jove. Grrr. But perhaps his late-Victorian audience preferred his way. 'Tis a very minor quibble.

But on to the work itself. It is a story of a small part of the final stages of a war in antiquity between the peoples of Greece (confusingly called by three different interchangeable names none of which is "Greeks" - irritation number one) and the Trojans, who are these days thought to be Hittites living in what is now Turkey. This took place (and there is some archaeological evidence for the war of the story being at least partially based on real history) in the late 1100s BC, when bronze was still the metal of choice with iron being rare and valuable - at one point a noble defeated in combat says "take me alive ... and you shall have a ransom ... of gold, bronze and wrought iron". There are no iron weapons. The story concentrates on relationships between people, interspersed with bloody combat, the most important relationship being between Agamemnom, leader of the Greek army, and Achilles, his mightiest warrior. Agamemnon dishonours Achilles, who then instead of fighting goes and sulks in his tent. His absence allows the Trojans, lead on the field by Hector, to almost drive the Greeks into the sea, while the Greek leaders spend at least as much time sulking, arguing, and trying in vain to patch up Agamemnon and Achilles' relationship. Eventually, Achilles permits his close friend Patroclus to fight wearing Achilles' armour. Hector kills Patroclus and so Achilles' desire for personal revenge overcomes his hatred of Agamemnon, so he rejoins the fight, which immediately swings back in the Greeks' favour, and kills Hector. The story ends not with the famous wooden horse and the sacking of Troy (that is covered in other Homeric-era works), but with the funeral of Patroclus and the ransoming and funeral of Hector's body, and the hitherto cold-hearted Achilles thawing somewhat. While the details are obviously archaic, the broad outline - a war serving as background for a study in human weaknesses and stupidity, punctuated by colourful battle scenes - wouldn't be out of place in the ouevre of many a modern writer.

Another strand throughout - less important, but it still adds depth to the tale - is the human players' petty jealousies and bickering being mirrored amongst the gods. They aren't the wise all-knowing beings that modern readers might expect, they are mirrors of humanity, subject to all their faults and while powerful they are still limited by Fate. While they do interfere in the affairs of men, they cannot, when someone is fated to die, do anything about it.

But on to the irritations. There are three major ones. First, characters are not referred to by consistent names. Sometimes Achilles is Achilles, but at others he is "the son of Peleus", for example. This makes it harder for the reader - or in Homer's time the listener - to keep track of who's doing what to who, at least at first. Perhaps this was done to maintain the poet's desired meter in the original, but no modern writer would do it.

The second is that some of the battle scenes degenerate into something similar to the Bible's Book of Begats. These are often of the form X slew Y son of Z, who [biographical note, sometimes quite lengthy], and his armour rang rattling around him. Then X slew P son of Q, who [another biographical note], and his armour rang rattling around him. Then X slew A son of B and C, who [oh god, another biographical note about a minor character whose only appearance is when he gets killed here], and his armour rang rattling around him. If some bard was to narrate that part of the tale at one of my feasts, I'd be shouting "Get on with it!". Again, no modern writer would expect to get away with this - if he tried it, his editor would slap him down.

And finally, there's so much waffle. As the poem was originally delivered orally, I presume that the bard was paid by the hour, and repetitive waffle served to fill his wallet without much work, while also serving to make the story seem comfortable and familiar to the audience. But even so, some of the waffle is really over the top. For example, at one point Hector is looking for his wife Andromache, so asks his women-servants "women, tell me, and tell me true, where did Andromache go when she left the house? Was it to my sisters, or to my brothers' wives? or is she at the temple of Minerva where the other women are propitiating the awful goddess?". Of course, if this episode ever happened, what Hector actually said was "do you know where my wife is?". At another point, Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon, after pausing during the battle to take his freshly dead victim's armour (valuable booty! - remember, bronze, while being a useful substance for armour and weapons was also highly valued), he hangs around for even longer to make a great speech, wittering on for almost a page before rejoining the fray. In reality, he would have said "Hah!". But silliest of all, at a few points, someone will be going on and on and on about how he just killed someone, or how he's about to kill someone, and one of his colleagues will shout "Get on with it!" - only his version of "Get on with it" will be more like "Meriones, hero though you be, you should not speak thus; taunting speeches, my good friend, will not make the Trojans draw away [blah blah long speech blah]".

But those are just irritations. Since the last time I read it, I have gained a greater appreciation for the era and the text, so they no longer really spoil it for me. I can ignore them, skipping over the most tedious bits. I commend this work to you.

3. Sky Coyote, by Kage Baker

In some ways this is an improvement on its predecessor - the minor quibbles I had are largely absent from this sequel and the scene is set solely by action and conversation, not by also adding irritating linguistic tricks. That's not to say that it's great literature though. Far from it in fact. But it's a thoroughly enjoyable light-hearted read.

4. Off Armageddon Reef, by David Weber

As you would expect from reading Weber's other books, the world that he constructs to host his tale is very large, and with few exceptions is consistent and logical. And also as you would expect there's plenty of naval action and people clewing in the top-gallants on the focs'l yards and whatnot. It's a fantasy, but being by Weber it has a sci-fi back-story - one that isn't particularly important to the story itself. The theme for the whole series is fairly obvious - it's going to follow its world through an *ever* so close analogue of our Reformation and Enlightenment, although I suspect that this world will go from galleons to exploring the galaxy in only a coupla hundred years at most. This, the first installment in the series (there's one other volume already published, and the third is due out later this year) was enjoyable. I do worry, however, that he's going to shadow real history rather too closely. The politics and theology we've already seen certainly does. If that's the case, then he's going to try to cram a hell of a lot of material into the books, and in this and in a couple of his Honorverse books he has shown something of a tendency for expository rambling and too much political intrigue. But hey, I enjoyed it anyway, and have already ordered the next book.

But I do have one request for Mr. Weber. Yes, I know you want to show that your story isn't really happening here on Earth and that there's been umpty-hundred years of linguistic drift. But really, changing "Eric" to "Erayk" and "Harold" to "Haarahld" just SUCKS. Please, drop it.

Posted at 00:09 by David Cantrell
keywords: books | culture
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