Tag Archives: book reviews

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K Le Guin

The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle, #2)The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is the sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea, and it is di fferent in some important respects. First, it is about a female — Le Guin says, in the Afterword to the edition I read, that this was her third novel, and she hadn’t written a female protagonist yet. Second, it has a stable setting. In the former, Sparrowhawk goes through much of Earthsea, giving a sort of ‘Quest’ narrative that also establishes the world. In this book, the girl once named Tenar stays in one place almost the entire story. Third, the Kargites amongst whom the narrative mostly takes place are suspicious of magic, whereas the people of Sparrowhawk’s culture are regular users.

Like its predecessor, this is a story of becoming, of ‘coming of age’ as they say. It is about the high priestess of the Nameless Ones — ancient, malevolent Powers whose cultural heyday is past but who are very real nonetheless. This priestess herself is nameless, having had her name eaten in a ceremony at six years of age. Here we see the violent, scarred edge of religion. It is a potent force of existence throughout the novel.

This priestess has her world of women and eunuchs and the Powers challenged by the appearance of a man, a sorcerer, a wizard, in the vast labyrinth of dread beneath the temple precinct. She had thought the Nameless Ones would have destroyed him. He had come seeking an object of power left by another wizard long ago. Her duty as priestess is to kill him, but she cannot bring herself to do it.

In the end, priestess and wizard rely on each other to survive. Here is a great lesson. Le Guin notes that some criticised her, saying that the lesson of the novel is that women cannot do anything without men. That is not the lesson, for Sparrowhawk needs Tenar as much as she needs him. The lesson is that both sexes need each other.

Myself, I did not think on gender dynamics at all. Obviously, Sparrowhawk relies on Tenar for his survival. But my view of his relationship to her where she relies on him as well struck me more as that of wise sage and young person on the cusp of personal discovery, in quest of true wisdom. Obi-Wan Kenobi, I guess?

Anyway, this is possibly too vague a review because I’m trying not to give away too much of the plot. Trust me, though. This is a good sequel. I have put The Farthest Shore on hold at the library.

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A review of Anne of Windy Poplars

Anne of Windy Poplars (Anne of Green Gables, #4)Anne of Windy Poplars by L.M. Montgomery
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the last-written Anne book, from 1936. Montgomery has gone back and filled in some missing time between Anne of the Island and Anne’s House of Dreams. Cynically, one imagines this either to be a money grab or a result of ongoing demand for Anne books despite Montgomery’s preference for writing other things. Anyway, the book is entertaining.

A lot of things happen. Anne seems to somehow be the confidante of a multitude of young women, each of whom tends to only appear for one episode in which something interesting, amusing, what-have-you occurs. This is not Avonlea, where there was at least consistency amongst Anne’s circle. Beyond the women with whom she lives and little Elizabeth, very few characters stay for more than one episode. Of those who do, Katherine Brooke is potentially the most interesting. Indeed, one could wish simply for her to have her own book with added depth of character rather than being one of many side interests in an Anne book.

There is no main plot, either — there is one arc that comes to a satisfactory closing less than a third of the way in, and then there are the subplots of little Elizabeth and Katherine Brooke.

Despite its plotlessness, this book is entertaining, which is what most people come to Anne books for. I enjoyed it, and I am not its main audience (I am a 36-year-old man with no daughters). Anne is the same as she ever was. There are many references to the Romantics as well as, of course, Romantic imaginings stepping through the prosaic via symbol into the beauty of mystery — high and mighty, one wishes to invoke Coleridge, but there is nothing so stark as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in Anne novels.

The most important theme tying together these many young women as well as the subplots of little Elizabeth and Katherine, not to mention the widows as well as the affection that binds Anne to Gilbert, is the power of friendship. Having a Friend can soften the hard exterior. Friendship can awaken the imagination to greater possibilities. These are themes worth anyone’s time, whether 12-year-old girls (whom I imagine to be the main Anne audience) or 36-year-old men.

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A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (a quick review)

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book drew me in early on and then gripped and seized me until I was done. It follows the early life of the wizard Sparrowhawk (one does not utter a wizard’s true name lightly), briefly recounting his childhood and then more time on his training, and then the dire quest that sets him forth through much of the Archipelago of Earthsea. This quest is his alone, for he himself unleashed a darkness that he alone can vanquish. Unlike so much high fantasy, this darkness will not destroy the earth. If Sparrowhawk fails, there will be terrible consequences, but the world will not be consumed in fire or flood. Part of what makes the quest aspect of the second half appealing is the fact that Sparrowhawk does not necessarily know where he is meant to go.

So much for an unrevealing plot synopsis. I like the book too much to spoil the plot for the curious!

I am enamoured of Le Guin’s style in this book. From the first it reads like a folktale. You feel like you are sitting around a fire listening to someone tell you the story. It is beguiling.

I also like the way magic works here. It requires power on the part of the mage, but also knowledge of the true name of something. Names bear power in Earthsea.

You also get a sense of there being different cultures throughout the Archipelago as well as ethnicities. Moreover, I think this is a technologically bronze age fantasy. Pretty rare. Most are thoroughly faux-mediaeval.

I look forward to The Tombs of Atuan.

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Review: The Greek Tragedies, Vol. 1 (3rd ed.)

Greek Tragedies 1: Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound; Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone; Euripides: HippolytusGreek Tragedies 1: Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound; Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Antigone; Euripides: Hippolytus by David Grene
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(This review is of the third edition.) I assigned this anthology for students in my Greek and Roman mythology class. My review will be in three parts: 1. The translation and paratextual apparatus. 2. The selection of texts. 3. The plays themselves.

1. The translation and paratextual apparatus

Like the series from which these translations come, The Complete Greek Tragedies, these are readable, poetic renderings by translator-poets. The original editors of the volume, David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, translated four out of the five themselves (Grene: Prometheus Bound, Oedipus the King, and Hippolytus; Lattimore: Agamemnon) and Elizabeth Wyckoff translated the fifth play, Sophocles’ Antigone. These translations are both poetic and smooth, and they avoid the awkwardness of, for example, Fagles putting ‘Aieee!’ into people’s mouths to translate ‘Aiai!‘.

My one concern is that in this third edition, the new editors, Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most, have taken it upon themselves not only to update the introductions and notes, but the translations as well. They claim that they have made the translations more accurate. I do not have time to sit down with the second and third editions and the Greek texts, but I am skeptical about this claim, solely on the grounds that poetic meaning and poetic diction are not always properly separable, and one Greek word or phrase may have multiple English renderings (of which I’m sure Griffith and Most are aware). I fear that this is more of the humanities slipping towards a false certainty of ‘accuracy’ derived from the sciences.

Paratextually, I am not fond of endnotes in the first place. Endnotes that are marked by a symbol in the main text that requires you to hunt and hunt I like less. This, however, is the name of the game for popular level translations of the classics, as seen in Penguin and Oxford World’s Classics as well. I found the introductions just what an undergrad needs — basic information, quick, snappy not too long. Finally, I am not so fond of rendering the sung parts of the plays in italics. A fourth edition should think of something else, although I think the rubrics should be enough.

2. The selection of texts

This is a good volume for someone who wants to try out Greek tragedies or for a class like mine that is giving a taster of classical literature — Aeschylus’ and Sophocles’ most famous plays are here, Agamemnon and Prometheus Bound for the former, and Oedipus the King and Antigone for the latter. I would have expected Medea or Bacchae from Euripides rather than Hippolytus. In fact, one weakness of the selection is the fact that we get only five plays; two from each playwright would have made sense. Euripides, who exists in larger quantity, gets short shrift. The only problem with selection is endemic to anthologies — we get Agamemnon but not the rest of the Oresteia, for example; but at least that’s the best play of the three.

3. The plays themselves

Agamemnon by Aeschylus begins the volume. Here you meet straight up the fact that all the action happens off-stage in a Greek tragedy. This is the story of the homecoming of the Greek general from Troy to an unjoyous reunion with his wife, Clytemnestra, and his cousin, Aegisthus. Machinations are afoot, and vengeance is found. Clytemnestra has the reputation of being the most evil woman in Greek literature, but if your husband sacrificed your daughter to a goddess before going off to war for ten years, then came home with a concubine, I think you’d be a bit ticked off as well. Hubris and inescapable necessity (anangke) are the themes here.

Then Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. This play opens with Prometheus getting chained to a rock and then having conversations with passersby, explaining why he was chained there and what it will take to unchain him. The main theme is the power of Zeus. The confrontation between Prometheus and Zeus, it must be remembered, is between two gods. So, unlike the Romantics’ reading of the play, there is no railing against divine (in)justice here. Rather, since we are beholding ontological equals in conflict, the question of ancient Greek tyranny is much more germane than whether Olympian Zeus was a tyrant in relation to humans. Along the way, the myth of Io is also told; I’d hate to see a film version of this with a CG cow delivering Io’s lines.

Oedipus the King is Sophocles’ famous rendering of the myth of Oedipus, a story known to most of us because of Sigmund Freud. The play is a masterpiece, as demonstrated by Aristotle’s Poetics. The confrontations with Oedipus from the beginning of the play to when he blinds himself demonstrate his own unwillingness to acknowledge the limits of his knowledge. Relentlessly, he pursues the truth, drawing the circle around himself as the murderer of Laius tighter and tighter until the moment of recognition (anagnorisis) comes, bringing the main character’s fall.

After the events of Oedipus, there is a civil war between his sons (recounted in its own way in Aeschylus’ play Seven Against Thebes, which is in Aeschylus II). When the civil war is over, the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices lie dead on the battlefield before Thebes. Creon, their uncle and Oedipus’ brother-in-law/uncle, is now king. He decrees that Polynieces is not to be buried since he waged war against his own fatherland.

Here begins Sophocles’ Antigone. I have a soft spot for this play, since it was the first piece of classical literature I read, back in high school (the second, in the summer before Grade 12, was the translation of Homer’s Odyssey by Robert Fagles). Here we see the conflict between natural/divine law on the one hand and man-made law on the other. Even though the play was written before Oedipus, Sophocles is consistent in his characterisation of Creon — a man who did not want to become king because of the worries it would create. In this play, he grows in paranoia until he breaks and relents too late to stop a triple suicide. Powerful in its portrayal of female confrontation with authority.

The volume closes with Euripides’ Hippolytus. Here the theme is love, and love gone wrong. Hippolytus rejects Aphrodite, so she makes his step-mother, Phaedra, fall in love with him. Contrary to the positive portrayal of romantic love in pop songs and Hollywood, Euripides presents us with an elemental, amoral, at times immoral force that brings destruction all around it.

All five plays are masterpieces of Greek literature.

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Tonight I finished The Silmarillion

First-edition cover, George Allen & Unwin, art by Tolkien (a heraldic device for Lúthien). Click the image for copyright info.

Having put our son to bed, my wife and I were preparing to have Grendel’s favourite snack* with a cup of tea, and discussing our relaxation plans for the evening. I said I wanted a cup of tea because I was almost done The Silmarillion. She said she was impressed. It’s not that impressive that I’ve read all those other boring because I had to read them. But she tried The Silmarillion and didn’t finish.

So did I. Twice.

Or was that three times?

I have to say, it takes a particular kind of Tolkien fan to like this more than The Lord of the Rings or to be really, really excited about re-reading this book. The Silmarillion is a hard book to get into, especially if (as on my first try) you mistakenly think it is a novel. It is not. It is less of a novel than The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien denies that LotR is a novel, FYI).

This is big mythology written in faux-archaic English from the creation of the world to the end of The Lord of the Rings. (By far, the best faux-archaic English I’ve read yet.) It was edited by Christopher Tolkien (with help from Guy Gavriel Kay) out of the various versions and notes of his father. The elder Tolkien had intended to get this published, but when he brought it to his publisher, he was told to do something more hobbity instead (so we got The Lord of the Rings, praise Ilúvatar!). That is to say — however difficult this book is, unlike some (most? much? all?) of the other posthumous disiecti membra doctoris Christopher has inundated us with over the years, some version of this was meant to see the light of day.

Anyway, this probably makes me seem like I’m down on The Silmarillion, and all the people who do ‘philosophy and fantasy’ or ‘theology and fantasy’ or ‘Tolkien and Northernism’ or what-have-you are preparing to troll me. I’m not.

I really, really like the first few pages. After that, there is a certain amount of slogging to get through to bits that I liked. Interesting stories — like making the trees of light in Valinor, or Melkor riding Ungoliant to undo what the Valar do, or the creation of the Dwarves, or the departing of the Noldor for Middle Earth, or the fight that one guy with a forgettable name had with Morgoth and cut off his foot, or Beren and Lúthien, or the fifth battle against Morgoth, or parts of the extraordinarily long and depressing tale of Túrin, or Earendil, or what-have-you — simmer in the midst of a barrage of names and long non-descriptions of imaginary places that are mostly names of rivers and mountain ranges and the points of the compass with no maps to help.

The interesting stories and parts of stories are really interesting, though. Don’t get me wrong. I even get the depressing ones. In fact, you can see the unsurprising interweaving of Tolkien’s Catholicism and his Anglo-Saxon/Norse philology in some of the depressing parts (which is to say, they have interest!). In The Silmarillion, even the evil, even the discordant notes, works as part of the harmony of the whole — somehow. What Melkor/Morgoth intends for evil, Ilúvatar will have turn out for good in the end.

That is Catholic. Augustinian, even.

But all joy is tinged with sorrow. Happiness has a cutting edge of grief. The elves are fair and wondrous, but also sad. This sort of sorrow runs through a lot of Anglo-Saxon literature.

All of this to say — I enjoyed The Silmarillion overall, whether I can pronounce the titles of its different sections or not.

In the end, I do have mixed feelings about The Silmarillion.

Basically, I feel as though, if I’m going to put this much effort into a book, I’d rather it be actual ancient mythology, and not a philologist’s dream-child. I like it, but I feel that the reward may not be worth the effort of a second reading — for me, at least. Those of you who revel in this book and drool over your print-fresh copies of The Fall of Gondolin — have at it.

*Danishes.

Quick thoughts on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 by John Tiffany
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some brief, spoiler-filled thoughts.

This book is a couple of plays. It reads like plays, and it moves at the pace of plays. That is, plot development is not especially deep. That said, it seems like it would have been brilliant to watch live. It is highly entertaining. As a person who enjoys Harry Potter but not the Harry Potter phenomenon, and who thinks there are other, better children’s fantasy books, it gave me what I wanted.

But what, really, does this add to the Potterverse? Almost nothing. We see an outlandishly happy ending for all the good guys — they grow up to be influential bureaucrats and civil servants, which I think is supposed to be a good thing? And the play basically ends status quo ante bellum.

What does it provide us, then, besides a bit more fun and Voldemort’s daughter? It gives us what plays are good at. Plays — and, really, I only know Greek tragedy and comedy and Shakespeare besides Murder in the Cathedral — are more about characters and psychology than plot. Epics and novels and romances are for plot, films as well.

That’s what this play gets us — we see insight into what it means to be the man who was the Boy Who Lived, to be his son. We have fathers and sons. We have themes of friendship and loyalty and depth of love. We see Draco and Harry become friends because their sons are friends.

So, no, this book won’t really add an ‘eighth story’ like the first seven. But it adds something, some depth as well as glimpses of what life could have been.

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The Mammoth Book of Pirates

The Mammoth Book Of PiratesThe Mammoth Book Of Pirates by Jon E. Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The real world of pirates, buccaneers, corsairs, was (is) not glamorous or romantic but violent, bloody, and dastardly. And, I think, probably boring much of the time. In this volume, Jon E. Lewis has gathered together a wide array of pirate-related material, including many first-hand accounts and narratives close in time to the events. I was not expecting this — I thought it would be modern retellings, but I am glad for the diversity found here.

Indeed, this book starts with Sir Francis Drake’s own account of his raid on Nombre de Dios. In here you will also find eyewitness accounts of the vile cruelty wrought by Sir Henry Morgan. The lives and criminal exploits of the famous pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy are all included here — Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, Anne Bonney and Mary Read, and Lafitte. There are also stories of maroonings, which are quite interesting, one of which was the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. The volume ends with two appendices. One is the entirety of Byron’s narrative poem The Corsair, the other is from anti-piracy law in Britain, c. 1724.

Alongside the various first-hand accounts are many extracts from Charles Ellms and Howard Pyle. Ellms can tend towards tedious detail, unfortunately, combined with moralising. Thus, entire courtroom speeches are included.

One of the writers included here who is as close to firsthand as we get for many of these pirates is Capt. Charles Johnson. Lewis neglects to mention the fact that Johnson is a pseudonym for an as-yet insecurely identified London publisher in the 1700s, and much of what he writes is probably fiction.

Finally, a lot of what goes on in piracy is dull. That is, it is unremarkable. They sail hither and yon. They board vessels. Fighting ensues. People die. Goods are stolen. Repeat. There is a sameness to the narratives herein. No fault of Lewis, mind you. There is really only so many ways to tell the same story with different actors.

In the end, my favourite is still Capt. Kidd.

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