WHIZBANG! : L. E. Modesitt, Jr. – “The Magic of Recluce” and Robert Jordan – “New Spring”

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WHAMPF! WHUMPF! WANK and CLANK! L. E. Modesitt, Jr.’s “The Magic of Recluce” is more onomatopoeia-friendly than Batman in the ’60s. (Nothing ruins an exciting horseback chase more than the words “cloppedy, cloppedy, dopeddy.”) Also, expect detailed accounts of delicious meals every couple of pages. Not an exaggeration; unless there’s a Game of Thrones cookbook out there (and of course there is) I can’t recall any fantasy book that went back more persistently to the topic of food. YUM YUM MUNCH! If a hypothetical reader can pardon these bizarre, intrusive stylistic ticks (and I couldn’t), then that hypothetical reader can settle in for the first of 18 or so novels in the Saga of Recluce, one of the premiere fantasy series of the ’90s… and one of the least talked about, a mere two decades later.

Told in the first person, in a simple style that avoids the overwrought medievalism of many a Tolkien imitator, this book sometimes sounds like what would happen if Kazuo Ishiguro wrote high fantasy. Young Lerris must choose between the boredom of perfection in the town of Wandernaught, or the danger of excitement  in the “Dangergeld.” Of course he chooses the latter, and winds up in a school of magic that presages both the Night Watch and Hogwarts, (there’s even changing portraits on the walls.) During class, clueless Lerrys learns about the evil White Magicians of Chaos vs. the Good Black Magicians of Order, via vague lectures like the one below:

“We were speaking about order, a topic all of you have been exposed to since your birth. Unfortunately, for various reasons, such as Lerris’s boredom, Tamra’s equation of order with male dominance, Krystal’s unwillingness to concentrate, and Wrynn’s contempt for weakness . . . none of you can accept order as the basis for a society.”

This also half works as a manga harem, with Lerris distracted by the many beauties that surround him: Sweet, giggling Krystal; sassy, man-hating Tamra; Wrynn with the nice, strong legs, etc… (There’s boys there too, mainly to balance the sexes in the school roster.)

As I read “Recluce,” however, my mind kept going back to the REAL premiere fantasy of the 1990s, Robert Jordan’s 14 volume epic “The Wheel of Time”- one that some masochistic side of me always yearns to return to. Sure, I COULD be catching up with “A Song of Ice and Fire” (and no, I haven’t finished) but why, when I could be revisiting the impossibly long saga of Rand Al’ Thor, the Dragon Reborn?

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As epic fantasy fans of a certain age will recall, Robert Jordan wrote 11 of these nearly-thousand-page skull-bashers before his death, when Brandon Sanderson stepped in to finish things with the three concluding volumes. Some of us still smart about the way HBO turned Jordan’s closest competitor, that slow-poke parvenu George R. R. Martin, into the superstar that broke from the fantasy ghetto. (Only 5 books? Out of a projected 7? You call that an epic, Martin? WIMP!) “Wheel of Time” was there first, building an astonishingly complex and magical reality that felt more adult than most of what had come before. Confession: I must have spent months of high school time reading “WoT” in class, my paperback hidden by some strategically positioned textbook. This may be why I know less about Earthly geography than I know about Jordan’s world, from the Aryth Ocean through Saldaea, Andor, and Tar Valon, all the way to the Spine of the World.

There is nothing like “The Wheel of Time” in all of literature. No other continuous tale can be described as: “The first 6,000 pages or so are fantastic! The next 3,000 slow down a bit, and admittedly, the 2,000 pages after THAT are a repetitive slog, but if you stick with it, the last 3,000 pages get fun again!”

According to Wikipedia, I gave this about 20 days of my allotted time on Earth, and judging by my odd, nostalgic desire to revisit the saga, I may give it FORTY days. Hey, shut up. What are you doing with YOUR time that’s so special? Rescuing babies from burning buildings? Doubtful. I consider all those hours of dorkdom well spent and largely pleasurable. Not that the pleasure was unalloyed: it came with boredom, frustration, and even pain, but isn’t that true of all long-term relationships?

So now I’m worried, because Amazon will be belatedly turning “WoT” into a TV show that, even in the best of scenarios, will be dismissed as “Game of Thrones Without the Tits.” There are, of course, tits in “WoT,” but they’re coily implied rather than shaken in your face. They mostly pop up in one recurring line: “She folded her arms under her breasts,” a gesture that must have been performed literally hundreds of times throughout the series by females, but rarely as a come on, and more frequently as  way of expressing complete contempt at some damn fool thing a man just said or did.

Oh, who are we kidding? Amazon WILL throw in the tits for free. It’s 2018!

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Anyway, this is all to say that “The Magic of Recluce” led me to read “New Spring,” a prequel to “The Eye of the World” that I had missed, and one of the last things Jordan wrote before his death. Set 20 years before the series proper, and shortly after the Aiel War, “New Spring” follows Lady Moiraine Damodred and her quasi Sapphic friend Siuan Sanche as they start as novices at the White Tower, then are chosen by the Amyrlin to pass a Ter’Angreal trial in order to become Aes Sedais of the Blue Ajah. Also, Moiraine learns that the Dragon is Reborn within sight of Dragonmount, so she leaves Tar Valon in her quest- and along the way she bonds her ass-kicking Malkier Warder, Lan Mandragoran.

Yeeeeeaaaahhhh… You might need a Glossary if that is your first spin of the Wheel.

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RATING: SHRUG for “The Magic of Recluce” (maybe I’ll return in the future?); GOOD ENOUGH for “New Spring.”

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Unreliance : Kazuo Ishiguro – “A Pale View of Hills” + “An Artist of the Floating World”

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ABOVE: The Japanese Hills Are Alive

Nobelist Kazuo Ishiguro is perhaps a luckier writer than he is a great writer. (Don’t fret, I’m punching up, so it’s okay.) The two books of his I really DO like, “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go,” got turned into reasonably popular movies. I’ve also read “The Unconsoled” (baffling) and “When We Were Orphans” (boring) but don’t remember those much, and what I do recall thinking of “Nocturnes” is that it was as fraught with middle-brow pretense as the expression “fraught with middle-brow pretense.” This is to say that Kazuo’s Nobel Prize Award in 2017 was a conservative dialing back on whatever unorthodox decision-making process led to the feather-ruffling 2016 assertion that Bob Dylan was deserving of a Nobel prize in Literature. In fact, upon hearing that Kazuo Ishiguro had won the award, my first thought was: “They misspelled Haruki Murakami.”

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ABOVE: “My ploy of being pleasantly literary has paid off!”

Giving him a Nobel is overrating a very good writer who is rarely great. His body of work is small enough that he has not really embarrassed himself, but that’s exactly why Ishiguro doesn’t really thrill me: he plays it so safe that he rarely risks anything. The clones in “Never Let Me Go” are the edgiest of his concepts, but how many un-Nobelled sci-fi writers have dealt with the idea of cloning far more brilliantly, deeply, humanely, and even poetically? Anyway, I thought maybe I’d missed something along the way, and read both the 1982 debut, “A Pale View of Hills,” (which the author himself admits doesn’t quite work) and the follow-up “An Artist of the Falling World.” But reading them back to back either “reveals Ishiguro’s consistency” or “exposes Ishiguro’s repetitiveness.” Charity is all when it comes to criticism. Both novels rely on the same exact trick that he would use yet again in “Remains of the Day.” These are short, terse family dramas told by a first person narrator that sounds pretty much alike- even if one. All three novels tell a largely deflective story that centers on coping with post-war delusions. All three novels slowly reveal inconsistencies in the telling that let us know we are dealing with that rascally UNRELIABLE NARRATOR. Ishiguro loooooves this.

Should they give Nobels for over-relying on this newfangled technique that goes back at least as far as Cervantes in 1605?!?

Add to this that “An Artist of the Floating World” annoyed the “overbearing nerd” side of me. A section set in 1947 makes frequent references to the popular “Godzilla.” COME ON! “Godzilla” came out on 1954! That’s a pretty sloppy anachronism or…

WAIT…

Can we blame that mistake on the UNRELIABLE NARRATOR?!?

MIND BLOWN.

Know this: if you you ever catch any mistake on “The Pageaholic,” asume it is made on porpoise, as a techniqe to make you aware that book revues are unreliabull.

RATING: COOL! But no NOBEL Masterpieces.

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ABOVE: We All Float On

 

Good Country People : Benito Perez Galdos – “Dona Perfecta”

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ABOVE:  Portrait with Carcinogen

The second most famous Spanish author, after the progenitor of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, is Benito Perez Galdos, whose literary stature is generally acknowledged to be equal to that of Honore de Balzac, Emile Zola, or Dostoevsky.  But Galdos is still a rare bird in English-language shelves. Those who know him probably get to him through Luis Bunuel’s idiosyncratic adaptations of “Nazarin,” Viridiana,” and “Tristana.” Galdos’ singular masterpiece, “Fortunata and Jacinta,” is Spain’s answer to “Anna Karenina,” and similarly lengthy, but didn’t even earn an English translation until the 1970s. To my knowledge, no translation exists of “Los Episodios Nacionales,” Galdos’ 40+ novels saga.  TRISTE!

“Dona Perfecta,” from 1876, is considered a fine but minor novel, “transitional” because it does not fully embrace the stark realism for which Galdos would soon be known.

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ABOVE: Dolores del Rio WAS pretty darn perfect.

The plot is simple: Don Jose de Rey is a young engineer returning to Orbajosa, the native country that his aunt, Perfecta, rules with a steely kindness. Jose has plans to marry his cousin Rosarito, the Dona’s daughter. (It’s not as cringy as it sounds! Different times! Times when girls like Rosarito fainted in the arms of their suitors as soon as the chaperones looked away!)

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ABOVE: Cousincest is the best incest

The young ones fall in unimpeded love for one brief afternoon, but nothing as it seems in Orbajosa, a dreary land known only for exporting garlic cloves. The name, a Galdosian invention, is a  joke: the villagers claim it derives from the Latin Urbs Augusta, “Great City”, but what it connotes to Spanish ears is more like “Weedy Patch.” The characters are symbols as much as they are characters, with names that drip unrealistic irony: who can be surprised when the titular Dona Perfecta, who everyone  acclaims as being perfect, turns out to be otherwise? Or when the village priest, Don Inocencio, turns out to be full of cunning malice?

Don Jose makes the almost immediate mistake of opening his big city mouth and riling up the the condescending priest with a failure to appreciate the irrefutable greatness of the local cathedral. Before the week is over, town gossip has pegged the young engineer as a Libtard-Atheist-Protestant-Socialist Fat Cat sent by the Government from Madrid to destroy the lives of good Catholic country people. Small disagreements with his family turn more and more turbulent, until Don Jose can barely open his mouth without deeply aggrieving some villager or other.

The villagers, of course, smile to the young man’s face while prepping the pitchforks.

The ending is both surprising and inevitable. Traveler, if on a winter’s night you should find yourself among good country people, GET OUT.

RATING: MASTERPIECE!

 

 

Tulip Fever : Alexandre Dumas – “The Black Tulip”

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Above: Naturaleza Muerta

(Re-read) “The Black Tulip” is an odd, yet oddly successful, offspring from the Dumas / Maquet era. The action doesn’t take place in France, but in Holland, 1672, during the Tulip Craze that kinda parallels the Pokemon  “gotta catch’em all” mentality.  The rarest of Pokemon  Tulips was the Black Tulip. After a brutal 3-chapter intro that tells us how William of Orange participated in the graphic lynching and skinning of brothers Cornelius and Johann de Witt, who had been been accused of “collusion” with Louis XIV, we switch to the gentle tale of Cornelius de Baerle, a godson to the De Witts. Cornelius is a horticulturist, does not care about politics. The problem with politics is that they tend to screw up the lives of good people who don’t care about politics. (By contrast, no such blame can be placed on literature.) Cornelius has figured out how to get a Black Tulip. A jealous competitor snitches on Cornelius, accuses him of being related to the De Witts, and sends Corny to prison, where he meets the lovely Rosa, daughter to the abusive jailer Gryphus.

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ABOVE: Pass the Dutch, already!

What follows is pure romance. They really don’t write them like that anymore. Every time Cornelius and Rosa meet, a guilty, coy hour of daily sexual tension follows. Cornelius’ lips come closer and closer to grazing Rosa’s flushing cheeks, and you hold your breath waiting for the miracle, when she allows a kiss to happen. Then you think: “Today’s version would be “4:00 o’clock! It’s Fuck time at the Sex Flower Dungeon!”

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ABOVE: “Go into the Dungeon, Boy! You Gonna Be Spanked!”

RATING: MASTERPIECE! This really is just a beautifully perfect Dumas romance.


P. S.:

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ABOVE: I Never Promised You a Tulip Garden

Also of relevance: Justin Chatwick’s “Tulip Fever” “Tulip Fever,” or “when that movie you taught was fine has a shockingly low 9% on Rotten Tomatoes.” This is a lush romance set in 1600s Holland, with great production design; wonderful, subtle acting by Alicia Vikander; a less subtle but very funny Christophe Waltz; and a twisty, witty script by Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”). So why the negative reviews? Curious, I read a bunch of them. What I didn’t know is that this movie had been held from release for three years, that it was one of Harvey Weinstein’s last pet projects, and that in-the-know showbiz critics went to it KNOWING it had a negative pre-release buzz. Review after review was: “This is that HARVEY WEINSTEIN TULIP THING that was supposed to be terrible! It’s obviously not THAT terrible, but I heard it was supposed to be, so let me figure out why.” People weren’t reacting to the story IN the movie, but to the story AROUND the movie.

Criticism went from the fair (“too many soapy plot twists!” Well yeah, but some people like those) to the wildly subjective (“Alicia Vikander’s nude scenes weren’t sexy!” I sure beg to differ!) to the absurd: “There is nothing in the zeitgeist to peg this movie to” I guess “Tulip Fever” doesn’t sufficiently address #metoo or #blacklivesmatter BUT DOES IT HAVE TO? The idea that a movie’s existence is only justified when it is tagged to a trending hashtag should be repulsive. Sometimes the whole point of a movie is to help us ESCAPE from trending hasthags.

This isn’t a defense of TF, which won’t change your life but l do recommend to lovers of historical romances. Just a comment on how preconception alters perception. Had I KNOWN this movie had a bad contextual buzz, I might also have been looking for its flaws as desperately as any other critic. I didn’t know, and so I enjoyed it a lot.

 

Ok, Batman, I Apologize for the Name Calling : Scott Snyder – “Batman” (“City of Owls”)

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I wasn’t kind to Scott Snyder’s New 52 “Batman” run from a few years back. I must have been in a pretty bad mood when I wrote what I wrote. I wasn’t WRONG, mind you, but I wonder what motivated me to do that kind of extensive listing of a book’s perceived transgressions. Re-reading “Batman” this week, in a different mood, I glossed over the things that bothered me then. I still find this an overrated book, but it’s clear that I was more critical of Batman saturation than of the story itself, which does manage to come up with a new and powerful enemy for a Batman that had spent way too long dealing with the usual suspects and the revolving door policies of Arkham Asylum.

So sorry for calling you a dick, Batman. I’m back on Bat-mode.

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ABOVE: Consider this an apology gif

After a long Bat-break and from another critical viewpoint (I had previously addressed Batman’s fascist, self-righteous violence) I went back to “City of Owls” (issues 8-12, with art by Greg Capullo). Dismissing all that, what makes the story interesting is the fact that Batman, who usually hovers above his villains figuratively, morally, or literally (sometimes all three at once) is here under-powered by forces that predate even this all-powerful millionaire. The word “predate” does double duty here: pre-date as an adjective, as in: the Owls were there before Batman, and also PREDATE as a verb:  Owls prey on bats. So seeing the whole scheme come together really does make it a pleasure. Batman is off his game. Gotham wasn’t a Bat City, it was an Owl City all along. He just didn’t realize it. That’s potentially powerful stuff. But of course, this is still a DC graphic novel and Batman does have to triumph.

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ABOVE: Bat out of Hell

Imagine a world where someone taps Batman on the shoulder and says: “Forget it, Bruce. It’s Gothamtown.”

RATING: COOL!