"The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern was the topic of the Burrahobbits fantasy book discussion group for August. I thought it worth mentioning here since I thought it a truly remarkable book and the other members of the group thought so, too.

"The Night Circus" is a beautiful book; beautifully designed, beautifully worded, beautifully written. The plot concerns a philosophical debate between two wizards, played out as a contest between their proteges, within and around the "Circus of Dreams", and what happens to the people, both ordinary and extraordinary, that become part of the life of the circus.

Magic is often referred to as an art, but seldom do you read of magic being used to CREATE art. However, in "The Night Circus," creativity and beauty are part of the terms of the game.

Morgenstern's writing describes the creations of the Night Circus in as lyrical prose as I have read in some time, in these days when gritty realism is the norm, even in Fantasy.

A lovely, thoughtful, fantasy novel. Highly recommended.

And, for something completely different, I will also mention a book I just finished, "Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d'Art," by Christopher Moore. This book is set mostly in the late 1800's in Paris, and concerns the Impressionists artists, who are both inspired by, and preyed upon by, a deathless muse and her twisted master, "The Colorman." In this book, art is inspired, then stolen, and then used to make magic to inspire more art.

"Sacre Bleu" is funny and profane. It's best if you are somewhat familiar with the Impressionists, but not required since, rarely for a book these days, it has color illustrations cleverly using the works of the masters to support the story.

Very enjoyable, for adults.
On Monday evening the 7th, we went to Boswell Books on Farwell Avenue in Milwaukee for a reading by cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel, creator of the "Dykes to Watch Out For" comic and author of the highly regarded graphic autobiography "Fun Home," which was concerned with her complex relationship with her father.

Now, she is touring in support of the release of her new book, "Are You My Mother?", which is her second volume of autobiography, and, as you might expect, deals with relations with her mother. This, as Bechdel admitted, was a rather more touchy task than writing "Fun Home," because, unlike her father, Bechdel's mother is still alive and able--though largely unwilling--to comment on the process.

Reading from a graphic novel to an audience would not have been optimal in years past, but, thanks to small portable projectors and programs like PowerPoint, Bechdel was able to project pictures from the first chapter of the book while giving the commentary that went along with them.

The book looks and sounds fascinating--as "Fun Home" was in that slow-motion-train-wreck sort of way--and the audience of easily 200 people was quite intrigued. There was a question and answer session after the reading, in which Bechdel said that she was essentially finished with the "Dykes" comic and had no plans for any more--a disappointment, but not a surprise, given it has been on hiatus since 2008.

We bought a copy of "Are You My Mother?" to take home and read. I'll post something here when I finish it.
At noon on Sunday the 12th, we went to Sue Blom's house to help her set up for her "Book Exchange," an idea she had had to help recirculate local fandoms redundant books. Georgie had agreed to help set up and organize, and I was along for the trip. Sue had several dozen science fiction novels and anthologies she wanted to pass on, and our first task was moving all the books she wanted to keep out of the living room and dining room so they were out of danger.

We ended up having SF and F on the dining room table, mystery/suspense on a dining room desk, non-fiction on the living room sofa, and miscellaneous fiction on chairs in the living room. There wasn't a huge turn-out, maybe eight to ten people all told, and way more books were brought than taken away (especially since Lee Schneider took the opportunity to clear out the Lytheria library's closet--), but fortunately Sue had a plan for that--orphaned books will be donated to the public library.

We had a very pleasant afternoon chatting with the people who came by about the books and life in general. Sue wasn't discouraged by the small turnout for the first attempt, and is likely to plan another for some future time.
On Tuesday evening, May 24th, the Burrahobbits reading group met at the home of Jan and Jeff Long to discuss"Under Heaven," the most recent novel by Guy Gavriel Kay.  This is the newest of his fantastic historical adaptations, this time set in a milieu approximating the 8th Century T'ang Dynasty, and the events leading up to and into the "An Shi Rebellion" of that time. 

The protagonist, Shen Tai, has been mourning the death of his father, a famous general, by spending two years single handedly burying the dead who had been left lying on the field of the General's greatest victory. This earns him not only the gratitude of the ghosts that haunt the field, but also that of the rulers of the opposing kingdom, who gift him with five hundred of their fine horses--a gift equivalent in value to several emperors' ransoms, and of great political and strategic value that pitches Shen Tai  deeply into the dangerous politics of his homeland.

Shen Tai's challenges work out as threads of the tapestry that also involves an Emperor in his dotage, competing heirs, scheming ministers, ambitious concubines, threatening barbarians, and dissatisfied generals--in short, all the characters one would expect in an epic of Mythic China.

Kay writes a very good story with believable danger and intrigue and a rather surprising denouement, without getting too caught up in "Orientalism" for its own sake. The book was well-liked by the group, and recommended for fans of Kay, and of historical fantasy.

Tuesday evening, the 26th, our fantasy book discussion group, The Burrahobits, met at the home of Sue Blom to discuss Robertson Davies' novel, The Lyre of Orpheus.

The Lyre of Orpheus fits marginally into the fantasy category due to its mystical element (the ghost of E.T.A. Hoffman comments on the action) and its Arthurian connection: not only does the book deal with the making of an opera based on the legend of King Arthur, but the events of the Arthurian canon begin to have parallels in the lives of the characters. Besides, we just like Robertson Davies--.

The novel is an entertaining look at the continuing lives (this is the third of a trilogy) of a group of people part of, and associated with, Davies fictional Toronto University, and, in particular with the decision to mount a full production of a "new" opera based on unfinished music composed by Hoffman, as reconstructed by an eccentric graduate student, and all that that entails in the way of artistic, academic, and interpersonal maneuvering.

Davies' work is very good for those of us who appreciate a low-keyed comedy of manners, particularly in an academic setting. (We have two professors in our group, who found The Lyre of Orpheus amusingly true to life--.)

It was with considerable interest that I took up a friend's copy of The
Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J.K. Rowling. I have enjoyed the "Harry
Potter" series, and found her other marginalia, Quiddich Through the
Ages, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, amusing, if not up to
the level of the author's main work. Ultimately, Tales falls into the
same category.

I was curious about the stories, since not only is "The Tale of the
Three Brothers" important to the final Harry Potter novel, but because
the work is supposed to be very central to Wizarding culture. If that
were so, I would have to say that the Wizards have a very impoverished
literature: the Tales, as presented, consists only of five very short,
and not that wonderful, stories. Of course Rowling does not have the
time or inclination to write dozens of stories as did Perrault or
Anderson, or collect hundreds, as did the Bothers Grimm, but one wonders
why the collection wasn't presented as a "Best of". One could have had
lots of fun making up names for other stories not reprinted, but that
probably would have provided endless fodder for fan fiction--.

The back cover blurb compares The Tales of Beedle the Bard with the
greatest fairy tales of the past, which is a distinct overreach.  There
is not one that is nearly the equal of "Cinderella," "Snow White,"
"Beauty and the Beast," or "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," all of which are
have much more plot, development, and mythic quality.

One can at least say that Beedle's tales are mostly original: fairy tale tropes
recur in infinite variation, but with few exceptions Rowling has
recoined them in fairly fresh ways.  "The Hopping Pot" combines ideas of
the legendary magic cauldron of Celtic Myth with that of the son who
unwisely ignores his dead parent's wishes. The oddly named "The
Warlock's Hairy Heart" combines the 'severable soul' myth with a
Bluebeard-like theme. "The Tale of the Three Brothers" is a
straightforward 'beat the Devil' plot. "Rabbity Babbity and her Cackling
Stump" derives quite closely from "The Emperor's New Clothes," but with
a wizarding twist. "The Fair Fountain" is the prettiest story, and
follows a well-worn quest theme with a few interesting variations.

The commentaries by "Albus Dumbledore" are potentially interesting, but
in fact very weak. They purport to put the stories into context in the
Wizarding culture, but do not convince. They also tend to expose
Rowling's broad but shallow knowledge of classical themes, since
Dumbledore is portrayed as making a spurious distinction between the
literal severable soul that occurs in the making of a Horcrux, and the
metaphorical severable soul associated with the hidden "hairy heart."
Dumbledore also comes across as rather egotistical, but that may be
because the notes were supposedly not ready for publication at the time
of Dumbledore's death. (Amusingly, the book is presented as supposedly 
a new translation from the "ancient runes" by Hermione Granger, with 
commentary by Dumbledore and footnotes by Rowling.)

Completists can justify adding the book to their collection on the basis
that proceeds go to a good cause, the Childrens' High Level Group, which
seeks to provide adoptions or foster care for children presently housed
in orphanages. 
Those that have followed this journal know that I am an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes. Therefore, when I see a new book that purports to be adding to the Holmes canon, I am usually interested, but also usually disappointed. There are some that are very good: I enjoyed Adrian Conan Doyle's works and the "Solar Pons" stories by August Derleth, many of which audaciously took on Watson's untold tales, such as the "aluminum crutch" or the "notorious canary trainer." Others are mildly entertaining, and many just dreadful: "A East Wind Coming," by Arthur Byron Cover comes to mind, and now of course there are many self-published excrescences as well.

A frequent theme is to match Holmes with other literary characters, and by now he has met everyone from Dracula to Father Brown who might conceivably have overlapped his life. I was intrigued by John R. King's novel, "The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls" for this reason. While King explores where many have gone before-the lost time after Reichenbach-he uniquely involves William Hope Hodgson's "Carnacki the Ghost-Finder," a character that hasn't shown up much anywhere besides in Hodgson's largely out-of-print stories and a few horror/Lovecraft crossovers since.

Carnacki was one of the first of the "mystic detectives" school, followed by such characters as Jules De Grandin and John Silence, but was unique for the very modern "scientific" approach (for the time) he took to his work. The "electric pentacle" (which I always visualized as a sort of neon construction) was Hodgson's invention and figures in many of his stories.

Unfortunately, given a potentially promising premise, King's book falls into the disappointing/mildly entertaining category, having a rather poorly conceived opening. King does not manage to capture either Carnacki or Holmes' voice convincingly. The heroes' escape from Reichenbach on foot across a glacier-ridden mountain pass is implausible given the terrain: there is a glacier at the head of the valley in which the Falls are found, but it is far in the other direction that the action goes, and there is no pass there. Also, their pursuer lets off several rifle shots, which Watson could not have failed to hear.

From this point the book begins to show some gleams of inspiration, as King takes on the formidable tasks of providing origin stories for both Carnacki and for Moriarty. The latter is best done, explaining how Moriarty becomes the lord of crime in England by applying what I might call "the calculus of crime."

The dénouement is rather better than the beginning, although not, in my mind, entirely satisfactory. There are nice touches, such as the rational Holmes and the mystical Carnacki disagreeing as to whether anything supernatural actually occurred. An amusing light read for fans of the genre.
Sunday night, I finished reading "World War Z, An Oral History Of The Zombie War", by Max Brooks, which is quite remarkable in a number of ways. In acknowlegements, the author credits both Studs Terkel (compiler of "The Good War" and other "oral histories") and General Sir John Hackett, author of "The Third World War: August 1985", which inspired a number of other "historical might-have-been" military history books.

That pretty much tells you what the book is about. It is entirely presented as a work of non-fiction, purporting to tell the story of humankind's struggle against the effects of a "zombie plague" that breaks out in China (and perhaps other places) and quickly spreads world wide. The book tales off from the ideas set out in the satrical "Zombie Survial Guide" by the same author, but is done "dead" seriously, and quite well.

Once you accept the premise of the mysterious zombie disease, everything else is worked out with rigorous logic therefrom. (The origin of the zombie virus and how it actually works in the body, or how zombies actually function, are topics still "under investigation" at the time of writing, according to the book.) Brooks, the author of the Survival Guide which was supposedly helpful during the great outbreak, was allegedly commissioned by the United Nations to author a formal report on the disaster: the personal reminisences he compliled are 'edited out' of the formal report, and he is given leave to edit and publish them as his own book. "World War Z" is the supposed result.

The book is a fascinating study. Imagine reading Terkel's "The Good War" if you had never heard of World War 2 and had no familiarity with the history of it. "World War Z" manages to both sustain the illusion that he is writing for an audience who survived and were profoundly affected by the events described, and to supply enough information for the reader to piece together the sequence of horrific events. Although the tales told in the book are horrible enough, the convention that they are being told often by ordinary citizens and soldiers who are reticent about going into "gory detail" helps keep the gruesomeness level of the book more in line with an early Steven King thriller than the movie gross-out fests that some "zombie" movies have become. (George Romero is specifically acknowleged, along with Terkel and Hackett, though--.)

The progress of the zombie outrbreak, and the probable responses by governments and individuals are in general very well worked out, although there are some improbable bits, such as Japan's spiritual savior being an elderly gardener who had been blinded by the Hiroshima bomb blast. The strategic and tactical difficulties of fighting a zombie horde are convincingly detailed, although I have to say that I think the ultimate solution, at least as described as used by the United States, has some holes. There is no quick or magical solution, which seems realistic, and the fact that goverments would fall is certainly believable, although there's little idea given of how day-to-day society would have changed.

All in all, a very interesting and creative work if you are at all interested in future histories, military what-ifs, or the current popularity of zombies in popular culture. If none of the above, there's no reason to pick it up.
Lately, I've been on a "kick" reading recent memoirs of the war in Iraq: "One Bullet Away," by Nathaniel Fick; "Love My Rifle More Than You," by Kayla Williams, and "House to House," by David Bellavia. All of these are excellent works. They are by lower ranking personnel who have been in the front lines of operations in Iraq: Fick as a Marine lieutenant, Williams as an Army Intelligence Specialist, and Bellavia as an Army infantry Staff Sergeant. they all fully and fairly show our military's features and flaws and the impact of both on the people who have gone to serve.

I was particulary struck by Bellavia's book. The majority of it describes his experiences as an infantry squad leader during the opening days of the Second Battle of Fallujah, November 8-12, 2004. The "First" battle had been in April 2004, when a largely Marine Corps contingent had been comitted and then withdrawn without achieveing anything conclusive. The second battle involved both Marines and Army and was set up with a lenghty preparation that involved surrounding and cutting off the city, interdicting all traffic in or out. Civilians, women, children, the aged, and unarmed men were permitted to leave, although many were detained until cleared of being suspected insurgents. By the time the Army and Marines went in, the city was largely abandoned except for committed enemy. The bad news was that the insurgents had used the time to turn the city into a deadly maze: streets were mined and houses were wired with explosives; buildings were fortified and rooftops turned into fighting positions; walls were torn down and doorways bricked up to create shooting galleries and killing grounds, while the mujahadeen moved by tunnels and hidden ways. Bellavia and his platoon were among the first units to enter and penetrate deeply into the city.

Bellavia has written a deeply personal, brutally honest narrative of what he saw and did. It is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach, as he does not stint in describing the effects of modern weaponry on his men and the enemy. He also does not hold back in describing his actions, sometimes brutal, and sometimes admittedly stupid. He gives us his raw emotions: rage, fear, sorrow, as they occur. Combat is intense, close up, and often literally hand to hand: he describes one battle in which, separated from the rest of his unit, he is wrestling an enemy in a dark room and, with no other weapon to hand, bludgeons the foeman's face with his helmet. It is a very telling, graphic, and well-written memoir that I believe captures the experience of an infantryman in an intense combat situation.

The question Bellavia's book leaves me with is: was it worth it? He and his men were in combat without relief until November 17th, and suffered heavy casualties. No American unit since Vietnam suffered so many deaths among its leaders: Bellavia's Captain, a platoon Lieutenant, and the unit's Command Sergeant Major were all killed in action among the other killed and wounded. Bellavia thinks the sacrifice was worth it: with others he has founded the very interesting web site vetsforfreedom.org which seeks to bring out positive news and views about the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Having read the book, I am not so sure. We had turned Fallujah into a sort of insurgent's "roach motel" in which they were trapped. They responded by forting up as described above, and daring us to come in and get them. This was a dare we took, but did we have to do it that way? Isn't one of the basic rules of strategy in warfare or sports not to play the opponent's game? But that was what we did: we sent our solders in to fight house-to-house, a type of combat universally acknowleged to be the most dangerous and difficult. Bellavia's unit avoided total destruction a couple of times only by minutes of timing, or, as he himself acknowleges, sheer dumb luck. Other units were not as lucky. They were faced with a trained, well equipped, and highly motivated enemy, willing to use suicidal tactics and often "hopped up" on drugs that let them ignore pain. Bellavia's unit was often outnumbered and not infrequently came within an ace of losing "fire superiority." Eventually American training, doctrine, equipment, and sheer weight of arms prevailed, but at terrible cost. Was this necessary?

Many considerations apply: I accept that the American people are too impatient to have settled for a long seige, trying to starve the insurgents out. But if we had turned the entire town into a free-fire zone (and, according to Bellavia's narrative, that's essentially what it was) why not stand back and destroy it instead of doing the equivalent of sending our troops into the thicket after a wounded lion? There's no doubt in my mind we could have reduced the city to rubble with shellfire and air bombing, so why didn't we? We would still have had to winkle the surviors out of the ruins, but it would have been an easier job with their defenses disrupted.

My guess is, that our leaders chose a face-to-face battle to show that we could do it--to show that we could meet the enemy hand to hand and beat him. To have stood off and carpet-bombed the town might have been effective, but would not have dispelled the common canard that the Americans do not have the "guts" for down-and-dirty combat. This sort of thing can be a serious consideration in warfare. The inverse case happened in the American Revolution: the colonists were conducting a sucessful "insurgency" against the British, but the British did not acknowlege it until we beat them in a stand-up fight using their own tactics at Yorktown. Similarly, it may have been perceived that as long as the insurgents believed that their dedication made them the superior of American troops when it came down to war to the knife they had no reason to surrender, but if we showed them we were their superior in all forms of combat, perhaps the will to resist would be eroded. Perhaps a viable theory, but, sadly, in the years of struggle since 2004, it does not seem to have worked.
I've read a number of really good books lately that might be of interest to the readers of this blog.

The first one is "Un Lun Dun" by China Mieville. While the idea of a Young Adult novel by this famously profane author is a bit croggling, I found this a very good book. It is also an interesting example of how highly creative authors can take similar premises and do something very different with them. In this case, the premise, that there is a shadow London (UnLondon) co-existing with the one most people know, is familar to readers of Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere," but Mieville's treatment is quite original.

UnLondon is actually in the next dimension over, and lies on a slightly lower entropic chord. It is where much of what is lost, discarded, or unwanted goes, including everything from broken umbrellas to redundant bus conductors. The adventure begins when two girls find a way through to UnLondon. They are soon caught up in a very familiar sounding type of story involving the "chosen one," a "Prophecy," an elaborate quest situation, and a brooding and pervasive enemy. However, Mieville quickly turns all the conventions topsy-turvy in a way that had me saying, "Oh, yes!"

It wouldn't be a Mieville work with out his trademark grit, dirt, and grunge, but he has managed to write a quite remarkable, very engaging and enjoyable story without the sex, gross violence, or adult language that mark his "grown-up" works. Recommended for young adults and other adults that still enjoy a good fantasy.
On Tuesday the 24th, the Burrahobbits convened their regular meeting at the residence of Jeff and Jan Long. The book under discussion was “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” by Susanna Clarke. Clarke is the author of “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell,” and “Ladies” is a collection of short stories set mostly in the same milieu. Most of the stories were quite enjoyable, although of course the group did not all agree on which were which. Georgie and I most liked the title piece, “Mrs. Mabb”, ‘Mr. Simonelli, or, the fairy widower,’ ‘Tom Brightwind, or, how the fairy bridge was built at Thoresby,’ and ‘John Uskglass and the Cumbrian charcoal burner’. ‘On Lickerish Hill,” an attempt to transplant “Tom Tit Tot” into the landscape was regarded as least successful. “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse,” a “Stardust” story by Neil Gaiman, got mixed reviews.
Rowling did not disappoint in the final installment of Harry’s Hogwarts saga. It is good to have a person on the library staff who can put in reserves as soon as legal, since I was able to pick up a copy at the West Allis Public Library about noon on Saturday the 21st. I read it on and off through the afternoon and evening, taking breaks for shopping, dinner, and Festa Italiana fireworks, and then gave up and got out of bed to finish the last hundred pages about 2AM Sunday morning.

I agree with the New York Times reviewer that the book gives good, old fashioned closure and ties up all the major loose ends, answers the significant questions, and gives a lot of new information, chiefly about Dumbledore and Snape and their relationship, much of which is quite daring. (Not THAT way—Rowling is not writing “slash”, here--.)

As a plotter, I was NOT on the same wavelength as Rowling on significant points. Not that I don’t think MY version would have been literarily valid, but hers works with a few flaws. My most radical prophecies did not come to pass—perhaps a good thing, but Rowling has an addiction to “contrived” plot devices, which mean that at some points the heroes’ progress only continues by virtue of sheer luck. Chapter Fifteen, “The Goblin’s Revenge,” is the most glaring example, though not the only one. Pacing is uneven: there are some long stretches where not much happens, and then a LOT happens. That being said, it’s still a thumping good read.

(Yes, several significant characters are killed—it is war, of a sort, but I really didn’t keep track. I was more interested in the problem posed by the Horcruxes and how that would be solved. In that regard, I was pleased I had divined the hiding place of the last one correctly. )
The Burrahobbits fantasy book group met February 28 to discuss Peter Dickinson’s “The Kin”. This work by the prolific author is composed of four stories (originally published as four books) about the adventures of the “Moonhawks”, a clan of people at the dawn of human culture and language. The books were written for the Young Adult market, so the protagonists are a small group of young people who become separated from their clan while trekking to new territory after being displaced by a hostile tribe. Whether the main story is fantasy (as opposed to speculation) is debatable, although there do seem to be definite instances of “First Ones” (tutelary animal spirits) speaking through the people or sending true visions. Each chapter of “real world” action is accompanied by a portion of the Kin’s mythology, commencing with the birth of People into the world, and including some hero tales and the story of the first warfare.

The Kin survive drought, volcanic eruption, flood, marauding lions and crocodiles, and enemy raiders by dint of ingenuity, guts, and the occasional vision, though not without losses. The nice thing about these stories is that the leaps of invention are quite reasonable. For example, a deadfall trap used to catch “rats” for food is extrapolated into a larger version intended to deal with a man-eating lion. One of the things we found quite interesting was how little it took to establish a technology, or a culture. When the book opens the Kin’s tools are limited to digging sticks, knapped stone cutters, and the all-important fire log, which allows the Kin to keep and transport fire. They use hollow gourds to carry water, but have no strings or straps, so anything that has to be carried has to be carried in hand. Though contact with other people they meet in their wanderings, they acquire the use of other tools, such as fishing spears. We found it quite interesting that although most of the other people the Kin meet are pre-verbal, they tend to have skills and cultural development that are the equal of, if not in some ways superior to, those of The Kin.

It is not a thrilling book, but it is an interesting and engaging reflection on what it is to be human. It is also cleverly written, since Dickinson manages to use a restricted vocabulary for the Kin’s language without being dull or repetitious. (A humorous note: I predict this is the longest book you will read that has no mention whatever of what someone is wearing or not wearing, since the concept of clothing does not exist in this milieu any more than airplanes or automobiles do--). Enjoyable light reading for adults and possible thought-provocation fodder for advanced children able to deal with concepts of death and battle.
Tuesday night, November 28th, our fantasy raading group, the "Burrahobbits", met at the home of Fr. Peter Schuessler. Peter provided a very congenial meeting place with yummy snacks and drinks, and we had a good session of cheery chat before settling down to discuss the evening's book, "Hercules, My Shipmate," by Robert Graves. Graves is best known as the author of "I, Claudius," but has written many other books of non-fiction, poetry, and other fiction applying his unique blend of historical research and invented interpolation. "Hercules, My Shipmate," (1945) is his retelling of the story of Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. We found the book very interesting but not without problems. The book begins with a lengthy exposition of the religio-political history leading up to the events, particularly focusing on the struggle between the supposed indigenous Goddess religion and the patriarchal institutions of the Achean invaders who came to dominate the Greek peninsula. Interesting, but not exactly a swift start to a novel. The title character, Hercules, does not appear until the eighth chapter, but he is not really the protagonist anyway, that being of course Jason.

The book is a sometimes unwieldly mix of realism and the fantastic. The gods intervene in the affairs of men (although ambiguously, in dreams), there are apparently ghosts, Medea can do real magic, and of course Hercules has his miraculous strength. On the other hand, Graves (sometimes cleverly) demythologizes the Clashing Rocks, the Harpies, and the myth of Sysiphus. Centaurs are men with a Horse totem, and there is no unsleeping dragon guarding the Fleece, although there are guardians to outwit.

Graves' quest story seems influenced by both Sindbad the sailor and Hans Christian Anderson's "The Tinderbox", as the various members of the Argo's crew get to show off their skills in furtherance of the quest. The reading is rather dense, and one does feel that we would not have had to have every landfall and overnight stop recounted.

On the other hand, the wealth of detail does sometimes fascinate, and you end up with a feeling that you know a lot about the mythic-period cultures of the Black Sea and the Aegean, and Graves does succeed in making many of the Argo's crew inidividuals, with particular emphasis on Jason and the tragic Hercules, "whom all men admire, but none envy."
Probably not going to bother, except maybe when it gets to the budget cinemas. I was initially interested by the cast: I like Ian McKellen, Audrey Tatou, and what I saw of Paul Bettany in "Master and Commander," don't care about Tom Hanks. However, initial reviews are pretty disappointing.

I read the book, and franky wasn't that wild about it. Frankly, there was nothing new in it, even for fiction. I often wonder if Katherine Kurtz, who dealt with similar material in one of her "Adept" books back in the '90s gnashes her teeth that her book was exiled to the genre shelves--.

Also, Brown isn't that good a writer in my opinion. In particular, there is a major "cheat" in "DaVinci Code" in which he does not play fairly with the reader in order to maintain the mystery. In general, "DaVinci Code" and "Angels and Demons" share a problem in common with John Grisham's "The Firm," to-wit, a character with supposedly no background in law enforcement, espionage, or special operations suddenly becomes James Bond.

As for the Biblical controversies--come on, people, it's a novel. The Catholic Church may not be used to being the bad guys, but what's allegged that they did is surely no worse than the manifold evil conspiracies attributed to governments in thrillers in the last decades.

Do I think the Church hasn't come clean with us about Jesus' real life? No exactly. I think they've magnified "absence of evidence" about a lot of things into "evidence of absence." There were good dynastic and political reasons for the early Church to insist on celibacy for clergy, but they have used the fact that Jesus' wife is never mentioned as such in Scripture to mean that he never had one, which seems rather unlikely. An unmarried 33 year old man of a good family with a good trade would have been really unusual for that place and time. Some of my Jewish acquintances agree that Jesus could have had very little credibility as a rabbi and teacher if her were not married. I don't necessarily think that the Gospel writers maliciously wrote her out. Think about some of the revolutionary movements we've seen in modern times. I can easily picture Jesus' disciples--younger, unattached men caught up in the unutterable coolness of their leader's charasimatic presence--to whom Jesus' wife was just irrelevant, if not an actual drag on the fun.

Do I think Jesus survived the Crucifixion and ran away to France? Not at all. I think that adding Jesus into the lineage of the Kings of France in order to butress divine right to rule was one of the greatest acts of public relations (not to mention chutzpah) in history. On the other hand, we do seem to have references to James, the putative brother of Jesus, who might well have decided the Holy Land was a bit too hot--. (And then there's the question of where'd HE come from, if, as the Catholic Church in particular maintians, Mary remained virginal all her life?) The fact is, a lot of it is mystery and always will be, and thus fair game for the author.
Elizabeth Moon's recent novel "The Speed of Dark" might seem an odd choice for a fantasy reading group with an emphasis on Tolkien, since it is very-near-future science fiction, and SF elements are actually rather minimal. In fact, I'm not sure who chose it. Nevertheless, most found the book quite engaging, and we had a lively discussion about it.

The story concerns a group of autistic people who have benefited from childhood treatments so that they are very highly-functioning and able to hold jobs doing important work in pattern recognition and analysis for a research-oriented corporation. Their autism gives them an aptitude for this work as long as they are supported by having things like an on-site gym where they can go to expend nervous energy when needed. Lou, the main character, is among the best adjusted of the group and has non-autistic friends and takes part in a fencing class.

Conflict arises when their group acquires a new senior manager who resents the autists' special concessions, and is intent on coercing the workers into becoming test subjects for a new treatment that may make it possible for them to function "normally." The potential dangers not only of the untested treatment but of leaving a life, however circumscribed, to which one has become accustomed, are the novel's sources of tension.

Moon does an admirable job of presenting the world from the autistic's viewpoint. She has an autistic son herself, and has studied the subject intensely. Her proposed "cure" represents the current best science on this as-yet poorly understood condition, and reflects her hopes for the future.

While the book has lots of merits, I found it unsatisfying. The senior manager is a cardboard villain whose motives are unconvincing--no one would really expect to have their entire department suddenly go on extended medical leave and upper echelons not notice--. Further, the danger once confronted proves to be not all that dangerous. Lou not only comes through the procedure with flying colors, he seems to drop his past life (in the seemly rushed denouement) without a care or a regret. My criticisms were not shared by others in the group, so I ould encourage anyone who might be interested in the subject matter to read it and make up your own mind.

I had also recently read "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," by Mark Haddon, in which an autistic fifteen year old decides to investigate the killing of his neighbor's dog. It develops many of the same issues found in Moon's book, without the science-fiction trappings, and is a good story in its own right.
On Tuesday evening, the Burrahobbits fantasy reading group met at the home of Dave Hoose. We enjoyed the summer evening in the Hoose’s yard, sipping lemonade and working our usual rambling discussion around to this unusual work by John Steinbeck.
Steinbeck is better known for his works of realistic Americana, such as “The Grapes of Wrath.” In introductory notes to the work, the author indicates that he had always loved the works of Thomas Malory, and with the discovery of the Winchester Manuscripts that expanded upon the Arthurian canon, decided to make use of this new resource to update Malory for modern times. The work was not finished in Steinbeck’s lifetime and was only published as an unfinished work. Steinbeck declared his intention was not to re-write T.H. White or “Camelot,” although, ironically in the later portions of the work he does mimic White in that he introduces very modern ideas and sensibilities, although he avoids the satirical elements that mark “The Once and Future King.” The collection of letters dating during the writing process that are appended hint that he may have become more expansive in reaction to negative comments on the first sections, which follow Malory most closely.

The intriguing thing about the work is wondering what it might have been like had it been finished. The book ends just as the Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur triangle is on the horizon, and before any mention of the Holy Grail. It would have been very interesting to see how Steinbeck approached these important Arthurian subjects.

Reactions to the book were, as usual, mixed. Some of us preferred the more elaborated chapters (as I did), while others preferred the clean purity of the early chapters.
On Tuesday evening, we gathered on the lovely deck at the residence of Peter Schuessler for the Burrahobbits cookout, which has become an annual affair. As usual, Peter was master of the grill, providing delicious burgers and bratwurst, and mixmaster Dave Hoose made his famous Martinis for anyone that wanted one. We brought my devilled eggs, and Georgie made strawberry shortcake, with fresh strawberries from the West Allis Farmers’ Market and homemade “cakes”. Other salads and snacks were also on offer, so, as usual, it was a delicious time. Even after the food and drink, we managed to have a cogent discussion of “The Merlin of the Oak Wood,” by Anne Chamberlin. This book is the second of her “Joan of Arc Tapestries” series, which has so far chronicled the youth of Gilles de Rais and birth of Jehanne D’Arc in “The Merlin of St. Giles’s Well.” “Oak Wood” continues following the lives of the two main characters as Gilles grows into his career as a warrior and becomes involved in the unsavory politics of France, and Jehanne as she awakens to the arcane life of the earth around her and eventually decides to claim her position as “La Pucelle.” What’s frustrating is that this last event takes place in literally the last pages of this volume, which makes one wonder why both books, which are of modest length by modern standards, couldn’t have been combined into one. Both together would hardly add up to one Jordan or Modesitt chunk. However, one suspects that the inevitable third volume which will have to cover the three years of Jehanne’s glory and martyrdom, would then seem meagerly slim, even padded out with Chamberlin’s somewhat didactic exposition of ideas about the survival of Pagan practices in the war-torn France of the Hundred Years War.

This was one of the most discussed points of the book, not so much in the possibility of continued ancient rituals, which isn’t that unreasonable, but Chamberlin’s fictionalized idea of the underlying philosophy. The concept of “balance” as a goal isn’t new, but the old ways priests’ balancing of “good” and “evil” seems somewhat disturbing, particularly as it leads Yann to take some pretty nasty actions in pursuit of his purpose. We did not think that “moral ambiguity” was a much-debated concept in those troubled times, but “desperate times call for desperate measures” seems to be the byword of everyone in the books and seems at odds with the doctine that means affect ends which is a tenet of much mystical study.
The Burrahobbits met at the Long’s residence Tuesday evening to discuss “Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. We had quite a bit of fun speculating on which writer had contributed which parts of the book. There were differences of opinion as to whether “Them”, the Anti-Christ’s kid gang, were useful to the plot or not, although the majority agreed that they did fulfill a very necessary purpose in the humanization of the Destroyer. Some felt that the ending rather petered out, but most of us declared that the book was quite enjoyable, although not “deathless prose.” Crowley the tempter and Aziraphel the angel were the general favorite characters, and we appreciated the parallels to spy lit like John Le Carre in addition to the apocalyptic plot takeoff of “The Omen” which is the major thrust of the work.
Saturday evening the third we met for the annual Burrahobbits holiday party at the home of Jan and Jeff Long. Although the Burrahobbits aren't shy about calling it a "Christmas" party, we found that trying to find a date in December conflicted with so many other events that we just moved it to the first weekend in the New Year as a convenience. As always, there was plenty of good cheer and good food. The meal portion is a potluck technically, but by this time we have settled into usual roles, in which Georgie supplies the torte from Clasens, I bring shrimp and "crab", Sue Blom makes eggnog, the Longs supply cold meats and buns, and so on.

Of course, being Burrahobbits, we had to have SOME book discussion. The subject for the evening was The Dragon and the Unicorn, by A.A. Attanasio, which was pretty roundly jumped on. The consensus was that Attanasio's attempt to conflate Arthurian, Celtic, and Norse mythology with science was not well done. (The "world tree" on which the various gods live is Earth's magnetic field.) In addition, the writer's attempts to express the sensations experienced by non-material beings such as the "unicorn" of the title smacked of bad drug-trip writing pompously executed. Conclusion: Not the worst thing we've ever read, but not recommended.



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