Thursday, June 28, 2007

I'm throwing rocks tonight! (basically just meaning I've been reading things quickly again...)

Number 15 is Fall of Knight by Peter David. Fall of Knight is the third in David's Arthurian cycle, and like the others, its enjoyable, is a nice continuation of the myths, and yet feels rather heavy-handed in some places.

I know, from reading various things in comic book circles, that Peter David is a very liberal (with a small 'l' since he's American) person, and this often shows up in his writing. He's had some, overall, goodnatured 'spats' with fellow comic writer (and uber-conservative) Chuck Dixon, and I always found myself more in line with Peter David's views.

So, while Knight Life was mainly just David's view of politics, One Knight Only became more political, and was obviously his reaction to 9-11 and the current administration's reaction to it and terrorism in general. And now, with Fall of Knight, David is tackling the issue of faith.

I like Peter David's Arthur. He is strong-willed, charismatic, charming, smart and yet, often times bull-headed, a little arrogant and pretty used to getting his own way (after all, he was King). I think the personality suits him perfectly, and of course, there are the nice touches such as the simulataneous world-weariness and yet also the niavety he has about the modern world.

Arthur, since awakening from his thousand year slumber, has been mayor of New York City, then President of the United States. Fall of Knight opens with him and Gwen in retirement, on a sailboat in the middle of the Pacific, where he's basically bored out of his skull. The problem is, they cannot go back, because no one is to know that Gwen has recovered from her coma (induced by a terrorist/assassin's bullet to her head) and is in fact fully healed, due to the Holy Grail (as was done in One Knight Only). Gwen is the recipient of a miracle no one would believe in.

But of course, Gwen's recovery is discovered, and Arthur (with Gwen and Percival, the Grail Knight's support) Arthur goes public with who he is and that the Holy Grail is in his possession. Well, as you can imagine, the shit hits the fan. People want to be cured. The Catholic Church wants the Grail. The US Government wants the Grail. And of course, the main badguy, a near-immortal necromancer/alchemist calling himself Paracelsus, also wants the Grail. Of course, the church and the state wish to study the Grail, afirm its divinity, that sort of thing, but Paracelsus wants it because he wishes to use it to wipe humanity from the Earth. And he's pretty close to being able to do so, considering he also has the Spear of Destiny in his posession.

But overall, the theme of faith is what drives this book. Arthur, his faith in a higher power pretty much shattered by his Grail Quest (for he finds out the Grail is much, much older than Christ) and so he shares this with people who find themselves likewise disaffected from modern, organized religion. Of course though, some people see Arthur himself as a new messiah-like figure, and turn to 'worshipping' him. This makes the Church rather upset and they denounce him thoroughly. A lot of Arthur's message can be seen as 'think for yourself' (a message anyone versed in Monty Python's "The Life of Brian" will be familiar with), but after awhile, it does seem that even Arthur is believing his own hype as a saviour of humanity.

Arthur, in his efforts to help as many people as he can, launches on a scheme to bottle water that has been poured into the Grail, then diluted, and sell it to as many people around the world as he can. The product, called Grail Ale, sells out immediately and performs all sorts of miraculous cures. Arthur is happy with this, however, lots have misgivings, including the loyal Percival.

Of course, it all goes to shit, the person who came up with the plan to bottle Grail Ale is actually Paracelsus, who, knowing that magic always has a balance (i.e., the more good that is done with the Grail means the more 'bad' energy is also being built up. So you know, Karma) is waiting for the Grail to basically be 'full' of goodness, so he can use its power and that of the Spear to purge humanity off the earth. And of course, its up to Arthur to stop him.

He does, of course, but Percival is lost in the battle, as is Excalibur. Its interesting that, when the chips are down and Arthur doesn't have his remaining Knight and Merlin is trapped (Nimue again of course), he is moved to prayer. I'm not sure if I liked this part, it seemed too pat for someone who was not only questioning faith, but also the divinity of Christ, would then turn back down that path, but perhaps it was David saying that when all else is lost or gone, it is natural for people to hope that there is something/someone out there who will lend a guiding hand, or rainstorm in this case.

I guess overall, I did find it interesting because alot of what Peter David was questioning wasn't exactly faith, but faith in how religion is presented to us in a modern age. He brings up the old standbys - how much blood has been spilt in the name of one who's message was predominately peaceful, how could God so completely turn his back on his creation and let so much evil flourish, if Christ did return today, would he be accepted or simply shut up in an institution somewhere as one of the nameless mentally ill? All excellent questions really. He doesn't really go so far as to portray the Church in a negative light, but they aren't exactly positive either, which is probably the best way to look at them.

Overall, I liked this trilogy. David crafted a likeable bunch of characters and his knowlege of they legends are extensive and his reworkings of them never feel wrong. In fact, one of my favourite scenes in this book was Arthur telling Gwen that, in reality, when she was ordered to burn at the stake for her treason against Arthur (over the affair with Lancelot), there was no intention on Arthur's part of having Gwen rescued by Lancelot. In David's version, Lancelot was under siege in his own home, unable to leave, and so Gwen wasn't rescued, she burned, and Arthur, consumed with vengence for his betrayal, was perfectly fine with this. Arthur tells Gwen that her rescue was tacked on later, by the various writers, to make things more 'romantic', but it was not true. This was a great retelling of that particular moment in the legends, for it reminds one that Arthur came from a brutal time, and perhaps wasn't as 'accepting' of the affair as many of the retellings say, that in fact, he was pissed off, and had more than enough power to make Gwen and Lance pay heavily for it. It was a powerful moment in the book.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Its nice to see I'm picking up some speed again, 'cause here it is, two finished books in a week. Perhaps I should re-think my whole, reading multiple books at once modus operandi, because sometimes it feels like I never get one thing read...

But anyway, here we are at number 14 of the year, Wilson: A Consideration of the Sources, by David Mamet.

Now, I don't like books that make me feel stupid. Fortunately, not many do. Sure, I struggled with Beowulf written in Old English at first, but after awhile, the understanding grew and I understood it. In fact, there were very few books that made me feel stupid during my four years of English Literature that made me feel stupid, until 4th year and 20th Century and Modern Literature hit.

I'm not a big... postmodern junkie. Not by any means. I really, really dislike modern poetry, and having to read authors like Beckett, Pinter, Plath, etc. kinda made me feel like I just didn't 'get' it. And I don't like that feeling. I guess I am a bit of a snob when it comes to books; by dint of a degree in English Literature, I AM well read, but I'm not increadibly well read when it comes to modern literature.

So, this brings us to Wilson by David Mamet. It made me feel stupid. It definitely made me feel like I didn't 'get' it. But I think that this was the entire point.

Wilson is a feat of social archeology, the supposed reconstruction of what early 20th century life was like only through the garbled leavings of a corrupted Internet. Needless to say, trying to recreate life, or literature or anything for that matter using only the Internet to go by is going to leave you with a not very realistic look at our life.

Wilson is an interesting but frustrating read because, while there are moments of literary and word play brilliance, it is, ultimately an exercise in having no context. Even as someone living during the time that the information is supposed to come from doesn't help, what has been cobbled together is equally as baffling for us as it is for them. Who is the Toll Hound? I still have no idea... I've at least heard of Woodrow Wilson, but how his wife's diaries fit into all of this, I'm still not sure.

Reading Wilson is an exercise in liteary futility, which is exactly what I would imagine it to be if someone, hundreds of years from now, tried to put our society and culture together after some apolcalypse wiped nearly everything out, except a few snippets of the internet.

Yeah, I hate feeling stupid.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Mordred, you bastard.

Numeral 13 is Mordred: Bastard Son by Douglas Clegg.

I love Arthurian legends, as I may have mentioned before. I read a lot about them. It is a rich legend full of interesting characters that you really can do just about anything with. So, I never usually mind when new things are tacked onto characters or small twists or turns are taken with things, so long as the story still stays true to the overall legend, so long as the internal consistency of the legends are intact.

But now and then, a change is made or something is added to a character that I just don't quite agree with, or it just doesn't ring true with me. And that's what's happened in this book.

Mordred: Bastard Son is supposedly the first part in a trilogy, where Mordred is telling about his life, so basically, this is the Arthurian Legends told from Mordred's POV. Which isn't novel, its been done before, and that's fine. Mordred, in the tales, has been everything from misunderstood to outright evil. I don't really have a preference, he is what he is, and ultimately, that is the villian of the piece.

Clegg has obviously read his Mists of Avalon, for that's very much what Mordred: Bastard Son feels like. This book deals with Mordred's upbringing in Broceliande, under the tutaledge of his mother, Morgan Le Fey, Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, and of course, Merlin. Mordred lives in a fantasy-like setting, surrounded by people of the old Celtic tribes, hidden away from a vengeful and fearful father, where he learns all manner of magic. There's really nothing wrong with the character of Mordred, he seems to be an earnest lad, he wants to learn, he wants his family (mainly his mother) to be happy, and he's unsure about the awesome, distant father he has, especially since his father so wronged his mother (we're lead to believe that rather than Arthur being the victim here, it was he who forced himself on his half-sister Morgan, and then tried to have her killed when he found out she was pregnant). No, but the main divergence in Mordred's character in this book is that Clegg has made him gay.

Now, homosexual/homoerotic undertones (or overt-tones) are not new in Arthurian legends either. Its been noted in various places, such as Mists of Avalon, and heck, even in Monty Python's The Holy Grail, that the deep love Arthur and Lancelot feel for one another is not a strictly platonic thing. Mists of Avalon goes one further in actually having Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere engage in a threesome, and after awhile, you get the idea that Gwen felt rather left out. And that never bothered me, in fact, I thought it kinda made sense, in some of the tales, I sometimes got the idea that Lancelot had that all consuming love for Guinevere because that was the closest he could get to displaying his love for Arthur in a physical way; that Guinevere was an extension of her husband. But this is the first time (that I can remember) where I've seen Mordred portrayed as gay, and I think I don't like it because it feels like its too much.

Mordred's role in just about every tale is to be the villain, yes, but also to be that of the Other. Due to the circumstances of his birth, he is always considered tainted, the child of incest can never be fully accepted by society because he is the product of an extremely large societal taboo. Now I'm not saying this is correct because really, the blame shouldn't fall on him for something he could do nothing about, but that's the way it is in the tales. Mordred is forever on the outside looking in, and in those tales where he desperately wants to be accepted but never will, those are the ones that are most poignant. But making him gay, placing another societal 'taboo' on him, is nearly overkill. The deck is already stacked against Mordred, does it really need to be more so? I don't think so. Oh sure, I guess it adds another angle of angst to the character, but I just think its an unnecessary one.

I don't disagree with the choice to have Mordred's first lover be Lancelot. As I said, Lance has often been portrayed as having homosexual tendencies, and Lance has a long history of having ties to the Lady of the Lake and the Otherworld in which Mordred is raised in this novel, so its not far-fetched that their paths would cross. Of course though, in making Lance be rather more homosexual than just having homosexual leanings or perhaps being bi-sexual, I do wonder how Clegg will reconcile the more famous triangle that Lance is part of, because it seems to me, that by having Lance sleep with Arthur's gay son (who could be Arthur's sexual proxy in Lancelot's mind?), it makes one wonder just why Lance would switch teams and fall for Guinevere (although sometimes Arthurian authors make Gwen so horrible I'm often left questioning why Lance or Arthur fall for her, regardless of their sexual orientation). Of course, Clegg could just use some old standbys, magic spell, potion, etc, or he could just ignore it completely (ugh), but I guess we'll have to wait and see.

By the end of the novel, we've reached the end of Mordred's 'childhood'; he's well versed in magic and the martial arts, and he's just rescued the princess Guinevere from a plot devised by his mad aunt Morgause (who is currently the villain of the piece) and will now return the princess to her betrothed, King Arthur, therefore paving the way for the first meeting between the estranged father and son.

I am interested in reading on, but sometimes, this book focuses too much on the magic (an extended conversation with some practioners of magic of the goddess Hecate went on for what felt like ever), and I feel like I'm starting to have to skip the magic-babble like I would skip the techno-babble in a Tom Clancy novel, or the whaling-babble in Moby Dick or the marching-song babble in Fellowship of the Rings. Sure, stuff like that adds flavour, but after too much of it, I'm pretty freaking full.

It would seem to me that Clegg is obviously setting up Mordred as a more sympathetic character who has reasons other than just being evil to bring down his father's shining kingdom, so once again, its feeling very Mists of Avalonesque. But right now, Mordred is really the only well-drawn character and this lack of any interesting tertiary characters hurts a bit. By the end, this Lancelot was starting to feel a little more well-rounded, which is good, because well, a large part of my enjoyment of any Arthurian related book is how well Lancelot is portrayed. After all, he is my favourite.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Hmmm, I'm not sure if I should count Alice In Sunderland, by Brian Talbot, as number 12 for the year. But, I think I will. The only reason I'm hesitant about counting it is because its a graphic novel, and, in case you haven't noticed, I haven't been counting the comic books I read here. No, comic books, if I kept track of all of those I read in a year, would need an entire blog all on their own. But, Alice In Sunderland is one of those comics that isn't really a comic book, no its truly a 'graphic novel'.

It took Brian Talbot three years to do all the pictures and illustrations for this gargantuan novel. Its really breathtaking. I'm sure it also took him three years to do all the research as well. It is a tour of British history, but mainly viewed through the narrow scope of how it relates to Lewis Carroll and the creation of Alice in Wonderland.

See, Lewis Carroll grew up in Northern England, in the town of Sunderland (and yes, the name of the town sounds rather like Wonderland could very well be a play upon it), and it is Talbot's thesis that Carroll did not come up with and write all of Alice during his time at Oxford, but rather Alice was a summary of many different parts, many of them coming from Sunderland. Carroll's family are the main perpetrators of keeping all the Oxford connections (or myths) alive, but Talbot thinks that what the family has put forth is not fully the truth, and in fact, does some disservice to the man Carroll really was.

Alice in Sunderland is part biography and part history. Not only do we delve into Carroll's life, but also the life of the England he knew and the England before him. We go right from the Roman conquest and Bede and the Lindisfarne Tapestry and William the Conquorer and Robin Hood and so many other twists and turns in British history that I felt like I was back in my Old English class of second year, which was, by dint of being a history of the English language, also a history of the English people.

Its probably because I had a familiarity with much of the background history and because I have a fair knowledge of Lewis Carroll that I found this book so fascinating,

I would've liked it immensely even without all the pretty pictures :)

And make no mistake, the pictures are pretty. Talbot uses many medium, pencil and ink, collage, photos, etc. It makes for a striking page each and every time. And it makes for a very striking narrative. Talbot has a couple of narrators, both of whom seem to be the artist himself, in different incarnations. There's also an 'audience', who is very adept at asking questions when we need them ask.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, but well, I am a big book nerd, and this is right up my alley.