Monday, July 28, 2008

I"ve been on holidays, so I've managed to read a lot. Yay me :)

Book number 18 for the year is The Knight by the Pool by Sophie Masson. It's a tale of early medieval France, specifically involving the quarrelsome Plantagent family of England, mainly Richard the Lion Heart himself. Although really, this novel is about Marie de France, a young, recently widowed woman who finds herself drawn into the rather magical world of French folklore.

Marie marries kind Hoel of Broceliande (a forest known throught French and Arthurian literature as being extremely magical), a man much older than herself, but loves her deeply and treats her well. Marie is a bit of a dreamer, well educated, with a passion for books. She is fond of Hoel, but does not feel great passion for him. She feels some regret about this, but really cannot figure out how to change how she feels. Their young child dies, and then Hoel himself passes away, and this loss moves Marie into deeper feeling for her family, but that, once again is tinged with guilt.

Deep in the forest though, she comes across a mysterious knight who tells her that she is to be beloved of another, mainly that she will be with Prince Richard of England (he's not king yet). She's not quite certain what to think of this, but does set out to eventually meet up with her brother, and return to her father's lands.

This mystery though, is not the only one surrounding the forest of Broceliande; Hoel's brother went missing in there, and Hoel's family history is wrapped up amongst tales of wolves and transforming beasts. But none of this is really known to Marie.

On her travels, Marie does indeed meet Richard the Lion Hearted, and it is love at first sight for both of them. But embarking on a love affair with a member of the powerful Plantagent family is no easy thing; there is much family betrayal, and Richard is supposed to marry a young, French princess, but none of this matters to Richard, and he swears he will be with Marie. And as far as Marie is concerned, she has found someone who has finally roused her passion.

All in all, this is a rather difficult book to explain, for there are many plot threads, including a betrayal by Marie's cousin, a monestary of nuns, tales of werewolves and shapeshifting and of course, the great French Trickster, Renard.

It is a well done book, the weaving of the folklore and the history of medieval France is very well done. The characters are crisp and interesting, and Masson writes Renard very well. I don't know a lot about French folklore (outside of the French Arthurian connections obviously), so I did find this book very interesting. It's the first of a trilogy, so I would like to find the others and continue on.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Number 17 is Dragon Harper by Anne McCaffery and her son Todd McCaffery. I've been reading the Dragonrider of Pern novels since I was about 14 years old. My father's friend Ray gifted me a box set of the first three novels (Dragonflight, Dragonquest, The White Dragon) for Christmas, and I've loved them ever since, reading my original copies into near tatters. Later, for my 27th birthday, a friend of mine gave me, for my birthday, a trade paperback, collected edition of those books, signed by McCaffery herself. I was touched. I actually haven't read all of the books done under the Dragonriders of Pern aegis; their quality has fallen off some over the years, and well, my first love will always be for the main characters of those first novels (Lessa, F'lar, Robinton etc.) and none of the characters introduced after that (such as the those in the Harper Hall trilogy) have interested me as much, although I did like the tale of Moreta quite a bit.

Anne McCaffery hasn't written as much in recent years, and as of late, it has been her son Todd who has taken over some of the chores (following in Christopher Tolkien's steps as administrator of his famous parent's literary wealth?). Dragon Harper is Todd's fourth book and its... ok really. It was a quick read overall, taking me about half a day's reading, entertaining enough, but definitely not as resonating to me as his mother's earlier works. I think I didn't like this one as much because the plot seemed to me to bit of a rehash of the plot of Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern in that it deals with a Pern-wide influenza pandemic. The only real difference here is that instead of seeing the pandemic mainly from the Weyr's point of view (as in Moreta), we are seeing it mainly from Hold and Harper Hall's pov, throught the eyes of young apprentice harper Kindan. He's a likeable enough character, slightly more mature for his age than he probably should be, but in Pernese society, I"ve often thought that people seem to mature much faster (Pernese society is not quite medieval in structure and thinking, but its not far off either).

The Weyrs and dragonriders are almost absent in this book, as they cannot risk themselves and their dragons so close to a time when Threadfall will once again happen (the next Pass scheduled to begin in a scant 12 years). This story takes place nearly 500 years after Pern was colonized (a story detailed in Dragondawn), and as always, I do find the slight differences interesting. Some information is known at this time (ie that they WERE colonized), fire-lizards are known and common, as is the practice of timing it (where dragons and their riders can time travel into the past). These things are unknown by the time we get to the original trilogy. But overall, Pernese society hasn't really changed much in the thousands of years between Pern's colonization and the events Lessa and F'lar live through in Dragonflight. While this is probably not very realistic (would society really remain that stagnat?), it is rather comforting; I want to read my Pernese stories as recognizable Pern stories with heroes and dragons and whatnot. A Pern story wouldn't be a Pern story if there's all of a sudden cities and non-dragon powered flight; that's not what I signed up for.

So, Dragonharper isn't spectacular, but its still not a bad sojourn back to one of my favourite worlds.
Number 16 is I Am Legend and other stories by Richard Matheson. I've seen both I Am Legend, starring Will Smith, and Omega Man, starring the late Charlton Heston, but I've never read the novella both were based upon. I think I hadn't read it mainly due to the subject matter; based on the movies, I had thought I Am Legend dealt with a post-apocalyptic world filled with zombies, and I don't deal well with post-apocalytpic worlds filled with zombies. It's the one horror genre that consistently freaks me out. I don't like the nihilism of it, for even if the film ends with 'hope', I can never get past the idea that any small victory is still a phyrric victory; can the survivors really ever win? Anyway, despite this, I decided to pick up the actual story and read it, mainly based on a fact I'd never realized before; the creatures that Robert Neville, as the last, surviving human faces, are not zombies, but vampires. For some reason, this simple shift in monster made the tale a little more palatable for me.

So, the two movies based on this story are there in spirit, but there are quite a few differences of course. We see Matheson's Neville in different snapshots of his solitary life, the first being three months after the last of the plague victims have turned and risen again, the second a year later, and the final one, three years later. We see him at differing points of despair, loneliness, hope, isolation and then resignation. In the beginning, he drinks a lot, hunts the victims of the plague (whom we learn are of two varities, those who are out and out vampires, and those who simply carry the disease and are really still technically 'alive'), but he must return to his barracaded home every night, to wait out the darkness for that is when the vampires come looking for him. They taunt him to come outside, and sometimes, he wonders why he holds on and doesn't simply join them, die and hopefully be reunited with his dead wife and daughter. But something keeps Neville going, and he begins to research the whole 'plague', which was actually spread by real vampires, and finds out it is caused by a bacteria in the blood stream, that needs blood to survive. Neville tries and tries to figure it out, but he (unlike Will Smith's version) is not a scientist, so he finds his ability to figure out a cure is limited.
The second time we see Neville, not much has changed, except his drive to figure out how to save humanity is obviously what saved him from drowning himself in alcoholic self-pity, but suddenly Neville finds himself consumed with a task; he discovers another survivor, and he must convince this survivor to come to him. The survivor is a mangy dog, who has obviously been on his own for quite some time, and doesn't trust his former 'masters', who, if he was caught by them, would be consumed by them for his blood. But Neville is desperate for the company, and tries again and again to have the dog befriend him. The relation between human survivor and canine survivor was an excellent part of the Will Smith movie, and in the book, it is just as heart wrenching, and it ends just as sadly.
The third time we see Neville, its has been three years since he last saw a person who didn't want to drain him of blood. He has hit a wall; he is (due to lots of experimentation on the afflicted) quite sure of what causes the plague and how it is transmitted, but he still has not been able to cure it. We learn more of Neville's background through flashbacks, but the caring, loving man he once was has disappeared; he has been alone for so long, he's forgotten a lot of those feelings. This is displayed in spades when he sees the last thing he ever thinks he'll see, a woman, in daylight, aparantly healthy. At first he is so shocked (as is she) that he's quite sure she isn't real, but when he figures she is, he chases after her, for she flees him, equally unsure of him. He brings her home, but he is instantly wary of her story, that she and her husband had survived, that he was killed only a week ago, and she had been roaming ever since. Relying on his survival instincts for so long, Neville cannot put them aside and enjoy the company of another person.
I don't want to give away too much, for the ending of the story is at once very different, and in some ways, slightly similar to the Will Smith movie. It is a phyrric victory ending though, leaving me feeling definitely uncomfortable.
The funny thing about this story though, is that reading this, I could easily understand the casting of Charlton Hestin as Neville in Omega Man; Matheson's Neville had a very Hestin-like quality to him.

I also enjoyed the other stories in this collection, especially Prey (which I actually recall seeing a movie version of when I was younger, and the sight of the protaganist hudled in the bathroom while the tribal doll tries to get at her from underneath the door has stayed with me till this day. I got a very delicious tremor of fearful recognition when I realized this was the same story), Dance of the Dead, The Funeral (I loved the notion of vampires and their horror monster collegues wanting to have funerals for themselves) and From Shadowed Places, a lovely collision of Western and African sensibilites that was also a very powerful story on prejudice.

After reading all these, I can easily see why Stephen King lists Richard Matheson as a major influence on his writing.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Number 15 of the year is about bananas. Like lots of people, I eat a lot of bananas. My husband puts them into our smoothies most mornings and I love to make banana bread. True, I don't really like banana flavoured things, but I do enjoy the actual banana. And like lots of people, I've never really thought about where all these bananas I eat came from.

With the book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel, I now know exactly where my bananas have come from, and that its not necessarily good.

Once again, I've heard the term 'banana republic' numerous, numerous times over my life. Heck, I've used the term. Heck, I've shopped in the ubiquitous store of the same name. It's a generic term for a small, ill-governed, (usually) South American country. But once again, I never gave much thought as to where the term came from. Well this book educated me in no uncertain terms, and I'm now really, really glad that the bananas I receive in my weekly shipment from the CSA I belong to, are fare-trade.

This book is an interesting companion almost, to Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine and Pollock's In Defense of Food as this book talks about the evils done by governments and corporations (those that became Chiquita, Dole, Del Monte, etc) done to small, South American countries all in the name of growing bananas, and now, how the only way the banana may survive, is by making it entirely dependent on food science.

This book made me think about the genetic manipulation of food more so than anything else, and, as he points out in the book, like most people, I get very uncomfortable with the idea that any food I eat might have been genetically manipulated. But the thing with bananas is that they the kind we eat, the Cavendish variety, is sterile, it doesn't breed like a normal plant, rather it is basically 'cloned', but taking clippings of one plant and growing nearly identical plants from that. This is the only method of banana plant reproduction. This is fine except for a few things, one of the main one being that since the plants are all the same, they are not very hardy and are very susceptible to things. There are certain diseases out there that are busily wiping out banana plantations across the globe, threatening the banana that millions of us eat. What makes it even worse is that, while we (i.e. the Western world) could make due without our daily banana in our cereal, there are millions in countries in Africa who rely on the banana as a sustience staple, as much as some rely on wheat or rice. But this staple is also under attack, and perhaps the only way to save this fruit and the millions of lives that depend on it, is to genetically modify the banana to resist the crippling diseases and other drawbacks. But these bananas would be developed in a lab, and this makes so many uneasy.

This book is packed full of information; the history of the banana, the history of the fruit companies and the countries they helped basically destroy in order to grow numerous, cheap bananas; and of course, the uncertain future of the banana. One thing is for sure, I'll never take another banana for granted again.