Barbarian Book Club: 6 June 2019

Another month goes by and I managed to scrape by with seven books. How I yearn for the old days where I could spend all day reading. Sometimes finishing two novels a day. Being a husband and a father take up most of my time. I’m looking forward to retirement where I can spend my days reclining in an armchair, drinking tea, and devouring books.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. A modern western about two brothers sent to California to kill a man who owes their boss money. It had a few moments but overall disappointing. It came off as a Tarantino pastiche that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be serious or comically absurd. But it’s biggest sin was leaving out the most important character in any western. The West itself. Great westerns always make the land a character. The deserts, the mesas, the wide plains, and treacherous mountain passes. The land itself must be in the novel.

The Medici: Power, Money, and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance by Paul Strathern A fantastic historical overview of the powerful Medici family that rose from modest means to being some of the principals behind the Italian Renaissance. Bankers, Patrons, Bishops, Dukes, Popes, and Queens, the Medici rose to the heights of European power. The books main focus is on the height of the family during the Renaissance, from Cosimo through Lorenzo, wrapping up with the eventual fall of the family into obscurity. Fascinatingly the book also focuses on the artists, poets, and writers such as Michelangelo, showcasing the massive impact on the artistic revival of the most illustrious Medici.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay Outstanding novel. My favorite fantasy read this year. My complete review here.

The Renaissance at War (Smithsonian History of Warfare) by Thomas Arnold The Smithsonian History of Warfare series is really good. Quick pocket size books filled with maps, charts, diagrams, and all sorts of great information for anybody interested in a more in depth look into historical warfare.

Landsknecht Soldier 1486–1560 (Warrior) by John Richards Quick chapbook on the famous mercenaries. The Osprey Publishing books make great research material for writers. I read this one in a few hours while watching some young guns qualify on the rifle range.

Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ Medici by Miles Unger I find the political history of the Italian city states during the Renaissance interesting and the Medici of Florence are some of the most interesting players of the era. Lorenzo the Magnificent being the best example of a Renaissance lord. A dark, brooding, complex man who was an expert and ruthless political player yet abhorred the process, pining for the freedom to tend garden and write poetry. I also enjoy biographies and believe that all writers should read biographies. Getting a deep understanding of great men and women helps one create complex believable characters.

A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay This was a audiobook re-read. Kay is one of the rare modern fantasy writers I enjoy reading and A Song for Arbonne is my favorite one of his fantasy novels. This one has great characters, set in a fantastic fantasy version of Cathar Provencal in the age of the Troubadours. It ends with a great medieval battle that doesn’t quite reach the heights in Return of the King yet comes close enough to make it memorable. I highly recommend this one.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

The sailors say the rain misses the cloud even as it falls through light or dark into the sea. I miss her like that as I fall through my life, through time, the chaos of our time. I dream of her some nights, still, but there is nothing to give weight or value to that, it is only me, and what I want to be true. It is only longing.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

I discovered Guy Gavriel Kay several years ago when I returned to Fantasy. Originally I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire but quickly became burned out on the nihilism and onslaught of negativity in those books. Yes, the world is dark and often people are cruel, and nasty. But the world is also beautiful and people can be surprisingly selfless, heroic, and noble. More often than not people can be both cruel and selfless, both heroic and nasty.

After almost giving up on Fantasy because I didn’t want to read nihilistic grimdark or the bloated door stoppers focused on magical power systems, I stumbled on Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and fell in love with Fantasy all over again. Here was a modern writer that wrote beautiful literary fantasy with a depth of emotion not found anywhere else.

Kay’s novels are poetically written historical fantasies. Worlds and characters in fantasy worlds slightly different but recognizable. His poetic writing and focus on theme over plot give his novels an almost impressionistic feel, full of sorrowful and nostalgic moods invoking a hazy watercolor like experience.

Some of his past novels that I consider some of my personal favorite, are The Lions of Al-Rassan and A Song for Arbonne. The first takes place in a fantasy version of Andalusia during the Reconquista. Lions is as story about war, love, friendship, and loyalty, in a world that is ceasing to exist. The latter, and my favorite, is set in a Fantasy version of south-western France somewhat inspired by the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade. A mercenary from the north becomes involved in a web of war and politics involving the Troubadour culture of the Arabonne’s Court of Love.

I read a lot of Kay’s novels but my interest in his work began to taper once he switched his focus away from European inspired work and began writing several novels based on Chinese Dynasties, a historical subject I don’t have much interest in. But, randomly I came across news that he was about to release a new work, a novel set in a Fantasy version of Renaissance Italy, which has been my historical obsession for the past year. I pre-ordered right away.

A Brightness Long Ago might be my Kay’s best novel to date. A thematically complex work focused on memory and the intersection of choice and fate. Our main character is Guidanio Cerra, a well educated son of a tailor now a powerful member of Seressa’s(Fantasy Venice) ruling council. He mournfully recalls his youth where his life crossed paths with two powerful feuding Condottiere Folco d’Acrosi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio, and the fateful events surrounding their final confrontation.

Guidanio’s recollections are written in conversational first person and filled with his philosophical and religious musings on memory, love, fate, and will. But other characters and sections are written in third person, giving us a complex and satisfying view of the personalities populating this world.

The beauty of this novel is not in the plot, which is painted with broad strokes, but in the interconnected depth of characters and in the theme of fate and choice. Several times in the novel minor characters make small, seemingly inconsequential choices that turn out to have life changing consequences in later chapters.

What I personally loved is the lack of linear logic in the chain of events. Sometimes things just happen. People just die. People get sick. People make irrational decisions that lead to catastrophic results. Sometimes your favorite loses the race and you go home. Sometimes the heroes don’t answer the call. Sometimes you luck out and win. Maybe the person you randomly meet is ends up being the love of your life, or maybe not, and you quickly forget each other.

As humans we tend to think of our lives, the past, history, as a logical linear progression and our brains invent a connected narrative. But, real life isn’t like that, the narrative is always tacked on with hindsight. The future is hard to predict due to the vagaries of fate and choice. A Brightness Long Ago captures this like no novel I’ve read before. For the first time in awhile I was actually surprised at some of the events without it feeling contrived.

The setting is beautiful and full of depth and the characters, from the major players to the minor ones that only stay with you for a few paragraphs are perfectly written. Connoisseurs of Italian Renaissance history will recognize Kay’s fantasy stand ins for the city-states, the mercenaries, the Medici, the Popes, and numerous other Renaissance personalities like Michelangelo. The world has a magical quality but also feels real and more complex than fantasy worlds developed over numerous novels.

A Brightness Long Ago is a fantastic, beautiful, and elegant novel. The perfect mix of literary and fantastic writing. A novel that goes beyond plot, exploring complex theme, yet doesn’t sacrifice character, adventure, and magic. I have a feeling it stay at the top of my favorites for a long time.

Barbarian Book Club: 5 May 2019

I read a lot of books. This past week I read one novel, one memoir, and two short story collections. Before starting this post I bought eight books.

Every time I finish a book I tell myself that I’m going to sit down and write an in depth, detailed, well written review. A review worthy of a glossy literature magazine, something insightful that will make you run out and get whatever book, read it, and drive to where I am so you can sit around drinking espresso, smoking cigarettes, and discussing the literary merits of said book with me.

I never do.

So instead of writing critiques worthy of Harold Bloom I’m just going to let list a few of the things I’ve read recently and particularly recommend them. I’m also going to link to Amazon using my affiliate link. Why? Because this site costs me money to keep add free. 

Some Recently Read

Fight Club by Chuck Palaniuk. I saw the movie when it first came out. I was in high school and my brother and I came across it one day on cable. It blew our mind. One of my close friends became a Palahniuk super fan, guy read every one of his books numerous times, owned signed copies, convinced me to try one of the books. I borrowed Choke from my girlfriend and read it real quick. Didn’t like it. Too edgy in that try hard kind of way. It didn’t click with early twenties me so I passed on Palaniuk. Fiveteen years later I’m at the gym listening to the Bret Easton Ellis podcast and Chuck Palaniuk is one of the guests. Before he comes on B.E.E. talks about Fight Club, book and movie, and my peaks my interest. I loved the movie, maybe I should give the book a try. I did and don’t regret it. It’s well written, exceptionally creative, and quick paced. It captures that late 90’s hatred and nihilism that seemed to permeate everything. From a writers perspective chapter six is outstanding, a piece of prose with interrupting beets that reads like a charged punk song. Each scene is prefaced and interrupted by one of the “Rules of Fight Club,” the book is worth it for this chapter alone.

Airships by Barry Hannah. A few days ago I hit up all my homies on Twitter asking for litfic recommendation. I wanted something good, something meaty, something that read like the second pack Marlboro Reds washed down with cheap beer after a night of disappointment. My boy Neal delivered by recommending Hannah. Airships is a short story collection that blends the civil war with Vietnam, adds a dash of New York lit snobbery and flavors it with a dash of Southern Gothic. Hannah is a must read. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of him before. This is what litfic should be. No cat lady victimology knitting circles here.

The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by Anthony Beevor. One of the best history books I’ve ever read. A brutal account of one of most intriguing and overlooked conflicts of the 20th century. The Spanish Civil war was a war where the losers wrote the history. It was the first massively propagandized war and so much of it is misunderstood or even deliberately misconstrued. The early sections describing the build up, the escalating hatred between countrymen towards each other is chilling, specifically in the light of our current political climate where the centrist position is losing ground to extremism from both sides. I highly recommend this book, not just for history buffs but for everyone.

White Rajah: A Biography of Sir James Brooke by Nigel Barely. I’ve always had a fascination with the South Pacific in the 19th century. I love the opium trade, jungles, China Clippers, trade companies, and all of the adventure that goes along with the great men behind the history. My favorite novel is Tai Pan and Hong Kong and its history is one of my favorite places I’ve visited. So a few month ago work decided to send me to the jungles of Sarawak, what used to be the Kingdom of Sarawak founded by the British adventurer James Brooke. Sarawak was ruled by the White Rajahs for three generations, well into the 20th century, and the last of the Rajahs was buried in Kuching in 2013. While the book itself isn’t that great, with a strange focus on Brooke’s homosexuality, I read it the first few days I was in Sarawak and it was cool seeing all of the places built by Brooke in person during my free time.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky The greatest novel ever written. Make sure you read this translation.

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes. A comprehensive and intriguing cultural history starting with Peter the Great’s founding of St. Petersburg through the death of Stalin. The focus of the book is mostly on the cultural and civil life of Russians in the 19th century going into detail about Russian art, music, ballet, and the fascination and dual nature between the enlightenment of Western Europe and the Orthodox nationalism of the peasant. Some of the most interesting and painful to read chapters were about the plight of the artistic revolutionaries after the Soviet Revolution. Soviet true believer committees that turned art and literature into propaganda for Stalin only to be denounced later and sent to the death camps themselves.

I read a lot more, but this should do for now. A few of the books I’ve read deserve more in depth reviews, specifically White by Bret Easton Ellis. Other books were too historically technical, obscure, or instructive to merit a recommendation.

Above all, don’t lie to yourself.

Last night I started reading The Brothers Karamazov. The last time I read Dostoevsky’s masterpiece was two decades ago when I was a teenager in high school and it had a tremendous impact on me. Ever since I considered it my favorite book and the greatest novel ever written. So, I decided that being in my mid-thirties, a husband, and father, I should revisit it from a more mature point in my life.

Right away I was struck by the narrator’s voice is a lot more comical and light-hearted than I remembered. The book is framed in a typical 19th-century fashion where the assumption is that the narrator is telling the reader a true story and every fact and detail is through the lens of an unnamed speaker recollecting the events to the best of his ability and also injecting a fair amount of his own personal commentary. The opening chapters that lay out the background of the story contain a lot of historical and literary references that I appreciate a lot more now that I’m much better educated on 19th century European and Russian history and politics.

But it was in Book II Chapter 2 where the novel really begins and I immediately re-discovered why it’s considered a masterpiece.

The section is titled An Inappropriate Gathering and takes place at the local monastery. The Karamazov family agrees to discuss the matter of Dimitry’s inheritance while the elder Father Zosima acts as the mediator between the father and son. Upon arrival at the elder’s chamber, the horrendously boorish and offensive Fydor begins running his mouth, insulting the people around him, and playing the fool. He turns to Father Zosima and in a mocking fake victimhood he asks “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

Father Zosima’s response is fantastic.

Father Zossima, lifting his eyes, looked at him, and said with a smile:

“You have known for a long time what you must do. You have sense enough: don’t give way to drunkenness and incontinence of speech; don’t give way to sensual lust; and, above all, to the love of money. And close your taverns. If you can’t close all, at least two or three. And, above all- don’t lie.”

Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than anyone. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offense, isn’t it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill- he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offense, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness.

The above passage is outstanding. Like our modern day outrage hunters, Fyodor Karamazov is an opportunist who seeks to defraud and take advantage of others.

I believe lying to oneself is one of the main problems underlying our current cultural malaise. We tell ourselves fantasies about who we are, what we can achieve, what is good, what is moral, and react negatively when faced with the truth. We force lies onto others and act indignantly when they refuse to acknowledge our fantasies. We take actions that were considered foolish a century ago and are crushed when the predictable results harm us.

So much of the current cultural and political climate would be improved if everyone followed Father Zosima’s teaching.

A Hectic New Year.

Everything is in flux, everything is changing.

By this time next week, my family and I will be enjoying the hospitality of our good friends and preparing the final push towards our journey back to the United States. This Friday, movers will come to our house, pack our belongings, and ship everything we own across the Pacific. After a short stay at the Lodge, where I spent three months when I first arrived, we will fly back to America. If everything goes according to plan we should arrive in California on the 1st of February.

Understandably life is rather hectic. Preparing for a move from Asia to America is a daunting endeavor, but in our case, the addition of a spirited seven-month-old adds an extra layer of complexity. Therefore I haven’t had a surplus of free time for writing or blogging.

I did manage to read a decent amount. Earlier today I finished Mercenaries and their Masters: Warfare in Renaissance Italy. A good book if you are interested in the subject but somewhat dry if you don’t have prior knowledge about the socio-political landscape of 15th century Italy. I love the idea of mercenary armies and when it comes to historical eras I tend to gravitate towards the pike and shot warfare of the European Wars of Religion. Sadly books focused on this subject tend to lean towards the academic instead of the amateur reader.

I’m still walking to work several times per week and enjoying the cold morning while listening to Lord of The Rings. I just started The Return of the King. I know I’ve said this before but the narration is fantastic. I’m surprised by how much depth and nuance I missed when I first read the trilogy over a decade ago. If you haven’t read TLotR at all or recently I highly recommend the audiobooks narrated by Rob Inglis.