WWW Wednesday 5-29-2013

It’s WWW Wednesday. This meme is from shouldbereading.

• What are you currently reading?

I understand the urge to strike back in order to survive, and I know well the flash of anger that drives the impulse to hurt. But the mental space that permits someone to go into battle, and stay there, is something I’ve been researching off and on for years.

Rick Atkinson, in his An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-3demonstrates a knack of capturing the complexity of tunnel vision and disconnect that makes up so many commanders. Based on my biographical readings, it seems to me that he’s got the gift of capturing in a few words salient characteristics of famous names like Patton, MacArthur, Eisenhower, etc. But he doesn’t neglect the guys who had to do the actual work–far from it.

Depending solidly on letters, diaries, interviews, memos, and etc, Atkinson employs an interesting narrative style, sometimes delving very close to fictionalizing events. I don’t know how much of the dialogue he reports happened–though most of it seems to have been recorded, at least, by someone else–but he paints a cinematic picture of the events, zooming from the dispassionate gods-eye view right down to the grunt struggling to stay alive, amid stinks, sweat, and chaos. There is plenty of war horror to go around, but he doesn’t leave out the funny moments.

In Eastern Europe, Matthew Brezezinski’s vivid account of Isacc’s Army: A Story of Courage and Surivival in Nazi-Occupied Poland continues to grip and unnerve me by turns.

Over in the fictional world, I’ve been reading the first three books of Elizabeth Moon’s new Paladin’s Legacy series, as preparation for Limits of Power, which comes out in early June.

Way back in the 80s many writers of my generation were so inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that they engaged with it by subcreating their own world designed on the Tolkienian model: magic, castles, kings, elves, dwarves, and orcs, quests. But Moon’s series always stood out because she explored the familiar tropes from the grunt’s eye view. Paksenarrion was a sheepherder’s daughter who joined up to fight, and we follow her through a series from her first drill to the powerful ending.

Then, a couple decades later, Moon began to revisit that world, beginning with Oath of Fealty, which opens right after the last Paks book ended. The cast becomes even bigger, the storylines ranging over a complicated map, but central to this new series are three characters, each of whom overcame appallingly horrific youths: Kieri, the mercenary captain, who finds out he’s a king; Dorrin Verrakai, whose military background helps her navigate in the deadly atmosphere of bloodmagery, and Arvid Semminson, a sinister and mysterious thief-enforcer.

With each successive book, Moon moves further away from the Tolkienian template into her own history and mythology. We learn about gnomes, and their fascinating, complex culture, about gods and time and the flow of events when magic is present. We meet a dragon, quite different from other dragons. There can be a sense that the story is sprawling a bit, but I believe that is due to Moon’s tendency to have characters report (repeatedly) the details of action we’ve already seen. Still, the action sequences are gripping, the detail of military campaign realistic, making this a series for those who prefer a bit of hope and light amid all the dark doings.

• What did you recently finish reading?

Daniel Shealy’s formidably complete annotation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Not only do you get explanations running down the side, but the proper Victorian slang is restored to the characters’ dialogue, some editor having turned it into ‘proper’ prose during the 1880s. So, for instance, Meg’s gown is ‘ripping’ (actual Victorian-era slang) instead of the correct but bland ‘very beautiful.’ Shealy thus restores the characters’ voices.

He also furnishes applicable diary entries, demonstrating how much Alcott borrowed from her own life, and where she diverged for artistic reasons. There is also a treasure trove of explanations, plus some of May (“Amy”)’s drawings reproduced.

Online, I found Admiral Nelson’s dispatches and letters from the 1700s to his death at Trafalgar. Reading his own words gives such a clear picture of a rather complicated individual. Hard to believe that the posturing bigot of Naples could be the hero of Trafalgar, but his victories (as does a certain tone in his public and private letters) appear to demonstrate his thirst for fame.

So I had to reread Roy Adkins’ Nelson’s Trafalgar, which delves heavily into dispatches and letters and memoirs and anecdotes from immediately after the battle. It was fun seeing Captain Fremantle’s account placed into context, it being familiar from the Fremantle Letters collection.

 

• What do you think you’ll read next?

Next up on the stack is the last volume of  Janni Lee Simner’s dystopian fantasy for young readers, Faerie After Linda Nagata’s military sf thriller The Red: First LightDeborah Ross’s new epic fantasy series (all seven volumes already written!), The Seven-Petaled Shield, and Madeleine Robins’ historical fantasy, Sold for Endless Rue.

What about you? What have you been reading lately? Put the link to your WWW Wednesday entry in comments, or just tell us!

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WWW Wednesday 5-29-2013 — 30 Comments

  1. I just reserved the annotated Little Women. It will be interesting to see it with new information and from new perspectives. Thanks for the lead.

  2. Read: Maybe This Time by Jennifer Crusie (Reviewed here)
    Reading: Guardian by Jack Campbell
    Also World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris
    To read: Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia McKillip

  3. Currently reading is mostly on hold: We’re moving on June 17, and so all is yard sale and packing and taking books to used bookstores. Though I have indulged myself in requesting the final volume of S. M. Stirling’s Shadowspawn series from the city library, and I might end up actually carrying it to the new place if I don’t get through it quickly.

    About 90% of the books we’re keeping are in boxes, so I can’t really indulge my usual habit of taking down two or three familiar books that catch my eye and reading them in parallel.

    On the other hand, while we were at Bluestocking Books yesterday, waiting for them to pick out the books they wanted, C spotted a mass market copy of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin on their shelves. So that’s one more book to pack. I dipped into it on the way home and found again that for some reason I really like the choosing of courses and the negotiations with her academic advisor and the whole educational experience part of the story; that sort of narrative has fascinated me ever since I encountered it in Lee Correy’s Rocket Man, back in the fifties, I think. And at least the transaction effectively distilled a whole stack of books down to a really good book. I suppose that’s what the parable of the pearl of great price is about. . . .

    • Heh! Winnowing books out between moves is a great way to search for that pearl.

      I cherish my hardcopy of Tam Lin–it never goes out of the house.

  4. I recently finished Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. It is that that most rare and precious thing, an epistolary novel. Since it’s contemporary, that means you’re reading emails and such. She also cheats and has actual description here and there. I absolutely loved it. It’s set in Seattle, and the Bernadette character has some issues with the Pacific Northwest and skewers us in a very amusing way. It’s got a real emotional core but is also funny as hell.

    Since reading that, I’ve been working my way through works nominated for the Hugo award, starting with the short stories and working my way up towards the novels. This year, I plan to read the graphic stories, too. I was a bit non-plussed to realize that one is a Volume 3, and another a Volume 5, but since graphic novels are such a fast read, I plan to read the first volume of each and then decide to continue on up, or not.

    • Oh, that Semple sounds excellent. I am going to check that one out. Thanks!

  5. Recently read:
    * The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke.
    * Spirit’s Chosen by Esther Friesner
    * Shadow’s Puppets by Orson Scott Card

    Currently reading:
    * The Hutt Gambit by A.C. Crispin
    * Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables & Graphs to Enlighten by Stephen Few

    Next up:
    * The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

      • Spirit’s Chosen is the sequel to Spirit’s Princess. She’s a young shaman in ancient Japan. Her clan has been conquered by another clan and some family members taken away as slaves. She travels to try to rescue them.

        The Assassin’s Curse is fun. I think it’s good, but not great. Ananna is the daughter of pirates and she rebels against an arranged marriage. Her fiance-to-be warns that if she doesn’t accept the marriage his family will send an assassin after her. They do and she ends up saving the assassin’s life. The majority of the book involves trying to lift an impossible curse from the assassin, which binds him to Ananna (since she saved his life).

        Shadow’s Puppets is the 3rd book in the Ender’s Shadow series, which really follows from Ender’s Game, so it’s sort of the 4th book in the series. Petra and Bean take center stage together and Peter’s parents also take more of a role. Achilles is back causing problems but there’s relatively little “screen time” given to him. Peter grows up and actually acts like a good politician would — following his own plan and instincts and apologizing/taking the blame when he’s wrong. More introspective than the last Shadow book. Lots of thoughts about what it means to know yourself or know someone else. Talk about a biological urge to continue the species (apparently this is independent of any need/urge to have sex). Loved, loved the symbolism of the rocks in the road. Nice description of how it got started, too.

        The Hutt Gambit is the 2nd in The Han Solo trilogy. The trilogy is set before Star Wars: A New Hope. This is the book where Chewbacca gets introduced. This series uses the word “sentient” instead of “person” and I find it grating. I can see replacing “human” since not all the beings are human, but personhood doesn’t seem to depend on being human. I also don’t remember a similar choice in other Star Wars books I’ve read (although it’s been a while).

        Show Me The Numbers is a book on making good design decisions about how to represent data as a chart or graph. It’s not really about making them look good, but how best to present the information and make it instantly understandable and give it proper context.

  6. I am awaiting the final book in Atkinson’s Liberation trilogy, The Guns at Last Light; the second one, The Day of Battle, was as good as the first, and I commend it to you. One of the passages places Ernie Pyle’s account of the death of Captain Waskow in context. (I think we could do worse to include a reading of this column at Memorial Day services here in the US, but that’s just me.)

    Also, people who want to know about the grunt’s eye view of war could do worse than to take a look at Ernie Pyle’s wartime columns. (Indiana University’s school of journalism is proud to have an Ernie Pyle page, and Scripps-Howard is proud to let them republish his war reporting there.)

    • I am impressed with the first one enough that I want to read all three in the Atkinson series.

      Re grunt’s eye view, George Macdonald Fraser gives an intense view of that, though written down decades later, in Quartered Safe Out Here.

      And I second the recco of Ernie Pyle.

      • Quartered Safe Out Here is awesome*. It’s clear that it’s a story he had–absolutely had to tell, and there’s so much intensity packed into a short little space there–you know he’s left out things, but what’s there is pretty much indelible, and must have been so for him.

        You will not regret the second Atkinson, and I hope the third is as good as the other two.

        *As in, I am in awe of his ability to tell us this story in the way he tells it.

  7. Atkinson’s third volume is indeed as good as the first two. Maybe even better.

    Currently reading: _The Origin of the World’s Mythologies_, by Witzel. Fascinating stuff, grand synthesis on an almost unimaginable scale. So far I haven’t gotten far past chapter one, aka “Why Most of My Predecessors Got It Wrong”, but it’s already very very good.

    And I’m re-reading the Nero Wolfe novels, more or less in chronological order. Interesting to see how Stout works toward his style and characterization in the early books.

    • Oh, Tony, be sure to report on the Mythology one. Sounds tempting.

      Thanks for the report on the third Atkinson.

  8. Oh, the Shealy sounds fascinating. I have put it on my list.

    Getting ready for and going to Wiscon kind of shredded my reading, but I did finish an impulsive rereading of Peter S. Beagle’s Tamsin. I bounced off it hard the first time for all the wrong reasons, but this time I really loved it. Now I have to try The Innkeeper’s — Tale? Daughter? — wait, Google is right here — right, Song, that’s it — again.

    P.

  9. Just finished:

    Dodger by Terry Pratchett
    Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear
    The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Yeah, I’m a bit behind on the pop)

    Objectively, Bear’s book is the best, though being the middle of a series, it would likely confuse a newcomer, and doesn’t end the story. I do rather wish the third were closer to being out.

    Dodger was the weakest, not Pratchett at his best, though it was quick-paced and pleasant enough, if pleasant can reasonably be applied to a work about the poorest of the poor.

    The Hunger Games had excellent pacing and plotting and the main character’s psychological traumas and awakenings, for all I imagine I could start to pick apart the worldbuilding (as others have said). It was the most page-turny and quickest to read. It’s easy to see where it got its popularity from; its strengths are mostly the sorts of strengths action-adventure bestsellers seem to have, and it lacks some of their frequent weaknesses (the writing style is more vivid.) I also read it almost immediately after watching the movie, which makes an interesting comparison, as the book is firmly set in Katniss’s head and the movie gives a much broader perspective on the world and what’s happening.

    I also read some of the stories from Zombies vs. Unicorns, but had to return it to the library. The ones I’d read were reasonably satisfying but not exciting, but I’m also rarely a short fiction reader.

    Next up: I have Kate Elliott’s Cold Fire out of the library and thus should read that very soon now. After that, most likely either the Killing Moon (which has been put off by library books or other circumstances twice now) or Redshirts. Possibly another foray into short fiction with Welcome to Bordertown.

    • I tried a chapter or two of Redshirts, but found it offputting.

      Looking forward to the Bear, which is on my list!

      • I need to be in the right mood for meta, so Redshirts may end up having to wait for that if I decide I’m not there when it comes up.

  10. How wonderful to have the Victorian slang and such restored to Little Women (and how cool about May’s artwork).

    The book you read as part of your research into how people manage to stick with their drive to war sounds fascinating too. the complexity of tunnel vision and disconnect that makes up so many commanders –a lot of food for thought in that brief phrase.

    As for what I’ve been reading, I joined OspreyArcher on LJ in a Memorial Day Weekend read of Starry River of the Sky, a follow-up book to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin–in both books, the stories people tell weave together with the overarching presently occurring story and contribute to its resolution. The stories draw on Chinese folktales. Both books are also **physically** lovely. (Osprey Archer finished; I, being slow, have not yet, but should soon.)

  11. I just finished _Sold for Endless Rue_ by Madeline Robins. IIRC, the book jacket says that it contains the stories of 3 women, but it’s mainly the story of Laura who is adopted by a herbalist and midwife, and Laura’s daughter Bieta and is all bound up with a parent’s desire for her child and how that can warp things. That’s probably not what others will take from the book as a major theme. It’ll be interesting to see the reviews.

    I’m also trying to finish _Empress of Earth_ by Melissa Scott, newly released as an ebook. Scott rewrote part of it. She stated that she was rushed and ended up without the book she wanted, so she took this opportunity to fix it. I’m over 80% done, and it feels a little more complex in both how they’re going to free Earth and in how the magic is used.

    Next up? Whoosh, I have even more ‘top-level’ books stacked up than usual. Probably Girl Genius volume 11 (yes, I’m way behind), then the latest Foreigner book by Cherryh or Kat books 2 and 3 by Stephanie Burgis.

    I *really* should read some of the Hugo novel nominees but a big no on KSR and Mira Grant, I like Scalzi’s books but often drop them mid-book after checking the ending in favor of another book, and I heard Ahmed read from his book and it didn’t inspire me to read it.