Catch-up Mini Reviews

It’s been a little bit longer than usual between posts as I’ve been furiously reading to rack up entries in the local library’s summer reading prize drawing (can’t let my kiddos show me up!). Here are five of the most recent (out of 22 over the last 2 months):

Monster Hunter International (Monster Hunters International Book 1) by [Correia, Larry]Title: Monster Hunter International
Author: Larry Correia
Genre: Gun Nut Enthusiast Wish Fulfillment
Pages: 715
Rating: 2.5 of 5

I enjoy Dracula and Cthulhu mythos stories, so I figured why not try out this pulp action-spinoff of the Lovecraftian and Gothic tales. While some of the monster lore and overall plot was fun, I give it a “meh” overall.

I think that the intended audience is the we-distrust-the-government-and-LOVE-guns crowd, and while that describes some of my friends, it’s not me. For me, the frequent doting  listing of gun models and specs and the breathless descriptions of firing said guns were absurdly over the top. And these guys would rather just blast away at the monsters with silver bullets (no matter how ineffectual it repeatedly proves to be) than actually try to come up with anything clever. Add to this some ham-handed foreshadowing, sprinkle in some poor word usage and factual errors (e.g. compulsive instead of convulsive, Peloponnesian War instead of Trojan War), and I probably won’t be continuing this series…I’ll stick with Warhammer 40K for my absurdly violent pulp needs.

Title: The Annotated Hunting of the Snark
Author: Lewis Carroll (annotations by Martin Gardner)
Genre: Nonsense Narrative Poem + Pretentious Commentary
Pages: 196
Rating: 4 of 5

I love the nonsense poem Jaberwocky, so I’m not sure how I didn’t know about Carroll’s full-length narrative poem that is very much in the same vein. The poem itself is a lot of fun (if a bit grim) and worthy of a 5 out of 5 rating. However, for the most part the annotations/commentary add very little enjoyment unless you are utterly obsessed with the poem. The one lengthy section of commentary that I really enjoyed was an extended satirical “analysis” of the poem that is clearly making fun of  people who (like our main annotator) pompously try to impose deep, complex meaning on the nonsense.

The Warden - Chronicles of Barsetshire, Book 1 audiobook cover artTitle: The Warden
(Chronicles of Barsetshire – Book 1)
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 240
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I am using this book for my 19th Century Classic category over at the Back to the Classics challenge. My brother-in-law, who is also a pastor, recommended the Barchester series as a humorous take on church politics (with a warning that this first book wasn’t quite as good as the others).

Trollope perfectly captures the earnestness, good intentions, greed, pettiness, and arrogance that swirl together to generate church politics. His characters, squabbling over how a charitable institution should be run, are quirky but believable, and he gets in some good jabs at the press and national politics along the way.

I take issue with the pervading theme that time-honored abuses of the system for personal gain should be allowed to continue so long as they are not really hurting anyone. After all, attempts to reform will only make things worse for everyone…just look at that troublemaker Charles Dickens! That said, there was enough cleverness in here that I’ll probably give the next Barchester book a shot at some point.

Title: The Swordbearer
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Pages: 256
Rating: 3 of 5

I read this more out of curiosity than because I expected a good book. It’s one of Glen Cook’s first fantasy books (maybe the first?), and we all know how rough an author’s early works can be. This stand-alone novel feels like three parts Elric of Melniboné, one part Lord of the Rings, and one part semi-original stuff that would later be cannibalized and reused in the much better Black Company stories.

The characters are so flat and numerous as to be difficult to keep track of, and there is frequent info-dumping, but I’ve read much worse first attempts. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed the Elric books, this is worth a read… if the whole book being an “I feel like a pawn of this evil soul-devouring sword” mope-fest grates on your nerves you might want to give it a miss.

The Fall of Arthur by [Tolkien, J.R.R.]Title: The Fall of Arthur
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien (Christopher Tolkien, Editor)
Genre: Epic Poem Fragment + Page-count Padding Commentary
Pages: 233
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is just another Christopher Tolkien publication of a fragment from his father’s work padded out to book length with commentary. As always, the narrative poem fragment is well-written and interesting (as long as you have some interest in Arthuriana), but it is even shorter than usual (cutting off well before the actual battle in which Mordred dies and Arthur maybe-dies). Christopher’s notes are much better organized than usual, but still overlong. The tracing of various versions of the fall of Arthur through medieval literature is probably the most interesting part of his contribution. Unless you are the kind of fan who has to have every published fragment by J. R. R. Tolkien, this isn’t worth buying…just borrow it from the library, read the poem fragment, and skim the notes to see if any of the sections sound interesting to you.

Heroism, Greed, & Betrayal

Title: The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun
Authors: J. R. R. Tolkien
Editor/Commentator: Christopher Tolkien
Genre: Narrative Poetry (plus tedious commentary)
Pages: 377
Rating: 4.5 of 5

J. R. R. Tolkien’s description of Norse poetry is that it “aims at seizing a situation, striking a blow that will be remembered, illuminating a moment with a flash of lightning…” In this retelling of the tragic Volsung/Rhinegold legends Tolkien’s terse, alliterative poetry does just that. He interweaves strands from The Poetic Edda, The Prose Edda, The Volsung Saga, and The Nibelungenlied, smoothing out discrepancies while adding a few elements of his own invention.

Tolkien’s most interesting innovation is providing Sigurd the dragon-slayer with a “special function.” For all of Tolkien’s insistence that he prefers the pagan, pre-Christian version of the story, he gives Sigurd some elements of a Messianic/Christ character that are not present in the original:

If in the day of Doom
one deathless stand
who death hath tasted
and dies no more
the serpent-slayer
seed of Odin
then all shall not end
nor earth perish.

(cf.And I will put enmity between thee [the serpent/Satan] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) and “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8b) and “I [Jesus] am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.” (Revelation 1:18))

The copious explanatory notes by Christopher Tolkien are an oddly organized jumble that cover plot, vocabulary, use and alteration of sources, and possible historical origins of the legends. If you are already acquainted with the Volsung stories these notes can be a bit tedious and repetitive, but they contain some interesting elements and may be of help to someone new to the Volsung legends.

Despite Christopher’s rambling notes, this is one of my favorite books. This tragic tale of heroism, greed, and betrayal illuminated by the flashing lightning of Tolkien’s poetry takes the reader on an intense journey back to the heroic age.

The Granddaddy of Epic Poetry

Title: Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Author: Unknown
“Translator”: Stephen Mitchell
Genre: Ancient Narrative Poetry
Pages: 292
Rating: 4 of 5

Last year I read a version of the Gilgamesh Epic by Herbert Mason that amounted to a heavily edited retelling. I found it disappointing because there was no way of knowing the actual extent of the author’s editing and personal interpretation (a review of that version can be found here).

The main text of this version was similarly functional (thought-for-thought rather than word-for-word), as Stephen Mitchell is working off other people’s word-for-word English translations rather than consulting the ancient languages himself. However, he is careful to note where his text becomes especially interpretive. In copious endnotes he carefully cites which specific versions of the epic he is working off in a given section and provides a woodenly literal translation of difficult passage where he resorted to heavy paraphrasing or speculation. To me, this made all the difference in the world…I now feel like I have read a valid translation of Gilgamesh, not just some scholar’s “here’s what I think you should get out of this” paraphrase.

Along with translation notes, Mitchell offers commentary on the cultural setting, comparison to stories found in Genesis, and similar background. I question some of his interpretations at this point, but found much of it to be helpful as well.

If you’re not the kind of person who is into scholarly footnotes, I think that this is still a great version for reading the poem itself. You get a feel for the broad Gilgamesh tradition (including some of the bemusing and inconsistent bits “smoothed out” [i.e. omitted] by Mason) and Mitchell’s phrasing captures the great emotional depth in the timeless friendship and loss of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in a way that doesn’t come across well in a woodenly literal translations. Don’t expect a happy story. Mitchell aptly refers to this as “the epic of the fear of death,” and to me its despair over human mortality offers a sobering contrast to the “living hope” found in Christianity.

**Addendum: I forgot to mention that in the lengthy introduction Mitchell practically tells the whole story of the poem mixed in with his cultural commentary, so depending on your preferences you may want to read the poem and then come back to the introduction (or skip it entirely since a lot of the most important info is repeated in the endnotes in more concise form).

Bawdy Tales from the 14th Century

Title: The Canterbury Tales
Author: Geoffrey Chaucer
Genre: Classic Narrative Poetry
Pages: 492 (not counting Modern English translation)
Rating: 4 of 5

I had a hard time deciding how I felt about this book (and what to rate it). I mean, it’s one of the classic English texts composed with obvious skill and having huge historical interest…but having 80-90% of the stories center around adultery and (frequently disavowed) misogyny got pretty old (though it did allow Chaucer to show how different kinds of people dealt with the same subject matter).

I decided to read this in the original Middle English since the Barnes & Noble edition I read has facing pages with the original text and a Modern non-rhyming translation. I had to look over at the Modern English translation about 1-5 times per page, but it was worth the effort to experience the original rhyme scheme and turn of phrase. In spite of the (to me) unfunny obsession with adultery & misogyny, Chaucer is witty and adept at painting memorable characters. Human nature doesn’t change, and many of Chaucer’s characters are recognizable and believable in spite of the passage of 600+ years (and most of the cultural differences were nicely explained in footnotes). Overall, I’m glad to have read this for a look into late 14th century culture and the experience of reading some of the earliest English literature.

Also, this is my entry for the Classic Travel or Journey category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.