Book Review: Redwall Book — is it #6?

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Salamandastron

by Brian Jacques

(*Note: it’s #5, actually.)

 

Now this is a good Redwall book.

There are some things that come close to my complaints in the past: the books in this series, while all well-written and sweet and fun, have tended towards a formula, to the detriment of a couple of the installments. And there are pieces here that are also part of the formula, to wit: a young male member of the Redwall community finds the sword of Martin the Warrior (How the hell could these people lose a sword this many times? I mean, come on! Every book they find that dang sword! Somebody needs to give these guys a pad of sticky notes.); a hare of the Long Patrol who can eat more than three other animals combined; the vermin army that attacks is led by a vicious evil beastie who rules them with fear and violence; said vermin army (spoiler – but not really) is defeated in the end; there are cute baby animals and playful pranksterish adolescent animals and kindly but staid elderly animals; and there’s a lot of food.

Goddamn, there’s a lot of food in these books. It’s like their one way to celebrate both their general happiness in life and also their victories over their enemies: some massive feast, with detailed descriptions of the dishes and the animals eating as much as they can.

But in this book, Jacques was able to add enough newness that the familiar elements felt familiar, rather than stale. Like the animal who finds and wields the sword (A squirrel this time, named Samkim) is not really the big hero: he does some good things, but mainly, he loses the sword and spends most of the book trying to chase it down; a different creature is actually the one who saves the day. While the vermin army was familiar, it doesn’t actually attack Redwall, and so there wasn’t the usual depiction of a siege. There was a siege, but it had an entirely different character because it takes place at the hollow volcano stronghold of the Badger lords and the hare Long Patrol: Salamandastron. And it is the badger lords who save the day. Also, the cute baby animal goes out on a quest, as do the pranksterish adolescents; this made both familiar character types more sympathetic, and minimized their cuteness and pranksterishness, which I really liked. This book had more to do with the badgers of Salamandastron, and also the shrews of the GUOSSIM (“Logalogalog!” has to be one of the best battle cries I’ve ever known. Along with the Tick’s immortal “SPOOOOOOON!”), than it had to do with Redwall itself, though Redwall is still a prominent part of the story; so this one felt like it expanded the world, rather than walked the same old paths.

There was also, though I don’t want to spoil the story any more than I already have (Come on, you knew the bad guys weren’t going to win. This is a children’s fantasy series. No way the bad guys actually win.), some real tension and suspense: because there is death in this book, and it isn’t just minor characters. The battle for Salamandastron has casualties on both sides, and indeed, goes against the badgers in several ways, for much of the book; creatures that seem set up to play major roles end up dying; there is a sad but realistic depiction of a serious contagious disease, and the way such a thing could rip through a community during the medieval times that these books are essentially set in. It meant that when some characters that I liked managed to survive, I was genuinely happy, because I knew there was a real chance they might not, so it was a victory when they did.

Other fantasy authors, take note. Except for you, George R. R. Martin. You already know more than enough about killing off your own characters.

This was a really good book, one of the best so far. Looking forward to more.

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Book Review: The Metaphysical Club

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The Metaphysical Club

by Louis Menand

I’m not smart enough for this book.

But I want to be, and I think that means I have to keep trying to read books like this, and think about what they say while I’m reading them.

So this book traces the influence of four American intellectuals on the general mindset of the United States. The four are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the Supreme Court Justice; William James, philosopher and psychologist (And older brother of the writer Henry James); Charles S. Peirce, whom nobody has heard of but was an influential thinker and writer; and John Dewey, the philosopher who had more influence on American education than anyone else. The wonderful thing about the book is that the sheer volume of information is staggering, and yet it is told in a generally simple and straightforward narrative style, well-written, and with a deft human touch; Menand delves into the men’s youth, their childhoods and upbringings, their parents, particularly their fathers, and the influence those men had on these four men, and builds a fuller picture than I have seen in most histories – and he does it for all four of them, while also pursuing a history of a set of ideas. So for instance, we read about Charles S. Peirce, whose father, Benjamin Peirce, was a mathematician, author, and Harvard professor; we see how the elder Peirce’s ideas reflected and interwove with the dominant ideas of the time – since the book focuses on men who came of age in America in the second half of the 19th century, the most important event was the Civil War and the most important idea Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection – and how his father’s ideas influenced Charles’s thinking, and how Charles’s thinking was affected by Darwin and by the Civil War; and then lastly, how Charles’s thought influenced and was influenced by the thought of the other three men. Along with the philosophy of Emerson and Kant and Hegel and umpteen other pieces that go into an exploration of a whole set of ideas.

It’s a complicated web. That’s why I’m not smart enough: because I knew none of this, knew nothing about these men – had never heard of two of them, and could never remember whether Holmes Jr. or Sr. was the jurist – I could not keep all of the facts and names and such straight. By the end of the book I was having to look back to the beginning of the book to remember who people were; this was made easier by the extensive index in the back, but still, that’s not my favorite way to read. And while I enjoyed the book, it was hard enough to get through that I don’t want to read it again, which is obviously the best way to handle this much information.

But: while the book is a history of four important men (The details of whose lives, while interesting, are not things I really need to retain), it is more an exploration of a set of ideas. And those, I found fascinating, and do want to spend more time thinking about. The basic ideas that stuck with me, after this first reading and without doing more research and thought (I just finished the book fifteen minutes ago), are: truth is socially constructed. We don’t know if what we know corresponds in any way to an external reality, but we can know if it corresponds with what other people know – which, unless we are born with certain ideas already implanted in our brains and our DNA, is the only way we can learn anything. Identity also may be socially constructed, meaning that we only learn who we are in relation to who other people are, and thus who we are not. Conflict is always and only the result of a misunderstanding, which, depending on how optimistic one is, may naturally get worked out on the way to a common understanding. There are no rules that can be formulated that can trump the specific context of an individual case (though I’m probably misstating or overstating that one), meaning that the historicity and specific application of an idea are necessary parts of understanding it.

That’s where this book really shines. Because Menand gives context. To everything. Everything he talks about is grounded in the specific events of the day and of these men’s lives. He has a wonderful habit, too, of giving brief synopses of the end of the story; Charles Peirce divorced his first wife as part of a large scandal in the late 1800’s that cost him his academic career, and before this book is over, we know not only what happened to Charles afterwards, but also what happened to both his first wife and the woman he left her for. It’s great. Even somewhat minor characters, people that move quickly in and out of the lives of the four main subjects, get parenthetical descriptions, like, “Joe Smith (who would go on to international fame as the Ambassador-at-large for chickens), had an encounter that struck our hero in an interesting way.” That was my favorite part of the book as history.

My favorite part of the book as philosophy and thought-provocation? I’ll let you know when I’m done thinking about it.