Mattimeo: Redwall Book III

Mattimeo

by Brian Jacques

 

The third book in the Redwall series – and I’m a little concerned. Because this was the first book of the three that started to feel formulaic.

It wasn’t, not entirely; Jacques was wonderful at creating characters, and he introduces half a dozen new ones – a young otter who was hilarious, a heroic badger whom I enjoyed very much, a kite that had a wonderful alien feel to him, as well as a new generation of Redwallers and, of course, new villains. The first book focused on the battle for Redwall, the second on the battle that led to the rise of Redwall; this one goes outside of Redwall for its main conflict, though there is a second conflict that happens within the Abbey walls. The combination was effective, because it made it easier to maintain suspense for the entire book in both plotlines, and that was good. I also have to compliment Jacques for being unafraid to kill off his characters: there was a whole group of Redwall creatures who were wiped out in this book, and though I hated that it happened – this group were some of my favorites – it does show that the characters we enjoy aren’t safe, and I think that is a necessary tension in a long-running series.

But: Matthias is essentially indistinguishable from Martin the Warrior, and so for all three books now, we’ve had a heroic mouse swinging a big sword to save the day. His son, Mattimeo, becomes more like his father over the course of the book, so I worry that the trend will continue. The old abbot is the same, as well, as is the mighty and cantankerous badger; Jacques even added a second badger (though I liked the new guy – he carries a giant battle-axe) so there could be a badger in both plotlines. The villains are stoats and weasels and rats, and they are exactly alike in every way; Basil Stag Hare, though I love his character, changes not a whit from the first book to this one. You have the fight for control of the Abbey, and the quest outside of the Abbey for the key that will win the main fight – a plot that also happened in the second book, as Martin went off in search of the great sword so he could win the battle against the cat queen. There’s a lot of talk about food, and a lot of mooning over adorable baby animals (Not that I’m against baby animals, but I prefer actual fuzzy puppies in front of me rather than narration and description.), and a secret within the Abbey that tells the animals what they need to know, all of which happened in the first and second books. So it made me a little wary.

Now, the villains in this were great: the fox who leads the raid on Redwall and kidnaps all the younguns for enslavement was a good character, as was the corrupt and decadent despot who plans to buy the slaves. The final battle scene regarding those slavers was truly epic. The assault on Redwall was honestly a little more annoying, but the villains there were new and more interesting, with different strengths and weaknesses than the usual weasels and rats; and the twist that made a Redwall victory possible was really neat. Reminded me of Hagrid’s brother Grawp from the last three Harry Potter books.

Overall, there were enough new things, and enough things that Jacques has done well for all three books, to make me enjoy this book; I did, quite a lot. I will definitely read the next book, as well. I’m just – a little concerned for the series as a whole, that’s all.

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Book Review: Dracula

Dig the cover for two reasons: it’s Boris Vallejo, and my copy says “Basis for a major motion picture.” No shit.

 

Dracula

by Bram Stoker

 

Since this past week was Mr. Stoker’s birthday – and according to some people, also Vlad Tepes the Impaler’s – it seemed appropriate to finally write up his famous book, which I have at long last read to its completion.

I know, I know; I read fantasy and horror both, I have written a book about vampires – how could I have never read Dracula? I can’t really say. I tried reading it once, several years ago, and stopped because it got boring; I’ve never been very good at reading classics, having avoided most difficult work in high school and nearly all of the classic canon in college. It has only been in the last couple of years, with my discovery of Jeffrey Farnol’s magnificent pirate books and his excellent Regency romances, and then my becoming an AP English teacher, who must teach his students more of the classics of British and American literature than I have hitherto, that I have started going back and actually working my way through Bronte, and Dickens, and suchlike.

And now, Dracula.

I will say that Stoker didn’t really do himself many favors, in the eyes of the modern reader. He had this wonderful idea, and a real gift for both action scenes and wonderful atmosphere, and what is three-quarters of this book? Victorian manners and stupid people fluttering about wringing their hands. Several of the characters are great, at least in concept: the Count himself is wonderful, as are his three ladies of the night, and Renfield is one of the most interesting people in the book. The concept of eating life, of capturing flies and feeding them to spiders, and then feeding the spiders to birds, and then eating the birds – that is fantastic. It’s one of those things that a madman would think, but it makes so damn much sense that it gives we sane folk (I flatter myself, of course, and probably you, too, if you’re reading this review of mine) pause. Van Helsing is a great character in theory, though in his actual words and deeds, he is much more annoying than I wanted him to be. But everyone else is boring and stupid and obnoxious, more often than not.

And then there is the vampire. The Count is good as a character, particularly the contrast between the dignified nobleman and the lizard-crawling wolf-summoning bat-transforming blood-drinking monster; but just the idea of it is so magnificent, that even if the book was total trash – and it isn’t – the way that Stoker brought this idea to life and into the modern world (at the time), and the legacy he built, would be enough to justify his fame. The man must have known he had lightning in a jar, when he thought of this one. The creature that lives among its prey; the creature that once was one of its own prey, and became a predator; the creature that turns humanity, the most destructive and murderous of the animals, into victims, a solid step down from the top of the food chain – the dead that eats life to live – that is an amazing thing. No wonder we just keep writing about it and talking about it.

As for the book, the beginning is boring. Jonathan Harker goes to Dracula’s castle, and it’s creepy there, but nothing actually happens. When Stoker wrote it, I’m sure people were swooning over the Count and his evil magic, but now that we all know what vampires are and what Count Dracula was, it just drags on until Harker finally escapes. And then we get to the most annoying part of the book: Mina Murray fretting over the slow decline of her friend Lucy. Again, when the idea was new, it might have held more suspense; but even then it must have been difficult for a reader to sustain interest when Mina is such. An. Idiot. “Oh me, my dear friend is pale and weak, as if she has lost much blood; she has holes in her neck; and that strange man was bent over her on the bench with his face right by her throat. I WONDER WHAT EVER COULD BE THE MATTER?!?!?!?” Good grief, woman. The only saving grace in this part was Renfield. It also made it much more difficult to be on board with the gentlemen who team up to fight Dracula, as they swear their undying devotion to Mina, whom they will give their very lives and their Christian souls to save, for she is so good and pure and perfect, and I’m like, “Don’t give your life for that moron. Let Dracula have her: she might be more interesting once she’s dead. (Lucy was: I like that she went straight to eating children. Reminded me of Angel on BTVS.) Find yourself a smart girl.” It took something away from their heroism that it was dedicated to a dolt. But then, it also took something away from their heroism that they just kept swearing their dedication to their task, which they seemed to do every chapter, every conversation, and that they had so damn much trouble accomplishing it. Ask me, they were all idiots.

So for the book overall, the beginning is boring, the characters are idiots, and the Victorian writing drags sometimes – the fact that Stoker wrote it as diary entries and letters works well for the most part, but he actually included the correspondence from the guys who drove the cart that carried Dracula’s boxes of dirt, for the love of God; and the gentlemen all see this as a chance to praise Mina for her wondrous abilities, which did kind of crack me up. “My God! A Victorian woman who can type as well as swoon? What a goddess! I pledge my life to save her!” – but none of that matters. Because it’s Dracula. It’s vampires. It’s wonderful. I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner, but I’m glad I read it now.

Book Review: The Mighty Swordsmen

Isn’t that beautiful? Interesting how the men are in greater detail than the women, who are graphic and one-dimensional. Maybe there’s a reason for that . . .

 

The Mighty Swordsmen

Edited by Hans Stefan Santesson

 

A collection of Mighty Warrior swords-and-sorcery stories, this was like most of its kind: a couple of good ones, some that were okay, and a couple of stinkers.

The stinkers were “Break the Door of Hell” by John Brunner and especially “The Keeper of the Emerald Flame” by Lin Carter. The Carter story was too painfully derivative of Conan stories to be worth reading – though I admit I like the name Thongor – as well as too long and plodding, and the bad guy at the end was completely lame. The John Brunner story had some good bits: the concept is Ahura Mazda, the evil deity of Zoroastrianism, wandering Earth and granting people their wishes – which immediately makes those people regret their wishes. Some of those evil wish-grantings were great. The main city that Mazda goes to torment – and he sees himself as merely acceding to people’s wishes, not in any way working evil, and he’s probably right – has a great number of noblemen who would be sorcerers; they start casting their mojo, and even though they don’t really know what they’re doing, Mazda makes it so that their spells actually work: to their unspeakable regret and torment. That part was pretty fun, but also a bit repetitive; and at the end, the twist just irritated me. Bad story, overall.

The mediocre ones were the Elric of Melnibone story, “The Flame-Bringers,” and one of the two Conan stories, “The People of the Summit” by Bjorn Nyberg. The Elric story was actually fine, but exactly like every other Elric story I’ve ever read: he goes questing with Moonglum, brings out Stormbringer even though he doesn’t want to, chops up some enemies and eats some souls, and then calls out the damn dragons to save his bacon at the end. The one Conan story was also fine – better than Thongor – but it was overshadowed by the one that finished up the collection.

That last one, “Beyond the Black River,” along with the Roger Zelazny story “The Bells of Shoredan,” was by far the best. The Zelazny story was about his Dilvish the Damned character, who’s cool to begin with, and this was, for once, a self-contained story, with a good twist, and Zelazny’s usual beautiful prose and wonderful atmosphere. The last story was Conan as written by Robert E. Howard, and seeing that story along with a Conan by a different author, and the cruddy Thongor knock-off, really drove one point home: Robert E. Howard was a hell of a writer. That last story is the longest in the collection, but also the most exciting; Conan is the ultimate badass, and yet he is the most human and believable hero in the bunch. If you can find this collection – unlikely, as I picked up a faded copy with the cover falling off at a Goodwill in town – then it’s worth getting just for the Howard story. And the sweet 1970 pulp fantasy cover art. Good stuff.

Book Review: Gone Girl

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn

 

I was undecided about this book. I’m not generally a mystery/thriller fan, though I have read and enjoyed several of them in the past, and this one was so popular, and so well-received, that I figured it was a good risk. I have not seen the movie, and I did not know anything about the book’s plot before I started, so I was in the perfect position to enjoy it as much as it could be enjoyed.

But I wasn’t enjoying it. The writing was quite good, and the plot was interesting; but – just like the last two books I’ve written reviews for, sadly – I did not like the characters. So I asked friends: should I continue reading this book? Is it worth it? Do the characters get better? I got a fair number of the responses you would expect from a question like that: a few people said absolutely yes, a few absolutely no; a few said “Why not?” and a few said “If you want to.” A former librarian friend said, “When in doubt, read your age: read as many pages as you have years, and then decide.”

And one friend said, “Yes. You won’t like the characters any more than you do now, but the book is worth it.” She said the characters are intentionally unlikable. She said that she believed the book will become know as a modern classic, and as an expert in literature, Gone Girl is a book I should read.

Well. She was right about the unlikable characters. (Not to be snobbish, but: based on what I have learned about fancy-pants literature as an Advanced Placement teacher, Gone Girl, like most popular fiction, will not in fact ever be considered a classic, as it isn’t complicated enough. The AP program describes their acceptable literature as those works which reward re-reading, meaning that reading the work again gives you new insights, new ideas, that you could not have grasped the first time through. And Gone Girl doesn’t have those hidden depths. Everything’s up front. Which I generally prefer, anyway, because my friend was also wrong to call me a literary expert. I’m not. I enjoyed the flattery, though.) She was also right that the book was worth putting up with the people in it, and also that the characters are intended to be unlikable.

So the basic story is about a married couple, Amy and Nick Dunne; and in the first chapter of the book, on their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing. (She’s the Gone Girl.) The question is, what happened to her? At first, you get an impression of both of these people, Amy and Nick, and one of them doesn’t come off too well. (I won’t say which one so as not to spoil it.)

But then something happens. That impression changes. You learn a few more things, and suddenly, the other one doesn’t seem too good a person, where the person you didn’t like turns out to be not that bad. That’s about where I asked about continuing, because my reaction was, The hell with both of these people.

Here’s the thing, though. That shift in allegiance for the reader: that’s Gillian Flynn’s intention. That’s the point.

The book isn’t really a mystery. There are mysterious elements, but between a third and halfway through the book, Part One ends, and when Part Two begins, the mystery is revealed. And at that point, the person you’ve been liking more turns out to be MUCH worse than the person you’ve been disliking – though that person, the not-as-bad one, is still pretty obnoxious. What the book’s really about is two things: one is the way that married couples can really destroy each other, and themselves, over the course of a marriage; and the other is the incredible way we can manipulate public opinion. Because this turns into a criminal case, related to Amy’s disappearance, and the apparent guilt is essentially worked out in the court of public opinion. It’s all about who can manipulate the public best; that is the person who will – win, I suppose, though really, you don’t want either side to win, because the entire fight is just despicable. Back to that thing I said about married couples destroying each other. It’s all ugly, it’s all bad, and nobody wins. The same for lying and manipulating appearances in order to seem more righteous: it’s all ugly. It’s all bad.

You do end up rooting for some of the characters, mostly because you want the badness to end; there are some moments of satisfying karmic justice for the ugliness. Mostly, though, my friend was right:  even though I never liked the main characters, the book was worth reading. We’re not supposed to really like them or sympathize with them: Flynn set this up to sway our allegiance back and forth, to show us, I think, that we determine our opinions too quickly on the smallest, most subjective piece of evidence; and because they are so shallow, our opinions can change completely when new information comes to light. It reminds me very much of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, a play I’ve taught dozens of times, because that play shows the Roman public for the fickle mush-heads (Props to Diamond Joe Quimby for the phrase, because the Simpsons have also done this topic) they are: first they love Caesar, then they love Brutus, then they love Mark Antony. And I have always believed that Shakespeare isn’t really talking about the Romans: he’s talking about his own audience, the English theater crowd, the ones whose favor could be won and lost in an instant. I think Gillian Flynn is doing the same thing: she’s using this book, with its masterful manipulations, to show us how wrong we generally are when we choose sides based on what we see on TV, and what we hear from the grapevine, and especially what we all “know” to be true – like how the husband always did it; or once a liar, always a liar; or that pretty people are more trustworthy.

I don’t want to think those things are true of me, too. But I’ve spent almost a thousand words now, talking about how quickly my allegiance to these characters changed: because I made snap judgments based on poor information, and never once questioned whether I should believe what I was being told. Not even when it didn’t make sense, when I had conflicting information about the same character; I never questioned whether something was credible. It was simply that the more recent piece of information had more influence on me; I tended to believe the new information was true, and therefore I should take it more to heart.

So what have we learned? I, too, like most other people, am a fickle mush-head, and I should not credit my knee-jerk opinions about public figures or controversial issues. I should think more. Gillian Flynn is a talented writer who set out to manipulate her audience into liking a character, and then hating that character, and then going back to liking the character, before drifting somewhere into a general distaste for everyone involved — including, for me, the author, who messed with me so much. We’ve learned that this is a well-done book, and people who are interested should read it. And I’m not going to read it a second time. I do not think it will reward re-reading. And I really don’t like these people.

Book Review: The Purple Cloud

The Purple Cloud

by M.P. Shiel

 

I hated this book.

I did not hate everything about it, which is why I finished reading it; but while I liked the concept and the writing, I have rarely loathed a protagonist more than I hated this freaking guy. Since I recently read a trio of adventure novels by H. Rider Haggard, in which I also grew to hate the Great White Hunters who slaughter elephants for fun and mock the savage Africans, this was familiar but annoying territory. (Since I just, the same day I am writing this review, finished reading Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, in which I once more hated all of the main characters, I think I need to focus on books about likeable people for a while.)

Adam Jeffson is his name. Dr. Jeffson – for he is a medical doctor – begins the book married to a social climbing gold-digging beauty, who wishes her husband to become fabulously wealthy so that she may look down her nose at all of humanity. She pushes him to join an expedition to reach the North Pole, which no person has yet reached at the time of the story. It is unclear when the book is set; somewhere in the late 19th century, it seems, but the setting is unclear because Shiel insisted on using the now-familiar frame for science fiction stories around this time (Originally published in 1901 — H.G. Wells lauded it as brilliant!) namely that the manuscript was left mysteriously to Our Correspondent (also known as the author); this particular manuscript was created under the influence of that Mystery Science known as Mesmerism! Yes! A woman, under the influence of hypnosis, wrote out various strange manuscripts, one of which was this story. Is it true? A communication from another world? Who can say?!? The upshot of all of this humbuggery is that the book is an alternate universe story of the end of the world, which we living people can know about because of the mysterious transmission of the story, which can therefore also be a first person narrative told by someone who isn’t actually the author. But since it takes place in a world that is not quite ours, it is not clear what the timeline is, though the geopolitical world is the same as our own. Anyway.

Dr. Jeffson wishes to join the expedition to the Pole, at his wife’s behest, because there is a cash prize, an incredibly large cash prize, to be awarded to the person who first sets actual foot upon the top of the world. Unfortunately, the expedition already has a doctor signed up to go. Fortunately for Jeffson, and unfortunately for the other doctor, Jeffson’s wife – who has the absurd but suitably hideous name of Clodagh – isn’t above murder, and in fact, she poisons the other doctor (Whose name is Peter Peters. Yup.) so that Jeffson can take his place. Apparently so we can really enjoy our hatred for this couple, she does it slowly, pretending to nurse the sick man while actually dosing him with atropine. So Dr. Peters dies, Jeffson goes on the journey; but along the way, he is both frustrated and unpopular, because the ship is going to be stopped by the polar ice cap, and Jeffson is not intended to go on the final leg of the journey over the ice by dogsled; at the same time, he and his wife are suspected of putting an end to poor Pete Peters. Somehow, Jeffson is all freaking outraged by the accusations that finally get voiced, even though everyone involved knows they are true; he ultimately goes out to have a duel with one of the other members of the expedition, and even though the other guy is a better man and a better shot – and he’s right about Jeffson and Clodagh – Jeffson wins and kills the other guy, and takes his place on the final leg. So now I’m pissed that this ass is going to win the money and make his wife happy.

But wait, there’s more. The dogsled portion arrives, and the three men going don’t plan to bring enough food for the dogs. Why? Because THEY PLAN TO FEED THE DOGS TO EACH OTHER ON THE WAY. That’s right: not only does the dog die, but FORTY dogs are going to die, and be forced into cannibalism, all so these three pricks don’t have to bring more food. (Should I mention here that they originally meant to use reindeer to pull the sleds, but they didn’t bring enough fodder for the reindeer and all of them starved to death while still on the ship? Nah, I’ll leave that out.) This is all three of them, so we can’t blame Jeffson for that, but we can certainly blame Jeffson for this: he leaves the other two men to die of exposure, leaving camp early with extra supplies and dogs so that he can be the first to the Pole and claim the prize.

He makes it there first, indeed, but then a strange thing happens. How strange, we don’t yet know, but it is the titular Purple Cloud, so we know it’s got to be a big deal. Anyway, Jeffson heads back across the ice once more, and, because we don’t hate him enough, he makes it all the way back to the edge of the ice with only one surviving dog, his favorite: which he then FUCKING KILLS JUST BECAUSE HE DOESN’T WANT TO DEAL WITH GETTING THE DOG ON HIS KAYAK.

Stephen King once wrote that the fastest way to get an audience to hate a character was to have him hurt a dog. And this guy now, in my mind, has the blame for the deaths of forty dogs, a herd of starving reindeer, and several humans, as well. That’s why I hated him, and the lack of sufficient suffering in retribution is why I hated this book. Because no matter what else happens, Jeffson doesn’t die.

But here’s the thing: none of this is the actual story. The story began with the purple cloud: which was poisonous, and has killed all of humanity and pretty much all large animals. The bulk of the book is Jeffson realizing he is the last man alive on Earth. That’s right: none of this evil involved in the Polar expedition was actually the point; it was just intended to get Jeffson to be the only one alive at the north pole when the cloud hit – which, it turns out, is what saved his worthless dog-killing ass.

I won’t spoil the rest of the book, which is better than this beginning portion, though I will say that Jeffson continues to be a shithead: for the next twenty years (The book covers quite a number of years), whenever Jeffson gets bored or angsty, he goes to one of the great cities of the world, and burns it. To the ground. The whole city. (When he burns Paris, he takes 20 paintings out of the Louvre, and burns the rest.) Just for the hell of it. Just to make us hate him a little more.

The intended theme at the end of the novel is about good and evil, and how good will eventually win out in the end; in that struggle, Jeffson is the evil. And boy, is he evil. I’m not really sure why Shiel wrote it all this way, when there surely had to be an easier way to make his point. But considering his writing style, he is not a fan of making a quick and simple point. Here’s a sample sentence – one sentence.

Now I would not trudge back to the ship, but struck a match, and went lighting up girandoles, cressets, candelabra, into a confusion of lights among a multitude of pale-tinted pillars, rose and azure, with verd-antique, olive, and Portoro marble, and serpentine; the mansion large; I having to traverse a desert of brocade-hangings, slim pillars, Broussa silks, before I spied a doorway behind a Smyrna portiere at a staircase-foot, went up, and roamed some time about the house – windows with gilt grills, little furniture, but palatial spaces, hermit pieces of faience, huge, antique, and arms, my footfalls muted in the Persian carpeting; till I passed along a gallery having only one window-grating that overlooked an inner court, and by this gallery entered the harem, which declared itself by a headier luxury, bric-a-bracerie, and baroqueness of manner; from which, descending a little stair behind a portiere, I came into a species of larder paved with marble, in which grinned a negress in indigo garb, her hair still adhering, and here an infinite supply of sweetmeats, French preserved-foods, sherbets, wines, and so on: so I put a number of things into a pannier, passed up again, found in the cavity of a garnet some of those pale cigarettes which drunken, then a jewelled chibouque two yards long, and tembaki; with all I descended by another stair, deposited them on the steps of a kiosk of olive-marble in a corner of the court, passed up again, and brought down a yatag to recline on: and there by the kiosk-steps I ate and passed the night, smoking for hours in a state of lassitude, eying where, at the court’s center, the alabaster of a square well blinks out white through a rankness of wild vine, weeds, acacias in flower, jasmines, roses, which overgrow both it and the kiosk and the whole court, raging too far over the four-square arcade of Moorish arches round the court, under one of which I had hung a lantern of crimson silk; and near two in the morning I dropped to sleep, a deeper peace of gloom now brooding where so long the hobgoblin Mogul of the moon had governed.

All in all, I’d recommend reading The Stand. Randall Flagg is a lot more fun to hate. And he didn’t kill forty dogs.

Triple Review: The Great White Hunters

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Three Novels by H. Rider Haggard:

She

Allan Quatermain

King Solomon’s Mines

 

These books made me feel bad.

First, I had some serious white guilt issues. I don’t go in for that normally; I have read Mark Twain’s Huck Finn several times, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as well, not to mention the uncomfortable To Kill a Mockingbird. I read them, all three of those and others, out loud to my students. I admit I skip over the N-word: because I am of the opinion that, while an ideal world would lack any racial terms, or would at least have removed from the terms all power to hurt, we don’t live in that ideal world, and that word coming out of my white face as I stand at the front of the classroom with power over my students – that is not a powerless word, that is not a word that I can be sure won’t hurt anyone. But otherwise, I don’t mind reading either the silly caricatures of minorities, or the swaggering white titans (Whitans? Or all three words, and make it Swhitans?) who bestride the world like a colossus. While I want to include people of color in the authors my students read and that I read, I am not against reading a dozen great novels by dead white men. I am comfortable with being a honky.

But this book (It was all three novels in a single collection) made me uncomfortable. It was more to do with the unquestioned superiority of the white men than the savagery of the Africans; sure, the Africans were savages, described as ignorant, violent, often childish, having outlandish costumes and going in for cannibalism (With the completely absurd description in She of the tribe’s use of a heated metal pot, clapped over the head of the intended victim who is thus both tortured and killed, and then turned into stew. And they called it the Hotpot. And the goofy white character, the servant guy who played the role of Stan Laurel or Lou Costello or Kramer or Chris Farley – the guy who panics all the time – was constantly terrified of the Hotpot. “Don’t leave me alone with the savages! They will give me the Hotpot!” How do you say that with terror in your voice? I just couldn’t take it seriously.), but the bigger problem was the way the white men took over the ancient African societies they came across, simply assuming they had greater ability to lead. And not even for the usual reason of needing to bring Jesus to the heathens; no, this was usually because they had greater knowledge of guns and of how to win a battle. Which I think is, first, no good reason to assume power, and second, nonsense, at least in terms of battle: modern warfare uses modern weapons, and when you take away said modern weapons, the idea that a group of honkies who have never been in the area could lead their men to victory simply by virtue of their whiteness is absurd. Yet that is exactly what happens in both Allan Quatermain books (and it annoys me every time I see that name, because there should be another “r”), particularly King Solomon’s Mines, where the battle includes tens of thousands of African soldiers. Led by the white men to victory, just because they were white men – because the battle plan is “Get the high ground and send our best troops against their weakest.” Boy, thank god the crackers were there to explain that! No way that African civilizations that have existed for millennia could have figured that out without help. And guess who the mightiest single warrior is: well, there is much made of a particularly hardcore Zulu chieftain who travels with them; but right by his side is the biggest, strongest white man, who is better in hand-to-hand combat than people who have spent their lives doing just that – but, after all, he is British.

And then there was the penis factor. Not only did the whites win because they were whites – and in both She and Allan Quatermain, the rulers of the hidden African kingdoms were white people, mysteriously existing in the heart of Africa – but the men were worshiped as masters of all things because they were men. In King Solomon’s Mines, the rival rulers were men, so this was less of an issue; but in Allan Quatermain, there is a pair of sisters who are co-rulers of an ancient kingdom of great wealth and sophistication; and the minute that the Englishmen get there, the two queens both fall in love with the hunkiest of the three Great White Hunters; he chooses the whiter queen – the blonde one, of course; the one with the darker hair is both sluttier and witchier than the gooder, purer, whiter sister – and she not only marries him, she immediately swears to obey him in all things, stating categorically that he is her lord and he makes her feel safe and taken care of by his mighty manly parts. The queen, this is. Lifelong ruler of a hereditary monarchy, a completely self-sufficient kingdom that has been cut off entirely from the modern world. And she’s freaking swooning and mincing and clinging. Pathetic. Meanwhile, her badass witchy sister – also clearly the sexy one, though Haggard assiduously avoids even the hint of sex in all three books – denied the personal domination of the hunky honky, settles for the other white dude (Quatermain himself is somewhere around 70 in this book, and though there’s no particular reason Haggard couldn’t give him the virility claimed by all old white dudes who pretend they can have a real relationship with a hot wife half their age [TOTALLY NOT DIRECTED AT THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES], I thought it a sign of marginally good taste that Quatermain is never considered a love interest.) who is fat and too old for her and entirely unattractive, not to mention annoying; but hey, he’s a white Englishman, so clearly a catch, right? Even for a queen? Sure, I guess so. She dies (Sorry for the spoiler – but you knew she couldn’t win; she’s the bad sister. The not-blonde one.) impaled on a ceremonial spear, which is totally not phallic. Totally not.

I have to say, I did like She. The goddess in that book is a genuinely strong female character. There is too much focus on her love life, as she chose immortality so that she could survive to see her true love reborn, which happens after a mere 10,000 years or so; but the goddess-queen character (Named She by her subjects, essentially like She Who Must Not Be Named, out of a perfect sense of awe) is the most interesting person in the story and, I thought, the most sympathetic, as the dude who is her love reborn has some ridiculous fling where he “falls in love” with a woman who nurses him when he is sick, even though he can’t communicate with her: she is humble and subservient and loyal to him, whom she loves because, errrrrrrm, because he’s a very handsome man, I guess, and so she becomes his ideal woman and he loves her. Sure, whatever. I thought he should have gone with She, who wielded power and wrath and majesty, along with being so achingly beautiful that the misogynistic protagonist falls in love with her after a single sight of her without her usual veils on, which led to a nice conflict between the white characters. I also liked the ending, and the strong implication that human power is nothing in the face of the mysteries of the universe. And there is this unbelievably warped element: the society exists inside a mountain that was hollowed out by an Atlantean-style vanished race of supermen; they still exist inside the mountain, because they had complicated and extensive burial preparations for their dead, which included a perfect form of embalming that leaves their bodies in perfect condition apparently forever: but it also makes them highly flammable. And She, the immortal goddess-queen who inherited and still rules their kingdom – uses them as torches. Their body parts. Regularly. It was gloriously twisted.

Overall, I see the draw of Haggard’s books; he wrote outstanding adventure and action scenes, from battle scenes to suspenseful travels through mysterious caves and rivers and jungles. The characters do at least inspire a response, even when it’s irritation or outright hatred. He had some really cool ideas, and amazing descriptions; I liked reading his words, which were interesting and often lovely. But seriously: tone down the Great White Hunters, like, ten notches, okay? Sheeesh.

Honoring America

Listen, listen – listen.

Listen to me, okay? I know: you’re pissed off. You have every right to be.

But listen.

I’m sure that, if you know me at all, I have pissed you off personally in the past. I tend to do that: I’m pissed off, too, and I lash out. I usually regret it, and I often try to take it back. But I can’t. Also can’t stop myself. Neither can you: we’re pissed off.

But listen, anyway. Because I’ve seen people, all kinds of people, with all kinds of views all over the political spectrum, saying that THOSE PEOPLE OVER THERE are trying to divide us. THOSE PEOPLE are trying to turn us against each other, trying to ruin what has taken generations to build: this country. This amazing, beautiful, irreplaceable country. We can’t let them divide us. Can’t let them ruin this country. Not even when they are we.

But listen. Really. Because I have to say this.

The military is not my country.

WAIT WAIT WAIT. The country wouldn’t exist without the military. I know it. The military, both past and present, veterans and casualties and current service members, are and have been a vital part of the creation and maintenance of this country. They protect us, they serve us, they are the reason we became and the reason we have been able to remain a sovereign nation.

But you know who else made it possible for this country to become and remain a sovereign nation?

Parents. And grandparents, and aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters and cousins and everyone else in the family who helps to raise us. Who teach us and guide us, protect us and encourage us. We would never survive without families. (There are people who do, and they are incredibly strong and impressive; but the majority of us couldn’t live like that. I couldn’t. I needed my family to survive, and I need them now to keep me going.) Our families are just as important to this country as is the military, because while the military has kept us a sovereign nation, our families gave us life, and made it possible for us to become who we are. Without our families we wouldn’t be here, so there wouldn’t be a sovereign nation for the military to defend, and there wouldn’t be citizens who would volunteer for our military. We need our families as much as we need the military: without either one, this country wouldn’t exist.

You can’t get mad at me for that, right? Being grateful to family as much as I am to the military? Saying that families are as vital to the country as is the military?

Okay, good. Because our families aren’t the only ones who give us life, who make us into genuine, complete people, people who can understand what a nation is, what it represents, what it can be and how we must strive to make it what it should be. You know who else is a vital part of that?

Doctors and nurses and medical professionals. Let’s face it: there’s at least one time in each of our lives when we would have died had it not been for the intervention and assistance of a medical professional. Even with the military to protect us, we still get sick, we still get hurt, disasters still strike; and we could not make it on our own. Our families often save us – but they are just as often the one who dared us, the one who held the ladder so we could climb on top of that thing we just jumped off. That’s when we need doctors, nurses, EMTs. Right? Without doctors we likely would have died, and without people there isn’t any country? Right?

Okay, and right along with that, you know what we need to survive? Food. I know this one’s a little more abstract, because we all can and do produce or obtain our own food without any help; I’ve grown tomatoes and basil, both, so if there was such a thing as a pasta plant, I’d have a mean plate of spaghetti right out of my backyard. But the point is, we don’t produce the vast majority of our own food, even if we grow food, because people who live on a working wheat farm tend to eat things other than wheat. For most of us, we couldn’t produce enough food to feed ourselves, let alone the entire nation. So we should recognize that the people who make the food: farmers, ranchers, fishers; and the people who move the food: pickers, processors, truckers (And all the variations of those things); and the people who bring the food and/or cook the food, restaurants, grocery stores, and the almighty pizza delivery people – the country wouldn’t run without them. You could live without a few of them, I suppose, but – even the military has to eat.

There wouldn’t be much of a country if we didn’t have any food.

And of course, we wouldn’t want to have food if we couldn’t have something to wash it down, and also to wash the food off, and our hands, and everything else we want to keep clean – and that means we need all of the people who provide our water. The workers, the managers, the hydrologists – oh, crap. I forgot about all the scientists. Wait: I’ll get to them in a second. Point is, we need the many, many people who gather the water, store the water, clean the water, transport the water, and then take away and handle the waste water; and of course, we definitely need plumbers. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for plumbers. Honestly, now: if we had the world’s strongest military – but not a single working toilet in the entire country – would that be enough? I think not. We need plumbers.

We need electricians, too. There are millions of people going without power tonight, all over the Gulf Coast and Florida, all over the island of Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean – millions of Americans – and they will stay without power for weeks. Months, in some areas. Think about that. Think about the fact that it’s September, and that even where I live in Tucson, it’s still in the 80’s and 90’s every day. I went a week without functioning air conditioning this summer, and it was hell – and eleven people died in a nursing home in Florida after Hurricane Irma killed their power and they didn’t have AC. I don’t mean to say that HVAC technicians are as important as the military, but I do think that the power companies, and the linemen and electricians who make it possible for us to have light and heat and communications, that power our factories and hospitals and, yes, our military bases: I think we could not survive as we do without them. If we had the world’s strongest military but we lived in the dark ages, I do not think we would feel the same way about our country.

And since we need all of these specialized workers, we need somebody to discover all they need to know, and then somebody to make sure that people know what each of us needs to know: and that means we need scientists and researchers, and teachers and librarians and authors. Now, I know a lot of people think that scientists get a lot of things wrong, and that they waste a lot of money; but the truth is that without scientists and researchers, we wouldn’t have the power or the water or the sanitation or the modern agriculture or the medical science or the military capability that we have. And of course, there are a lot of missteps and a tremendous amount of wasted effort and spent resources involved in science; but that is true of every single aspect of modern civilization. We may not like what they use up, but we certainly like their results – he said, typing the words into his laptop before posting them on the Internet for others to see at the touch of a button.

(Pausing to take a sip of clean, clear, refreshing water.)

As for teachers, I know that many people think we are incompetent and corrupt and generally terrible. And many of us are. We’ve all had bad teachers, we’ve all known bad teachers; I am sure that there are quite a few people out there who think that I am a bad teacher. But just like everything else in society, the problems and the complications don’t change the basic necessity: our world is complex, and somebody needs to help people get ready for it. Somebody needs to train our people in the work we need done, or else it wouldn’t get done. If there are people who don’t do it well, then we should try to help them get better or replace them – not throw out the entire system. Now I certainly include everyone outside of traditional school who helps people to learn and grow: homeschoolers, and tutors, and family members and friends who help explain how things work; religious leaders and technical/vocational teachers and master craftsmen, and those who help the new guy on the job figure out what to do and how to do it. You – we – are all teachers, and all of us are necessary. A country that can’t think is no country at all – not to mention all the people who have to know how to do what we need done. Including the military, who have some of the best teachers and trainers, to get people ready for some of the toughest and most important jobs, in the world. And I’ll bet – in fact, I know – that some of those trainers, and some of the people they train, are not very good at their jobs.

That, I think, is the other thing we have to remember about the military. It is just like our own families: some of our family members are, shall we say, less helpful than others. Some have less-admirable motivations. Some actually cause more trouble than they help us out of. The military is far too large and complex an organization – nearly a civilization unto itself – to think that every single member is just as good and valuable as every other one. If that were true, there wouldn’t be dishonorable discharges, and there wouldn’t be military police, military courts, and military prisons.

Right! We can’t forget them. We must have all of the people who protect our safety against things other than disease and enemy nations and ignorance: firefighters, and police, and all of the other parts of the criminal justice and public safety system: lawyers and judges and prison guards and parole officers and social workers and crossing guards. Just like the doctors, there is at least one time, I’d bet, for everyone when we needed someone in law enforcement, and/or public safety, to save our lives or our property.

There. Is that everybody? I could go on, of course: I didn’t even talk about mental health, or the inspectors and regulators who help to protect our safety by preventing crises from occurring, or those who provide shelter by building our homes; I didn’t talk about people who make roads, and build bridges, and run airports. I didn’t talk about the people who make our economic world possible, bankers and accountants and the stock market; nor the people who make it possible for us to have our regular-people jobs, employers and entrepreneurs and everyone who makes the money that makes the world go ’round. I think there’s even an argument for people who entertain us, because at some point, we all need to do more than live and protect our liberty: we need to pursue happiness. And, depending on how fine you focus this lens, that could even bring in – professional football players. Even those who take a knee during the National Anthem.

That’s my country. Yes: the military is a vital part of it. But it isn’t the only part of it. When someone stands up and puts their hand over their heart, faces the flag and salutes, and sings along or maintains a respectful silence, during the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance, they aren’t just honoring the military: they are honoring this country. All 330 million people, all 3.8 million square miles, all 240+ years of history. That’s what the flag and the anthem and the Pledge represent: they represent America.

And America is not the military.

So if you want to honor this country, this is what you do: you recognize that we don’t all have to agree. That we can even be opposed, and maybe even bitter enemies. All of that can be forgiven as long as we all have the best interests of the country at heart, and remember that the other side, too, has the best interests of the country at heart. Of course we disagree on what those interests are, and what will best serve them, whether it is a strong military or a strong social safety net; whether it is a government that represents and serves all of the people, or no government at all; whether it is equality or competition – or both. That is the point of open and honest debate, enshrined as one of the most vital of our individual rights in our First Amendment; because in talking about what we think, we figure out both what to do, and where we agree. The biggest reason for the current widening partisan divide is simply because we don’t speak to each other enough. And I’m sure that there are people, Americans on some level, who do not have the best interests of this country and its people at heart; and they should be prevented from doing harm. But they are easy to identify: because there is a world of difference between people who want to do good, but are doing it wrong, and people who want to do evil, and are doing it – right. For the rest of us, the vast, vast majority of us – and remember that that large group includes the people who are doing the wrong thing for the right reason – we have to remember that we all have the same goal. We all love our country. We all want what’s best for it, and we are all grateful to the people who have lived and died in service to this country, both in uniform and out, on the battlefield and in the cornfield, in the hospital and the school and the courthouse and everywhere in between where people live and strive to do what is right. However you choose to honor those people, that history, this country, whether it is by standing up and taking off your hat while you are watching sports on TV; or whether it is by offering your effort, your reputation, or your life in aid of the ideals this country stands for, I, for one, thank you. I will salute you as I salute and honor my country, our country: in the way that makes the most sense to me.

Even if you don’t like the way I do it.

 

(Postscript: Bob Costas agrees with me.)