The Spice . . .

by Frank Herbert

I’ve read this one before, of course (Though I have to say: this edition had a surprising number of simple typos for a “classics of modern literature.” Bette Gesserit? Seriously?). Of course I have: I’m a reader and a fan of fantasy and science fiction; who can be those two things and not read Frank Herbert’s masterpiece?

If you’re those two things and haven’t read Dune, go read it. Right now. Seriously. There are so many remarkable things about the book: the tangled intrigues and deceptions, and the way Herbert manages to keep the protagonists essentially on the up-and-up without making them seem self-righteous or superior is impressive; I’d call it the basis for Martin’s Game of Thrones books, with the Atreides filling in for the Starks, and the Harkonnens the inspiration for the Lannisters. Hell, Dune’s even got dragons, or at least an even larger subterranean version of them, in the sandworms. The book’s a wonderful ecological allegory, similar to the heart of Tolkien’s great tale, which is really about industrialism destroying the pastoral landscape; this book is about the exploitation of natural resources and the people who survive in those exploited places, who are exploited themselves — and it was only at this reading that I saw where Herbert surely got the name for his exploited desert people, the Fremen — who are Freemen if you just add an E. And those Fremen, by the way, are nothing less than the inspiration for Robert Jordan’s Aiel; and they’re just as awesome.

Really, this is a book that must be read. But now that I’ve re-read it, I’m wondering if it’s really a book that needs to be re-read. Because this time through, I noticed a few more flaws. I liked a lot of the same things, liked the overall plot very much, liked the ending quite a lot, loved the descriptions of the desert world and enjoyed a lot of the Wise Soldier characters (Gurney Halleck, Duncan Idaho, Thufir Hawat, Liet-Kynes, Stilgar, even Paul himself), the sort of great fighters who are reluctantly taking up the blade despite wanting something else out of their lives — all just like the first time I read it. But this time, I felt like the writing fell a little short, like it wasn’t quite as good as I remembered. I wonder if that’s because I really did like the ideas so very much that the voice used to describe them made less of an impression on me. And even now, I don’t think it’s bad; when an author’s voice can disappear, and leave only impressions made by the ideas themselves, that’s good work; but it isn’t brilliant work. I would call Tolkien brilliant work. Actually, the distinction is probably clearest in the Wheel of Time series: Robert Jordan was a brilliant writer. Brandon Sanderson was good enough to disappear into the story.

I didn’t like Paul quite as much. I really didn’t like the descriptions of his developing prescience (That’s a little spoiler, but not really.), or the lack of explanation as to where it really came from. Herbert tried to make it seem scientific, like Paul was just the greatest mind the universe had ever seen — but then he has Paul able to predict things he couldn’t possibly predict based on observation and extrapolation, no matter how smart. It irked me, a bit. I agreed with Paul’s wish to prevent the jihad of his visions, but I didn’t really feel like it was clear enough why he wanted to prevent that; I’m not sure, were I in his shoes at his age, I would want to prevent it. I guess the point is that a little too much rested on this idea of, “Well, he’s the messiah!” I didn’t like that as much.

Anyway, I did enjoy reading it, I will be trying to read the next book — the first time through I got as far as the fourth book before I just couldn’t take it any more, but I was told that I should give the whole series another try, so here we are. And yeah: everyone really does have to read this book at least once. The second time I will leave up to your discretion. Just remember: fear is the mind-killer.

Book Review: The God of Small Things

The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy

I don’t know what I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said. It’s a prize winner, an internationally acclaimed best seller, and has been for twenty years. But I read it for the first time in 2014, when I moved to Arizona and started a new teaching position with new materials, including this book; I liked it then, liked the style of it, liked the way Roy wrote and the things she had to say, but it was one of several books that I read in an awful hurry, and with a whole lot on my mind at the time.

I read it again, this past two weeks, just finishing it this morning. And this time, because I am encouraging my AP Literature students to read books actively, that is, with a pen in hand and the margins of the book’s own pages as their paper, to comment and question and interact with the text, I did just that: I used my new purple ball point (Which may be the best thing about the gym that my wife and I joined last October: it has good equipment, but not great, and it had been fairly uncrowded until our last work out when a visiting college baseball team came in en masse and inundated us in jockery: but at least they give away ballpoint pens with purple ink!) so that the ink would stand out against the black typeface, and I underlined and I arrowed and I added everything I thought that I thought was worth thinking and adding to the text.

I read it more, this time. More carefully, more attentively, more thoughtfully. I was invested in the text, this time.

And this time, I didn’t just like the book. I loved it.

I was actually enlightened by it. Roy made me think about my own society, and particularly my own family, in a way that I never had before. She crystallized some thoughts for me that might never otherwise have come clear. She also showed me an elegance and a musical grace in words that I never would have seen: words written backwards, and words broken up in new ways — there is a Bar Nowl that lives in the warehouse and hunts mice on silent wings — and a poetry that I don’t ever see in prose. She showed a depth of perception, both in descriptions of environment and of character and of humanity as a whole that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen done better. And she wrote this book on the other side of the world. In her second language. I don’t know if that shows the grandiosity of her genius or if it reveals the power of an outsider’s perception, both hers of my mother tongue and mine of her world and how it parallels my own; I think perhaps she was writing about what she knows, and I see the same things in what I know because people are people all around the globe — but regardless, this book is magic. It is going up on my Very Top Shelf, with Fahrenheit 451 and To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men and Shakespeare and ee cummings.

And that’s what I have to say about this book.