No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, April 26, 2009

#32: Corambis -- Sarah Monette

"The most important thing about magic is the metaphors we use to understand it, and a metaphor that is wrong is a metaphor that doesn't work. No wizard who successfully performs any bit of magic can possibly be using a wrong metaphor. There are bad metaphors, dangerous metaphors, destructive metaphors -- but no wrong metaphors. Thaumaturgical theory is about manipulating our metaphors and, ideally, making sure that the metaphors we use are good ones."
"... then what is magic?"
And all I could do was shrug and tell him the truth: "Nobody knows." (p. 302)

Corambis is the long-awaited conclusion to Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinths tetralogy, and it surprised me by the threads that it tied up and the threads left a-tangle. Don't get me wrong: I loved the book, was captivated by the emotional truth of the protagonists' interactions, and would like to read a great deal more about the new characters (especially Kay, Vanessa and the Duke of Murtagh) introduced herein. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I believe it may have had more to do with the White-Eyed Lady, with Mildmay's sense of direction, with librarians harrowing Hell ...

This novel feels very distant from the preceding three, and I don't just mean geographically, although Corambis (far to the north of Melusine and considerably more technologically -- though not necessarily socially -- advanced) is the terminus of a long journey for Felix and Mildmay. Corambis is in the immediate aftermath of a bloody civil war: Prince Gerrard is dead with six of his men, slain by an Engine at the heart of a labyrinth, and Kay Brightmore, sole survivor of that incident, pays penance chained to the dead man's bier. Meanwhile, there is considerable interest in restarting another great engine, the Clock of Eclipses, and Felix is drawn into the machinations of Corambin magic and science.

Felix is also trying to make peace -- no, more, to achieve a balance -- with his half-brother Mildmay, who's followed him into exile and left all that he knows behind him. Both Felix and Mildmay (who are complex and intriguingly broken characters) have a lesson or two to unlearn, and it seems to me that this element of the plot takes precedence over all others: it's more immediate than the workings of the engine under Summerdown, than the studies of the fledgling archaeologists at the Mammothium and how they interknit with noirant and clairant magic, than the singing tension between Kay Brightmore and, well, pretty much everyone (and everything) else.

It's fascinating to see how Felix finally stops equating sex and love, how Mildmay stops equating sex and loss, how the unresolved and unrequited feelings between them do finally resolve. (Though actually, I could have done with more of the latter than a simple "I don't want him any more, not like that". The catalyst is pretty plain but the acknowledgment seems flimsy.)

I still love Mildmay's voice -- vivid images, utter irreverance, sharp observations and rather less self-pity. Felix is considerably less splintery in Corambis: there's a definite sense of healing, and a recognition of the character trait that makes him hurt those around him. As mentioned above, I very much like Kay (his narrative's dry, quite Shakespearian with its dropped pronouns and prepositions, and his fierce indomitable temper) and I like the Duke of Murtagh, who is sly and sleek and urbane. I like the way that, with the threefold narrative thread -- Felix, Mildmay, Kay -- we're never wholly sure who knows about what. (Does Murtagh know that Kay ...?)

And I am so glad that Monette resisted the urge (as recounted on her blog) to dole out happy endings all round: at the end of the novel, the protagonists are in the right place for new beginnings, but romance (or sheer lust) would be trite and ... wrong.

Not what I expected and I'm not yet sure if this feels conclusive or overly open an ending: but I enjoyed it vastly and am looking forward to sitting down and rereading all four novels, one after the other, to get the true shape.

Deleted scenes from Corambis

Saturday, April 18, 2009

#31: The Dead Man's Brother -- Roger Zelazny

I had a philosophical bent of mind with which to console myself and a handy metaphor to objectify the moral. (p. 247)

Originally entitled Apostate's Gold, this novel was completed by Zelazny around 1971, scheduled for publication and then cancelled. For why? It's not SF or fantasy (though there's a sliver of the fantastical about it, if you squint) and the publishers were wary.

Also (whisper it) it's not an outstanding thriller in the way that the best of Zelazny's SF was outstanding.

Ovid Wiley is a respectable New York art dealer who wakes up one morning, as you do, to find the corpse of a former associate in his home. Over nicotine and caffeine, Wiley considers his situation (the corpse, one Carl Bernini, was his partner in crime long ago in Europe, where Wiley's study of art history extended to acquiring and reselling examples: they parted on bad terms) and eventually calls the police.

Via a convoluted and not entirely credible sequence of events, Wiley ends up on the run in Brazil with a dead priest's girlfriend, visiting the Museum of Brazilian Art and pontificating on various art-world scams. Oh, and solving a murder or two whilst remaining fiercely independent -- just like a typical Zelazny hero.

I am not against murder. I was never party to any social contract and I am, by inclination and belief, an anarchist. Not being responsible for the way the world was set up, I do not feel bound by its rules. (p.234)

Which is all very well if you're a semi-immortal, semi-magical, semi-Other being, like most of Zelazny's heroes (I can't think of any heroines). On a New York art dealer, be his past ne'er so shady, it grates a little: he is not immune to or beyond the reach of society, as is proved over and over in this novel.

On the other hand, Ovid Wiley is very, very lucky -- which isn't obvious in the narrative. There are plenty of coincidences (what's a thriller without coincidence?) but as many negative as positive. Wiley's luck, indeed, seems to consist mostly of a knack for surviving air crashes: it's hard to see other evidence. I wonder if this is a sub-theme that Zelazny would have consolidated: there are several other threads left trailing, and the denouement seems hasty and unpolished.

The Dead Man's Brother is full of dense-packed lyric prose -- distinctively Zelazny, for example his philosophical musings on the vastness of ocean or his vibrantly ringing description of Rio de Janiero -- that also manages to be hard-boiled: this is Zelazny Noir (but then so's Doorways in the Sand, to pick just one example). Plenty of wit, too:

Consciousness is a cold statue in a pigeon-infested park, scoured each morning by the mysterious and not altogether benign processes of certain bodily fluids whose existence I resent daily. Asked by a psychologist I once knew what animal I would most prefer being if I could not be a man, I immediately replied 'a tapeworm'. He had asked me before I'd had my morning coffee. (p. 83)

Zelazny makes the reader work: a few handy links ...
Tupamaro | Purkinje | mors janua vitae | ignoti nulla cupido | cucullus non facit monachum | Child of the Dark | Cândido Rondon ... I have to confess -- having spent hours in our local library as a teenager, ticking off obscure references on a list tucked into the back of Nine Princes in Amber -- that it's much easier reading a new Zelazny with the advent of Wikipedia and Google!

Read a sample chapter here!

#30: Stealing Magic -- Tanya Huff

... as far as Magdalene knew, there were only two copies of the Booke of Demonkind still in existence and she had one of them -- it had been rather drastically overdue when the library'd burned down, so she'd kept it. (p.116)

This collection includes all Tanya Huff's short stories (at least as at 1999, its first publication date) featuring Magdalene -- the most powerful wizard in the world, given to tropical living, skimpy outfits and 'an avid observer of young men' -- and Terazin, the best thief in the city, who happens to be the lover of fiesty female mercenary Swan.

I'm a big fan of Huff's 'Blood' series and I wanted to see what she'd written before she discovered Henry Fitzroy. There are some pleasing stories in here: Magdalene and Terazin subvert the usual epic fantasy, either by refusing to play by the usual rules (Terazin gets around a potentially unpleasant assignment by a Portia-esque interpretation) or by simply applying common sense. They are quintessentially female protagonists without a hint of girlish weakness (or even feistiness): both smart, independent and able to make a play for what and who they want. Neither is interested in killing opponents, even if that's the easiest way out, even if the opponents are not human. On the other hand, Magdalene seems to be on remarkably good terms with Death (who's a 'dark-haired, pale-skinned young woman ... hands on hips, eyes flashing', not a million miles from Mr Gaiman's rendition).

Witty, warm and likeable.

#29: Odd and the Frost Giants -- Neil Gaiman

"We won't die," said the bear. "Because we can't die here. But we'll get hungry. And we'll get more wild. More animal. It's something that happens when you have taken on animal form. Stay in it too long and you become what you pretend to be. When Loki was a horse --"
"We don't talk about that," said the fox. (p. 33)

Hilarious little tale, full of dark nuance for older readers (or those with a precocious interest in Norse myth), this is the story of Odd, a crippled half-Scots, half-Viking boy who runs away from home. It's not quite like the ballads his mother sings to him. Instead of a horse, a hound and a hawk, he finds himself in the company of a bear, a fox and an eagle (the last given to monosyllabic screeches).

They are, of course, not what they seem.

I'm impressed by how much nastiness Mr Gaiman can squeeze into a slim children's book: sacrifice, murder, the trade in Freya's favours, Loki's unsavoury past ... It's all quite wholesome and above-board, if you don't know what's going on.

And I do tend to like Loki in modern fiction, though this Loki isn't quite Diana Wynne Jones' Luke or Gaiman's Low-Key Lyesmith: the fox here is no exception. ("It's all your fault!" "I admit it. But you can't just focus on the bad stuff." (p.85)) Great fun.

#28: The Cat with the Tulip Face -- A R Morlan

Six years of combing the pre-dawn streets had taught Arlene that for a little animal, alone and scared, dawn is too late. (p.8)

It's hardly fair to call this a book -- it's a short story, bound in chapbook format, 44 pages long. And it's about cats (and one very special cat) which is why I bought it.

Arlene is a fiercely independent old woman who rescues cats and dogs: she spends her social security money on decent petfood and forages in trash cans for her own dinner. One day she hears a kittenish wail and finds, on a high windowsill, the ugliest kitten she's ever seen: huge ears, tiny eyes, practically no nose ... luckily he has splendidly silky fur.

He's also very smart. And rather special.

And because Arlene knows what happens to special kitties, she makes the right call.

It's a funny little story but it's stayed with me, though I'm not sure why: the writing is fine but doesn't sing, the plot is pretty slight. Nice, though. I'm keeping an eye out for The Amulet, novel set about a year after this tale.

#27: Song of Time -- Ian MacLeod

The music writes itself long before it gets to this stage. It doesn’t care about me and what I am—it just comes out of me—so why should I care about it? ... Listen. See the way the emphasis has changed on the horns even since the rehearsal this morning? And the whole movement would be different if we were to start it again. It’s changing at a huge rate. The bloody thing’s alive, Roushana. People say that, but they don’t understand what it means. It doesn’t need us now, and it doesn’t even need Claude’s performance. It’s simply there. It seeks immortality in its own way.” (p. 200)

Roushana Maitland, virtuoso violinist and widow of the famous and flamboyant conductor Claude Vaudin, is over a hundred years old, alone and dying in a house on the storm-lashed Cornish coast. Walking on the beach one day, she finds the unconscious body of a beautiful, mysterious young man whom she names Adam. Sharing the story of her life, and attempting to unravel Adam's origins, impels Roushana to reorder and re-examine her own memories, to mourn her dead and the world she's lost, and to celebrate the music that's threaded inextricably through that life.

Roushana's memories cover the entire 21st century: she grows up in Handsworth, a suburb of Birmingham, in a time we can recognise as no more than a decade from now. Roushana, of Irish/Indian ancestry, watches as her beloved brother Leo falls victim to the 'white plague', a wide-range food intolerance syndrome linked to lactose tolerance. She grows up in a period of massive social change -- nuclear bombs targetting major cities, climate change, segregation -- and loses those dear to her, one by one. As an adult, she becomes a famous violinist (classical music having enjoying something of a renaissance in a world sliding slowly towards apocalypse) and meets the love of her life, Claude. Theirs is a classic love story, and Roushana never stops mourning him.

Roushana's story, and Claude's, are linked and perhaps mirrored in composer arl Nordinger's Fourth Symphony, especially the 'Song of Time' in the third movement. The Song of Time is music that evolves:
Using artificial intelligence software, he’d created scores which evolved of their own volition. The middle section of Swann in Love, for example, which was once pitted with ironic interjections from the woodwind, was now filled with Proustian twilight. (p. 148)

MacLeod writes music, musicians, performance and reception beautifully: that tightrope sense of being possessed by the melody (p. 16) or genius ... is the enemy of perfection. To get it beautifully right, you have to be prepared to get it terribly wrong. (p. 131). Music is as much torment as pleasure for Roushana: a link to her brother, a passionate dialogue with Claude, a way of communicating what can't be said ... On a second read of the novel, I'm increasingly of the opinion that Nordinger's music is more than just soundtrack for this very musical novel. The way that the Song of Time evolves is a metaphor for the way Roushana's tale changes and grows and mellows. And that passage I've quoted at the head of this review shows another side of the story: the desire for and fear of immortality.

For this is science fiction, and Roushana's future (where the outer planets are mined, where climate change has swung crazily back from fire towards ice, where artificial flesh is a staple of a home first-aid box, where a crystalline web permeates every street and house) is a future where the 'passed' still mingle with the living, conversing and attending concerts and exclaiming at tourist-trap Cornish villages. It's done with crystals (or smoke and mirrors, if you prefer: Roushana doesn't care about the science behind it, and we're caught up in her self-centred understanding of the world around her).

Roushana's memory palace, her collection of souvenirs and mementos, is intended to help her re-member herself, to build up a copy of her personality that'll live on after her passing. She's spoken to old friends and acquaintances who've passed:
“And you really think you’re the same person, now?”
“Of course not. But I’m still Blythe—that’s the whole point.” (p. 155)

Roushana is determined not to die, not to join the legion of those who've gone before her. And Adam ... well, when she's worked out who Adam is, perhaps she'll learn something important about herself too.

I love this novel: I love the prose (which is uneven, but at its best utterly ravishing), and the music, and the future -- which is drawn in broad strokes because Roushana is frankly not interested in the details, and doesn't expend energy or narrative on the devastating eruption of Yellowstone, or the bombing of Indian cities, or various other epic disasters (Venice sunk, Kilimanjaro snowless). I don't want this to be the future I live through, but I can find it utterly credible and somewhat survivable -- and yes, there's a kind of happy ending, a sense that eventually things will be better than they are.

I'm also very impressed by the vivid detail which MacLeod, a young male writer, brings to his depiction of an old woman. And I admire the layering, the memories and amendments, the music and the dialogue, the hints that reveal a story Roushana isn't ready to tell until the climax of the novel.

I'm still undecided as to whether the ending supports the weight of the story -- but it does so rather more than I'd realised at first. And now I want to read more MacLeod. (Read this for the 'Not the Clarke Award' panel at Eastercon.) I want more prose like this ...

On summer nights, as baricades went up and the helicopters flickered closer and cars were rolled and the flaming streets of Balsall Heath played orange across thunderous skies, I breathed the acrid smoke of funeral pyres. When the rains raged and the gutters giggled like gargoyles and fish-condoms swam in the streets, my teeth were gritted with the soils of the grave. On broken-glass mornings, exhausted but elated, the taste of dried blood was still on my bitten tongue as I trudged through the blasted world. My bleeding fingers stained the strings of my violin. It had to hurt. (p. 68)

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

#26: The Quiet War -- Paul McAuley

Newt asked all sorts of questions about life on Earth. ... What did the air taste like? Were there places with no oxygen? Did rain hurt? Was it true that weather changed the way you thought? What was it like to sleep under the stars with no roof overhead?
"I tried that once," Newt said. "Inside a plastic bubble I inflated outside the ship. It bugged the hell out of me, frankly."
"I guess it helps to have a horizon," Macy said. (p. 180)

The Quiet War is set a couple of hundred years from now. Ecological catastrophe -- the Overturn -- has struck Earth, driving many to the outer planets (Mars fell victim to warfare and is uninhabitable). Back on Earth, power is shared between three major factions: Greater Brazil, the European Union and the Pacific Community.

There are several levels of war going on here: between Earth and the Outers, between young and old, between city-dwellers and a culture that 'doesn't need cities', between human and post-human. For most of the novel the war remains quiet, a conflict of 'propaganda, espionage, sabotage and political coercion' (p.199): it may be quiet on the grand scale, but it's deafeningly loud to those on the front line.

The narrative follows four major characters. Professor-Doctor Sri Hong-Owen, Machiavellian gene wizard responsible for some astonishing 'cutting', or genetic manipulation, of both humans and animals:
Sometimes she dreamed of plagues that would winnow humanity to a sustainable level. Of a green, wild planet in which just ten million people roamed the plains and forests, sailed the clean blue oceans. Tall strong intelligent people who lived lightly on the land, linked by a planetary net, carrying civilisation in their heads. A utopia in which everyone was like her. Billions had been killed by climate change and ... the Overturn, but it had not been enough. (p. 257)

Macy Minnot is the tough, no-nonsense leader of a Reclamation and Reconstruction gang when she's recruited to help design a biome in Rainbow Bridge, Callisto. Through her eyes we see life in the Outer Worlds -- and the level of political intrigue, double-crossing and shady dealings in which she's ... encouraged to participate. Dave #8 is one of a series of clones (on the very first page we learn that they're not consecutively numbered because about half of them have already been culled) being trained up as soldiers in the fight against the enemy. And Cash Baker is a neurologically-enhanced young pilot, altered to mesh seamlessly with his ship at the flick of a switch, really only in love with the sky.

A complex web of intrigue and double-dealing links these characters together: other focal figures are the green saint Oscar Finnegan Raimos (Sri's mentor), diplomat and spy Loc Ibrahim (who takes a personal dislike to Macy) and the reclusive, mysterious gene wizard Avernus, the oldest living human. Yet it's by no means clear which -- if any -- is the hero of the story, and in fact I don't think it's a story that has a hero:
Printed books lay in heaps on the floor of one room. When Sri picked one up, it fell open to the first page and a young man's voice said, 'Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.' A sentiment that so precisely echoed her present situation that she felt a little shock, as if someone has crept up behind her and suddenly spoken into her ear. (p. 378)

That quotation from Dickens' David Copperfield could equally apply to any of the major characters, whose fates are often surprising and occasionally lacking in closure.

I was surprised by how much certain characters grew on me, how much more I ended up caring about their fates than I had at first. There's a lot of quiet speculation in The Quiet War about what it means to be human, and about the nature of the continuum between human and post-human. Avernus uses the herring-gull analogy to point out that when you've destroyed the elements least like yourself, there are still elements that are least like yourself. On the other hand she's talking to Sri, and Sri makes post-humans ...

McAuley's prose is level and easy, seldom poetic: on the contrary, he has a habit of unobtrusive info-dumping. That said, there is some arresting writing in The Quiet War, usually on the subject of alien landscapes: below was a yawning plunge of freezing, oxygen-free water, black, salty and acidic; a fish would drown in it as quickly as a human. (p. 128)

There's plenty in the novel that fascinates me: vacuum organisms; the mysterious 'wildsiders' back on earth; the super-bright chimps, 'evolving away from conventional mathematics' and the cut rats, wearing jewellery and creating a written language; frontier life on the moons of Uranus ... The Quiet War doesn't engage my sensawunda, but perhaps that's because the future it portrays is, for all its beauty and the survival and growth of the human species, a future separated from our present by catastrophe and war. Things will get worse before, if, they get better.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

#25: House of Suns -- Alastair Reynolds

Perhaps the Lines had it all wrong. We accumulated experience for the sake of it, stretched our lives out across millions of years, but even when things were going well ... there was a neurotic anxiety at the back of all our minds, a shrill voice instructing us to see everything, to look round every corner, to leave no stone unturned. We were like children who had to try every sweet in the shop, even if it made us sick. We knew there was more of the galaxy than we could ever encompass by ourselves, but the voice did not allow us to take that as license to give up. All it said was try harder. (p. 214)

Back in the Golden Hour (a place, not a time) lived a woman named Abigail Gentian, who was greedy for experience: she made a thousand clones of herself and sent them out across an untouched, unexplored galaxy. Six million years later, the Gentian Line -- nearly nine hundred of the original thousand clones, or 'shatterlings' -- is a force to be reckoned with: living almost as gods, the Line specialises in stardams (using multiple ringworlds to swaddle a supernova and prevent the destruction of neighbouring civilisations). The shatterlings -- each travelling, by custom, alone -- are the epitome of galactic tourists, welcome wherever they go for their knowledge, influence and power. Periodically, the shatterlings meet up for the Thousand Nights, a festival of reunion, story-telling, remembrance and celebration.

Campion and Purslane are years late for the present Thousand Nights. As if that's not bad enough, they're travelling together -- 'consorting' -- which is severely frowned upon by the Line. And they have guests: Doctor Meninx, a grossly post-human aquatic academic, and Hesperus, a representative of the Machine People, who they've freed from durance vile. Hesperus has forgotten much, and knows only that he was bound on some vital mission before his capture: Doctor Meninx, prickly and paranoid, discovers one of Hesperus's secrets, and together the four concoct a theory that might explain matters. The Vigilance, a Dyson swarm that single-mindedly collects information, may hold the secret of the Absence -- the disappearance, or occlusion, of the Andromeda galaxy.

Then everything goes terribly, unexpectedly wrong.

House of Suns is narrated by three voices (Campion and Purslane, with brief interludes where Abigail recounts her origins). Those three voices are -- for obvious, though not necessarily accurate, reasons -- fairly similar, but I don't think they're identical: in particular, Campion's voice stands out from the other two. But they're technically all the same person, or they were once the same person. (On a related note, is consorting between shatterlings equivalent to incest? or masturbation? or something we don't yet have a word for?)

House of Suns is partly a tale of treachery and deceit: within the Gentian Line, within Abigail's own mind, between one meta-civilisation and another, perhaps even between galaxies. It's a story about what happens when you suppress a memory: does it stay repressed, or does it find expression elsewhere by warping other memories? And is the same true for societies as individuals? House of Suns is also a story about a vast sweep of time and space: the shatterlings are pretty much immortal (barring accidents and deliberate violence), they've travelled the length and breadth of the Milky Way, and like 'bookworm(s) who [have] tunnelled through the pages of history' (p. 52) they've seen a plethora of 'turnover' civilisations that'll last mere hundreds of thousands of years. They even have a device, a Universal Actuary, which calculates the probability of any visited civilisation being around next time they drop by.

It's also partly the tale of Campion and Purslane and their love affair:
To see something marvellous with your own eyes -- that's wonderful enough. But when two of you see it, two of you together ... knowing that you'll both have that memory for the rest of your lives, but that each of you will only ever hold an incomplete half of it, and that it won't ever really exist as a whole until you're together, talking or thinking about that moment ... that's worth more than one plus one. ... I think I'd rather die than lose those memories. (p. 67)

Another element that I think more important than it initially appears is Palatial -- the virtual environment game, a fantasy world of sorcerers, Ghost Soldiers and ladies-in-waiting, that Abigail and her childhood friend (she's forgotten his name) spend subjective years inside. Palatial, after all, has never been released for general use: it's not wholly safe ...

This is a hard novel to discuss without mentioning specific plot-points and slowly-revealed secrets. But it's not hard to recommend: for sheer sense-of-wonder, for arresting prose (some excellent similes: we began slowdown and dug claws into spacetime like cats sliding down a wall (p.114)), for complex plotting, for marvellously science-fictional images:
Ateshga's world was an outrageous confection of a planet: a striped marshmallow giant with a necklace of sugary rings, combed and braided by the resonant forces of a dozen glazed and candied moons. (p. 22)

And there's an optimism, a long view, a sense of celebration of humanity's endless curiosity and creativity, that reminds me of Golden Age science fiction and the assumption that the galaxy's just waiting to be discovered:
I have faith in the human spirit. Faith that says we won't stay here for ever, in this little campfire huddle around an undistinguished yellow star. (p. 234)

There are flaws, trailing threads, perhaps too much ambiguity on certain issues: but it's a thrilling, engaging and well-written read.

Friday, April 03, 2009

#24: The Original Road Kill Cookbook -- B. R. Peterson

Never tell your dinner guests what they are eating until they are done! (p.46)

I suspect that the very existence of this book, let alone my possession of it, will upset a few people. I BookMooched it primarily to appall a young friend for information about collecting roadkill corpses -- how to tell when it's gone off, etc. (Hey, it's difficult not to run over a pheasant or two if you drive on English country roads.) I may also use the recipe for Roast Cat some day -- in a work of fiction, of course.

My take on the matter: animals and birds are often accidental victims of traffic. If the meat's in good enough condition to eat, why waste it? I grew up eating roadkill rabbit and pheasant (my mother generally didn't mention the provenance of the meat until we'd finished pudding), though I don't eat dead mammals, found or purchased, any more. I do also find the sight of dead animals at the roadside distressing: but if I killed something, even accidentally, I like to think I'd be prepared to eat it.

The Original Road Kill Cookbook is a short book crammed with anecdote -- hence my reading it cover to cover rather than just flipping through as per usual with a cookbook -- though there are some useful recipes and preparation techniques. It was written by an American (a perceptibly right-wing American) for Americans. However, quite a few of the recipes, and especially the preparation tips, are useful in the UK too. Collecting roadkill is apparently illegal in the US; the legal position here is less clear, but Google turned up an interesting article by Rose Prince in the Independent:
Ownership of roadkill is debatable. Most country people assume that the driver who kills the rabbit, pheasant or pigeon may not make a meal of it, but the driver of the car behind can. In 2004, when I was researching my book on economic cooking, 'The New English Kitchen', the Highways Agency told me that it owns roadkill, but this rule is rarely enforced.

If you have ever wondered how to cook a snake, or wished for a decent recipe for squirrel, this is the book for you. It's also rather funny, in a slightly pugnacious, frontiersman sort of way. And yes, it's unsentimentally cavalier about dead bunnies (and dead dogs and dead deer and dead duck and ...) The sensitive should steer clear.

edit to add Author not entirely oblivious:
Buck and his publisher receive "crank" letters from those offended by the book – several of which have been framed by the author, who admits that some recipes, such as the ones concerning domestic pets, are "incendiary."

Some relevant links:

Thursday, April 02, 2009

#23: The Burial at Thebes -- Seamus Heaney

You can't just pluck your honour off a bush
you didn't plant. You forfeited that right.

Seamus Heaney's new translation of Sophocles' Antigone (performed 442BC) brings the text vividly to life. The story is simple and tragic: Creon, king of Thebes, has decreed that the body of Polyneices be refused burial rites because he'd raised his hand against his brother Eteocles (who'll be buried as religion requires). Their sister Antigone insists on defying Creon's edict and performing funeral rites for Polyneices herself: her sister Ismene won't help.

These are Oedipus's children, so they have every reason to bewail the burdens Fate has laid upon them. Creon, full of his kingly power and determined that everyone should set state before family, ends up Fate's victim too, losing all he holds dear.

People have discussed this play for over two thousand years: I don't feel the need to add to that discussion, except to say:
  • Antigone is a stroppy teenager who is also right

  • This is a world where Fate does punish those who transgress the laws of the gods

  • Ismene just fades out of the action: I presume she survives ...

I do want to laud Heaney's translation, the glorious sonority of the words, the simplicity, the easy colloquialism. ("It was going off," says the guard about the corpse that's beginning to reek.) Compare Ismene's words in a standard modern translation (J. E. Thomas):
Then go, if this seems best to you, but know that
your friends truly love you, however foolish.

and in Heaney's:
Nothing's going to stop you
but nothing's going to stop
the ones that love you, sister
from keeping on loving you

It's poetry in that it says what needs saying with as few and as precise words as possible: not in the sense of formal structure or counted syllables or rhyme.

As in Beowulf, Heaney's good at evoking a world where ritual keeps the unseen, unknowable, at bay: he brings stark symbol and a sense of the supernatural, into the everyday world. Antigone sprinkles earth and pours water (three times): that's funeral enough to honour Polyneices' corpse. When Creon walls her up for her act, he invites Fate's blow -- invites the Furies, 'the inexorable ones' (as Tiresias puts it) to wreak vengeance on Creon (and likely his whole house). And Creon knows he's damned and doomed:
I want to hurry death.
I want to be free of the dread
of wakening in the morning.
Waking up at night.

I was lucky enough to be able to listen to a recording of a performance: definitely worth seeking out, to hear the rhythm brought to life and the remarkably effective musical settings of the Chorus.