Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Farthest Shore

The Farthest Shore (The Earthsea Cycle, #3)The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Earthsea books are old. The Farthest Shore, third in the trilogy, was published in 1972. But they’re old like a healthy tree is old, like a house with character. You can tell their age in their strength, in the slow, steady pace of the language, in the deep rootedness of the characters. Le Guin writes in an age that harkens more to Tolkien and Lewis, maybe even Peake, than to Jordan or the guy who writes the Game of Thrones books. The pacing is slow, the action is sparse, and the world-building is one of scattered lands and horizons as opposed to complex politics or equally complex magical systems. They take a while to get into.

I found this to be true for all three of these novels. They don’t grab you in the first or even the second or the third chapter. You move into them, charmed by the language but perhaps a bit—not quite bored, but certainly not enthralled. But you’ve heard them spoken of before in the same sentence with Lewis and Tolkien, and you want to find out why. Le Guin sets the stage slowly, introduces the characters, paints a world that always smells strongly of the sea and feels of the vague presence of dragon wings beating just over the horizon. And then by about halfway through you’re hooked and the remainder of the book feels like a painting, like a journey, like the things that solid fantasy is supposed to feel like—not an action movie, not a soap opera. But a tale.

Ged, now the Archmage of Roke, is once again at the center of this third tale. (I assumed the last of Earthsea, as these books were presented as a trilogy. Checking Wikipedia, however, I see that apart from a collection of short stories set in Earthsea there are an additional two novels.) I’ve written on the previous two volumes before, where I stated the volume one, A Wizard of Earthsea, could be generalized as being about wisdom, about finding maturity and true friendship. Ged grows up. Volume two, The Tombs of Atuan, is about redemption and mercy. Ged saves a slave from a life of darkness and servitude. This last volume is about despair and faith.

I think I’ve also said this in writing about the first two volumes: these books are great books because they touch the springs of truth, of something deep and real and beautiful. The best fantasy, I think, tells us something about the real world. In this novel, Ged and a young servant set off to find the source of lifelessness and despair leaking into the land of Earthsea. They travel to islands where joy and art are forgotten, where the wizards no longer know the words of magic that give them their power. (Magic, for Le Guin in Earthsea, is knowing the true names of things.) They find a wizard whose lust for life unending has upset the balance between life and death and has dragged along others who follow out of fear of death.

And Le Guin uses this stage of magic and journeying to pose what may be one of the central questions in our own art and theology and philosophy: is life the source of meaning or is it all an illusion, simply words that we give to things because we cannot stand the idea that they may have no meaning at all? Ged’s servant faces this in the course of their journeying, and he lets the despair overwhelm him. The questions he ask are ones that we all face—if we’re truly awake—at some point in our lives:

“ . . . he knew in his heart that reality was empty; without life or warmth or color or sound: without meaning. There were no heights or depths. All this lovely play of form and light and color on the sea and in the eyes of men, was no more than that: a playing of illusions on the shallow void.
They passed, and there remained the shapelessness and the cold. Nothing else.”

Again this despair and this craving for safety and assurance, for life without end and without danger, the character of Ged is a voice of hope and faith. But this is not a pat, safe, Sunday-school answer. This is a realization that life cannot exist outside of the reality of death, that the two are opposite sides of the same coin, and that we cannot understand either apart from the context of the other. Ged’s answer to his servant’s fear is poignant and true:

“There is no safety, and there is no end. The word must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.”

But the word is spoken, and the dance is danced nonetheless. I’m reminded of Narnia again, of the incredulous question of whether you hoped to find a safe, tame reality in a Lion’s mane. Phillip Pullman wrote his Dark Materials trilogy as in some respects a secular answer to the Narnia books. But to me the Earthsea novels read as a classical Christian answer to contemporary Christian fantasy that would represent God as the ultimate safety net, as the overwhelming force for good that will erase or correct all badness and emptiness without danger and without cost.

These are good, old books. They read like old stories. You’re not going to find sharp, sparking dialogue. You’re not going to find a riveting plot in the first three pages. But you’re going to go places and you’re going to see things that shape you. You’re going to meet people you want to be like. You’re going to—if you stay the course—see at last the wings of dragons over the Isles of the West.

X-Cutioner’s Song

X-Men: X-Cutioners Song TPBX-Men: X-Cutioners Song TPB by Fabian Nicieza

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m not a fan of crossovers. At the core, what is a giant comics crossover other than simply an attempt to get you to buy more comic books? If done right, I suppose, a crossover might also be a chance to bring different characters together and spin a story that spans a couple universes or intertwines a few storylines, but honestly—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crossover done well. (The Great Fables Crossover was certainly a disappointment, and I’m viewing Dark Cybertron as an unwelcome interruption in my favorite regularly-scheduled comic book.)

There’s so much that can go wrong. Crossovers often have the feeling of being written by a committee and then being put together on the page by a subcommittee, or an entire handful of subcommittees. And this is often I imagine exactly how it’s done. Because each comic title has its own writers and artists, usually with their own vision for the feel of the series and where the stories are going, the pacing and how they’re developed, and oftentimes slamming them together ends up just feeling like a train wreck. Now imagine trying to do that with something as huge and unwieldy as the various X-People Marvel lines, in their early-90s heyday. That’s pretty much exactly what you get with X-Cutioner’s Song.

There’s one reason I bought this volume: nostalgia. I picked it up at a Marvel-themed gift-shop at Universal Studios as a teenager because as a kid I had been on the ground-floor of the launch of Marvel’s second X-Men title. I think I still have issue #1 of that “mutant milestone” floating around somewhere. As a young reader though, I was the primary target of this, the first major crossover involving the title, which was engineered solely to get a kids like me to shell out money for not just the normal X-Men comics but also the Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, and X-Force. (They were doing the same thing with Spider-Man titles at the same time, calling it Maximum Carnage, and I remember a few of my friends scrambling to piece together the story through Amazing Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Men, and whatever other Spider-titles were running then.) Of course I couldn’t do this, and so there were always holes in the narrative. I wondered what had happened to my characters during their appearances in the other issues. And I had lost many of the issues I had managed to collect anyway, so I bought the volume.

I re-read it again this summer for the same reason: nostalgia. That’s really the only reason there is to pick up this particular collection. The train wreck analogy actually works quite well here. In fact, I think I may have stumbled onto the solution for the X-Men’s faltering transition to the big screen: get Michael Bay to make this into a movie. Everything is ready for him: the thin veneer of plot involving Cyclops and Jean Grey getting kidnapped, Xavier being nearly assassinated, no one knowing what’s going on, and a confrontation between Cable and his clone Stryfe. Pieces of information are dangled but never really resolved. (We learn pretty much nothing about the origins of Cable and Stryfe, though they dance around it the entire book.) The lurching narrative is liberally interspersed with wild melees in which X-Factor fights X-Force, X-Men fight X-Force, X-everyone fights various villains, and Cable and Stryfe fight each other. Apocalypse and Mr. Sinister make random, fairly inexplicable appearances and disappearances. Women (and men!) wear spandex. Cable, Wolverine, and Bishop hang out on a space station. Listing all these things actually makes it sound like more fun than it was.

I think part of the problem with the various X-Men titles is that there’s just so much backstory that at some point it gets nearly impossible to keep track of it all. I looked up the entries for Cable and Cyclops on Wikipedia after reading this, for example, to see if I could answer the questions that this volume did not. It was dizzying. There’s something very compelling to such a Byzantine history, but it also makes it largely inaccessible. It also makes something like X-Cutioner’s Song incredibly unsatisfying as a stand-alone piece. (Though at the end of the day, this is what comic book companies want, right? Because otherwise you might not buy the next issue.) This volume was especially maddening as it didn’t even tie up the crossover pieces that it developed. The story “began,” for instance, with the X-Force on the run because X-everyone-else though that the X-Force leader, Cable, had assassinated Xavier. X-Force, which consists of the younger, next generation of mutants, go head to head with some of their former mentors and trainers. This wrinkle was actually kind of compelling. There was also some good tension as the X-Force de facto leader, Cannonball, accompanied the X-Men to carry out missions while the rest of his team languished in captivity.

But you know what? The volume ended with absolutely no resolution on this score at all. Some of the heroes end up on the Moon to witness the final Cable/Stryfe confrontation, and then that’s it. We don’t even get a hint or an afterword or something explaining what happens to the kids in X-Force (or why Cable had abandoned them in the first place or what happens to them after he disappears). There’s a distinct impression that the compilers simply did not care enough to tell us. Another indication of this lack of care: a table of contents to help keep all the different issues in this volume straight and then the omission of page numbers from any page in the volume.

If there’s a bright spot in this volume (besides the nostalgia for trading comic books on the playground and creating our own X-characters during recess), it’s the art in the X-Factor issues. I don’t know who was drawing those issues and I don’t care enough to wade through all the names to find out, but it’s a marked departure from the generic (though not bad) comic book art throughout the rest of the book. I remember that as a kid though it drove me nuts. It was almost too noir, definitely not as realistic as the artwork in the other X-titles (using the term realistic, of course, very loosely). Looking back though, it seems the freshest and most original part of the book.

I wonder what happened to those characters after this chapter was complete. Because on the one hand that’s the appeal of long-running comic titles like these: you know the stories keep going on and on and on. On the other hand though, that’s the problem: the stories go on, but the characters never change, not really. Wolverine will always be the exact same person. Apocalypse will always come back. We’ll go through the same variations of the same stories over and over again, but—since (in some respects) I’m no longer twelve—I find I don’t have the patience to play.

A Crooked Line

A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of SocietyA Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society by Geoff Eley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What does it mean to be a professional historian today? What does the landscape of the profession look like? What are the big ideas or transformations over the past half-century or so that have shaped how historians work and think? In A Crooked Line, Geoff Eley, a European historian at the University of Michigan, provides a personal answer to these questions from the perspective of a historian who has lived and worked through the shaping of the profession during this period. A Crooked Line is not quite a memoir, not quite a historiography, and not quite a manifesto for political and social engagement among historians. It is a little bit of all of these things, blending and transcending them to become something quite unique: a historian’s reflective survey of what the field looked like from the vantage point of a young historian just beginning a career in the sixties to what the field looks like today.

As a historian of science—and one who came to the field from outside history—I sometimes feel cut off or at least rather uninformed about the broader debates and transformations that have shaped the historical profession as a whole. I felt a bit out of my depth—or at least out of my fit—at a recent workshop at Bielefeld University rubbing shoulders with historians pursuing a very theory-laden sociological approach to history while I presented a talk on John Herschel’s stellar spectroscopy (or lack thereof). I had only a dim inkling of the importance of the Bielefeld School in the history of history. (On the other hand, the history students I interacted with there only asked whether Herschel’s hesitation toward spectroscopy was evidence of his resistance to a Kuhnian paradigm shift.) Clearly, we did not share a great deal of historiographical ground. I asked my roommate, a Latin American historian, for a good book that would give me a broad overview of historical theory and provide some touch-points for connecting that theory with practice. He recommended Eley’s book.

I’m sure A Crooked Line didn’t go all the way toward addressing my ignorance, but it certainly helped. Eley tells the story from his own perspective as a historian coming of age at the eve of history’s first large shift from building traditional narratives to using the tools of sociology to address large-scale questions of the development of society and class relations. This is the portion of the book he titles “Optimism,” chronicling his own excitement as a historian realizing the possibilities of the social sciences to help answer big questions in history, primarily from a Marxist, materialist perspective. Here, the work that he cites as indicative and exemplary of this approach is Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). British Marxist historians led the way with utilizing the empirical tools of social science to provide an explanatory framework for the evolution and the conflicts in society at large. For a historian, this held the promise of understanding, engaging, and perhaps even shaping social change.

In the second portion of the book, Eley focuses on the particular challenges of German historiography and the ways in which it illustrated the limits of a materialist approach. In particular—and here the section of the book is called “Disappointment”—the historiographical puzzle of Nazi Germany, the failure to explain the atrocities of World War II using the materialist, structuralist tool bag of social history, tempered early optimism regarding this approach. Tim Mason’s studies of Nazism in the 1970s, according to Eley, illustrated the difficulty of building up a complete history of the Third Reich from the foundation of class relations.

In “Reflectiveness,” the third portion of the work, Eley discusses the “linguistic” or “cultural turn” in history that took place in the 1980s as the field of history became influenced (or infiltrated, depending on your point of view) by anthropology, literary and art studies, oral histories, and the prioritizing of the unique, local, or small-scale, resulting in a historical approach much more open to cultural studies. This was tied to the realization that categories such as gender, race, and colonialism could be used in new and important ways for understanding history. Eley touches on the culture wars that resulted, as traditional historians cleaved to more social historical approaches and resisted what they saw as a “dissent into discourse.” Here the keystone text is Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (1987). Eley takes a bright view of the efflorescence of such cultural approaches, asking why such tools and methods should not be used to compliment the historian’s work. Cultural studies, he convincingly argues, bring new questions and methods to the table and moreover make heard historic voices that have been silenced in the past.

Throughout the book, in his survey of the two great turns in history of the course of the second half of the twentieth century—first the turn toward the social sciences and then toward cultural studies—Eley wants to map these changes to outside influences, particularly political. One of his primary claims is that history should be politically engaged. Perhaps though because of my own hazy grasp on the political history of the 1960s-80s it wasn’t always clear to me how this was the case, either proscriptively or descriptively. History as an explanatory tool for society, a critical self-remembrance, and as a counterpoint to flawed and potentially destructive global narratives, yes, but Eley seems to claim that the influence was often the other way—the political situation influenced the sorts of questions and methods the historical field itself pursued. I needed these dots connected more clearly for me.

The big omission (for me) in this historiography was the history of science. Where does Eley see the history of science as playing a role (if any) in the turns he’s outlined? Historians of science certainly played a role in the culture wars, and cultural studies of science abound today, as in an earlier generation did social studies of scientists and their research schools. I would love to find a similar survey of the field written from the perspective of a historian of science. The closest thing I know of is Helge Kragh’s An Introduction to the Historiography of Science, which, while helpful, lacks the personal flavor and the evident passion that made Eley’s book such a pleasure.

Peace Like a River

Peace Like a RiverPeace Like a River by Leif Enger

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My sister has some credibility when it comes to recommending books. The last one she told me I had to read was Gilead, and I was not disappointed. It was iridescent. So when she delivered another novel about family and love and God set in yesterday’s Midwest, I dutifully put it in the basket beside my bed to ignore for a few months—but not forget. And I eventually got around to it.

Leif Enger creates a family, a single father and his three children in a small Minnesota town, and writes their meandering tale beginning with an abortive act of violence through escalation to the eldest son’s irrevocable act of retaliation (or perhaps preventative justice) and exile. All of this takes place in roughly the first third of the book. The rest is the father and the remaining two kids going to find the lost son.

In grittier hands this would be a tale of a family broken, of the ideals of pacifism playing out against darker realities in a strained relationship between father and son, maybe something like We Were the Mulvaneys. But Enger’s not going to go in that direction. There is murder, at several points throughout the book, and injustice, maybe even some suffering; but from the first page you realize this is a Christian novel, set in a Christian world with a Christian protagonist and by gum it’s going to have a good, Christian ending (and not some ambiguous Catholic ending either).

But, like I said, my sister recommended it. So I kept reading. And to be fair, Enger has a knack for creating characters and (when he’s not laying it on too thick) bringing the bleak beauty of the Midwest to life.

There are a lot of things going on in the novel. The most poignant for me was the characterization of the narrator—the middle son—and his relationship with his exiled older brother and his younger sister. This was where the story felt real. I admire anyone who can bring such a depth of characterization to a tale.

As far as the plot goes, there are snatches of courtroom drama, road trip narrative, romance, a touch of mystery, and—a bit incongruous but not unexpected—eschatology. There’s also a pleasant under-layer of Western lore communicated through the stories and poetry of the younger sister. The language is lovely if at times heavy-handed. The plot drifts but never slowed enough to lose me, though there were moments when the narrative structure was strained. The novel’s superficial villain, for instance, becomes a superficial friend, only to disappear and be randomly murdered off-scene.

My biggest difficulty was with the character of Jeremiah Land, the father who is in many respects the hero of the novel. Imagine a cross between Atticus Finch and Old Testament Elijah. Land is the pole-star of the narrative, the hinge on which everything else turns, and the way that Enger handled this character is what makes this work to me sit firmly in the camp of “Christian literature” (i.e. something you might see on the shelf at Family Christian Stores beside a lighthouse painting and a Precious Moments display.)

In one of the novel’s first episodes, the narrator witnesses his father praying several feet off the ground. If that sounds bizarre, it’s mediated a bit by the fact that the narrator is explaining all this through the haze and hagiography of a nine-year-old remembering his father. Miracles follow Land around throughout the novel: he is carried off by a tornado but lands unharmed, he has a good measure of prescience, and he heals people (specifically his enemies) with a touch. He works as a janitor. He’s humble. He’s good. He’s strong. He’s kind.

A child’s recollection of a saintly father is one thing. And a flat character is not necessarily a bad thing. What was more difficult for me in this book was what Land’s character said about Enger’s God—or rather, the independent, self-reliant, American Midwestern ideal of God. Jeremiah Land is a man alone, at times against the world, but his confidence comes from experience: his God is always the big guy upstairs who has his back and tells him what to do.

The irony is that Enger creates a tale in which a man like Land is faced with what would seem to be a huge challenge: a horrific act that has fractured their family and called his own ideals into question. At the very least it seems there would be some self-reflection. Some soul-searching. Some transformation of character. But there doesn’t seem to be any growth or change or introspection or foundational shifts at play throughout the novel. No one ends up seeing the world in a different way. Simply dig a bit deeper in the King James Bible and wrestle a bit harder in prayer, and things will work out. (And even if they work out [spoilers!] with you dead—no worries, we get a glimpse of paradise.) There’s no loss in this novel, no ambiguity. Characters end the novel with the same opinions, the same outlook and perspectives, that they had when the book opened. That includes everyone we get to know: the narrator, his sister, Land, and the exiled son. The peripheral characters, those who enter Land’s orbit, never get developed; they simply become obliging satellites to Land’s sanctity.

The events at the beginning of this novel set it up to be jarring, to give you some things to wrestle with. But nothing really comes of it. Ultimately you get some good stuff in a good book, just sort of jangling around, with a feel-good God.

She has The Remains of the Day next on the list for me. My hopes are a bit higher.