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Summer of the Longbow

For some reason I always read more fiction in the summer. This summer I am falling back on the master of historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell, and his Grail Quest series, Archer’s Tale, Vagabond, Heretic, and 1356.

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The setting is the Hundred Year’s War, a theater boasting armored knights in colorful coats of arms, castles, sieges, and the indomitable English longbow, a battlefield advantage so consistently discussed and lionized that it comes as a shock to look at a modern map of France and notice no English territories are left. Seriously, at least weekly one can turn on cable TV and watch an expert in medieval warfare (how many of these people can society support?) shooting arrows into an armored mannequin and breathlessly proclaiming the evident effectiveness of the bodkin point against a French dummy swathed in steel plate.
The long bowman was a triumph of brutal technology against the aristocratic desire to be seen around town charging other aristocrats with a lance. French knights fell in the thousands under storms of English arrows. And this happened on a few different occasions, proving the resiliency of fashion amidst the upper classes. Charging your enemy on horseback was the thing that knights were supposed to do. And if you died stuck with a half dozen arrows fired by a broad backed chav from across the channel, well, c’est la vie!

Besides the bad news for French knights, the Hundred Years War also witnessed the devastation of the French countryside at the hands of marauding bands of English soldiers looking for whatever wealth they could extract from farms, villages, and towns.  Oh, and throw the Black Death into the mix too. It took a hallucinating French teenage girl and an England exhausted by war to finally bring the whole thing to a close. When the dust had settled France was one big step closer to becoming the modern nation state we all know today. And the long bowman became enshrined in English identity, somehow inspiring people with the knowledge that you could invade a country and kill scads of tactically impaired rich guys, take some stuff, and then go back home? Anyway.

Cornwell’s books dive right into the horror and color of this period.  A likeable protagonist tries to sort out the mystery of his past and commits to a quest that could change the world. To ice this cake the author creates a great villain, the sinister Guy Vexille, a man so driven by religious passion he is capable of any evil. I normally detest Holy Grail conspiracy stuff, it’s all so ludicrous. But in this case, the principals involved are of a different time, and the details are wrapped in believable histories. All in all, this is summer escapism done flawlessly. Because the Hundred Years War was so long, something around a hundred years apparently, Cornwell actually wrote another book with different characters to explore the later part of the war and one of the last great English victories, Agincourt.

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“But I don’t like long descriptions of people killing each other with archaic weapons!” you say. I guess there are people who might not like that. Thankfully you can get medieval without having to get medieval. Check out the Cadfael series of mysteries by the linguist-scholar Edith Pargeter who wrote under the name Ellis Peters, or the TV adaptation starring Derek Jacobi. You can feel the darkness and hunger of the period without all the stabbing and cutting and arrows flying around and all that. The books are very popular and anything with Derek Jacobi is good.

Sky

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At Sea

I miss the ocean. As a sailor in the USN I had the good fortune of being stationed on a ship out of Japan that sailed the picturesque waters of the Pacific Ocean. I remember  stealing many moments out on the sponson decks, enjoying a smoke while flying fish skittered across the placid waters  painted in orange and mauve as the sun slowly set behind the wide horizon. I grew up in Pittsburgh and had never really traveled at all before my enlistment. Everywhere you turn here there is a hill in your face. Seeing something two or three blocks away qualifies the scene as  “panoramic.” Thus it is was that the immense space of the ocean really took hold of me. As a junior enlisted my life revolved around painting, cleaning, and liberty, but of course the navy was once much different. I am referring to the age of sail and thanks to a healthy niche market there is an abundance of fiction that can take you back to the days of wooden ships and iron men.

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The king of the genre has to be C. S. Forester. Born in 1899 Forester was himself from a different era and his smooth, formal prose helps to transport the reader to bygone days. His most famous character,  Horatio Hornblower, enjoyed a storied career stretched out over 11 novels, from seasick midshipman all the way to Admiral in charge of everything. A&E produced a fantastic TV adaptation of the early novels starring Ioan Gruffudd.

masterThe Aubrey-Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brian constitutes another highly successful series. The adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin, naturalist, doctor, and sometime spy will provide hours and hours of amusement.  The series inspired 2003’s Master and Commander The Far Side of the World starring Russell Crowe which is worth a view.

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The Kydd series from Julian Stockwin stands out in the field by the author’s choice to follow the adventures of an enlisted sailor in the British navy. Thomas Paine Kydd joins up the hard way, kidnapped by a press gang and initiated into the brutal life below decks.

Before enlisting yourself, landsmen and landswomen out there may wish to read up a bit on the stunning array of terminology associated with sailing the tall ships. Sailing these vessels required immense knowledge and precise coordination.  During my time at sea I had to learn how to wax the floor just right but it’s not really in the same league.

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The Remote War

Every now and then a book comes along that really helps me get a handle on current events. A foreign policy junkie like myself gets a fix constantly from the reams of info available online. But there is usually something missing. A few paragraphs and a carefully chosen photo can fill me on some event, sometimes only hours after it happens on the other side of the world. But those paragraphs usually aren’t able to capture that vital element in comprehension. I am talking about context.

That’s when Print throws open the saloon doors and swaggers back into the room. The Internet is wonderful and all, but good luck trying to parse out what’s happening in somewhere like Nigeria from a few news articles and a Wikipedia page.

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Getting context and background on the shadowy enemies of Obama’s drone campaigns had proven very difficult until I found this book, The Thistle and the Drone,  by Akbar Ahmed. This remarkable work takes a historical and anthropological look at the tribal groups most likely to have their sleep interrupted by a hellfire missile. It’s impressive for a number of reasons. Ahmed’s encyclopedic knowledge on the topic was acquired by his own experience as a government administrator in Pakistan’s most notorious areas.  There, in the pre-9/11 world, the author learned the histories and organizations of groups like the Pashtun and Baluch. His own scholarly research further completes an expansive understanding of tribal societies and elements common to all sorts of cultures from the Scots that gave the English so much trouble so long ago, to the Chechens and Avars that resisted Russian imperial aims. Books like this only come along so often. Ahmed provides the background and nuance to center-periphery conflicts such as those raging in Waziristan and northen Nigeria. This book should be required reading, as inconvenient as its contents may be.

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For more background on Pakistan and Afghanistan and the long chain of events that led to our never-ending war against people wearing sandals, I highly recommend Ghost wars : the secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll.

Any other news junkies out there that happen upon singular works that go beyond the headlines, please sound off. I am always looking for an edge, and I am sure the library has it.

Sky

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War and Bromance

About once a year, I try to read the Iliad. Sometimes I make it through the whole thing and sometimes I get a little distracted and lose momentum.  I have a worn paperback of the Fitzgerald translation that I keep close and I have sampled the Fagles too. I like them both.

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Everybody knows the general outline. A royal runs off with another royal’s wife which triggers a big war where a lot of people get killed, including Ancient Greece’s version of Captain America. Gods are messing around and arguing with each other while the aforementioned Achilles moves inexorably to his fate. Our hero has a contract dispute with his boss Agamemnon and goes on strike, whereupon his boyfriend gets offed. He comes charging back like any action hero about three fourths of the way through the movie and brutally avenges the death. After the Trojans fall for one of the dumbest ploys ever, their city gets sacked.

It’s all pretty awesome. The Iliad is a titanic pillar of Western literature and has been redone, reworked, translated, and adapted over and over again. There is an Iliad inspired story out there to suit any taste.

As far as which translation to read, I recommend just flipping through an edition and seeing how the language feels. For me, Fitzgerald is a great balance, economical and lyrical. If you want to spend a lot of time listening to educated people argue, just Google which translation is best. People spend a great deal of money and effort for those Classics degrees and they have to use them somewhere.

For adaptations we can look at two ends of the spectrum:

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The Rage of Achilles by Terence Hawkins is packed with sex and violence and written in punchy, staccato prose. The book begs you to describe it as “edgy”.

For more sensitive souls, or simply to suit a different mood, is The Song of Achilles, a tender story built around the romance between Achilles and Patroclus.

And what about that most famous of bromances?  It’s fascinating to see how prevailing attitudes shape interpretation.  Every era puts its own spin on the relationship.  In some accounts, from less progressive times, the pair are simply close friends. For the really curious, an impressive non-fiction tome sits waiting on the fourth stack (aka, the Mezzanine). In The Greeks and Greek Love, James Davidson performs a thorough social and sexual survey of ancient Greece.  With the info in this book, you might finally be able to put the Achilles-Patroclus issue to bed.

David Malouf’s Ransom is a retelling of Priam’s mission to recover Hector’s body.  Poignant and poetic, it represents the Iliad’s immense potential for uncovering universal human truths.

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In film, we have the clunker Troy, starring Brad Pitt’s physique. There are worse movies. Sometimes serious, sometimes ridiculous, this film is hard to like but somehow equally hard to hate.

There is much fascinating debate concerning whether or not the Trojan War was based on some actual historical event.  The documentary In Search of the Trojan War is a great place to learn about Troy’s discovery and the issues and personalities involved. It’s a story as dramatic as anything Homer could have written.

Sky

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Sweet Revenge

Vengeance!  The word itself is charged with an illicit electricity. It is an ancient impetus from the murky depths of man’s primal past that simply won’t go away. Christianity couldn’t squash it and neither could secular notions about being nice to everyone because that’s the smartest thing to do. The idea of revenge is still with us and I imagine it always will be.

I wish I had enemies so that I could serve it to them. I would serve it cold, of course, according to a proverb from either the French or the Klingons, depending on which movie you are watching.  I have never really had grounds to pursue revenge. I think the worst thing that anyone has done to me was to steal my algebra notes right before the final at the end of my freshman year in high school. I failed the exam, but honestly I was going to fail anyway. Even if I had aced it, I was probably still going to fail the class. I made two good friends in summer school and the kid that stole the notes probably failed too. My notes were garbage. Unfortunately, I really don’t have any dire enemies. I wish I wasn’t so damned charming.

Despite the lack of first hand experience, revenge might be my favorite plotline. The ultimate revenge book, the great granddaddy of them all is, of course, The Count of Monte Cristo.

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What can you say about The Count of Monte Cristo? The book has it all. An engaging cast of characters, a convoluted plot, plenty of action, and if you read the unabridged version, Turkish pirates! It might be the most famous adventure novel in the western canon. It is certainly very long. But fantasy pulp and sci-fi authors like George R. R. Martin and Robert Jordan have brought “long” back into vogue, doubtlessly propelled by customer demand. Dumas certainly offers a great deal of escape within Monte Cristo’s pages. The gripping plot is propelled by the true history of France, a factor granting real weight and urgency to the unfolding events.

The plot is so compelling and recognizable that many authors over the years have worked at homage. Here are only a few:

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On my short list is Lawrence Watt-Evans Dragon Weather, a retelling set in a fantasy world. I don’t know what dragon weather is exactly, but I imagine Pittsburgh is due for some.

Exact Revenge from veteran suspense author Tim Green is dripping with potential.

Lastly, Crux by Richard Aellen has a Vietnam war angle.

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The Count of Monte Cristo has been adapted for the screen many times. You can’t go wrong with the 2002 version starring Guy Pearce and James Caviezel . Luis Guzman is a scene stealing Jacopo. It is a lavish period piece and a perfect Saturday afternoon sort of movie.

For the philosophically bent, there is this interesting book, The Virtues of Vengeance by Peter A. French. French makes arguments designed to bring the idea of vengeance into a positive moral framework.  The scope is large, beginning back with the ancient Greeks and ending with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. I wasn’t totally convinced, but it is an interesting read. Either way, if you live or work near Professor French it’s probably a good idea to behave yourself.

Sky

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Rats!

I’ve always liked rats and mice. I was indoctrinated young, raised on Disney, and Hollywood’s apparent pro-rodent agenda has completely brainwashed me. It’s a wonderful luxury when you think about it. I imagine in other places of the world rodents may directly threaten someone’s livelihood or cause horrible sanitation problems.

But I hit it big in cosmic roulette so I am free to enjoy the anthropomorphizing of the lowly rodent.

The library has a lot of cool stuff to help us get behind rats and mice.

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Up first is a classic, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Real rat fans will call me a fink for not knowing about this book until recently. I had seen and loved the animated film adapted from this book, Secret of NIMH, but I had not known about the book until I happened upon it in the library. The movie made several large alterations from the original story. The book doesn’t have any magic stones and Nicodemus is not some sort of wizard in the original. All in all, the changes made it a more interesting read. I enjoyed the more realistic take of the book. Like a lot of great children’s literature, the book is very deep and makes an older reader ford some deep waters while grappling with issues of sentience and survival.

And the movie of course.

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Dom DeLiuse kills as the crow Jeremy. The traditional animation is top notch but parents should be a little cautious. This film is a bit violent and maybe a little too scary for younger kids. The rats are really, really cool.

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Brian Jacques is the undisputed king of rodent fiction. Beginning in 1986 with Redwall, Jacques has penned well over two dozen books set in a fantasy world stocked with talking mice, rats, badgers, etc…

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David Petersen’s Mouse Guard combines some of the best elements of Jacques and O’Brien to create a darker fantasy world where the mice live in a constant state of siege. The illustrations are stunning. Petersen depicts nature and the seasons so well I can almost smell the dead leaves when reading the first collected volume of the series, Mouse Guard Fall 1152. If you only read one graphic novel about talking mice defending their homeland this year then this should be it. Seriously though, this book is awesome. There are some gorgeous panels depicting a desperate battle with mouse against crab.

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Another fresh take on the genre is Robin JarvisThe Dark Portal. Set in the small and dark places of London’s underbelly, this novel features occult elements and some epic apocalyptic battles. The trilogy continues with The Crystal Prison and then finally, The Final Reckoning.

But I am terrified of rats and mice, you say.

CLP has that covered too.

Sky

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Sketching

There is nothing quite like checking out a few books from the library and learning how to do something. We all love to learn and read and be entertained. But picking up a new skill or refining an old one is something very special. The Library has it all: home repair, building a canoe, raising goats, etc. …and knitting. I don’t think there is enough yarn in the world to make every project or idea available on CLP’s shelves.

Lately for me, it’s been all about drawing. There is something so wonderfully simple about it. You just need a pencil and some paper. No expensive set of paints or easel to buy, no special equipment necessary, nothing to it. Transitioning from a lifelong doodler to an amateur illustrator hasn’t been easy, but it’s been fun, and CLP has tons of titles to help us along.  I have flipped through at least a dozen titles learning basic techniques, perspective and anatomy.

One of the unexpected benefits of this reading splurge is the encouragement to draw from life. Most of us don’t have the luxury of taking art classes in our spare time and it can be difficult convincing someone to stand naked in the middle of a room for long periods, especially now that temperatures are dropping. But books like Figure Drawing Without a Model by Ron Tiner recommend drawing whoever and whatever is around. So far, no one on the bus has caught me.  For the basics, I have been gravitating toward older titles like The Art of Pencil Drawing by Ernie Watson and Wendon Blake’s Starting to Draw and Landscape Drawing Step by Step.  There is so much to choose from on the shelves. The humble pencil is capable of great things, as evidenced by artists like Paul Calle.

At this point, some of you out there are wringing your hands in frustration, crying out against cruel fate and bemoaning a perceived lack of artistic talent. “I can’t draw!” you say. Well, you are wrong. Few of us will become great artists, whatever that means now. But drawing is a skill, and skills can be learned. Ultimately drawing is a trick, representing a three dimensional object on a two dimensional plane. Lines don’t even exist in reality like they do in many illustrations. But our brains can figure it out.  So for the hard cases out there and the non-believers, start with this book: The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. This groundbreaking work breaks down the nuts and bolts of seeing, perceiving, and drawing based on hard science. Anyone can learn once the veil is lifted.  In a similar spirit, I will go ahead and admit that I could probably get better at math if I worked at it.

Once the gears are oiled, I highly recommend this book The Art of Urban Sketching by Gabriel Campanario. This book was an amazing eye opener about the power and potential of field sketching in an urban environment. With pencil and sketchbook, the environment around us is potentially transformed and made more meaningful.  The book even includes a “manifesto” for the budding urban sketcher.  I hold manifestos to a pretty high standard. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels really set the bar high. Unless you are systematizing a new way of analyzing history, I think it’s better to call it a “guidebook.” That’s just me of course; the book is a can’t miss and will open your mind to the artistic possibilities of all the space and form we take for granted on a daily basis.  So, get to the library and start drawing.  Oh, and any urban sketchers out there with a doodle of CLP-Main, please send a copy to me. It’s an amazing building and I am very curious what people have done with it.

Sky

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