4.22.2007

Ink and Blood

The Museum of Idaho is hosting a traveling exhibit called Ink and Blood, which is sort of a combination history of printing and history of the Bible. And I hate to say it, but I totally geeked out at the Museum. I couldn't help myself, I was surrounded by very old books--some of them very famous books. I spent most of my two hours there trying to control myself from boring my mother silly by nattering on about how alphabets evolved, how the English language has evolved, St. Helena's tour of the Holy Land, Chinese printing techniques contrasted with Gutenberg's methods, misprinted Bibles and what happened to the printers, and reading out loud from the various books on display.

I am truly a terrible museum geek.

Some of the artifacts that awed me:

  • Dead Sea Scroll fragments--these were particularly awing. They're in special darkened cases, and you can see the fragments by pushing a button that'll turn a light on for 10 seconds.
  • A copy of a Tyndale Bible
  • A copy of the Wicked Bible and the Breeches Bible: I spent several minutes in front of these cases trying to snicker discretely.
  • A copy of Foxe's Book of Martyr's
  • Erasmus' parallel New Testament
  • Three Books of Hours, beautifully illuminated
  • Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into German
Check out the Exhibit Artifacts page to see some of the books and text fragments that they have on display.

A lot of exhibit was dedicated to attempts to translate the Bible into the vernacular. Today, Bibles are produced in just about every language that has a written version. But 650 some odd years ago, people like William Tyndale were violently put to death for daring to translate the Bible into their own language.

I also got to see a replica of a Gutenberg press in action. There was a short, fifteen minute talk about the invention of movable type and then a volunteer got to turn the screw and print a couple of pages (lucky guy!).

This exhibit is moving on in May. If you haven't gone and you're in the area, I really recommend it.

4.14.2007

Burning Road, by Ann Benson

When you read a fantasy series, you can often expect plot arcs that span across books. I wasn't expecting that when I picked up Benson's historical and medical series, but it's starting to look like this series has multi-book plot arcs. When I wrote about The Plague Tales, I wrote that I was disappointed that I didn't get the disaster I was expecting. It looks like that disaster is finally happening in book two, Burning Road.

In Burning Road, the historical plot jumps about ten years and takes place during the Jacquerie Rebellion of 1358. The current plot seems like it's taking place only a few months after the events of The Plague Tales. Instead of the plots mirroring each other, with both doctors trying to fight outbreaks of bubonic plague, these plots don't mesh nearly as well in this book. The historical plot follows Alejandro and his adopted daughter's struggles to survive in the extremely volatile political climate of post-plague France. The modern plot is frankly bizarre, with Janie Crowe trying to uncover a very disturbing cover-up involving some illegal genetics work and then running into a second epidemic of drug resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

It's kind of strange to have gotten two books into a series and still have no real idea where it's all going. I'm wondering if Benson is one of those authors who sits down to write without an outline, in spite of the amount of structure these books have in terms of plot mirroring.

4.08.2007

The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson

Have you ever read a book that you're interested in, and you have the feeling that, any page now, it's going to get really good? I felt that way through most of The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson. I was at one of the public libraries trying to find a copy of Magic Study (see previous post), when I came across The Physician's Tale, by Ann Benson. When I got home, I realized that I'd picked up book three of a series. Fortunately, I happened to have the first two books in my picked-it-up-a-while-ago-haven't-actually-read-it pile.

The Plague Tale follows the lives of two fictional doctors who are dealing with outbreaks of bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death. One of the doctors is a Jew in disguise who has to protect the English royal family from the plague. The second doctor is a modern surgeon who lives in a not-to-distant future where most bacterial diseases have become completely drug resistant.

To me, this sounds like a really good, terrifying read. Unfortunately, the plot that I was imagining never happened. The catastrophes that I was expecting to happen in the modern plot thread never happened. The medieval plot, barring a few mystical weirdnesses, did live up to its promise. I have hopes for the sequels. After reading the book jacket for The Physician's Tale, I think that something big might finally happen in that book.

The modern plot thread brings up a funny plot problem for me. This is going to require a little bit of set up, so bear with me. Othello is one of my favorite plays by Shakespeare, but every time I read or see the play, I feel like yelling at the characters "Don't listen to Iago!" A lot of the tragedy of the play could have been prevented if the characters had trusted each other and figured out that Iago was a twisted little stick who spoke nothing but lies.

By contrast, the main characters of The Plague Tales manage to thwart the bad guy and save the world well before the plague outbreak gets out of control. It's not that I want to see millions of fictional characters die horrible from a mutated version of the plague, but this book could have been absolutely enthralling if that had happened. I just felt let down after all the build up.

I've moved on to the second book, Burning Road. I'm hoping that the modern surgeon plot thread will mature and get better.

Magic Study and Poison Study, by Maria V. Snyder

Sometimes, when I feel like grabbing a slice of pizza at the local mall, I have to stop in to the local bookstore and pick up something to read while I eat. I picked up Poison Study because it was the most likely looking thing on the shelf that day that I hadn't already read. It ended up just sitting on my shelf for a while until I picked it up again a week or so ago and found a very pleasant surprise.

But first, a short digression. Have you other fantasy readers noticed that most fantasy novels take place in very similar worlds? With the exception of books by Brandon Sanderson, China MiƩville, and Jeff Vandermeer, most fantasy worlds look like technology stopped before the Renaissance, all the governments are monarchies (or were until the evil dictator showed up), and so on.

But Poison Study is about the first time I've seen socialism, complete with guaranteed employment and enforced atheism, in a fantasy novel.

In Poison Study, the main character, Yelena, is forced to become the food taster for the "evil dictator"--who overthrew the monarchy and instituted the socialist regime. The plot involves various people trying to kill Yelena, for a variety of unknown reasons. But I really admire Yelena's brains. She has very quick wits and a strong instinct for survival. I think what I liked most about this book was how often Yelena and I agreed with each other. In most books, I end up mentally disagreeing with the main character over courses of action.

Yelena must uncovers a plot to overthrow the new leader and has to diffuse it. While I don't think this book is meant to be a critique on socialism and capitalism in our world, I am very intrigued by the way Snyder has managed to treat socialism here in its own light. (For the record, I think socialism will never work and think that Communism as practiced in the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba are or were terribly repressive and murderous regimes.) In Poison Study, socialism is treated like a new social experiment.

Even before I finished Poison Study, I was trying to find its sequel. Unfortunately, this book is apparently not to be had outside of one of the public libraries here in town. I've been to three book stores, including two Barnes and Nobles in Salt Lake and still haven't been able to put my hands on a copy. Tcha.

The sequel, Magic Study, follows Yelena after her exile from the north. Instead of lots of people trying to kill her outright, she finds herself constantly accusing of being a northern spy. (And there are still people who want to kill here, just not as many.) This book wasn't as fascinating as Poison Study, but I'm so hooked on the characters--Yelena and Valek in particular--that I am already looking forward to the third book in the series.

I'm not sure why I didn't like this book as much, maybe it's because this book takes place in a more traditional fantasy setting that I am not thinking as much about how the society works. Having written that sentence, I'm starting to wonder if I'm a closeted sociologist.

The Armageddon Rag, by George R. R. Martin

A lot of George R. R. Martin's (of Song of Ice and Fire Fame) older work has been re-released lately. And, having read The Armageddon Rag, I think I'm going to go back for more.

I was very pleasantly surprised by this contemporary fantasy novel. It was a lot deeper than I had expected. The back of this book advertised a story about a band whose music may have the power to, as their last album title says, wake the dead. And the plot does roughly follow this plot, but this book turned out to be so much more than that.

For me, this book is about hope and disillusionment. This book was originally published in the early 1980s, and the main characters are all survivors (some more than others) of the 1960s movements. Some characters have since gone mainstream, some are still on communes, some have gone crazy. But in the book's present, most of the characters have given up their hopes and dreams from the 1960s. The first half of this book, before the music plot takes over, is a profoundly sad book.

Even though I am pretty young, I can relate to the characters. In my present, there is a hugely unpopular war in Asia going on, most of the people I know are uninvolved or disaffected by the current political system, we're experiencing a time of huge societal and technological changes. The big difference I see, though, is that people my age are too apathetic to try and change the world. Sure, there are people who want to make changes--but there aren't enough people to start a movement. I don't know what happened to make us this way (I have ideas, but nothing definitive), but I felt a kinship with Sandy, who spends a lot of this book wondering what happened to the high ideas.

The music plot, which mostly happens in the last half of the book, almost seems like an action-filled coda to the rest of the book. I loved the first half and, while the second half held my attention, it seemed like a weird counterpoint to the emotion of the first half. The first half of the book revolves around Sandy as he travels across the country to reconnect with his friends from the 60s. The book moves back and forth between the present and the past and sometimes the differences are so poignant, that it's hard not to choke back a sniffle or two.