Saturday, June 2, 2012

Book Reviews-The Winter King, The Best Of Simple, Florida Roadkill

The Winter King
by Bernard Cornwell

So let's say you're undergoing A Song of Ice and Fire withdrawal and want to read some more historical/fantastical fiction with morally ambiguous heroes and heroines, a fair amount of bloodshed and oh yes a death before dishonor desperate last stand against overwhelming odds. Well if that is you (and it's definitely me) then Bernard Cornwell's The Winter King is something you probably should have read when it first appeared in 1995.

The Winter King is a reinterpretation of the Arthur legend. Much like the movie King Arthur with Clive Owen, Cornwell strips away the glamour and beauty from the mythology until only the core remains. In post-Roman fifth century Britain, a Romanized Celtic (British) war leader arises in what is today Wales, to lead resistance against the brutal Saxon invaders. Arthur attempts to build a fair society that treats both pagan and Christian equally.

But we know the Saxons, and their cousins the Angles and Jutes did succeed in invading Britain, conquering, raping and subduing (if not eliminating the Celts) and driving many of them to the far reaches of the land or overseas to Ireland. And Christianity ultimately became Britain's dominant religion. Pagans were persecuted, converted or killed. So we know that in the long run, Arthur failed. But for a brief period he may have held back the darkness. There is some historical evidence that a Celtic warlord may indeed have beaten the Saxons at Badon Hill.

Cornwell takes the bits and pieces of the legend and reworks them into his own character driven story. The story is told from the POV of a Derfel Cadarn, a former Saxon slave, who was saved from execution by Merlin and grew up culturally Celtic. Derfel became a feared and respected warrior and one of Arthur's most trusted right hand men. Nearing the end of his life he retires to a Welsh monastery presided over by a Christian Bishop who despised Arthur. But as the Welsh Queen loves the Arthur story, the monk is forced to allow the somewhat Christian Derfel to stay there. In secret and at the Queen's urging, the elderly Derfel writes down the story. The illiterate Bishop is told that Derfel is writing the Gospels in Saxon. This is almost a gender reversal of the Scheherazade story as Queen Igraine is the only thing protecting Derfel's life and story from the increasingly suspicious Bishop Sansum. But Queen Igraine is discomfited to discover some truths behind the legends she loves (Lancelot was a handsome perfumed coward who avoided the front lines the way a vampire avoids the sun; Galahad was Lancelot's half brother and not his son; Queen Guinevere was a bit of a *****; Arthur tried so hard to be just and fair because in truth he loved war and killing more than anyone else but felt guilty about it). Derfel suspects that the Queen will alter his script to suit her own fancy.

Cornwell does a great job depicting Arthur as a more or less decent man who has to make some ugly choices in trying to unite the constant warring British tribes against the Saxon threat and reconcile his own romantic desires with the practice of arranged marriages. Merlin is the most powerful of druids. He may or may not be able to perform magic and his political ends don't always coincide with Arthur's. In some ways the relationship between Merlin and Arthur parallels the real life relationship between Tecumseh and his brother. Arthur is determined to defeat and remove the Saxons. He is not interested in religion. Merlin thinks removing Saxons is pointless unless Britain reconsecrates itself to the Old Gods. Merlin, though quite earthy and sarcastic, is extremely devout. Derfel is sworn to both Arthur and Merlin, something that causes him problems on a regular basis. Nimue, a one eyed druidess, is an occasional lover to Derfel (they grew up together) but is more devoted to Merlin. In this telling Mordred is not Arthur's son but his nephew. Mordred is the rightful King and Arthur is only the regent until Mordred comes of age.

I liked this quick moving story. There's not a huge amount of exposition or character internal thoughts. As everything is told from Derfel's POV I guess there couldn't be. Usually I am not a fan of first person narrative because we never know anything outside of what the narrator sees or feels. But for some reason Cornwell is able to brush aside this bias of mine. Cornwell writes intense battle scenes and does a masterful job describing the British countryside. This book is first in a trilogy. BTW Cornwell and GRRM are evidently friends. GRRM interviewed Cornwell here.

The Best of Simple
by Langston Hughes
If you are at all familiar with the author and poet Langston Hughes then you are probably familiar with one of his most famous creations, Jesse B. Semple. And if you aren't then you ought to be. Semple is a Harlem everyman, who the author uses to explore the issues of the day both big and small. Whether Semple is holding forth on the impossibility of finding any really good greens in New York or telling the unnamed author about his friend who suffers from "Jim Crow Shock" and refuses to set foot south of the Mason-Dixon line, explaining to his leeching cousin that no he will not borrow money to get her bailed out of jail, or explaining how housing segregation and white flight works, Semple always has something intelligent and insightful to say even though he may take a while to get there. He's a fount of street wisdom and knowledge earned from rough knocks-just being Black in America.

Hughes said that he received the initial inspiration for the character during World War Two while he was talking to a young man who worked in a war plant. Hughes asked the man what he did and the man said he made cranks. Hughes then asked what kind and the man said he didn't know. The man's girlfriend chided the man for not knowing what sort of cranks he made. The man responded that she had to know white people didn't tell black people anything and they certainly weren't going to start at this point.

Semple is pretty easy going but can be stubborn on matters of principle. When the author asks him why he refuses to pay for the divorce that both he and his wife want, Semple answers:

"I told Isabel when we busted up that she had shared my bed; she had shared my board, my liquor, and my Murray's but that I did not intend to share another thing with her from that day to this, not even a divorce. That is why I would not pay for it. Let that other man pay for it and they can share it together."
And when chastised by the author that he needs to stop running around, settle down and get married again as he is old enough to know better, Semple retorts:
I might be old enough to know better, but I am not old enough to do better.

This is really quick, fun and if you forgive the pun, simple writing. It is an excellent window into a time that's gone and yet isn't. Everyone knows someone who rolls with the punches in life but always seems to end up on his feet. He may not be the big winner but he's no loser either. Semple is that man. I love this collection of short stories. I originally read them as a kid and they bring back good memories. Actually these aren't really even long enough to be short stories. You could easily read the whole collection in an hour or two. And it would be time well spent.

Florida Roadkill
by Tim Dorsey.
This author's absurdist style is very similar to Carl Hiassen and Bill Fitzhugh. Very similar. I'm not sure who was published first but they all have styles which poke fun at the vagaries of life in very sardonic and strange ways. This book was first in a series. Unfortunately in later books I got a little tired of the main character but in this book it wasn't necessarily clear who the main character is.

This is an extremely funny book. It has Three Stooges-like slapstick and a more subtle (Monty) Pythonian style of humor. There's occasionally a hint of cruelty I guess but usually bad things happen to worse people. This all takes place in Florida so if you're familiar with the area you might get more out of this book. Dorsey gleefully skewers all the bad things and stereotypes about Florida, the racism, the corrupt land deals, simple minded inbreds, swamps, homophobes, strippers, tourists, everything. It is unfortunately a cliche to say something is Tarantinoesqe but that is a fitting description here. For example a white truck driver in a bad mood makes an insulting racial comment to a Black convenience store clerk and when urged to apologize by Hispanic customers compounds the error by making unflattering references to illegal immigrants and guacamole. By the clerk's description he then witnesses "an entirely new league of violence." The author is a former reporter for the Tampa Tribune. Given some of the stories we see today coming out of Florida, situations in the book that I thought were ridiculously over the top no longer seem so.

The storyline jumps around a lot and there are some subplots that don't go where I thought they would. Serge A. Storms is a mentally deranged Cuban American criminal who has become even crazier by refusing to take his medications or occasionally taking too many. He is something of a sadist but usually only against people he considers bad (racists, bullies, greedy people, ignorant people) Serge knows more than any living man should about the history, flora and fauna of Florida. When he's calm he's not a bad guy but inevitably he flips back and forth between manic and obsessive states. The intelligent Serge has hooked up with his muscle man Coleman and Coleman's sociopath stripper girlfriend Sharon. Sharon is as beautiful on the outside as she is cold and empty on the inside. Coleman is just a dummy that loves cocaine.

They intend to rob a dentist who defrauded his insurance company. However they lose the money to two tourists, Sean and David, who have no idea they even have the cash. There's a subplot with three bikers who can no longer make the cut as intimidating 1% club members and are reduced to looking for work at retirement homes. Mayhem ensures as everyone tries to get the suitcase with $5 million. Again, this is a really funny book and one that I enjoyed immensely. Serge is an everyman but a warped one. If you ran into him you might learn a lot about Florida landmarks, history and culture but you would also constantly be looking for a big rock to hit him with.
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