Saturday, October 1, 2011

Book Reviews-A Dance With Dragons, Pest Control, Camber of Culdi, Hitler's Black Victims

A Dance With Dragons
by George R.R. Martin
I finished A Dance with Dragons (ADWD).
How to write a review without discussing specific events or naming who's alive? I could write that it was a good story and stop. Many people have not read the series so no spoilers here. However I can say that whoever your favorite character might be, you are more attached to him or her than Martin is.

ADWD is the long awaited fifth book in George R.R. Martin's (GRRM) planned seven book series A Song of Ice And Fire (ASOIAF).  GRRM has stated that often morally good people can make poor leaders while people who are dreadfully wicked can turn out to be excellent executives. ADWD shows that intelligence, competence and morality are not correlated traits. 

GRRM also tweaks our desire for vengeance. ADWD makes an explicit shout out to Titus Andronicus. A few evil characters who earlier committed savage violent acts encounter people who are so demonically depraved, so psychotically sadistic, so incredibly maleficent that you almost find yourself feeling sorry for the lesser baddies and perhaps a little ashamed of your previous bloodthirst. Some of this was hinted at or even detailed in previous books but here GRRM stomps on the fuzz pedal and turns the amp up to eleven. This is ninth circle of hell stuff. Nightmare Fuel. It's as if GRRM is saying "Oh so you want vengeance huh? Let me show you just what that looks like. Still want it tough guy?" It's an echo of Ned Stark's warning that "If you would take a man's life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die".   
ADWD examines if it would be better to have a kindhearted but inept ruler who brought various catastrophes on his/her people or a tyrant who ruthlessly punished dissent and ripped people's tongues out for speaking before s/he spoke to them but otherwise left people alone and created a safe peaceful environment for commerce and daily life.
The royal succession dispute has seemingly been settled-mostly. One legendarily stubborn claimant still battles on without support. Secretly, rival House leaders are still jockeying for power and control. And there are some new Houses on the scene; some old Houses have fallen. Winter has finally arrived. GRRM has expanded the story beyond Westeros and near environs. Magic is more evident. Dead things are walking. Priests have more powers. The dragons and the Stark direwolves are maturing. Both have critical roles to play.
Some characters lose everything in an instant,  just as in real life. The Romanovs didn't foresee the revolution; they didn’t think they’d be executed. How many Africans lived in freedom one day and three months later were sold as chattel in New Orleans? Stuff happens.

ADWD introduces minor characters and gives them POV chapters. We get  new perspectives on things. ADWD strongly implies that some key justifications for Robert's and Ned's rebellion weren't valid. However, ADWD has too many characters. This 1000 page book could use some tighter editing. Some subplots could have been dropped or tightened up IMO. The reader must pay CLOSE attention to details. ADWD gives hints of future events. I will need to re-read this book and some earlier ones.
ADWD ends on a cliffhanger and something of a downer. As usual with GRRM there were times I laughed out loud or cheered and times I wanted to throw the book at the wall. I hope GRRM enjoys life and his well deserved acclaim. I also hope I don't have to wait three years or more for the next installment.

Pest Control
By Bill Fitzhugh
This is in the same genre as work by Tim Dorsey and Carl Hiassen and John Ridley. It’s a slyly ironic book with bursts of chaotic absurdist humor. It’s a very quick and fun read. The protagonist is an exterminator, Bob Dillon (who constantly has to tell people he wasn’t named after Bob Dylan) who lives in Brooklyn with his practical wife, Mary and their cherubic daughter Katy.
Bob used to work for a company but decided that the use of deadly chemicals was not good for him or for the environment. He quit and became an eco-friendly self-employed exterminator. Unfortunately he doesn’t have a lot of success with this concept and his marriage is at risk because of the financial strain. 
Meanwhile the world’s greatest hitman, a fellow named Klaus, has turned down an assignment in NY because it offends his morals. Go figure. The middleman, a Frenchman named Marcel, has to find someone else to do the job and it just so happens that Bob Dillon has taken out a new ad in the very newspaper in which Marcel usually places and looks for coded messages.

When Marcel sees this:
PROFESSIONAL EXTERMINATOR”  Fifteen years field experience. Gone private with lethal new concept! No pest left alive!!
He assumes that despite what he sees as crudity, this is an ad for a new assassin. A few confused phone calls later and Marcel is convinced that he’s found the right man for the job. And with a few unfortunate coincidences EVERYONE believes Dillon really is a hit man.
Of course all of Marcel’s other usual hires who were eager to do the job that Klaus turned down are rather upset to hear that it’s gone to some unknown. And when people like this get annoyed, other people die. They head to New York to get rid of The Exterminator. The CIA, who heard that Klaus might have a new protégé, sends a team to New York to get The Exterminator. And a notorious drug cartel does some internal housecleaning and you guessed it, blames it on The Exterminator. Hilarity ensues as Bob Dillon, armed with little more than encyclopedic knowledge of insects, tries to keep himself and his family alive. And with all the brouhaha Klaus shows up to see what’s going on.
I liked this book. It walked that fine line between complete slapstick and dry irony. 

Camber of Culdi
by Katherine Kurtz
Although she may not be as well known to some as GRRM, particularly today, Katherine Kurtz is a contemporary of GRRM's and writes the same sort of historically based fantastic fiction that makes ASOIAF so fascinating. Actually her first Deryni book, Deryni Rising came out years before GRRM's A Game of Thrones. Camber of Culdi also features court intrigues, men that are too loyal and honest to understand the danger they're in, grey morality, hidden royal incest, murders that set off wars and new claimants to an uncertain throne.

But aside from a shared deep knowledge of Medieval, Dark Age and Renaissance European cultures Kurtz is a completely different writer than GRRM, in tone, brevity and style. Her world is not as grim, bloody and horrific. The novel Camber of Culdi is an excellent introduction to her work. It is the first book chronologically in her created world but she actually wrote another trilogy earlier than she wrote Camber of Culdi. Most of this story is told through the pov of the wealthy or well-connected; profanity and graphic sex are not part of this book. Camber of Culdi and the two novels that follow it in the trilogy could fit inside A Game of Thones with room left. It's not a long sprawling tale.

In a world and time very similar to early medieval Europe the most powerful country is Gywnedd-a fanciful amalgamation of England, Wales and Brittany. Gywnedd is currently ruled over by a fictional race of humans called Deryni, who though indistinguishable from normal humans and able to reproduce with them, are born with various mental or magical abilities.  The Deryni are very much a minority within Gywnedd, having seized power from the human rulers. In order to keep power their more ruthless or pragmatic leaders severely punish any human rebellion, dissent or even hint of independent action.

The title character, Camber, is a Deryni Lord who is for lack of a better word, something of a liberal. He believes in equality between humans and Deryni. Camber is one of the most powerful Deryni Lords in the country and the previous advisor to two Kings. Camber is not the advisor to the current King, Imre, a vain and arrogant man with an unhealthy interest in his equally vile (though beautiful) sister Ariella. King Imre most definitely does not believe in any sort of racial equality and oppresses humans every chance he gets-high taxes, reduced rights, and retributive executions of innocents for any offenses against Deryni. 
The retired Camber stays on the sidelines and tries to protect humans but after Imre murders one of his family members Camber gets involved with the revolution. He goes on a risky search to find a rumored heir of the previous human dynasty and place him on the throne.
This is a fun book to read if you can still find it. As mentioned, Kurtz sets a swift pace and crams a lot of information into a relatively small story. She knows lot about the medieval Church and its relationship to the secular world. Good stuff.

Hitler's Black Victims
by Clarence Lusane
Some books are exactly what they sound like. This book, by American University Political Science Professor Clarence Lusane, a Detroit native, is one such book. It's often overlooked that Hitler had a long list of people he really didn't like and while Blacks weren't at the tip top of that list they certainly were in the top five.
Dr. Lusane set out to bring some of this forgotten history to light. He researched the black experience in Nazi Germany, via archives, primary source interviews and direct interviews with black concentration camp survivors, as well as with Black POW's.

Many of these people's experiences were obviously pretty bad. But in some cases they weren't. To an extent it's like blind men describing an elephant. One man feels the trunk and declares an elephant is like a snake, another feels the leg and says an elephant is a huge tower, and so on. Although Dr. Lusane has written for the popular audience before I'm not sure this was written in that style. It tends a bit more to the academic. It's rigorously documented. There's a lot here that was new to me , I was ashamed to say. I didn't know that the German genocide of the Herero in what is today Namibia was pretty much a dress rehearsal for the Jewish Holocaust. Some of the colonial administrators or military leaders involved in that genocide of the Herero became quite enthusiastic Nazi theorists and ideologues. 

Dr. Lusane basically does a comparative and internal history of racism against Africans, African-Americans and Afro-Germans within Germany. He examines the love that some African-American intellectuals had for Germany (WEB DuBois) This is dense writing but really fascinating stuff. It's not only worth reading but will be worth several re-readings as the footnotes alone lead one into all kinds of really intriguing side trips. 

The parallel German fascination with black art or sport and the revulsion with blacks made it both easy and surprisingly sometimes difficult for Nazis to put into place all of their racial practices. There were arguments about whether black sterilization was sufficient, what should be done with black citizens and so on. Some black POW's described being treated as no worse by Germans than anyone else while others told of massacres carried out by German soldiers.  Dr. Lusanne also looks at racism within modern Germany and how it still targets Blacks. 
Solid read.
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