Some time ago, inspired by Bart from one of our favorite blogs, Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it, we decided to start including some non-fiction on Re-enchantment. While the initial idea was to go for books that provide wider context for popular genre fiction, ultimately we decided to start with one that provides some insight into the very human nature, by exploring the social nature of other primates. Frans de Waal, world-famous (there’s even a TED 😉 ) Dutch-American primatologist, is on Bart’s list with several of his books, we’ve both read The Bonobo and the Atheist recently, and it was a thought-provoking experience, although it provoked slightly different thought in each of us.
Author: Frans de Waal
Title: The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates
In search of Humanism Among the Primates de Waal looks not only into the militant chimpanzees, but also the famously peaceful bonobo. Lifetime of research, combined with his private interest in art and philosophy, guide this journey to discover the origin of our species’ morality – and spirituality – in the societal structures and the psychological and social makeup of our closest animal relatives. If all the primates share not only social nature, but also empathy, it was arguably also present in our common ancestors, and our nature is not as rotten as some of us were convinced since childhood. Moreover, he provides us with ample examples of other species showing self-awareness and kindness previously attributed only to humans, and if on decidedly smaller levels, it’s a matter of degree.
Empathy requires awareness of the other and sensitivity to the other’s needs. It probably started with parental care, like that found in the mammals, but there is also evidence for bird empathy. […] If both birds and mammals have some measure of empathy, that capacity probably goes back to their reptilian ancestors.
He does it skilfully, being not only an incredibly skilled and competent scientist (as his resume informs us), but also a gifted storyteller. Consequently, The Bonobo and the Atheist is a great book for both a casual and a scientifically-inclined reader; in addition to its atheism-related theses, already mentioned in the title, it gives us valuable insight into the current state of research of other primates’ social nature.
The second installment in the Echoes of the Fall trilogy follows the events of The Tiger and the Wolf. I promised a review a long time ago, but somehow there were always more important things to write about 😉 The long May break gave me a bit more time and an opportunity to come back to Maniye Many Tracks and her small band of outcasts from different tribes. Unable or unwilling to find her place up north after the events of The Tiger and the Wolf, Maniye decides to accompany Asmander in his return journey to the southern lands.
Asmander’s homeland curiously resembles South Americas/ancient Egypt in its undeniable higher level of civilizational and technical development, paid for with new depths of sheer brutality, political ruthlessness and sophisticated cruelty. The grand viziers of this Southern world are suitably cunning and heartless, the priests mysterious and the warriors brutal, and if I had to voice my reservations I’d say I wished for a less conventional treatment of the topic. Too many old, used tropes to my liking. Thankfully, the Northern events were in typical Czajkowski’s style – engaging, emotional, and superbly written.
In the South, Maniye and her band find themselves in the middle of a highly dangerous conflict, in which the usually smooth ascension of a new ruler is broken by an accident of birth – instead of one heir there are two: twins, each fighting for the doubtful privilege of becoming a pharaoh of sorts. Asmander’s loyalty is torn, and his typical Hamletic behavior is not helped in any way by the fact that Venat leaves him to fulfill the dreams of his youth and claim the terribly uncomfortable throne of the Dragon people. Add to it mysterious and lethal invasion in the lands of the North, the grim destiny awaiting Loud Thunder as an unwilling leader of an unheard-of, all-tribes warband gathering on the shores of northern lands to protect them from an ancient danger, a risky awakening of old myths (fans of Batman, rejoice!) and a deeply dangerous, political play between different Serpent factions… One thing is certain: Czajkowski surely knows how to amp up the tension and the levels of plot convolution.
She Is The Darkness is the seventh installment in Cook’s acclaimed Black Company series. As Bleak Seasons was all about surviving a siege from within the besieged walls of the city of Dejagore, She Is The Darkness is all about laying siege to an impenetrable enemy fortress, Longshadow’s Overlook. And once again, in She Is The Darkness Cook delivers a gritty and very realistic picture of war seen from the perspective of regular soldiers – in short, a mudslide of exhausting boredom interspersed with short, intense moments of terrifying action. Put it all in the harsh, heady limelight of well-earned paranoia, mistrust and second-guessing, schemes upon schemes, intended lack of communication between regular soldiers and the leaders, and internal divisions of the army, and you have a very accurate psychological portrait of most of the prolonged conflicts in the history of human warfare.
She Is The Darkness, fully in line with the other books in The Black Company series, deals with the Western, highly romanticized view of soldiers as impeccable, heroic and virtuous heroes of ages, geniuses of strategy and masters of killing arts. Lots of fantasy books actually ascribe to that stereotype, with increasingly unconvincing results. Cook gives us the opposite – a book which, at least on the psychological level, could be a war memoir of a Vietnam vet. His characters, nearly all of them soldiers, are human, prone to human vices and weaknesses, frequent changes of heart, emotional upheavals and displays of casual pettiness, which Cook so aptly – and ruthlessly – depicts. At the same time, however, his characters are able to rise above the routine mediocrity from time to time – especially when it matters the most – to empathize, understand and comfort each other, showing equally human kindness, loyalty and even wisdom which allows them to remember why they went with the Black Company in the first place, which is the biggest question of the whole series.
And so we arrive at the final chapter of the story originated in The Passage. I enjoyed the first installment, was disheartened by the second… And the third was my first DNF in years – actually, the first since Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, the review of which can be found here.
As I am an (almost) compulsive reader, DNF-ing a book is a big deal. I usually try to finish even those books which I don’t enjoy – there are plenty of examples of such instances on the blog, for example here and here, and here… DNF is a big thing for me. It’s sort of a final, irrevocable verdict, an emperor’s finger pointed down, the sword falling and lions waiting. DNF-ing a novel means for me that the work in question possessed no redeeming quality, no point of access, and that I considered reading it a total waste of time.
Jean –Léon Gérôme Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down) , 1872
So now it’s time to explain why the conclusion to a trilogy which has begun with such a promise was a complete letdown.
I haven’t written in a long time – lots and lots of work. Still, I do read, even if swamped with work, so my list of books to be reviewed slowly grows. I completed my read of The Twelve when I was still commuting weekly to Warsaw and had a lot of time to read, and it was a good thing, because otherwise I wouldn’t have finished this book.
But let’s start from the beginning. The Twelve is the second installment in an already finished post-apocalyptic trilogy by Justin Cronin. The review for the first installment, The Passage, can be found here. I enjoyed The Passage quite a bit, enough to jump to the second book as soon as I finished the first. I liked the protagonists of the first novel: mostly Amy and Wolgast, but I was ok also with the latecomers – Peter and Alice, Sarah and Mike, and the rest of the supporting crew.
The second installment shows us a world in a momentary stasis – the first of the Twelve, Babcock, is dead, but the rest of the monstrous serial killer death row inmates is still free to roam the realm of the erstwhile U.S. Worse, the human survivors are not enticed to believe Peter and the rest of his crew that there are other “nodes”, the remaining zero-patients, who are able to control to bloodsucking monstrosities called virals. From the humanity’s point of view getting rid of them would mean much better chance of survival – but humanity has a tendency to look rather to the next day than to the next year, and so the problems of plumbing, food and electricity shortages, and fuel transportation will always be pushed to the fore.
Long time, no see – vacation time is not inductive to writing, but gives lots of opportunities to read, even in the middle of an Internet-less wilderness :). I usually leave the thickest books for my vacation time, as only then I might be sure of reading them in full, and in reasonable time. For the summertime I also leave those books which I wouldn’t have read any other time – vacation makes me more bullshit-tolerant 😉
And that’s why one of my summer readings this year was the final installment in Bakker’s acclaimed trilogy The Prince of Nothing. I know, I have said before I won’t be reading The Thousandfold Thought anytime soon, too irritated with previous installments to care; while The Darkness That Comes Before was still readable, The Warrior Prophet was just awful. But I like to finish things, and that gutted carcass left on my metaphorical porch, to use the imagery borrowed from Bakker, begged to be cleaned up and buried for good.
The Found and the Lost is a collection of novellas by Ursula Le Guin, the founding mother of fantasy and SF as we know today. It’s a perfect book for both die-hard fans and for those who have never had the pleasure of reading anything by Le Guin before. A doorstop of a book at 600 pages in my digital copy and 816 pages in hardcover, it contains 13 novellas written in the period between 1971 (Vaster Than Empires and More Slow) to 2002 (Paradises Lost). The collection is presented mostly in a chronological order, but another categorization rule readily comes to mind while reading as the novellas can be divided into three main groups: Earthsea, Hainish cycle and “other”.