Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mists of Avalon

Mists of Avalon cover; Del Rey
Book Review: Mists of Avalon
By Marion Zimmer Bradley
The stories of King Arthur could almost get their own section in a book store or a library. Everybody has had their voice heard, Merlin, Arthur, Mordred, and in Bradley's case the women of Camelot tell their sides to the story. Besides retelling the Arthurian legend from another pair of eyes, this book takes a look at religious dissension and the power of women in a society that is slowly being dominated by men.
Morgan Le Fey, the lead protagonist, is the latest in a long line or Priestesses of Avalon, recipients of the Goddess and protectors of magic and ancient secrets. She inherited the title from her mysterious aunt, Vivienne and recounts the life of King Arthur and eventual fall of Camelot.
All of the usual points in the Arthurian legend are present in the novel, Arthur's birth at Tintagel from his mother Igraine and father, Uther; his marriage to Gwenyfahr and her affair with Lancelot; the conception of Mordred; and of course Arthur's death by Mordred's hand. However, they are given well-rounded perspectives that characterizes all of Camelot's cast of characters into interesting perspectives. For example, Arthur's conception is less of a magical form of trickery and deception of Merlin, than it is the ultimate fulfilling of a prophecy and a chance to give Igraine a sense of free will from her tyrannical husband, Gorlois.

Each character is given a new perspective, but none more strongly than Morgaine AKA Morgan Le Fey. The half-sister of Arthur, Morgaine has usually been portrayed as an evil seductive witch sleeping with one knight after another, in some versions, her half-brother. Bradley instead sees her as one of the few remnants of a dying race. A woman desperately clinging to her pagan faith as it becomes swallowed by Christianity and the warfare around her. Morgaine is a strong-willed character trying to fight against the prophecies that are written and the Second Sight that blesses and curses her, each time falling into the predictions no matter what choices she makes.
Morgaine is also given a romantic nature, which she reveals in her encounters with Lancelot, Kevin (a bard who is destine to be the next "Merlin"), and Sir Accolon, fighting her role as a studious priestess and a hot-blooded young woman searching for true love.
Morgaine becomes a symbol for the pagan faith, particularly in her scenes with Gwynefahr. Morgaine feels the connection from the Goddess and nature, while Gwynefahr prays to the Saints and Jesus inside stone chapels. Morgaine struggles to keep Goddess worship alive while fighting with Vivienne; while Gwynefahr clashes with her husband's pagan background and her own lustful feelings for Lancelot. The two women vie in their spiritual pursuits, and their own claims to Camelot's legacy.
Mists of Avalon gives a fresh perspective of the world of King Arthur that opens the reader's eyes to a deeper perspective of the legend.

Links for Further Discussion and Activity Suggestions

The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester -As I said the legends of King Arthur could fit in their own section of a bookstore or library. Browse through this site for a few minutes. Do you see familiar patterns describing the characters and plotlines? What are some specific versions of the legen
legends of King Arthur that you have seen or read over the years? Are there any particular striking images or portrayals that stick with you?

Encyclopedia Mythica- The place to go if you want to learn more about myths and legends. What other legends can you find besides Arthurian? How are these tales similar and how are they different?
What specific stories are your favorites? How would you portray the story and in whose eyes would you tell it? Think of different ways and points of view a familiar story could be told.

Questions for further discussions
1. Mists of Avalon tells the story of King Arthur from the perspective of the female characters, particularly Morgan Le Fey and Gwynefahr. What other books tell a familiar story through another point of view? How do they comment on and contradict the actions in the other story? How do these books enhance the familiar tale and do they change your perspective of that tale? How do works like Mists of Avalon and others, alter the ideas of heroes and villains?

2. There is a strong theme of spirituality, particularly from women. How do the female characters like Morgaine and Gwynefahr represent their faith and rebel against it? What familiar elements from Pagan and Christian faiths, as well as other religions are present in the book? How do such pagan beliefs attract women and what do they say about women? What does Christianity say about women?

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell cover;
 Book Review Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell\
By Susanna Clarke
Clarke's novel is many things, an alternate history of England where magic runs rampant,  and a character study of various pursuits of magic and the prices the character's pay in their obsessions.
Mr. Gilbert Norrell is a reclusive gentlemen in 1808 York who possesses a secret: he is the only practicing magician in all of England. He spends his days locked in his personal library studying every book of magic ever written, only receiving information from his loyal servant Childermass. With the aid of a society of English magicians (who only study the history, but don't actually practice, Clarke tells us) , he sets to bring magic back to England first by making stone statues speak then by aiding the Wellington campaign against Napoleon. Norrell's becomes famous after he resuscitates a dying woman and his attention is drawn to another magician. Jonathan Strange, is the exact opposite of Norrell,  a charming and charismatic gentleman-about-town. Norrell offers to teach Strange. The two practice great magic, and fall into dissent over their different ambitions resulting in dire consequences for the magicians and everyone around them.

The alternate version of England is very well written. Clarke writes of the history of English magic as though it really occurred. Many times the action is interrupted by footnotes that refer to other "volumes" by noted magicians, such as Martin Pale, Catherine of Winchester and particularly John Uskglass AKA The Raven King. The Raven King is a prominent character throughout the novel. Much talked about but never shown, The Raven King's story is largely told through these footnotes, many of which contradict each other. The Raven King is written as a dark sinister character, a being of great power, but also of great nightmares someone that only the bravest or most obsessive magicians would try to contact.

Obsession is a strong theme in the story and many characters pay the price for their pursuits in very interesting punishments, some are cursed by their own greed and others are cursed by fairies to dance in a strange location called Lost Hope every night. Of course the strongest characters to be punished are Norrell and Strange themselves.

The two are memorable characters, particularly in their scenes together as Norrell tries to teach Strange the basics of magic always holding back by refusing certain books to his assistant and telling him to avoid the Raven King at all costs. Strange however becomes obsessed by the darker magic, particularly after he does some impressive feats against Napoleon. The further he goes in these pursuits, the more frantic he becomes in reaching the Raven King. In some very frightening scenes, he tries to achieve madness to speak to a fairy servant.
Norrell however is cautious almost too cautious. Many readers may see the older magician as aloof, but there are some chapters where he shows genuine concern for his protege, such as when he tries to locate him through scrying (locating him through a clear surface) only to be thwarted by darkness encircling him.
The two portray a troubled teacher-student relationship as Norrell keeps secrets from Strange  teaching him very few things and Strange rejects everything he has been taught driving himself into madness. The two ultimately come to understand each other in their mutual ambitions for power and the deepest magics.

Links For Further Discussion or Related Activities

The History of Tarot- In the book, John Childermass uses a tarot deck to determine the futures of many of the characters. Why did people use similar tools for magic? What other tools were known to be used by magical people? Why do people still continue to believe in such things?

Easy Magic Tricks Free Card Magicians' Secrets- While hardly the caliber of fighting Napoleon's army or restoring the dead to life, these tricks could be practiced and learned by any budding Harry Houdini or Doug Henning. What is the appeal of magic and magic users. People are often told that "a true magician must never reveal their secret." Why do you think this axiom exists? How does it change the way of thinking when such tricks do get revealed?

Questions for further discussions
1. The alternate version of England is alive with magic. What is the appeal of magic in modern society? Why do you think that wizards, witches, and magic users are so popular with readers and film fans? How does a fictitious society of magic comment on modern history and society?

2. Norrell and Strange could be considered an example of a student-teacher relationship. There is an old saying that "there are no bad students, only bad teachers?" Do you think that Norrell is a bad teacher or Strange a bad student or neither? What do you think is an example of a good instructor and a good student? Do you think that the passage of knowledge of magic hurt or helped Strange and Norrell? What knowledge could be hurtful to a person?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Review: The Collected Raffles Stories

Complete Short Stories of Raffles cover,
From St. Martin's Press
 The Collected Raffles Stories
By E.W. Hornung
Reviewed  by: Sara Porter
I'll bet many don't know that Sherlock Holmes has a criminal in the family. Well sort of.
Arthur Conan Doyle's brother-in-law,E.W. Hornung, was also a writer and in 1899, he created a character who was to thieves what Holmes was to detectives: A.J. Raffles!
While Raffles is not as well known a name now as Holmes is in the early 20th century, Raffles' name was a synonym for thieves and his sophisticated tastes and elegant and sometimes brutal demeanour was the inspiration for such characters as The Saint's Simon Templar and To Catch a Thief's Jon Robie. The stories are fun, exciting adventurous stories of a duo of loyal scoundrels.
The stories are collected in three anthologies, The Amateur Cracksman, The Black Mask, and A Thief in the Night, containing Raffles' adventures from his first meeting with his loyal friend and chronicler, Bunny Manders all the way to their final adventure in the Boer War.
Raffles and Bunny are similar to the Trickster figures in folklore, how they plan various schemes and make fools of authority figures. The earlier light-hearted stories are more adventurous tales of derring do and clever escapes. Many of the stories involve ludicrous schemes such as when Raffles steals form an arrogant billionaire practically because he begs a thief to, then has to get poor Bunny out when things go awry.
 However, the later stories right before their end "In the Arms of the Gods", takes a darker approach as they live on the run in various disguises, and have to face serious consequences of their careers as criminals as they become the target of secret societies and reunite with ex-colleagues and fiancees, many of whom want them arrested or dead.
The two are a study in contrast. Raffles is the engaging gentleman-about-town on the outside. He is a well-known cricketer, the last person one would suspect of being a thief. It is during his robbery attempts that he explores his sinister nature. He steals when he is hard up for money, but also for pleasure
. "Why work when you can steal?" he tells his partner, Bunny Manders. "And the distribution of wealth is wrong anyway." Besides his doings, he also possesses a violent nature which he displays in the story, "A Willful Murder" when he contemplates killing a rival and "The Fate of Faustina," when he prepares an almost Poe-like ending for his girlfriend's murderer. Despite the dark turns in his character, he does have a personal code that he would never steal from his host, nor betray Bunny.

Raffles' partner, Harry "Bunny" Manders  is naive and gullible to the point where he doesn't believe that Raffles is a thief in their first encounter, "The Ides of March," until they arrive at the jewelry shop even though his friend drops obvious hints beforehand. However, he is very lovable in his own way, particularly in the touching story "The Spoils of Sacrilege," where the duo rob Bunny's childhood home and he becomes racked with guilt when he encounters his childhood memories. However, he is a loyal companion to his more self-assured friend and never gives him up, even though he becomes the captive of various law enforcers and robbery victims.
Raffles and Bunny are an engaging duo in both the early stories as they have a jolly time on their escapades having fun at authority figure's expense. However, the later stories reveal their senses of loyalty towards each other as well as the consequences of their actions which are dealt with in meaningful and touching ways.

Links For Further Discussion and Activity Suggestions

TV Tropes: Gentlemen Thieves- Here are various examples of gentlemen thieves from different forms of media including some examples of real ones. Why are they such fascinating people in fiction and what makes them different from their real-life counterparts? If you were a police officer how would you want people to catch these thieves? Create a Wanted poster or a newspaper article detailing their exploits. What would you do to make their exploits appear to be less glamorous? Or think of it from the thief's point of view. Why do they steal things and what do they to make their role less heartless and more charismatic? How would they recount their life of crime? In diary form through videos?

International Catalogue of Superheroes- Don't let the title fool you. This is not just a website for superheroes. This is a website for many characters in television, movies, literature and other sources who are considered "larger than life" and have many adventures. Here is Raffles' page. Look through some of the other pages. What do these characters have in common and what differences are there? They are arranged internationally. How do the characters typify their real-life society? Select one of the heroes on the site or think of one that isn't on the site. How can you further tell their adventures? Through a new comic strip? A video detailing one of their escapades?

Questions for Further Discussion
1. Raffles is what's known as a "gentleman thief." Are the terms contradictions? What is the appeal with the sophisticated thieves such as Raffles? What makes readers root for them? Is Raffles comparable to such characters as Robin Hood?

2. There is an almost dichotomy in knowing that Raffles' and Holmes's authors are brothers-in-law. Besides being on opposite sides of the law are Raffles and Holmes more alike than they are different? Hornung dedicated his first anthology set to Doyle calling it "this sincerest form of flattery?" How is Raffles an imitation of Holmes and how does he become his own individual person?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Review: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 50th Anniversary cover;
Ballantine Books
In honor of Banned Books Week Sept. 25-Oct. 2
Review: Fahrenheit 451
By Ray Bradbury
Many book lovers and librarians would agree that Fahrenheit 451 would be our worst nightmare, a society where firefighters burn books because they are considered "dangerous." This is the very reason that we fight so hard during Banned Books Week and the rest of the year to keep this future from becoming more of a reality than it already is.

Many of the chapters in the book are chilling and unforgettable. The scene that sticks the most is one where the Firemen, including protagonist Guy Montag, enter the home of an elderly woman. The woman rather than submit to their laws sets kerosene and burns to death taking her beloved books with her. It takes someone like that to recognize how important these ideas are and how people would rather die than submit. Another unforgettable image are the Book People, people who are in hiding that memorize their books word by word so that they can never be destroyed.
The characters are pretty well recognized as microcosms of their society. Montag is the former conformist, who reveals his secret passion for reading and joins the rebels. There's Captain Beatty, the good party leader who knows the power that reading can give people so he's driven to stop it. There's Prof. Faber, an intellectual who does his part to help the readers in private. Then there are Mildred Montag, Guy's wife, and Clarisse McClellan, practically two halves of the same woman (made even more obvious in the 1966 film since they were played by the same woman, Julie Christie). Mildred is a flighty couch potato so drawn to the "wall screen" that she considers them family more than her husband. Clarisse is a free-thinking willful young woman who questions all around her. These two women demonstrate the halves of society, the conformists and the rebels.
Bradbury maintains that he never really intended Fahrenheit 451 to be just a book about censorship. Instead he saw it as a commentary on the "dumbing down of society because of television and movies" something that Beatty alludes to when he explains how easy it is to control a society that doesn't think beyond what is handed to them. Looking at this book and society today, I can believe it.

Links For Further Discussion and Activity Suggestions

Banned Books Week Display Ideas- These are ideas that promote the importance of literacy and fighting censorship. How do they use different mediums to capture the idea? What are suggestions that you would have to denounce censorship?

Frequently Challenged Book List-Updated yearly these are the most challenged books currently. Read through the titles. Do you recognize any of them? Choose a title and read it for yourself? Why was it challenged? What instances from the books would be considered controversial? Would you agree with the decision, why or why not?

Questions for Further Discussion:
1. Think about banned books. Why are books banned? For what reason? Is censorship ever justifiable? What are some of your favorite books that have been challenged?  What were the reasons for their challenges Think about what is the effect of censorship on both the censors and the censored? Does it produce negative effects on both?

2.  Besides censorship, Bradbury also wanted to comment on society in his day. Do you feel that modern day television like reality TV, celebrity culture, and the Internet erode our desire to think? What effects do you think this will have on reading and free thought?