"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Monday, January 31, 2011

Egypt's "Marianne": "Brave, intelligent, handsome young woman"

Viva Egypt and its forward-thinking Arabs. May the feminists among them have something to say about the new society they're now making possible. I still know very little about Egypt's internal affairs, but the big story going on there this week commands attention, and bits of news and commentary are beginning to leap out and speak to me and help the whole thing to coalesce into something I can relate to. Here are the two things that have topped that list for me.

1. This is something I came across on the music-sharing site Blip.fm. Once in a while someone "blips" an interview or something else that isn't music as such, but it strikes a chord. Here, I love what DJ @eleniap wrote in her comment introducing this offering, which is a woman-in-the-street interview with a protester:
"I conceive of this brave, intelligent, handsome, Fayum-looking young woman as democratic Egypt’s “Marianne”, i.e. new national emblem"
(I took this as a reference to Iran's DJ Maryam [ see earlier post ] though I really know so little, I could be wrong about that. "Fayum" refers to a central Egyptian province; the area also lends its name to a style of portraiture. I looked it up. So it was a rather elegant tweet-sized introductory comment.) 

Anyway, back to @eliap's blip -- Here it is:


Interview with anti-government protester – Tahir Square, Cairo, Egypt; Jan 31 2011

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Mona Eltahawy
2. When the Egyptian event began to unfold, for news and interpretation, I was pretty much at sea until I came across this blogger/commentator (courtesy of Reader Supported News): Mona Eltahawy
Here's her blog address. Lots of good pieces on there.

Here she is putting the "Muslim Brotherhood" concern in perspective: "This is not about Islamists. This is not about Al Qaeda. This is about Egyptians!" Here she is talking to Amy Goodman and covering all the points. Seems to me she's pretty "brave, intelligent, and handsome", too - an Arab Muslim feminist living in New York. In one post she describes her conversations with people in New York, as she stood demonstrating at Park51:

Mary wanted to know how, as a woman, I could remain a Muslim when Muslim women were treated so badly.

I told her I would be lying if I denied that women in Muslim-majority countries enjoyed equal rights but also said I belonged to a movement called Musawah, which means equality and which aims for equality and justice in the Muslim family by working to remove misogynistic and male-dominated interpretations of Islam.
This wonder woman writes for publications all over the world (including my fav, the Guardian UK), and standing up to the idiocy of what passes for tv news these days. Since I don't watch much of that, I hadn't been aware of her before. On her blog she tells her readers she
was on BBC Newsnight to stress that freedom and dignity must win out in the “stability vs democracy” debate as Egypt’s uprising unfolds. On CNN, I urged media to use “revolt” or “uprising” rather than “chaos” and “crisis” when framing events in Egypt and NYTimes.com The Lede picked up on it.
And on CNN With Wolf Blitzer I explained the magnitude of events in Egypt and gave some background on how rendition links the Mubarak regime and the U.S. administration.
You'll find links to the programs referenced, here on her blog.

And here is Mona
writing just two weeks ago about the Tunisian revolution: very prescient. And video.

Most of us don't know much about Egypt, and I think we can assume the US media are full of errors and the usual skewed, self-serving perspectives, and possibly misinformation, but thanks to the Internet we're not limited to US Pravda anymore. Here are a couple of other articles that looked pretty good to me, sent by email correspondents:
http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/temples-of-doomed-democracy-begin-to-stir-from-their-coma-20110131-1ab3l.html

http://readersupportednews.org/off-site-opinion-section/133-133/4794-us-cynicism-explodes-in-egypt

I repeat: Viva Egypt and its forward-thinking Arabs. May the feminists among them have something to say about the new society they're now making possible.


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And here's an update to this post, added 5 minutes later. Here's a great article on Mona Eltahawy. Apparently I'm not the only one to fix on her. They say she's emerged as the person explaining Egypt to the West. Lots of good quotes in that article. Lovely!
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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Avian holocaust, and the mind of the raven (book review)

I try to keep things positive here, but jeez, sometimes the news just strikes so deeply into my psyche that it feels like a mortal blow for a while. Like this story about how the government is deliberately killing birds: http://readersupportednews.org/off-site-news-section/49-49/4730-us-government-commits-avian-holocaust-with-mass-poisoning-of-millions-of-birds
I might be tempted to wonder whether there was actually some justification for this vicious (and all too typical) example of everything that's wrong with my species, but years ago I read a book (reviewed below) in which the scientist-author dispatched for me that old farmer's belief that killing birds accomplishes anything of benefit to the farmer (even if it weren't completely immoral in the first place, for any reason); to quote from (and emphasize) my own review: "Looking at the common fear that ravens damage crops, Heinrich asserts they have been unjustly accused and persecuted by farmers."

"Blackbirds" and ravens are very closely related genetically, and so in appearance and behavior (indeed ravens are black birds; most people can't tell the difference) and in this instance, what goes for one corvid goes for the other. I feel utterly defeated by stuff like this, but since I'm still alive, will do what I can. Which right now is a very small thing: to share a review I wrote for SLJ . The book came out more than ten years ago and if anybody in the idiotic USDA program had bothered to read it, this whole ghastly business might have been averted.

Check out the author's credentials (from the Amazon page):
Bernd Heinrich is the author of Mind of the Raven, which won the John Burroughs Medal for Natural History Writing and was a New York Times and Los Angeles Times Notable Book as well as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Science and Technology Award. He is also the author of Bumblebee Economics, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and The Trees in My Forest, which won a New England Book Award. A professor of biology at the University of Vermont, Heinrich also spends time in the forests of western Maine, where he has done much of his field research and training for ultramarathons.
He's written other fine books as well. Check out also the raves for this one on the Amazon page linked to the title, below. And for more, related books about ravens and their close relatives, visit this blog: http://nonsuchbook.typepad.com/nonsuch_book/2009/04/weekly-geeks-quoth-the-raven-nevermore.html

Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds by Bernd Heinrich* (2000)

Heinrich's adventures with ravens are consistently interesting and illuminating, whether he's crouching for hours in cold rain to observe them, hauling animal carcasses into the woods to attract them, or visiting in the homes of their human companions.

In 29 readable and richly illustrated chapters, he shares his own experiences with the birds as well as many anecdotes collected by observers from around the globe. He explores "the possibility of conscious choice" in these obviously intelligent but often baffling birds, and believes they owe much of their complexity to the fact that they have evolved in close association with dangerous carnivores--wolves and humans.

Looking at the common fear that ravens damage crops, Heinrich convincingly asserts they have been unjustly accused and persecuted by farmers, and he studies firsthand the relationship of ravens with Eskimo hunters. Sometimes the research just leads him from one mystery to another, but wherever his questions take him, the journey is always fascinating as the many layers of raven psychology are revealed.

Perhaps best known on this continent for its "trickster" talents, the raven has been associated in Europe with divination, death, and the Norse god Odin. Heinrich's perspective, that of the scientist, is just as compelling for modern readers and does full justice to this bird's mythical reputation. A fine, entertaining book for general readers, as well as an excellent resource for those seeking meticulously gathered and documented scientific information.


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One more time...

illo found at http://nonsuchbook.typepad.com/nonsuch_book/2009/04/weekly-geeks-quoth-the-raven-nevermore.html I don't see a credit given, there, but thank the artist.
May they inherit the earth. And may the earth still be liveable when that happens.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Single and singular men (film reviews)

Every once in a while, life hands you a personalized film festival, grouping together special movies that have things in common--it might be historical period, cinematography, subject matter--and if you watch them more or less together (I saw these two on successive days, by happenstance), they amplify each other in interesting ways. Here are two such:


A Single Man (2009), directed by Tom Ford.

This film is based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood. As the official website states, 
Set in Los Angeles in 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, it is the story of a British college professor (Colin Firth) who is struggling to find meaning to his life after the death of his long time partner. The story is a romantic tale of love interrupted, the isolation that is an inherent part of the human condition, and ultimately the importance of the seemingly smaller moments in life.

Well, yes, it is a rather cerebral film just as that description might suggest, but it's also very affecting. This understated film grew on me as it progressed, until I found I was feeling quite unexpectedly moved and appreciative; I say "unexpectedly" since I'd almost given up and ejected the disc more than once during the first half hour or so. But as I realized later, I'd just needed to relax into the film's own pace. (If you can access the Director's Commentary included with the DVD, I recommend watching the film a second time with that sound track too. It offers many fascinating insights.)

This is a personal film in the sense that although it's set during a clearly etched historical period (early 1960's), it could take place at any time because the story focuses on an internal, emotional state. The main character has lost his lover, but he's living in a time when gays like himself are "invisible," so he can't grieve openly or receive support from the community. (In a key speech, which clearly though not explicitly references his own situation, he tries to instill in his students an awareness that many types of people are "invisible."). Indeed he lives largely isolated from human community--but on this singular day, his eyes are fully opened to the world's beauty. The payoff is magical, and worth waiting for.

There are some touches of humor in this starkly told yet richly felt film too; watch for them. As for the cinematography, it's both interesting and beautiful; the use of color, for example, comments on each moment and adds emotional depth. Overall, the film has a mood of restraint, a storytelling analog to the style of the hero's sleek midcentury-modern glass and wood house. His home is the perfect setting to reflect his internal state. But somehow the movie is rich and warm too, thanks largely to Colin Firth's nuanced performance which quietly and inexorably reveals, scene upon scene, the depth of feeling, and the complexity and intelligence of the character he shows us.

I'd just seen Firth in The King's Speech, where he was certainly brilliant in a much more outwardly dramatic kind of role (it won him an Oscar); but I didn't fully appreciate him as an actor until I saw what he did in this much more subtle and surely equally challenging characterization.
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Little Ashes (2009), directed by Paul Morrison: The second film in my mini-festival is also about a gay man and the loss of his partner, the loss in this case due to betrayal: he's betrayed by his lover, by his best friend, and by his country. Like the "single man," he's also invisible in some ways, in his life and time. This story is set in a seemingly very different historical period, and a more colorful one: Spain, in the 1920's and 1930's. As with the first film, this one also owes much, visually and emotionally, to the cinematic portrayal of its time and place--and reaches deep down into emotional territory that transcends its time and place.


This tale is based on the personal connections between the poet Federico Garcia Lorca (Javier Beltran, in a heartbreakingly charismatic portrayal), the painter Salvadore Dali (Robert Pattinson), and the filmmaker Luis Bunuel (Matthew McNulty), during the 1920's when they were students in Spain and then, later, after they parted ways, on into the 1930's. Reflecting actual events Garcia Lorca, the central character, stays grounded in Spain, remains politically active, and is assassinated by fascist thugs while the other two leave him, their politics, and Spain itself behind to pursue Surrealist careers in other countries (France, in the time frame covered here).

This film is alive with brilliant cinematography, from classic Spanish urban landscapes to sun drenched countrysides to shadowy interiors to moonlit Mediterranean swims. It's just stunning. (Interestingly, both films, though otherwise very different in visual style, feature underwater photography as a recurring motif.) All the performances are very fine too, particularly the two leads. I did have a hard time quite believing the passionate, charismatic, socially committed Garcia Lorca's great love for the thoroughly shallow, terminally insecure, selfish, and intellectually unattractive Dali, but there's no accounting for love, of course.

Film buffs might be disappointed that Bunuel's character gets relatively short shrift here. The story begins well after he and Garcia Lorca have established their student "progressive movement," at the point where the young Dali makes his first appearance in their lives (in a rather unforgettable scene/performance of the young artist in an act of self-creation). Bunuel at this point is already denigrating Garcia Lorca's poetry as "sentimental," and before too long he is also evincing a vicious homophobia at the sight of the other two together. Finally, he lights out for the Paris territory (as it were) to escape Spain's stultifying and dangerous downward spiral into fascism.

Bunuel lures Dali to Paris as well, and the two proceed to indulge their creative gifts in the Surrealist Movement and avoid the realities of politics back home. In one disturbing scene we see portions of a movie they have made together, and it seems very deliberately hurtful to Garcia Lorca; I'm not familiar enough with Bunuel's work to know how accurately this event is portrayed, but if there's any truth in it, it's a shocking betrayal. In fact there are hints that the two are a bit fascistic themselves in their inclinations, if I understood this film right (even if later Bunuel did work as a leftist).

Dali's painting Cenicintas, or Little Cinders, or Ashes
(the name of the film in Spanish). It shows
a rather troubled attitude toward physicality IMO.
Garcia Lorca wrote to Dali, "Remember me when you are
at the beach and above all when you paint crackling things
and little ashes.  Oh my little ashes!
Put my name in the  picture so that my name will serve for something in the world." 
Dali's actual person always seems a most unlikely and probably inauthentic character to me, even though of course he did exist--but it's his own fault; he crafted of himself one of those exaggerated Celebrities that Western cultural history is dotted with, more persona than person, such as Oscar Wilde or Andy Warhol. Robert Pattison offers a very good performance here, one that finds in Dali's character an essential insecurity or lack of confidence which is sometimes quite touching.

Despite this sympathetic portrayal it seems pretty clear that Dali is bound to be poisonous to anyone in his orbit, even if his touch of genius wins him a lot of latitude among those who can appreciate it. The same can be said of Bunuel too, I suppose. But of the three historical characters, as well as their film versions here, Garcia Lorca is the only one I can relate to with much empathy.

Actually, there's another remarkable performance in this film as well, by the cinematic Garcia Lorca's best female friend (and would-be lover) Magdalena, played by Marina Gattell--a smart, strong, wise, liberated woman who is straining against the limitations and restrictions of her society. But her inclusion in the plot, though sympathetic and resonant with Garcia Lorca's plight, is basically treated (or edited?) as parenthetical to the story as a whole. Still, her character was a sincere acknowledgement that women, too, had intellects and fought for personal freedom then, as now.

On a personal note, I was struck by the realization that between 1925 (when these young students were dedicated Modernists in pre-Franco Madrid) to 1969 (when my mother bought her cottage in barely post-Franco Mallorca) the time spanned was just a little under 45 years. Most of my life, I would have seen 45 years as as truly enormous--an era; several epochs; wars, generations, cultures, whole worlds apart! Then it hit me that just about the same amount of time has passed from my own youth in the 1960's until now. Good grief. The history of the 20th century and now the 21st are packed with so many earth-shattering events, wars, upheavals, that it hardly seems possible that so little time has really passed. And yet how much things remain the same. The means of freedom struggle and oppression change; the weapons and the arts differ in some respects; but people don't.

''With their souls of patent leather, 
they come down the road. 

Hunched and nocturnal, 
Where they breathe they impose, 
silence of dark rubber, 
and fear of fine sand.''
Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), from Romance de la Guardia Civil Española.

So in that way, this movie, though it seemed to be about another time than this one, brought my own time, and my own life-span, strikingly home to me. It made me feel my own time in a newly fresh and disturbing way. Yes, the world of Orwell's cry against fascism--and his warning--is still very much with us. (Similarly, though in a more psychological way, the 1962 world of A Single Man still looks and feels very much like life here and now in every way that matters.)

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So there are my film reviews, with a bit of personal reflection thrown in. Next, I'll take a a quick look--via the Internet, and a book I haven't read--at the three historical figures in Little Ashes. This might seem a bit of a cheat since I haven't read the book and might never get around to it, but if I don my librarian's hat, it seems fair to cite it as possible further reading for anyone seeking to pursue the subject; the author has very solid credentials, as a scholar and as translator of Garcia Lorca's plays.
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Googling around a bit I saw that a book came out at about the same time as the film, and though the Wiki on the film doesn't list it for further reading, I should think it would be the next step for most people who would like to explore this story further. It seems very much in line with the story told in the film and in fact it's hard to believe there isn't some connection. It's Lorca, Bunuel, Dali: Forbidden Pleasures and Connected Lives (2009), by Gwynne Edwards. Here's the book's Product Description on Amazon:
Lorca, Buñuel and Dalí were, in their respective fields of poetry and theatre, cinema, and painting, three of the most imaginative creative artists of the twentieth century; their impact was felt far beyond the boundaries of their native Spain. But if individually they have been examined by many, their connected lives have rarely been considered. It is these, the ties that bind them, that constitute the subject of this illuminating book.
They were born within six years of each other and, as Gwynne Edwards reveals, their childhood circumstances were very similar, each being affected by a narrow-minded society and an intolerant religious background, which equated sex with sin. All three experienced sexual problems of different kinds: Lorca, homosexual anguish, Buñuel sexual inhibition, and Dalí virtual impotence. They met during the 1920s at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, which cannelled their respective obsessions into the cultural forms then prevalent in Europe, in particular Surrealism. Rooted in such turmoil, their work -- from Lorca’s dramatic characters seeking sexual fulfilment, to Buñuel’s frustrated men and women, and Dalí's potent images of shame and guilt -- is highly autobiographical. Their left-wing outrage directed at bourgeois values and the Catholic Church was sharpened by the political upheavals of the 1930s, which in Spain led to the catastrophic Civil War of 1936-39. Lorca was murdered by Franco’s fascists in 1936. This tragic event hastened Buñuel's departure to Mexico and Dalí's to New York and Edwards relates how for the rest of his life Buñuel clung to his left-wing ideals and made outstanding films, while the increasingly eccentric and money-grubbing Dalí embraced Fascism and the Catholic Church and his art went into steep decline.

Actors from the movie; Garcia Lorca and Dali in real life
And from the same page, this blurb from a review:
"One can find numerous studies on each [artist] individually, but few scholars, if any, have dealt with the impact of their interconnected personal and creative lives. Edwards meets this challenge superbly. Thanks to his careful research, he clarifies many longstanding misconceptions and elucidates the sociopolitical circumstances in Spain that determined crucial personal decisions by each of these artists. An engrossing, noteworthy book." --CHOICE
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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Household Gods (book review)

Household Gods by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove (2000)

Nicole Gunther-Perrin, divorced mother of two preschoolers, works in a mediocre Los Angeles law firm. After a particularly bad day, and feeling overwhelmed by problems familiar to many modern women, she makes a heartfelt wish to Liber and Libera (Roman gods on a plaque she had brought back from Europe as a souvenir) that she could live in their simpler time.

The gods grant her wish, sending her back in time and into the body of one of her ancestors--Umma, a widow who runs a tavern in Roman-occupied Austria. She wakes the next morning to the all-too-real squalor of Umma's existence. And she must cope somehow.

Retaining her memories of her 20th-century life while masquerading as Umma, Nicole needs all of her wits and wisdom to negotiate such daily circumstances as public baths, haggling in the market, poor sanitation, and helplessly witnessing the abuse of children and animals. Gradually her problems escalate until, in the end, she has experienced nothing less than a personal apocalypse: plague, war, starvation, and rape. But I was so engaged by fine writing, sly humor, wonderful period detail, and above all Nicole's ingenuity and will to survive, that I was glad to stick with her through it all. She does not disappoint.

Nicole might seem at first to be merely a vehicle for the authors to satirize contemporary attitudes, but as her trials become more extreme her character deepens. Ultimately, she achieves a powerful synthesis between her own modern life and the perspective she brings back to it from the past. Elements of science fiction, fantasy, history, and social commentary make this fresh and original tale accessible to many readers; at nearly 700 pages, it's both fast moving and engrossing. I didn't want it to end. This is that perfect kind of escapist reading that leaves you with more substance than you were looking for, and you're glad of it.

(adapted from my review in SLJ)

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I found the illo of the book cover, above, at a neat blog all about time-travel fiction called Andy's Anacronisms. He writes, and I agree, that this book "is not a story centred on any innovative or unique ideas, but rather relies on the strength of its characters and their development at its heart." Read the rest here.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Literature for the fantasy-prone, part 2 (book reviews)

[Click here for Part 1, on the Matter of Britain and other fantasy-related digressions - including a similar theme of cultural diversity to Island of Ghosts, reviewed below) and here for other fantasy-themed posts.] Time for another break with "reality."

John Perkins writes, in his visionary editorial on dreaming big in the new year, "there is a true difference between dreams (things we want to materialize in the physical world) and fantasies (things we like to imagine but would not want materialized)." However, this distinction doesn't always apply to literature, which mixes up these boundaries. (For one thing, "fantasy" in this context is usually just a merchandising term imposed by publishers.) An occasional trip into (literary) fantasy territory often reveals clues about how to deal with the real and earnest side of life; that probably goes directly to the function of myth in the human psyche, because the best literary fantasy draws on the mysteries of myth.

Here's another roundup of "fantasy" novels that go directly to questions of reality and possibility and the courage to negotiate the present and future. First, a fine book that's basically historical fiction, but weaves in some fantasy elements--and offers a character who finds his way through:

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cover, first edition
Island of Ghosts by Gillian Bradshaw (1998)
Making good use of the classic storytelling elements of fantasy and legend, Bradshaw creates, here, a believable ancient world populated by compelling characters. As the story opens, it's clear that cultural diversity in 2nd Century Britain is posing some serious operational challenges for the Roman Empire: Picts raid the northern borders, while outlawed Druid sects (even as they feud among themselves) forge subversive alliances with the Picts, as well as with their fellow outlaws-in-religion, the Christians. Meanwhile, Roman administrators have married into local families of questionable loyalty; and the occupying army itself consists of units drawn from some of the Empire's farthest reaches--and they don't get along with one another.

Into this volatile situation, the Empire sends 8000 fierce and unpredictable barbarians from a far land. Proud and independent, these Sarmatian horse soldiers have pledged their service and loyalty to the Empire in a recent peace settlement, but they have no idea what it actually means to submit to Roman military discipline. It falls upon a prince named Ariantes to find a route through this treacherous political territory and bring his troops to safety in their new lives as Roman soldiers in a strange land.

cover, Tor edition (1999)
The tale of how noble and clever Ariantes becomes "Romanized" while remaining true to his Sarmatian values is fascinating enough in itself, while the background story of warfare, treachery, and romance in brutal and distant lands should appeal to fans of swashbuckling adventure. In writing about Sarmatians, about whom little is known, the author has much latitude in creating fictional history while, as a classics scholar, she commands a richness of detail that brings the known facts vividly to life.

(adapted from my review in SLJ

Here's another good review of this one, and some more raves...

"A vivid, atmospheric work." --Publishers Weekly

"A historical novel of extraordinary depth and passion." --Booklist
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I was surprised to see that Gillian Bradshaw also writes science fiction, and her science is said to be as credible as her history. Somehow I've missed her SF entirely, and hope to find some now. Another writer who does both fantasy and science fiction well is Diane Duane, below.

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cover of first volume of "Young Wizards"
Young Wizards series by Diane Duane
Lately, I've been re-reading a delightful YA series I'd first gobbled up while working in a public library run by malevolent entities (spiriting the books home for a little sanity fix after another harrowing day in an insane work environment) -- and now I'm catching up on additional volumes published after that. It's Diane Duane's wonderful "Young Wizards" tales.

Published for the YA (young adults) market over 1983-2010 (I hope this indicates there will be even more!), these are also fine reading for adults who like this sort of thing (my older brother, in fact, recommended them to me most recently, calling my attention to the recent volumes in an excellent audio version), and actually they deal with some quite serious issues - ocean pollution, cancer, entropy in the universe and life's struggle in the face of it. Not to mention trips across galaxies, Christ-like sacrifice, and talking cats... there is no end to Duane's invention, in this modern urban world co-existing with our own.

One premise of this series is that wizards have their greatest power at the beginning of its awakening, while they're still very young, and then the powers wane with maturity, so their initiation challenges are ones far beyond what the adults can handle. And these quests are often fatal for the novice wizards, with the result that there are far fewer "senior" wizards than one might expect--and their work seems mostly to be to mentor the young ones in their growth and support them in their mad dashes into unknown worlds and great dangers. This is a very clear statement of an assumption often found in  YA fiction, that it's up to the young to fix things because we adults obviously aren't doing it, and probably can't. This kind of story might be very good for the self-esteem of YA readers faced with the daunting problems they see in the world, encouraging them to take action while they still can.

His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (1995-2000)
In their mixture of light and dark, humor and seriousness, Duane's wizards stories also remind of me of Philip Pullman's classic series, His Dark Materials, another fantasy world whose urgency and wisdom just blew me away. Check out the Wikipedia article for an excellent summary of what it's about, including this observation: "The trilogy functions in part as a retelling and inversion of John Milton's epic Paradise Lost; with Pullman commending humanity for what Milton saw as its most tragic failing." Yes! Figures - despite my professors' best efforts throughout my English Major career, I never developed an appreciation for Paradise Lost. More than that, I hated it. Thank you, Philip Pullman, for turning things around so they could be seen truly. And for doing it so well. As Wikipedia reports, "the trilogy as a whole took third place in the BBC's Big Read poll in 2003." It's as well loved as it should be!




poster for film based on Northern Lights
  The first volume, published in the US as The Golden Compass (and in Britain as Northern Lights), was adapted tolerably well as a film in 2007 but I think you really have to read the books to get the full impact of this powerful morality tale. The movie necessarily leaves a lot out, all of which is fabulous writing.

Some librarians (mostly ones in thrall to religion, I suspect) continue to argue passionately that His Dark Materials should not be a YA series at all, that it's "too adult;" and when the film was released there was quite a ruckus over that too. Christian fundamentalists considered the whole thing the devil's work because Pullman quite effectively skewers organized religion and calls into question everything about its (still too infrequently questioned) "divine" authority in the world. Of course, this is exactly what I love about the books because for me, Pullman presents the truth about how religion enslaves us, in a way as compelling in its depiction of good and evil in our time as anything Tolkein wrote in his. In fact, when I first read this trilogy, I thought it was the Lord of the Rings for my time, just as LOTR was the classic fantasy for the WWII generation (and the world that followed WWII).

But more than that, of course, Tolkein's and Pullman's trilogies transcend their own historical periods because their message is mythical and universal.

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Not least, all of the books reviewed, above, have strong female characters who either lead the action, or play a pivotal part in it.

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One more work I must mention, in this roundup of fantasy literature that I actually like -- more, that I think is important -- is a two-volume set about cats that is anything but light. Rather, it's dark, outstandingly moral and impassioned. This is The Wild Road and the conclusion to that tale, The Golden Cat, by Gabriele King (a pair of writers, actually - Jane Johnson and M. John Harrison). These books have really stuck with me, too. I was lucky enough to be able to review these when they came out.

The Wild Road by Gabriel King (1998)
This book promises readers a fine fantasy, but delivers much more -- an epic and emotionally powerful story of animals, humans, and the ethics of their coexistence.

A frame tale relates the spiritual traditions of cats and the history of their relationship with humans. The Wild Road of the title is a dimension containing the memories of all animals that have gone before. An evil sorcerer has tortured cats for many lifetimes in a quest to harness the power of the Wild Road and now, as a modern scientist, he is on the verge of succeeding.

With a masterful use of language and plotting, King gradually reveals the true identity of the sorcerer and the great humor, love, and resilience of the small creatures destined to oppose him. Descriptions of felines suffering in human hands are graphic and horrible, but true to life; this is a war, the reader knows. Yet readers will find comfort in the wisdom the characters gain and the joy they find in life despite the evil they must fight.

Like J. R. R. Tolkien, King creates humble and ordinary beings who undergo great trials, find extraordinary courage, and fight the good fight against impossible odds. Like Richard Adams, King breathes life into a rich and varied cast of creatures who talk, yet remain true to their animal natures. For those who have appreciated other books that evoke a greater universe than that described by consensual reality, The Wild Road should be equally well loved and remembered.


The Golden Cat by Gabriel King (1999)
In King's The Wild Road (Ballantine, 1998), an ancient, wild reality was introduced that coexisted with that of humans, and animals spoke yet remained true to their natures. There, several small but valiant creatures--cats, aided by a ragtag assortment of others sharing their mission--successfully opposed a mortal threat to their world's existence in the person of the Alchemist, an evil scientist who caused suffering among animals.

In this sequel featuring characters that will be remembered from the first book--Tag, Sealink, Cy, the King and Queen, and the other survivors of that epic battle-- find their world threatened once more: the Alchemist is not dead after all, and his power is increasing. The first signs of trouble are the disappearance of two very special kittens, one of whom might be the Golden Cat, and several ghastly disruptions of life along the Wild Road. Soon, the cats find new allies, reunite with old ones, and voyage afar as they plunge into fabulous new adventures in their quest to oppose the greatest of evils.

This is a dark fantasy--perhaps even darker than The Wild Road--and its depiction of cruelty to animals may be disturbing to many readers. But for those who can handle that, King's stories offer solace and inspiration in the end. This is a harrowing tale, but one spun from poetry, beauty, strength, and love.

(adapted from my reviews in SLJ
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And for something else with a memorable cat, but much less grim, if equally satirical - and very delightful and slyly hilarious - I've also been discovering Terry Pratchett in the past year - via some fabulous audio versions of several of his books. No time to write more now, but don't miss The Amazing Maurice, for starters! I don't know why I took so long to start reading Pratchett; just my usual avoidance of fantasy, probably, because I usually can't get through it, and I needed a recommendation from someone whose taste I trusted (in this case, again, my brother).