Friday, October 16, 2009

Wilbur Smith, Gold Mine

I feel a little... not dirty, but... I dunno. I simply don't seem to be a reader of action/adventure -- odd for a boy who cut his teeth on science fiction and fantasy growing up. I've been trying my hand at it lately, reading those works centered in Africa (that's my excuse, my justification: literary policing).

Gold Mine is my second Wilbur Smith book. Sigh...

Even after just two -- and this is not surprising (considering both the genre and the fundamentals of basic storytelling) -- I can see the pattern: talented, skilled, and strapping man (my, is he strapping), but somewhat down at the heels, not enjoying the vast privilege of those around him, not fully; put in a seemingly impossible situation, manipulated and given no real choice, but it's make or break; some shrieking harpy of a female attachment; a beautiful other woman to whom he might or could or once was attached; and a lurking, often soft (yet steely) villain.

And all hell breaks loose.

Set in the South African goldmines of the 1960s (and first published in 1970), Gold Mine plays to the stereotypes of the time, albeit not the very worst racist characterizations of the apartheid regime. Give it that. And it's hard to know where the characterizations are "race"-based and where "simply" gender-based. Still, to read of the "bantus" time and again is both annoying and mildly offensive.

There is much in this that is both.

Yes, I will probably read another, at some point, maybe, just to see if the patterns hold. But, oddly, I don't know if I'll really enjoy it. And I have wanted to enjoy these. Really...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

John Waller, The Dancing Plague

I was profoundly disappointed in The Dancing Plague, though to be fair that probably has as much to do with my own sky high expectations for it as with the work itself.


You see, every once in awhile I get this heady urge to read something of the Middle Ages. Not historical fiction, but history, biography, something to give me a little taste, a little hint of what life might have been like. Across the classes -- high-born and low.

And Waller's book seemed to hold the promise of a delightful romp.

It's not poorly written. And he's gone absolutely batty with the endnotes (which are truly at the end of the book, 32 pages worth of them). Which, I suppose, should have told me something.

My main problem The Dancing Plague is that so little is actually known of the events in question: which is the outbreak of a mass compulsion to dance in the summer of 1518 in Strasbourg.

Now, I'm savvy, I've studied some history, I've done some historical research, I know we need to be wary of making assertions, and supposing too much, of fictionalizing our history, but Waller's style and approach to all of this is to qualify just about everything with "might" and "we can suppose" and similar constructions...

...but then to plunge undaunted into great detail as to the smells and sounds and feelings, even thoughts and movements, of bodies (individuals) and bodies (groups). It is maddeningly distracting at one level to continually read these qualifications, and at another level it simply makes no sense. If we can't suppose, let's not.

But that would have made for a much less salable book. To people like me. Who want to get a sense of the stuff, the smells, the sounds, the feelings, even the thoughts and the movements of the times.

Dance puppet, dance! I read the back of the book and did just that. Fool.