Thursday, September 25, 2014

Black Elk Speaks - John Neihardt

With this, I've hit the bottom of my dead-tree TBR pile. I'd be more excited if I thought it would last. But World Fantasy Convention and its freebie book bag of doom is right around the corner....
For years, I have meant to get around to reading Black Elk Speaks. When I found a copy in my favorite used bookstore several months back, it seemed like a sign that now was the time to do it.

This book, which is considered a classic on Native American spirituality and culture, is somewhat problematic. Nicholas Black Elk was a Lakota Sioux medicine man who spoke with John Neihardt in a series of sessions in 1930-31. Black Elk's life spanned eras -- that of his tribe's traditional life on the Plains, its wars with white men, and its subsequent defeat. He talks about all of that. But his aim in talking to Neihardt at all is to pass on to him details about the Sioux religion -- a religion that he feared would be lost unless he shared his beliefs with the author.

Neihardt's agenda was different. He was a poet, according to Vine Deloria Jr. in the foreward to my edition of the book, who was interested in chronicling the history of the West. For him, Black Elk's narrative -- and those of his fellow Ogalalla Sioux who helped him tell their story -- was raw material to be shaped into a book that would appeal to white readers. In doing so, some of the meaning, as well of some of the flavor, of Black Elk's words was sacrificed. You can readily see the result in Appendix 2, which compares the original notes of Black Elk's story of the legend of White Buffalo Woman with the edited version in the text.

Still, the old man's voice resonates down through the years. And while he clearly worried that he considered his life a failure because he could not bring the Six Grandfathers' world to fruition during his own lifetime, the fact that we're still reading, and considering, these words, more than 80 years later indicates -- to me at least -- that he may yet succeed.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Other Side of Virtue - Brendan Myers

This is the second book of three in my short stack of dead-tree books. I'm going to try to stick to e-books after this. (At least until I collect my book swag at the World Fantasy Convention in November, anyway.)
This is not a novel. It's a book about ethics.

Myers has a Ph.D. in philosophy. He's also a Druid. So he approaches his subject from an angle that may be unfamiliar -- even perhaps uncomfortable -- for readers steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

He begins by tracing the evolution of the notion of virtue, from Heroic societies (primarily the Norse and the ancient Celts) through Classical Greece and Rome, the humanist side of the Renaissance, the Romantics, and Nietzsche. He rounds out this survey course with a discussion of the qualities of virtue in two recent fantasy series, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Rowling's Harry Potter novels, and looks at how these two authors have implemented some of the great ideas on the subject into their works.

He then talks about modern life, and how we respond to what he calls the Immensity. In the final analysis, he argues, there is no overarching meaning to our lives; instead, each of us determines, moment by moment, our reason to continue living. And we make the determination with our actions. "For it is what we do," he says, "more than anything else, that creates a worthwhile life."

As a writer, I was especially heartened by his support of storytelling as critical to that worthwhile life. He says, "It is through storytelling that life can make sense: life as recounted in stories is intelligible, structured, unified, and one's own." (Italics are in the original.)

I found The Other Side of Virtue to be very readable, despite the plethora of big ideas packed into it. I'll be keeping this one on my bookshelf.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Flicker - Melanie Hooyenga

I have promised myself that I will spend this month clearing out my dead-tree TBR pile. (It's a short pile, so it won't take long.)

First: I owe the author an apology. I won this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway quite some time ago, and have been putting off reading it in favor of books on my Kindle. And now I'm kind of sorry I did that, because I enjoyed it.

Flicker is about Biz, a teenage girl with an unusual talent: when she sees the right kind of flickering light, she time-travels about eighteen hours into her own past. This has pluses and minuses. Her grades are better because she can take the same test twice (and tell her friends exactly what to study for), and she can relive happy moments with her boyfriend. On the other hand, she also must endure lectures from her parents twice, as well as her father's bouts with a serious, mysterious illness. And her ability makes her feel like a freak -- so much so that she keeps it a secret from everyone.

And then she realizes she can use her talent to stop a criminal. The only catch is that she's going to have to trust someone with her secret.

The book is written in first person. Biz makes for a pleasant narrator -- not as manic as some teenage girls can be. If the reader can accept the time-travel aspects of the story, the plot is believable. And the story moves along at a nice clip -- so much so that I found myself staying up past my bedtime to finish the book.

Flicker is a YA novel. If I had to give it a rating, I'd say it's a PG. If you like YA fantasy, it's definitely worth a read.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Coyote Still Going: Native American Legends and Contemporary Stories - Ty Nolan

You guys must know by now that I'm kind of a nut for Native American stories and culture. Coyote Still Going, like the Trickster god of its title, charmed the pants off of me.

Nolan is a storyteller and therapist, and he is upfront about the way he uses traditional stories in his therapy work. Native cultures often use story as a teaching tool, and so Nolan has also developed a program for presenting legends to Indian children participating in Head Start programs.

"Here are some stories," Nolan writes at the very beginning of this book. They are wonderful stories. And he throws in some recipes, too. Coyote Still Going has a little something for everyone. I recommend it.