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Monthly BookPost, July 2013

Waiting to be Heard (a memoir), by Amanda Knox. A Death in Italy (The definitive Account of the Amanda Knox case), by John Follain. Angel Face (The true story of student killer Amanda Knox), by Barbie Latza Nadeau.

Edda gave Amanda a lot of advice before she left, including a warning about Italian men. One of the guidebooks said they had a habit of whistling at foreign women and pinching their bottoms. “Just be careful,” Edda warned.
But Edda had more serious worries than bottom-pinching. “Try to be wary, to pay attention to what’s going on around you. Don’t trust everyone you meet. Be more on your guard. It’s a foreign country you’re going to.”
“Ok, Mom, I will. I’ll be fine!” Amanda replied breezily.

--John Follain

Police officer Rita Ficarra slapped her palm against the back of my head, but the shock of the blow, even more than the force, left me dazed. I hadn’t expected to be slapped. I was turning around to yell, “Stop!”—my mouth halfway open—but before I even realized what had happened, I felt another whack, this one above my ear. She was right next to me, leaning over me, her voice as hard as her hand had been. “Stop lying, stop lying,” she insisted.
Stunned, I cried out, “Why are you hitting me?”
“To get your attention,” she said...I was twenty, and I barely spoke their language. Not only did they know the law, but it was their job to manipulate people, to get ‘criminals’ to admit they’d done something wrong, by bullying, by intimidation, by humiliation. They try to scare people, to coerce them, to make them frantic. That’s what they do. I was in their interrogation room. I was surrounded by police officers. I was alone.
No one read me my rights. I had no idea that I could remain silent. I was sure you had to prove your innocence by talking. If you didn’t, it must mean you were hiding something.
I began to trust them even more than I trusted myself. So much pressure was being exerted on me that I couldn’t think through what was happening. I was losing my sense of reality. I would have believed, and said, anything to end the torment I was in.

--Amanda Knox

After she was arrested, the police set a trap for Amanda by telling her she had tested positive for HIV. This sort of psychological trickery is commonly used by investigators to illicit a confession. In this case, it led a terrified Amanda to make a grave error that would permanently taint her image. She listed all the men she had slept with recently, trying to decide who might have infected her...Amanda’s promiscuity has little bearing on the murder itself. But her uninhibited behavior did cause problems between the roommates—problems that the prosecution would try to spin into a motive for murder. In his final arguments, the lead prosecutor hypothesized that as Amanda helped assault Meredith, she yelled, “You are always behaving like a little saint. Now we will show you. Now we will make you have sex.” Even before coming to Europe, Amanda, at times, seemed obsessed with sex.
--Barbie Latza Nadeau

The ordeal of Amanda Knox (who was first convicted, then acquitted on appeal, and who now faces yet more trial proceedings for allegedly participating in the 2007 murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, while both were exchange students in Perugia, Italy) struck a chord with me, as it must have done with anyone who ever traveled abroad as a youngster, strayed from the designated tourist areas, and experimented with marijuana. What happened to Knox could have happened to any number of my friends. If James Michener’s book The Drifters (which I consider his best and most compelling novel) is grounded in reality, it could have happened in any time period between the Baby Boomers’ youth and the Millenials of today. When Knox’s book about her experience came out, I decided to try to see several sides to the case, by also reading accounts by John Follain, a Very Serious Journalist who prides himself on Being Objective, and by Barbie Latza Nadeau, a hack true crime writer who assumes Knox is guilty. Guess which of the three did the most to convince me of Knox’s innocence?

That’s right. It was the one that assumed guilt.

Knox herself gives a very compelling and appealing self portrait that reasonably answers all the questions you would expect Knox to have the answer to (while expressing bewilderment about those things you wouldn’t expect her to know about, like a witness claiming to have seen her in the area on the night of the crime when she knows she wasn’t there). If there is a weakness in her memoir, it is one that no one could have done anything about—Knox is a biased party, and her book was surely vetted, maybe edited and revised, by her lawyer, and probably by a public relations firm—which is exactly what I or any wise person whose continuing freedom was on the line would do under the circumstances. No matter how internally consistent and moving the story, it takes a leap of faith to believe it completely.

Follain’s book, a little duller than the first person account, pretty much bears out Knox’s version while giving some perspectives that Knox was not and is not there for. The Italian boyfriend, Raffaelle Sollecito, who was tried alongside her. The third defendant, Rudy Guede, who had little or no connection with either of the others but who had overwhelming evidence against him and who was given amazingly lenient treatment in exchange for testifying—never the same way twice, it seems—against the others. Kercher’s friends and family. Lawyers and police investigators. More officials than in a Nikolai Gogol plot. With Follain’s account, some details that don’t add up in the “Guede acted alone” theory are highlighted, and you can at least see why the police might be suspicious, but even so there is more than reasonable doubt concerning both Knox and Sollecito’s alleged involvement.

And then there’s Nadeau, sticking out like a sore thumb and proud of it. I’m afraid my attempt to see several sides failed; I might as well have compared accounts in the New York Times and National Enquirer as if they were equivalent sources. Reading the three books in tandem is, in fact, laughable. Nadeau writes for the Daily Beast, which as far as I can tell is not a hyperpartisan online site; however, uses the buzzwords “fair and balanced” to signal that her book is in fact red meat for bloodthirsty Republicans, and she delivers. Perugia, a quaint old city complete with vistas, ancient churches and the sort of vibrant nightlife you’d find in any American University town is presented as some sort of latter day Gomorrah, and Knox (who is by both other accounts an All American Girl who excels in the school play, in multiple sports, and who earned a merit based scholarship to an exclusive private school that she could not otherwise have afforded—and who has just enough of the geek in her to be ostracized by the spoiled princesses and to relate instead to the kind of quirky, interesting people who find their way to my various friendlists) as some sort of deviant from –gasp—Seattle, who plunges into Perugia unawares and ends up morbidly obsessed with sex and drugs. And by ‘drugs’, I mean marijuana. And by ‘sex’, I mean she has some. Nadeau is not writing for Knox’s generation, or even mine. She’s writing for our parents. Don’t send your sweet baby children to study abroad, Myrtle! They’ll get all corrupted and sexified and commit drug-induced murders! Keep them home in rural America, where they can get abused by their stepfathers and take up meth habits instead!

Knox and Follain agree, for example, that at a school athlete Knox was given the name “Foxy Knoxy” for her quick, tricky soccer style. Nadeau implies that she was given that name because she is a ‘vixen’, and therefore capable of violent crime, because sluts. As Knox says, ”Foxy Knoxy” was necessary to the prosecution’s case. A regular, friendly, quirky schoolgirl couldn’t have committed these crimes. A wicked fox would be easier to convict. Hard to argue with that logic.

All three books shocked me with the flimsiness of the Italian police’s evidence, Nadeau most of all because she alone gives it significant weight. Knox had difficulty adjusting to the social mores of another country’s culture; therefore she must be unstable. She behaved strangely while the case was being investigated—she kissed her boyfriend, did stretching exercises in the police waiting room; therefore she must be morbidly insensitive. Kercher and Knox had words about whether to scrub the toilet after each use, and whether it was ok to have a vibrator in a transparent case visible on the bathroom shelf; therefore they were bitter enemies. She wore a brightly colored girly shirt to court—she must have no respect for the system! Details like this really were used by the prosecution and their lickspittles in the press to portray Knox as a ‘criminal type’ and a ‘wicked fox.’. Time and again, I had to put one book or another down long enough to calm down. This was IT? This trash was the basis for convicting a young woman of murder?

Now ask yourself, those of you who have coped with the deaths of people close to you or of acquaintances, what is the one appropriate way to act? What is the one way in which human psychology reacts? I remember being a basket case for weeks when each of my parents died (of natural causes), going from numbness to loud grief in seconds, and being moderately sad but more puzzled than anything when a roommate I’d shared space with for about 18 months but did not consider a special friend died in a car crash. What if it was someone I got along well with for about two months? What if the death was not natural? What if it was a violent home invasion that might well have killed me too if I’d been home? What if I was on the other side of the world from my true friends and family? What would I do? Would I cling to a friend with benefits for comfort? Would I cope with tension by exercising? Go numb and appear emotionless from the shock? Would it be appropriate for anyone else to point fingers at me and tell me I was doing it wrong?

Some details don’t come into focus unless you read more than one account. All three books deal with the incident mentioned in the Nadeau quote above, where the police try to trick Knox by falsely telling her she has HIV. Interestingly, Knox is the one who gives them the benefit of the doubt, saying it must have been a false positive. None of the three indicate why the police would do that, what they were trying to find. The answer is: they were trying to get Knox to identify all of her recent sexual partners, and they succeeded. They were trying to get her to disclose intimacy with Rudy Guede and therefore tie the two together, which they badly needed to do—and they failed, because his absence from Knox’s list is pretty compelling evidence that she was NOT intimate with him, and in fact, had barely even seen his face before.

Further, it was only on reading the books in tandem that I noticed that all of the most damaging evidence—the bra clasp right at the scene of the crime—the one knife in Sollecito’s kitchen drawer that the police selected for analysis and later claimed to have found Kercher’s DNA on; the police informant and the homeless drug addict who suddenly appeared claiming to have seen Knox in the area that night (the ones who only Nadeau placed much earlier in her narrative)—all of these were brought forth by the police more than three weeks after Knox’s arrest. None of them were produced during the initial investigation.

On review of these three books, and of the news accounts I read as the trial and appeal happened, I am satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Knox is innocent. Not that the case wasn’t proved—I am satisfied she did not participate in Kercher’s death. I am most convinced of this by the fact that Kercher’s room was crawling with Guede’s DNA and yet no DNA belonging to Knox or Sollecito was found in that room. Knox’s DNA was found in other rooms, but she lived there. If the room had been cleaned thoroughly enough to erase Knox’s DNA, it would also have erased most or all of Guede’s. You can’t selectively remove invisible evidence.

I find it somewhat likely that there is some detail that Knox hid before reporting the incident, that she never revealed, but that if so, it was not involvement in the crime. It would explain some things if she was in her own room and overheard Guede and was afraid, or if she cleaned the apartment outside Kercher’s room to remove traces of marijuana, but I’m guessing, and I have reasonable doubt even about this.

It is undisputed that the Italian police acted incompetently and that their forensic evidence is tainted at best. I find a significant likelihood that, with pressure to close a high profile case quickly, and perhaps with personal dislike of Knox and Sollecito, the police crossed the line from mere incompetence into actual manufacture of evidence. This would explain the loose ends far more easily than a scenario in which Knox hid a non-involvement detail for reasons that neither Follain nor Nadeau care to speculate on. Though again, I’m guessing.

Knox’s bizarre conviction was overturned on a hearing de novo before the appeal court on the grounds of innocence. Follain and Knox end their accounts on this note; Nadeau published soon after the original verdict and concluded with a somewhat gloating statement that Knox, who always wanted to be the center of attention would soon be forgotten and would languish forgotten in a foreign jail for 26 years, and that this is what justice is. As I write this, the courts are initiating yet more proceedings against Knox, this time trying her in absentia as she quite wisely chooses to remain in the United States.

I hope they acquit her for good this time. I really do. Because Knox is telling the truth.

Njal’s Saga
”Njal has looked into Gunnar’s future and made the following prophecy: if Gunnar ever slays more than one man in the same family, and if at the same time it ever happens that he breaks the settlement subsequently made, then it will lead to his sudden death. That is why you must have Thorgeir Otkelsson involved in this case, because Gunnar has already slain his father; so, if you two ever are in the same fight, you must be careful to protect yourself, but Thorgeir will advance boldly and Gunnar will slay him. Then he will have committed a second slaying in the same family, but you shall flee to safety. But if this is to bring about his death, he will have to break the agreement made afterwards. As to that, we shall have to await developments.”

Njal’s Saga is maybe the best of the Nordic sagas that are the primary (primal?) literature of the Dark Ages. This fact distresses me, because 1000 years after Virgil, western civilization is inventing the art of storytelling from scratch. There is too much chronology, and too many characters squashed into one narrative, with not enough space given to any one character to feel much empathy. As with the Volsunga Saga, below, the closest thing to a central character appears more than a fifth of the way into the book, and dies less than four fifths of the way to the end, with ancestors and progeny making up the bookends. Slayings and counterslayings and atonements occur with such repetition that they become almost comical. One man will slay another, and then go before the “thing” (what they apparently called what passed for lawcourts in those days) and negotiate reparations: “Sorry we killed your father. Here’s some gold.” Hence, rich families, or Vikings who just stole a lot of plunder, are encouraged to slay anyone they don’t like and get away with it by thrusting a blood price on the victim’s survivors. Of course, the survivors are just as likely to take the money and, unsatisfied, kill the killer anyway, in the very next chapter of the saga, and so the functioning of the courts is less than effective.

In this context, Njal, who is known as a kind man and a great advocate at the thing, advises some men, suffers abuse for it from the enemies of those men, negotiates reparations in an effort to keep the peace, and is eventually burned to death in his house, and people go on killing each other in revenge afterwards, and that’s how the saga ends. Whatever you think of the criminal “justice” system as it operates today, look back to the Viking era and suddenly our courts seem almost tolerable.

Jeremiah, Lamentations
One basket had very good figs, like those that ripen early; the other basket had very bad figs, so bad they could not be eaten. Then the LORD asked me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?”
“Figs,” I answered. “The good ones are very good, but the bad ones are so bad they cannot be eaten.”
Then the word of the LORD came to me: “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians. My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart. “‘But like the bad figs, which are so bad they cannot be eaten,’ says the LORD, ‘so will I deal with Zedekiah king of Judah, his officials and the survivors from Jerusalem, whether they remain in this land or live in Egypt. I will make them abhorrent and an offense to all the kingdoms of the earth, a reproach and a byword, a curse and an object of ridicule, wherever I banish them. I will send the sword, famine and plague against them until they are destroyed from the land I gave to them and their ancestors.’”

---Jeremiah 24

Note once again, Westboro Baptists: It’s FIGS. With an “I”.

This one surprised me. This being the prophet from whom the word Jeremiad is derived, I expected lengthy passages along the lines of “You people suck, God hates you, and I hope you all rot in Hell, for you deserve it!” The kind of guy who would picket the funerals of the fallen, and would masturbate to Lamentations (a short collection of wailing and gnashing of teeth by the oppressed, mostly asking “How much longer?’ and “Why us?” The Jeremiah I imagined would say, “Forever, because you’re all dirty rotten sinners!). In reality, not so much.

I wrote earlier (Bookposts, January and March 2013) about how Isaiah and the minor prophets confuse me. Jeremiah, at least, is easier to understand. He’s single-minded and to the point. And he repeats himself over and over, just in case you didn’t get it the first few times. And you didn’t. You’re still sinning, aren’t you? Yes, Jeremiah does a lot of telling his fellow Jews that they’re doing it wrong, and that days of reckoning are coming—but he does so less like an angry grouch and more like a concerned parent, it seems to me. And almost every “Repent you sinners” is followed by a “If you stop it, God will forgive you and you will be blessed once again.” That’s not tongue-lashing. That’s helpful correction.

Then there’s the street theater part where Jeremiah dresses up in an ox yoke and wails while the public shakes their heads in consternation and call him emo, and then the police come to break up his little Occupy protest and put him in jail. Not only can I relate to that, but by this point I’m actually starting to like the crazy old curmudgeon and feeling strange compulsive desires to recite some of his speeches while breathing helium.

Bottom line: Seems to me Jeremiah got a raw deal from history. Of everything in the Old Testament so far, this is the part I was most surprised to actually like.

New Testament: Luke’s Gospel
Bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back.

The third gospel is the hardest to pigeonhole. Mark is the “historical” gospel, Matthew the “friendly storyteller” and John the real mystical oddball. Luke is more like Matthew than like Mark or John, except maybe earthier.

It is the longest gospel, longer than any New Testament book except Acts. It begins with a strange preface, as if Luke was writing a letter to a friend and ended up chronicling scripture as he went along. It’s the only gospel to feature the Prodigal Son story, the Good Samaritan story, the Unjust Judge story, and a few other staples from Godspell (so that Matthew is not the only source of that musical).

It presents a completely different Nativity from the version in Matthew (Mark and John don’t have it at all), being the only version with the manger and “no room at the inn”, and with shepherds showing up to bear witness (Matthew leaves out the shepherds and is the only one to mention three wise men following a star—and they find Jesus at a house, not a manger). And there are odd bits in Luke, like 70 followers being given the power to heal (I think I imagined the part where Jesus advises, “Use The Force, Luke!”).

Togail Bruidne Da Derga
”There I beheld a room with nine men in it. Hair fair and yellow was on them: they are all equally beautiful. Mantles speckled with color they wore, and above them were nine bagpipes, four-tuned, ornamented. Enough light in the palace were the ornament on these four-tuned pipes. Liken thout them, O Fer rogain.”
“Easy for me to liken them,” says Fer rogain. “Those are the nine pipers that came to Conaire out of the Elf-mound of Bregia, because of the noble tales about him. They are the best pipers in the world. Nine enneads will fall before them, and a man for each of their weapons, and a man for each of themselves. And each of them will boast a victory over a king or a chief of the reavers. And they will escape from the Destruction; for a conflict with them will be a conflict with a shadow. They will slay, but they will not be slain, for they are out of an elfmound. If I could fulfill my counsel, the Destruction would not be attempted, though it be only because of those nine!”
“You cannot prevent it,” says Ingcel. “Clouds of weakness come to you.”
“Neither old men nor historians shall declare that I quitted the Destruction, until I shall wreak it! And whom sawest thou afterward?”

It wasn’t just the Norse who had sagas. This one came out of ancient Ireland, and doesn’t have much to say on the surface. The Irish king Conaire stays the night at a hostel; an unlimited number of raiders (compare with the unlimited number of Saracens in The Song of Roland, Bookpost of June 2013) decide to attack and destroy the hostel; they describe in great detail, room by room, many heroes with supernatural powers who will fuck shit up for the attackers; every one of them is the best in the world at what they do, down to the cupbearers and shit-shovelers—and after every description, Fer rogain says, “Woe to him who would attempt the Destruction, though it were just because of that one”, but we’ll attack anyway---and once they’re finished describing all of them, in the last six pages the heroes each kill sixty godzillion raiders, but the raiders win because there are an infinite number of them. Conaire kills 600 men just to get to his weapons, and he eventually dies of thirst because the hostel is set on fire three times and they use all the water putting it out, and so there is nothing left for Conaire to drink. Even the world’s most badass cupbearer can’t fill his cup (which naturally is the size of six bathtubs, it being that kind of saga). Were I to write it, I’d leave out the last six pages and replace it with a page with a huge blood-colored spatter pattern on it. It would give the gist. Read it not for the plot, but for the language.

Our Lady of the Flowers, by Jean Genet
Beneath his picture burst the dawn of his crimes: murder one, murder two, murder three, up to six, bespeaking his secret glory and preparing his future glory.
A little earlier, the Negro Angel Sun had killed his mistress.
A little later, the soldier Maurice Pilorge killed his lover, Escudero, to rob him of something under a thousand francs, then, for his twentieth birthday, they cut off his head while, you will recall, he thumbed his nose at the enraged executioner.
Finally, a young ensign, still a child, committed treason for treason's sake. He was shot. And it is in honor of their crimes that I am writing my book.

Sometimes I truly don't understand what an author is trying to do, and why. This is especially true of European twentieth century writers who pride themselves on being profound. If you had given me just the text of Our Lady of the Flowers and told me it was written by an American evangelist known for crusading against homosexuality, so deep in the closet himself that he could see Narnia, and that he wrote the book to argue that most or all homosexuals are directionless, miserable, pathological vulgar criminals, you might well have fooled me. Genet, however, was gay and persecuted for it, and yet here is his so-called "masterpiece" depicting the so-called gay lifestyle as a wretched underground where sex is meaningless and violent crime is praiseworthy. Why did he do that?

In the 50-page introduction, Jean Paul Sartre tells me that Genet's writing is masturbation--marking the first time I have seen that term used about a writer's work as a compliment. Sartre describes Genet's, um, output as a joyful, explosive means of self-expression. I'm not kidding. Though maybe Sartre is. Because there's precious little joy in Our Lady of the Flowers. It begins with a drag queen named Divine dying of, I think, consumption (if Genet had written 40 years later, it would have been HIV) in a filthy Parisian slum, and being lauded by his peer group for it. The title character is another drag queen, who likes killing people, either because it's the only way to be free or because, hey, why not? Life's too short. Here' we'll prove it. Genet presents himself as the first-person narrator who enthusiastically admires Divine, Our Lady and the other criminals and degraded libertines, insisting that every physically, psychologically or spiritually ugly thing about them is beautiful. And yes, he writes about himself biting the ol' wax tadpole. A lot.

I've been told that the difference between erotica and porn has to do with artistic value. Erotica is uplifting, empowering, or poetic, while porn is just degrading and vulgar. We're supposed to know it when we see it. If so, Our Lady of the Flowers is porn. Degrading porn. Sure, maybe masturbation is a lot of joyous fun, and maybe most or all of us do it, but we rarely talk about it in public without good cause, and we don't really want to hear about other people doing it. As always, if you're out there reading this and you love Jean Genet and recognize this book of his as a work of genius, please tell me what I missed about its greatness. 'Tis charity to teach.

The Assassin in the Greenwood, & A Tapestry of Murders, by PC Doherty. Jester Leaps in & A Death in the Venetian Quarter, by Alan Gordon
Willoughby sat cradling himself for a while. Again, out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a flash of colour but his mind felt battered and his body drained. He dared not concentrate. A ring of pain encircled his hand. He felt feverish and almost wished he had died quickly the previous day. A huge magpie, bold and daring, swooped from the trees and started pecking with its cruel yellow beak at a piece of fat-caked meat. Willoughby got to his feet and walked to the line of trees. He looked up. Once again, he caught the flash of colour and stared fixedly.
"Oh no!" he sobbed. "Oh Christ, have mercy!"
He fell to his knees and stared around. Other snatches of colour caught his gaze.
"Oh you bastards!" he murmured, and then crumpled to the ground like a child, whimpering and crying. From the overhanging branches of the trees around the glade, every member of his retinue, stripped of clothes and boots, hung lifeless by the neck.

--from The Assassin in the Greenwood

Those of you who have been to Constantinople and who feel protective toward it may be somewhat offended by my choice of a horse’s mouth for comparison. Let me say in my defense that there are cities that I would compare to an entirely different portion of a horse’s anatomy. Consider yourselves fortunate.
By now, fellow fools, the clever ones amongst you will have deduced that I survived this particular story to write about it. Naturally. Historians are always survivors. But rest assured, not everyone you will meet in this tale will have the same luck.

--from Jester Leaps In

I looked north and saw nothing but Crusaders. South of me, the great chain was swaying gently across the mouth of the harbor. The section nearest me was about ten feet up, except for where a large boulder jutted out of the ground.
Well, I’ve walked across ropes that were a fraction of the width of those huge iron lengths. I ran to the boulder, gathered myself and leapt high, getting one hand on the lower part of a link. I pulled myself up until I could get my other hand on the top and swung my body onto the chain. If this had been a typival fool’s performance on a rope, I would have danced across, pausing for some casual acrobatics, amazing all with my poise and balance. But this was the performance of a man fleeing death, and I had no scruples about steadying myself with my hands as I clambered along.

--from A Death in the Venetian Quarter

The wife of Bath sighed; her eyes became guarded and shrewd. “In my youth,” she declared for all to hear, “I was a fair fortress. Men sought to storm it, but few were allowed within my gates. But once they were”—her hand went to her lips in a gesture of mock innocence—“what a paradise they found!” She glared at the summoner. “As for you, pig turd, you wouldn’t know a lady if you saw one!”
“The important word,” the summoner snapped, is IF.”

--from A Tapestry of Murders

I continue to enjoy supplementing my medieval history studies with historical mysteries. It’s one of the most fun ways to learn, and one of the best ways to guarantee I’ll be paying close attention. Alan Gordon’s Fools’ Guild series is excellent, in that it’s the only series I’ve found that is not only not set in London but that travels all over continental Europe, and in that it demonstrates how wonderfully suited a fool/bard/jongleur type is for spying and detective work. Gordon’s Feste and his Very Superior Girlfriend make good use of their skills at tumbling, juggling, knife-throwing, acrobatics, languages, body painting, animal riding, quick with and the unique right of fools to talk sass at authority (“Emperor, you are such a stupid bitch.”).

Both books from this month are set in Constantinople, by far the largest city in Europe at the time, during the latter Crusades and in a political environment that makes Game of Thrones look tame. In Jester Leaps In, Feste forms dubious alliances with the thieves’ guild (headed by a priest, naturally), a couple of Imperial guards, and the royal treasurer, all of whom want him to spy for them while he tries to trace the mysterious disappearances of every guild fool in the city. A Death in the Venetian Quarter involves the attempt to discover what, if anything, the murder of a silk merchant has to do with the siege of Constantinople by Frankish Crusaders. Both tales are highly recommended.

The Assassin in the Greenwood is the next of Doherty’s Hugh Corbett series, this time going to Nottingham shire to help the Sheriff (and Sir Guy of Gisborne) attempt to apprehend the outlaws of Sherwood Forest. A Tapestry of Murders is the Man of Law’s contribution to the *other* Canterbury Tales, the ones told in the taverns at night by Chaucer’s company. This is shaping up to be an awesome series. The better parts happen between the chapters, as the assembled pilgrims comment on the story, make guesses as to the mystery, and bait one another. It’s also becoming apparent that there is an arc plot among the pilgrims themselves, as both the knight’s and the man of law’s tales are true within the storyline, and other characters know details about it and about each other. Highly recommended.

Memoirs of Pablo Neruda
It has been the privilege of our time—with its wars, revolutions, and tremendous social uphevals—to cultivate more ground for poetry than anyone had ever imagined. The common man has had to confront it, attacking or attacked, in solitude or with an enormous mass of people at public rallies.
When I wrote my first lonely books, it never entered my mind that, with the passing years, I would find myself in squares, streets, factories, lecture halls, theaters and gardens, reading my poems. I have gone into practically every corner of Chile, scattering my poetry like seed among the people of my country.

Part poetry, part autobiography, part history, part travel journal. Neruda recounts his childhood, his early years as a minor official at various consulates in southeast Asia, his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and WWII, as an advocate for communism in South America, his exile and eventual return, his poetry. Not only does he understandably show mastery of the well-turned phrase and the ability to see his surroundings and communicate his vision effectively, but he does so with passion. Many Americans are completely unaware of what happened south of their border in the middle years of the 20th century, and that story needs to be told. High recommendations.

The Volsunga Saga
Now crept the worm down to his place of watering, and the earth shook all about him, and he snorted forth venom on all the way before him as he went; but Sigurd neither trembled nor was adrad at the roaring of him. So whenas the worm crept over the pits, Sigurd thrust his sword under his left shoulder, so that it sank in up to the hilts, then up leapt Sigurd from the pit and drew the sword back again unto him, and therewith was his arm all bloody, up to the very shoulder.
Now when that mighty worm was ware that he had his death-wound, then he lashed out head and tail, so that all things soever that were before him were broken to pieces.
So whenas Fafnir had his death-wound, he asked, “Who art thou? and who is thy father? and what thy kin, that thou wert so hardy as to bear weapons against me?”
Sigurd answered, “Unknown to men is my kin. I am called a noble beast: neither father have I nor mother, and all alone have I fared hither.”
Said Fafnir, “Whereas thou hast neither father nor mother, of what wonder wert thou born then? But now, though thou tellest me not thy name on this my death-day, yet thou knowest verily that thou liest unto me.”
He answered, “Sigurd am I called, and my father was Sigmund.”
Says Fafnir, “Who egged thee on to this deed, and why wouldst thou be driven to it? Hadst thou never heard how that all folk were adrad of me, and of the awe of my countenance? But an eager father thou hadst, O bright-eyed swain!”
Sigurd answered, “A hardy heart urged me on hereto; and a strong hand and this sharp sword, which well thou knowest now, stood me in stead in the doing of the deed: Seldom hath hardy eld a faint-heart youth.”

Another Norse Saga, this one considered to be the granddaddy of them all, THE ancient tale of Scandinavian culture, the northern equivalent of Homer. As with Njal, Egil, and the others, it crams several generations and a lot of activity into a small space, such that there is little room for developing empathy for any given character. Imagine if seven volumes of Game of Thrones was condensed into about 200 pages, with ALL of Eddard’s activity from volume 1 set forth in two or three pages, following another two pages about Eddard’s parents, brother and sister, and you have the chapters of Volsung, title character and father of Sigurd, who gets the most page time but is himself limited to about half the book, in the middle.

Yes, there’s a lot of emotion, and a lot of action, described matter of factly: So-and-so slew so-and-so, and then so-and-so’s kinsmen retaliated by burning down the house of so-and-so. From time to time, Odin appears as a mysterious wandering man who influences events and dispenses +1 swords of vital organ seeking. Elswhere, characters burst into song at opportune moments and sing “lays” summarizing what has just happened.

Two or three centuries after the original Saga, a derivative work, the Niebelungenlied, was written, with fewer (or maybe different) supernatural elements: Brunhilde is not a valkyrie but a king’s daughter whosust be overcome by Sigurd by trickery. The much later Wagnerian Ring opera cycle is not the same story, though it does have the common elements of cursed gold, the slaying of a giant/dragon named Fafnir, and appearances by Odin/Wotan. Siegfried is a stand-in for Sigurd.

Mercier and Camier, by Samuel Beckett
Even as shepherd, cowherd, goatherd, pigherd, it was in vain I strained every nerve. I could never give satisfaction. For the animals strayed, unnoticed by me, into the neighboring properties and there ate their bellyful of vegetables, fruit and flowers. I pass over in silence the combats between rutting males, when I fled in terror to take shelter in the nearest outhouse. Add to this that the flock or herd, because of my inability to count beyond ten, seldom came home at full muster, and with this too I was deservedly reproached. The only branches in which I may boast of having, if not excelled, at least succeeded, were the slaughter of little lambs, calves, kids and porklings and the emasculation of little bullocks, rams, billy goats and piglets, on condition of course that they were still unspoiled, all innocence and trustingness. It was therefore to these specialties that I confined myself, from the age of fifteen. I have still at home some charming little—well, comparatively little—ram’s testes dating from that happy time.

Beckett is supposed to be darkly witty; I find that he just sucks the life out of me and that whatever he has to say about the human condition is, if anything close to accurate, deeply depressing. Mercier and Camier is, mercifully brief. It has a lot in common with Waiting for Godot in that the two almost interchangeable protagonists meander aimlessly through a threadbare plot, talking in non sequiturs with a lot of subtext, occasionally meeting disturbing people, and being fatalistic about it all, because what’s the point? Of life? Of reading Beckett? Why don’t we just kill ourselves?

When I read, I read for entertainment or for enlightenment. I either want to be enthralled by a wonderful story, or I want to learn something that will help me make sense out of the world around me, the better to enjoy it. Beckett’s constant bleakness and the argument—at least I think it’s what he’s saying—that there is NO sense to be made out the world around us—does neither for me.

Bottom Line: If you loved Waiting for Godot and think it’s a profound work of genius, you will also like Mercier and Camier almost as a companion piece (these guys do a lot of traveling, mostly going back to where they started from, while Vladimir and Estrogen mostly hang out in the same spot, but it’s still essentially the same tale). If Godot made you feel like slitting your wrists might be a good idea, so will this book.

Queen of Kings, by Maria Dahvana Headley
When Agrippa had gone, Octavian bent over Cleopatra one last time, to remove her crown. He let his hand rest on her breast, still amazingly soft. One would think her heart still beat.
He bent closer, inhaling her perfume, telling himself that he was simply taking the measure of his enemy. One last conversation with his foe, before she was gone forever.
“Caesar taught me that true leaders fight with words instead of swords,” he told her. “An army hears an order they think is from their queen, and they turn on their commander. A man hears a message that his queen has killed herself, and he acts to save his own honor. Have I done as you would have done, had you come to my country with your army? Now you will travel to Rome with your emperor. You, who said you belonged to no one, belong to me.”
He leaned closer yet. He pressed his mouth against her parted lips, and then—
The queen’s eyes opened.

I encountered Headley because of a viral post on her blog that made me want to read more by her. Queen of Kings is her main novel so far, and I should have read it last year, when I was reading books about the Roman Empire.

It’s hard to make a heroine out of Cleopatra. Plutarch, Shakespeare, and the historical consensus have depicted her as a self-centered ninny, either treacherous and stupid, or just plain stupid. Headley tweaks circumstances just a bit, and then has the Queen of Egypt, as Alexandria is falling around her, reach for dark magic instead of asps. Tragic mayhem ensues.

The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri
Well I discern, that by that Truth alone
Enlighten’d, beyond which no truth may roam,
Our mind can satisfy her thirst to know:
Therein she resteth, e’en as in his lair
The wild beast, soon as she hath reach’d that bound.
And she hath power to reach it; else desire
Were given to no end. And thence doth doubt
Spring, like a shoot, around the stock of truth;
And it is nature which, from height to height,
On to the summit prompts us. This invites,
This doth assure me, Lady! reverently
To ask thee of another truth, that yet
Is dark to me. I fain would know, if man
By other works well done may so supply
The failure of his vows, that in your scale
They lack not weight.” I spake; and on me straight
Beatrice look’d, with eyes that shot forth sparks
Of love celestial, in such copious stream,
That, virtue sinking in me overpower’d,
I turn’d; and downward bent, confused, my sight.

Of all the Medieval and related works read this year, Dante has got to be the single greatest one. Chaucer a close second maybe, but Dante is unquestionably the most important book of the age, and one of the most important in history, and never mind that it’s based on a theological map I reject and a universal map that has been disproved by science. It has the disciplined structure of Notre Dame cathedral, the vivid chaotic power of a Pollack painting, the detailed beauty of the Sistine Chapel and the hidden meanings and wordplay of James Joyce, wrapped up in an even 100 cantos describing a guided trip through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Map the regions and marvel at the architecture. Listen to it orated in the original Italian and enjoy the lyrical cadences, even without knowing what the words mean. Read it as scholarly literature and be amazed at the seamlessness with which it sews together myths, legends and figures from the Greece of epic poetry and history, the Roman empire, early church fathers and icons from the Bible, and political and commercial figures from Dante’s own era who would probably be completely forgotten today but for Dante’s inclusion of them in his epic. I had to go looking for the details on Filippo Argenti, the man in the Circle of Wrath who swims eternally in the Lake of Excrement while demons in motorboats make waves around him, and who Dante (who expresses much sympathy for other sinners in Hell) kicks in the face as Virgil looks on approvingly, because to be cruel to such a man is courtesy. Maybe 700 years from now the likes of Anthony Weiner, George Zimmerman and Marco Rubio will similarly be completely forgotten unless someone writes epic poetry about them suffering in Hell next to Clytemnestra and Nero.

If there is a flaw in the Divine Comedy, it is that it is unbalanced. The most vivid language is in the Inferno, describing people neck deep in ice, in shit, in boiling pitch, in fire, in stone, sometimes over their heads in it. Do we get an equal and opposite description of bliss when we get to Heaven later on? No, we do not. There is an “Earthly Paradise” at the end of the Purgatory-o, and I was gratified to find that it’s not too different from the garden where I actually live, and that most of the not-damned souls end up there; however, the Paradise-o, where the real Heaven is, is largely esoteric, and the pleasures there largely consist of beholding great celestial lights and hearing choirs of angels, structured according to the Ptolomeic model of the Universe. I imagined myself floating in the middle of that much light and sound and nothing else, and saying “Well...here I am.”

Find all of my previous Bookposts here: http://admnaismith.livejournal.com/tag/bookposts