First Monday Book Day: One baad Mother

I have never been a major consumer of Poul Anderson's prodigious output, but I remember with great fondness one novel of his that I read in my youth -- the masterful Tau Zero. In retrospect, that book was so great that I really can't explain why I haven't read everything he ever published.

Add to that the fact that Anderson grew up on a farm in Minnesota and earned a B.A. in physics from the U, and again, I'm surprised I haven't explored more of his oeuvre. So when I happened upon this volume on the discount rack at my local used book store, I figured I could afford 50 cents for a hardback.

Mother of Kings is much more an historical novel than a fantasy work, although the dust jacket had some blurb trying to compare it to Marion Zimmer Bradley's magnificent feminist take on the Arthurian legends in The Mists of Avalon. It centers on the life of Gunnhild, the historical "mother of kings" as wife to Eric Bloodaxe, king of Norway in the mid-10th century.

The book plays off the Icelandic Sagas of the 13th century. The first couple of hundred pages (or, how far I've gotten so far) are thick with faux-period speech and turns of phrase, and there's lots of hewing and hacking and wenching to be found. The thickness of the patois has abated somewhat as I've gotten deeper into the book, but it is a bit annoying. And with all of the familial references (soandsosson) and obscure-to-me titles (hersir, jarl, etc.), the bear grease got a little thick. But, like I said, it seems to be lightening up as I get deeper into the book.

Gunnhild is a conniving beeyatch from a tender age, determined to use whatever skills at her disposal to rise in the world (and succeeding). Some of the characters hint at being sympathetic ones, but those hints don't seem to last too long.

If you have a hankering for some Norse historical novelization, this might be up your alley. So far it has held my attention. What are you reading?

48 thoughts on “First Monday Book Day: One baad Mother”

  1. Finished up Vietnam by Stanley Karnow. Then I read Pride and Prejudice and found it very meh. Now I'm onto A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan. Pretty good for the first couple of hundred pages.

      1. Awesome. That and Njal's saga are the two I remember most specifically, though I know there was at least one other.

        1. apropos, I bought The Girl a volume of the Icelandic Sagas (in translation) for her birthday this spring. I will probably pass this book on to her as well.

  2. Finished Next, Michael Crichton's last book before his death. As evidenced by the notes at the end, it's a bit preachy about the state of genetic and biological research, especially in the US. There are numerous characters and half of them appear just often enough to confuse you each time. There is one dominant plot thread that is loosely related to four others and the other three threads are there for scare tactics.

    1. As evidenced by the notes at the end, it’s a bit preachy about the state of insert topic here

      I think this could be said about pretty much any of Crichton's novels. He had a research and writing style, and he never veered far from it.

  3. JULY READS (there was packing/moving/unpacking this month, so I'm only now getting back into the swing of things)

    The Enormous Room by E. E. Cummings - This was a book I've been reading two pages at a time whenever I had down time but no other book for about six months or so. The first couple of sections describing Cummings' arrest and transfer to the titular prison were fantastic and funny. I think Cummings uses adverbs better than anyone that I can think of. Once he's confined to the room, things got a little less engaging, but I enjoyed the read, mostly for the language.

    Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru - A strange trip. Everything revolves around a natural structure in the desert that may or may not be a portal for aliens/trickster gods/something else? Lots of storylines and characters. The tone seemed almost too serious for the set-up. A comedic novel might have been awesome, this one was just alright. He did describe one person as scrutinizing another with "forensic attention", which was an awesome phrase, I thought.

    Enchantment and Exploitation by William deBuys - A history of the mountainous region of northern New Mexico (both a natural history and a political one). It was exactly what I was looking for, gave me a better understanding of my new neighborhood.

    Canada by Richard Ford - I just got fed up with the narrator here. He never knew what was going on, but still managed to always tell the reader what was going to happen next (due to the conceit that he was narrating his earlier life from the perspective of old age). He seemed unable and unwilling to affect the events going on around him, and never seemed to grow or change. Maybe I missed the point, but if so, I missed it for 400 pages.

    Immobility by Brian Evenson - An interesting post-apocalyptic world, and an interesting premise for a story. The narrator is woken out of "storage" because the surviving human colony needs him to perform a task. The protagonist is occasionally guilty of doing things that make no sense just to keep things moving, but it was a decent story.

    Vampire Conditions by Brian Allen Carr - Grimy short stories. The last one in this collection, "Everything Will Fall Its Way" is really good, the rest are serviceable. I did like the description of Vampire Conditions as a place that is in such a state that it's better off never seeing the light of day. Found that clever.

    Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff - A novel in verse. It was a really fun, quick read. I've always enjoyed Rakoff, and I enjoyed this. After reading a bunch of this, I had to concentrate in order not to talk and think in the meter of the book. The scope of the story is pretty wide, but not extremely deep, it follows a thread of characters over the course of a century (1913-2013). Still, there is undeniable joy in the story.

  4. One of the things that I wanted to do this year was read more recently published books (both fiction and non-fiction). I've done a pretty good job, about 90% of my books read in the last eight months were published in or after 2011, and I've really enjoyed this strategy, I've discovered a lot of new authors and read some things I would never have picked up.

    I still have a few "recently published" books on my lists that I want to finish off, but I'm wondering if I should continue with this as my criteria. One of the main things that I don't like is that I haven't gone back to explore some authors' previous works. The idea of constant discovery sometimes seems exhausting and unsustainable, but on the other hand, I've never read this much and I'm not sure I've ever found a guiding principle that has been this rewarding. Now, the obvious solution is to not have this as an ironclad rule, but I'm a structured kind of person (yes, I have a spreadsheet where I track all this), so I do feel guilty when I read something pre-2011 when I still have 50 or so books on my "2012 books to read" list.

    I recently read this article about rules for deciding what to read, and I thought A.D. Jameson made some excellent points in the comments:

    I'm sorry, Ken, I like you, but these are goddamn stupid rules.

    I believe in critically engaging with everything to the fullest extent possible, not making up rules that allow one to ignore things. And my "absolute" includes the means for its own critique. It's a dialectic, not dogma.

    and perhaps, most pertiently:

    very strongly disagree with any rules for reading anything. And want to add that as soon as anyone finds their reading habits ossifying they should CHANGE THEIR READING HABITS.

    Anyway, kind of a private dilemma that I wanted to open up for public discussion, if people are interested.

    1. Junior year of college I took a Great Books course. We were given the professor's list of the 100 greatest books (he went for coverage, so only Tolstoy, Nabokov, and Dostoyevsky appeared twice on the list, I think), and read like 20 of 'em. Outside of law school assignments, I went about 5 years reading nothing but books from that list. I'm not nearly as prolific a reader as you are, but I felt this laid a great foundation for me.

      The past 5 years I've basically gone back to the list with every third book or so, mixing in recommendations/gifts from friends/family, and other books by authors I've enjoyed. I've also had some incredibly long bouts with particular books (Brother's K, obviously, and Against The Day took me almost a year.).

      I need to read more recent things, and fully planned on going to the well you provide once I finish with Brother's K.

      In short, I really like my "Classic/Recommendation/Der rived from the Classics" rotation. There is both variety and depth of coverage.

    2. That was an interesting article about how to decide what NOT to read. My rules are simpler, and much less negative-

      1) Read whatever seems interesting. I read for either entertainment or information, and if I don't find it entertaining or I'm not learning something from it, I don't find it interesting. I'll try to finish it anyways, but there have been a handful of books I've given up on.

      2) Don't worry about what other people think about the books you like and don't like. I try not to judge other people's taste in books (romance novels? Dan Brown books? Eh, whatever- at least they're reading!), but I really don't care what people think about the books I like (Hey, at least I'm reading!).

      1. I really like having a list, to give me some direction. Else, I end up wandering a bookstore/library forever, never quite pulling the trigger.

        #2 is very much a thing for me as well, I actually struggle with that more with movies than books or music.

    3. My reading list is pretty easy. Whenever I find myself short of material, I'll stop by a thrift store or Half Price Books and find a couple of books that cost at most $2 and that look really interesting. Usually I'm reading bios or history, but I'll mix in a classic (probably from Philo's 100 books list) every few months to keep me on my toes.

      Sure, I could expand my horizons a little more by finding other, new fiction that I like, but this method has worked for me for a really long time.

      1. I like used book stores (there's a great one in Sioux Falls called Last Stop CD Shop) for browsing titles and finding new authors, then I search for those authors on to see what else they've written. The only problem I have with looking at books is I usually end up taking 5-10 of them home with me.

        1. The only problem I have with looking at books is I usually end up taking 5-10 of them home with me.
          This is my "problem" too, but it's one of the few things I have a hard time controlling myself over that I'm actually proud of.

          My method for selecting new books is probably a cross between yours, DPWY's and Philo's 'recommendation' angle - sourced primarily through First Monday Book Day.

    4. It seems to me that it would be helpful to have some sort of organizing principle for selecting books to read because if I consider all the books I might like to read for all time periods, I just get overwhelmed and might not pick up a book at all. Perhaps the way to keep things interesting is to have a different "theme" for every year and to allow one book per month (or something) that doesn't fit the theme. Yeah, these are silly, arbitrary rules, but for people who like structure (raises hand), it's not a bad thing.

      As an English major, I read lots of classics/canonical books but nothing more recent than modern fiction (i.e. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Welty). Right after college, I went through a big burst of reading more recent fiction just because it was so different from what I'd been studying. And in the years since then, my reading has been all over the place but mostly not as much as I'd like it to be.

  5. FICTION (a.k.a. I seem to have a thing for ampersands)

    Eleanor & Park: YA novel. I had very high expectations given several starred reviews as well as a New York Times review. Of course it’s always a terrible idea to go in with high expectations. It was an enjoyable read, but I came away with several major questions that I didn’t think were handled well. I do award it bonus points for having an Asian American male as a romantic lead. I also love the cover design, though I’m bothered by the fact that Eleanor seems thinner on the cover than how she’s described in the text.

    Sex & Violence: YA novel. This one blew E&P out of the water, as far as I’m concerned. Gripping narrative, very well developed characters, strong writing, and an ending that lived up to the rest of the book. Especially impressive since it’s a debut and I think debut authors often struggle with endings. Bonus points for this one because it’s a local author!

    The Year of the Flood: novel. DG had a question about this, which reminded me I’d started this book but never finished it. I read Oryx & Crake a number of years ago and it would have been better were it fresher in my mind. This felt very much like a companion novel rather than something that truly stands alone. I remember finding the ideas in O&C thought provoking, and I didn’t find this one to be as strong. I haven’t read Atwood in a while, so I don’t want to make a general comment about her writing, but the writing in this particular book didn’t do much for me.

    Tenth of December: short stories. I’d read a number of these already; it’s a fantastic collection. One of my favorite stories is the delightful “My Chivalric Fiasco.” Will definitely reread.

    A Wounded Name: YA novel. A retelling of Hamlet from Ophelia’s point of view, set at a boarding school. Ambitious, though it didn’t totally work for me. But the book did get me thinking, and I’m now in the middle of reading Hamlet for the first time since college.

    Sense & Sensibility: novel. Love this. I’m listening to it on audiobook, narrated by Elizabeth Klett, who does a great job with it. Just 10 chapters to go!

    Spiral Bound: Brief collection of poems and essays by Dessa. Interesting and a bit odd. I think I prefer her music.

    1-2-3 Magic: I have to confess that sometimes I read parenting books. I picked up this one because having a toddler can be challenging and a friend recommended it. Haven’t implemented anything yet, but I like some of the ideas suggested here.

    Siblings Without Rivalry: There’s a lot of stuff in here that doesn’t apply yet, but it was a quick and useful read.

    The Wonder Weeks: I just read the first part, up through 8 weeks of age. It annoys me that it seems to focus exclusively on the mother as the source of comfort for a baby, but I am hoping it will be useful to know when big developmental leaps are happening. (Better than concluding the habanero is losing his mind and is trying to make us all crazy.)

    1. Atwood is coming out with the third in the Oryx & Crake, Year of the Flood series this year (or early next year, I forget). I hope to have read the first two by then. Also, during the move, I discovered that my wife has a copy of The Handmaid's Tale! Which I really want to read (but, see my above comment, feel like I have a lot to get through before I get to these).

      Tenth of December was really good. I had heard so much about it, and that didn't take away from the stories at all.

      1. I read The Handmaid's Tale a couple months ago. I really enjoyed it.

        I started The Blind Assassin but lost patience with it.

        I have never been a huge science fiction fan because I have always associated it with space or fantasy books,which I don't enjoy. I like books along the lines of 1984, Animal Farm, I, Robot, etc.

  6. I've pretty much wrapped up Gibson's cyberpunk for now, reading the other two Bridge trilogy books I hadn't read, Virtual Light and All Tomorrow's Parties. He tends to use the same pattern in these books: take 3-4 (seemingly) unrelated story threads and converge them 90% from the end of the book.

    Taking a different tack now, and reading American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot, Craig Ferguson's autobiography. I'm enjoying it.

  7. Not much reading for me over the past month, but I did manage a few items:

    Looking for Alaska by John Green. This is (or at least was) Younger Daughter's favorite book. She used to talk about it constantly, so I thought I'd finally check it out to see if her literary criticism is up to snuff. Even though I'm far from the target audience, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was reminiscent of A Separate Peace, The Catcher in the Rye and other teen angst and rebellion boarding school stories that I enjoyed in much younger days.

    Benediction by Kent Haruf. I'm a big fan of Haruf's preceding two novels, Plainsong and Eventide, set in the high desert of eastern Colorado. While this novel, his fifth overall, is set in the same town as his third and fourth, it introduces a new set of characters and has a very different tone and voice. I like Haruf for the same reason I like John Hassler's work -- he creates characters that are accessible and commonplace, portrays them dealing with issues that are as realistic as the daily news headlines, and celebrates the small wonders and miracles that are human kindness and compassion.

    While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Previously unpublished short stories from Vonnegut's early writing career. While I now have the education and experience and capacity to be more critical of these early stories than I did as a teen and young adult devouring everything Vonnegut I could lay hands on, I'm reluctant to do so. These are 16 potboilers written to entertain readers during the golden age of the American magazine and to put food on the table. Even so, you can see in these stories the genesis of themes that Vonnegut would deal with in much greater depth and detail throughout his writing career.

      1. The Fault in Our Stars is in my queue, I'll probably get around to it this month. One advantage to YA fiction is that it's generally the opposite of ponderous and quick to read.

        1. I've heard nothing but excellent things from everyone who has read The Fault in Our Stars, but I also know it would be guaranteed to make me cry, so I haven't been able to bring myself to pick it up.

  8. Russian fantasy/sci-fi kick for me this month.

    I read the first three books of Sergei Lukyanenko's World of Watches pentology- Night Watch, Day Watch and Twilight Watch. I would have read all five, but until I was googling it for the author's name today, I thought it was a trilogy and quit after three! I liked the first three, there's definitely a different flavor to them from the Western style of writing that I'm more used to.

    Roadside Picnic by Boris Strugatsky- excellent descriptive tale, imaginative and yet realistic. Loses some points in my scoring system for a confusing mess of an end that didn't bring the story to any sort of a close. It's amazing how the feel and style of the writing matched up between this and the Watches books- I wonder if it's the translation from Russian or just the cultural identity coming through?

    Read the first five books in Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid series. If you like Butcher's Dresden Files, you'll probably like these.

    1. That would be cool. I get a bunch of books from the library, but from this month's list I'd be happy to mail Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood, A Wounded Name, or Sex & Violence to any interested citizen.

  9. I'm almost done with Game of Thrones in what is no doubt a futile attempt to get out in front of the tv show.

    1. I haven't watched the show at all, but from the previews/reviews I've seen, the timeline of the show does not match up well with the books.

      1. It matches up pretty well. Season 1 was almost solely from the first book (there was some shuffling at the end). Ditto for season 2. Season 3 is the first half of A Storm of Swords. My guess is that it will match up less well until the sixth book due to Martin's splitting of books four and five.

        1. I feel like I read somehwere that they were planning on doing books 4 and 5 at the same time since the timelines of the books are pretty much in parallel.

  10. July wasn't quite the banner month that I had hoped for, but I got through Cloud Atlas and started on The Art of Fielding. Cloud Atlas was... okay I guess. I don't know. It was cleverly written, and it definitely had a few interesting ideas, but there were moments where I just didn't see the point. I expected surprising philosophical brilliance and instead got a pretty good story with some gimmicky writing. I probably shouldn't be disappointed because of my own high expectations, but, well... at least I'm still looking forward to watching the movie.

    I'm only a few chapters into The Art of Fielding, and I have a feeling I'm just gonna breeze through that one. I haven't really formed an opinion yet, but it seems like a fine book.

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