Thank God for A Question I Can Actually Answer

Thanks to all who posted questions/suggestions about posts.

I will definitely be posting soon about the whole "invective on the web" thing, but -- *in my best Scarlet O'Hara voice* --- I'll think about that tomorrow.

There seems to be a near consensus on the subject of: Portly's favorite books.

This is, in one sense, an easy question, and in another sense, a very difficult question.

Because there are sooooooo fucking many books!!!!!

I'll start with my hands-down, no-question favorite authors -- probably one at a time, because when I sing praises, I like to sing them loud and long.

Recipe for Incredible Reading Experience

  • Take (pretty much) any book by Mary Renault
  • Add: One quiet room and comfy chair/reclining device.
  • Stir slowly and tell everyone in the world to leave you completely the fuck alone until you are done.
I admit it. I have a soft spot in my head for really fine historical fiction. (Crappy historical fiction just gives me a rash.)

But with Renault, you get shit like this:
"Alexander rested from his thoughts in a waking sleep. Hephaistion watched him, with the steadfast eyes and tender patience of the leopard crouched by the pool, its hunger comforted by the sound of light distant footfalls, straying down the forest track." ~ Renault, Mary. Fire From Heaven. New York:Pantheon, 1969.

(If you haven't read "The King Must Die" or "The Bull from the Sea" or "The Mask of Apollo" or "The Persian Boy", I would say that you must have done something truly horrific in a past life to warrant such deprivation in this one.)

Now, I've read a butt-load of historical fiction.

What is different for me about Renault (as opposed to McCullough, for example) is that she somehow manages to incorporate bits of meticulously-researched historical detail without ever letting on that she might actually be educating you, or saying "Lookie - lookie how much I know!".

She even contrives to enfold the various disagreements of later historians about a particular character directly into the story (as in Mask of Apollo, where she gives a view of Dion of Syracuse from the perspective of a personal relationship, while constantly reminding us of the pressures inherent in his position to maintain a certain public persona -- thus reconciling the cognitive dissonance of Plato's portrayal of Dion and historical records of Dion's acts as a ruler) -- and she does all this without employing the sledge-hammer of dry political analysis -- opting instead to show you, through the strength of her characters and narrative.


I fucking adore her. Can you tell?

I think I'm drawn to historical fiction because I'm constantly seeking to put myself, and the culture I currently live in, into some kind of larger perspective.

Bertrand Russell, in his preface to A History of Western Philosophy, wrote: "My purpose is to exhibit philosophy as an integral part of social and political life: not as the isolated speculations of remarkable individuals, but as both an effect and a cause of the character of the various communities in which different systems flourished."

He goes on to state that he did not choose which philosophers to examine based on his personal opinion of their philosophic merit, but rather on the basis of how much their philosophies represented or influenced the culture of their place/time.

Somehow, Renault manages to transport me to a culture that is completely foreign to me in both space and time, and yet doesn't leave me as an outside observer to that culture -- she inextricably connects me there via universal human experience (I think this is the reason that I prefer her first-person narratives). This provides me with perspective -- perspectives on how my current culture may have evolved from that previous culture, and perspective on the elements of human experience which are "culture-proof".

Of course, it doesn't hurt that she writes about queers with such nonchalance that you don't even notice she's writing about queers. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

(For the quasi-homophibic, start with "The King Must Die" -- just good old fashioned het-sex in there for the most part, and by the time you're hooked on her writing, you'll be ready for Alexander and the incredibly tasteful Queens of Greek theater in the Mask of Apollo.)

My mother, who is a retired librarian, started shoveling Renault at me when I was 11 years old (including "The Mask of Apollo"). I was already a nutter for Greek Mythology (my uncle gave me a two-volume set of "Graves" when I was 9, probably because I'd been announcing since age 6 that I was going to an archaeologist when I grew up), but I've always wondered if my Midwestern, Lutheran mom knew something I didn't know, since she started giving me queer-positive books before I even had a glimmer of sexuality showing. (Don't ever mention that to her, though, because she'll probably think it's "her fault".)

There's my first literary analysis ever, and here is the recap:

Read Mary Renault. She rocks.

Posted byPortlyDyke at 1:02 AM  


Anonymous said... November 19, 2007 at 5:06 AM  

So, how do you feel about Dorothy Dunnet? I think she is as good (and sometimes better than) Renault.

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