Posts Tagged ‘book recommendations’

Not that we should confine our celebration of authors of the African diaspora to just one month (belated happy Black History Month!), but to close out February I thought I would highlight some African American authors I’ve either been reading recently or have loved for a long time (and maybe a few I’m still looking forward to reading). But to open–there’s a new Afrofuturist short fiction magazine out there called FIYAH, and it looks great! As has been pointed out lately, the world of speculative fiction is not immune to racism structural or otherwise, and black authors have suffered in the short fiction market as a result. The establishment of FIYAH does not let us off the hook, of course–the goal (or a goal) with this journal and its predecessor Fire!! of the Harlem Renaissance is for the larger discourse (or more concretely, you and I and all concrete individuals engaged in this as readers, writers, editors, etc) to see and repent its(/our) complicity in the marginalization of black voices.


Delany has been one of my favorites for a while now. Note the cover for Babel-17, which does feature a female protagonist, but an Asian one. Ursula LeGuin had similar problems with her EarthSea characters being portrayed as white on the covers of her books.

The two authors always brought up in a discussion of black science fiction and fantasy are Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, and that will be the case here as well, though I do recognize that there were times when they were awkwardly bundled together solely for being the only black people in the room (which is not to say we can’t speak of them together as black authors–I’m doing that here, duh–but prioritizing that connection at random can certainly reinforce the marginalization we are trying to counter here). Delany, along with Ursula LeGuin, is one of the New Wave authors who became favorites of mine post-college (and to a degree post-Tolkien, or at least the point at which I embraced fantasy that was not just imitative of Professor Tollers). Delany’s science fiction writing is mostly confined to that period from the 60s to the 70s, followed by a foray into poststructuralist fantasy in the 80s, but to my tastes his early sci-fi remains fresh and original even next to the more avant-garde elements of today’s market. I especially love Nova, a novel which anticipates cyber-punk while remaining solidly in the genre of space opera, incorporates the Tarot in an interesting way (as does Calvino–lots of potential work meta-narrative moments there), and to my mind also has some nice echoes of Ahab and his white whale, though I wouldn’t push that too hard. Babel-17 is an interesting and trippy space opera with a linguistic novum at its heart, and to my mind a must-read for fans of the New Wave. Empire Star was apparently meant to be packaged with Babel-17, though this was only done more recently–equally trippy, and I hope to teach it one day. The meditations on cognition, intelligence, and the arts are all very worthwhile, and well-woven into the fabric of this weird but engaging story.

The late Octavia Butler I am less familiar with, I’m afraid, though I have been impressed with what I’ve read. I’d heard of her before, of course, but I was primarily turned on to her by Orson Scott Card’s in-depth analysis of her prose in his book on on writing science fiction and fantasy. What I’ve read of hers can be pretty uncomfortable–she had a knack for weaving the despicable and the morally ambiguous into disturbing but productive and interesting stories–but it is well worth it. I’ve been especially wanting to read her Lilith’s Brood novels for a long time, and will hopefully get to them soon!

There are two more recent authors I want to specifically mention here: N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor. I’d read Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a few months ago and have been meaning to write a review, but I like to have an illustration ready before I write reviews, and never got around to making one. Maybe after I’ve read another book of hers… In any case, THTK was a solid, entertaining, and highly original bit of fantasy, and I strongly recommend it. An original cosmology, a realistic and rich diversity of cultures, courtly intrigue, and a well-developed apotheosis–this book has got it all! Again, maybe a more thorough review later. I’ve read at least one short story of hers as well, but simply with regard to her novel writing have to note that she has been quite prolific since her debut. If her other books are even half as good as THTK they are well worth reading. Do yourself a favor and check her out! You can find her website here.

wp_20170228_12_55_34_proI discovered Nnedi Okorafor through her collection of short stories, Kabu Kabu (I’ve read several so far and gladly recommend the collection on their basis). While I love Jemisin’s work as well, I feel more kinship to Okorafor’s narrative style. Her first fantasy novel for adults, Who Fears Death, is a skillful blend of both science fictional and fantasy tropes, set in a post-apocalyptic Africa but primarily focused on a realistically drawn and ethnically complex society featuring supernatural elements and magic practitioners drawn (to what degree I am not qualified to say) from African culture. I’m still working through this–the story is quite dark in a lot of ways (that tends to slow me down), and we are clued in early on to the fact that there will be some tragedy involved in the conclusion, but don’t let that scare you. This is a beautifully written coming of age story as well as a fantasy of the somewhat “messianic” sort (think Paul Atreides, Luke Skywalker, etc). The prequel to this book came out in 2015–I wish it were a sequel, because then I would be able to pretend the tragic foreshadowing in WFD are red-herrings, but alas…

Binti Fanart

A quick sketch from when I reviewed the first book–not as cool as the covers for the actual book, alas.

Okorafor is (deservedly) getting the most attention at the moment for her novellas for Tor.com Publishing, centering around the young heroine Binti. I’ve read the first and am making my way through the second now. I’ve already reviewed the first in the series, so check that out! In sum–space opera, with a lushly developed far-future that, alas, can only be hinted at in a shorter work like this, but also a story which acknowledges the continued existence of marginal communities and nicely works the tension between globalization (or here, galacticization?) and local identity into the main plot. It is also a story about a university, so of course I like it. ūüôā¬† I’ve noted before that the Binti series feels a bit YA to me, though I don’t believe it is being marketed as such. I think this is a function of the age of the protagonist (though the same could be said of Who Fears Death, but that has some clearly adult themes going on), Okorafor’s experience as a YA writer (that is where she started), and the shorter form of the novella. In any case, it is delightfully good, and I heartily recommend it! You can find Okorafor’s website here.

A couple of authors on my radar but whom I have not gotten to yet: Nalo Hopkinson, who has been a significant figure in speculative fiction for a while but who does not get as much press as some others mentioned here, and Kai Ashante Wilson, who has had two novellas published with Tor.com as well.  From what I have been hearing he is an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with in fantasy, so check him out now!

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Grettir according to a late 1600s manuscript

Grettis saga, or The Saga of Grettir the Strong (I’ve used both the Scudder translation and the Fox/Palsson one) was the first saga I taught, way back in 2003, my first time as a Grad Student Instructor doing Reading and Composition for the Department of Scandinavian at Berkeley. It is counted as one of the Icelandic Family sagas, or Sagas of Icelanders, which were set in the period of about 930-1030. Some of these sagas take place primarily before the conversion to Christianity in 1000 (eg, Egils saga, Gisla saga--parts do take place after the conversion, but the main action takes place in the late pagan period), while others straddle the conversion (Brennu-Nj√°ls saga, etc). Grettis saga, as far as the main character goes (the story of the earlier generations takes place in the pagan period), primarily takes place after the conversion. The saga itself is also believed to have been written relatively late compared to the other Sagas of Icelanders (they are generally thought to date in their original written forms from the early 1200s to the early 1300s), and has often suffered in comparison to the shining reputation of, say, Nj√°ls saga, often seen as the height of the (classic, family) saga form. We can lay the blame on Grettis saga‘s relatively scattered plot (we can point to some central conflicts, but the story-matter itself tends to be very episodic) and the “folkloric” (read: monster fights) elements.


A (very cartoony) image of Grettir lifting a rock–there are standing stones in Iceland that are referred to as “Grettir’s lift”, and the saga tells us of one or two such stones that he supposedly lifted while lazing about waiting for someone. Grettir continues to make a point of reminding us that he is the strongest even across all these centuries…

Of course the more casual reader, especially the one raised on Tolkien, Martin, Rowling, etc, will probably enjoy the saga for precisely the over-the-top elements, though do brace yourself for the episodic nature of the story. Where the more “respectable” sagas can be read as largely revolving around a central feud or chain of feuds (it has even been suggested that the structure of the sagas corresponds in essence to the structure of a feud–for more on feuds in Medieval Iceland check out WI Miller’s Bloodtaking and Peacemaking), I suggest reading Grettis saga as revolving around the growth of the main character–well, OK, this is debatable, but I feel like the person who compiled the material for the saga (I am assuming here that much, not necessarily all, of the material was circulating in various forms in oral tradition, and we have some evidence of that with this saga) put it in its final form with an eye towards Grettir’s arc from “coal-biter” (a sort of male Cinderella, unpromising youth eventually rising to prominence–though in the male versions it is not so much a matter of being poor and badly treated, but of being a lazy, cocky little shit who doesn’t seem like they will ever make something of themselves) to tragic outlawed hero, doomed by the fact that he takes to long to (mildly) repent his hubris. Well, look for that arc and see what you think–I admit it does take a bit of work on the part of the reader…

Also, a quick trigger warning–a late scene in the saga appears to involve the rape of a serving girl. The saga frames it such that one of my students (long long ago) argued fairly convincingly that we were supposed to understand it as consensual, but the very patriarchal world of the sagas (in spite of the presence of many strong female characters) did not always distinguish so strongly between rape and “seduction”–at issue were the interests of the nearest male kinsman rather than the woman involved. As a woman of an unlanded family the serving girl of course did not have anyone to take issue, and the saga shows some of the typical saga disdain for the lower classes by portraying her as a “naughty wench who had it coming”. I don’t point all this out to excuse things, saying “oh, you know how the Middle Ages were…”, just a heads up since we do run across these things. :/ This particular episode is the most explicit thread in the ongoing “short sword” joke that runs through the saga. The erased bawdy poem Grettisf√¶rsla is probably evidence that the traditions surrounding Grettir were often enough rather titillating–not a surprise when it comes to folklore about a famous outlaw, I would think.

Some last notes:

-The monster stories are interesting in that there are a decent number of echoes between individual episodes, and if you have read Beowulf (no, none of the movie versions count) you can try your hand as a scholar yourself and consider whether or not you think there are any plausible connections between the early 1000s Old English poem and the 1300s Icelandic saga. I do think the parallels between the monster fights in both works are compelling, but I’m willing to see them as migratory legends rather than direct borrowing.

-Speaking of monsters, one of the interesting points of Grettir’s character is how much he resembles the monsters he deals with. Well, don’t go thinking he is a simple brute–he is also a poet, and his orneriness initially manifests more in his obnoxious use of poetry and proverbs to deal with his father than in his strength–though his strength is enormous. As a great hero, Grettir ends up being the “who ya gonna call” guy, dealing with ghosts (not the same sort as in Ghostbusters tho), bears, trolls, you name it he’ll kill it. Many of these stories, like Beowulf, or like many other heroes of a more mythic cast, I expect, have Grettir standing in as either 1) the defender of human space (think Beowulf defending the Hall against Grendel) or 2) the invader of monstrous space (think Beowulf attacking Grendel’s mother and the dying Grendel in their underwater home–but for both of these, also consider the relationship between the gods and the giants in Norse myth). The tragedy seems to be that Grettir is a bit of a monster himself, or often confused for one, and at times more at home in the world of monsters–it is the world of other men that causes him trouble.

-The saga concludes with a mini-saga (a “thread” is actually the technical term) where Grettir’s half brother goes to Byzantium to get revenge on his behalf and the story suddenly turns into a Romance (in the sense of Tale of Chivalry–though there is romance in the modern sense as well), so those into the likes of King Arthur, Tristan and Isolde, etc, will get a special treat at the end.

Well, those are a few quick thoughts, and now I really ought to go–sorry for this super late post, and sorry that it is only this one so far this month. I’m presenting at a conference this weekend, plus had some health issues, so I’m a bit delayed. That said, I have managed to keep up with Inktober on Tumblr and Deviantart, so check out my art there!

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feersum_viking_waryur_by_callego-d4bbn33[Note: Introductory Secondary Sources on the Viking Age are listed and discussed at the end of the post–scroll down if that’s the part you are interested in!]¬†

Finally got around to watching the first episode of the new History channel miniseries “The Vikings.” Considering how poorly the Vikings typically fare in film (I’m looking at you,¬†awkward Vikings-in-the-New-World “Pathfinder” remake), I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much. There are some neat things taken from our knowledge of late Viking Age/Medieval Iceland (or rather, what sources from the latter tell us about the former–it was ‘history’ for them as well)–for example, they make the distinction between illegal secret murder and a legal killing, in which you announce what you’ve done (though the relation to feud seems a little tangled–the latter serves to enable open, reciprocal feud, rather than prevent it, as the earl’s words seem to suggest, though an anti-feud posture is arguably taken by certain Norwegian jarls and kings in the sagas). And generally, when we look this far back there is a LOT we have to speculate about, so it’s fine to guess a bit about what the religion would have looked like, etc (though let me note, the visit to the prophet doesn’t look like anything from the sources, as Karl Siegfried of the Norse Mythology Blog has pointed out). Still, here are some points that bothered me (keep in mind I haven’t seen the second episode yet–it is out, right? ¬†Also, points 1 and 4 are inspired by points made by friends on facebook… nice to know so many people who study this sort of thing…). Note also that we really know very very little about the early Viking Age, and this movie is set RIGHT in the year our history books have (slightly arbitrarily) chosen as the “start” of the Viking Age (a detail I return to below).

1) Ragnar and Rollo? Two famous Vikings happen to be brothers? ¬†Not to mention chronological issues, though the miniseries doesn’t seem too concerned with that… ¬†Well, even if “Rollo” is not the famous founder of Normandy, let’s at least keep both of their names in the same language. “Rollo” is the name given to Hrolf (Hr√≥lfr) on the continent. ¬†They would have called each other Hr√≥lfr and Ragnarr (the -r endings mark the nominative case–would have changed depending on function in the sentence), though I imagine Hrolf and Ragnar would be OK too. Or, you know, Rob and Reggie…

2) I’m a little bothered by the hall they feast in, which looks a bit like a church gym decked out for a potluck (except for the throne…) with rows of tables, and the earl sitting above everyone before eating in a separate room entirely. I might be off here (would like to be Indiana Jones [=more archaeologically savvy], but I’m just a plain ol’ bookworm). ¬†I have in mind the medieval Icelandic farmhouse/hall, which I believe is similar to what you would find throughout Scandinavia pre-Viking age through the early Viking age: the “high seat” was not literally a separate, higher seat, but rather the spot reserved for the chieftain/jarl/king, whoever was Big Man, in the central position on one of the benches that lined the hall (and where everyone sat relative to him was a BIG DEAL). ¬†So, two benches, each along the walls, used as seats during gatherings, but broad and used for sleeping as well, with a long fireplace down the middle. Well, I’ll have to check with some of my archaeologist friends re: the halls of very early Viking age rulers. Still, I recommend the Icelandic film “The Outlaw” (√ötlaginn) for an alternate vision of the Viking Age hall (in relatively poor Iceland, however).

3) These accents… feel a bit hokey. That’s all… ¬†Not sure whether or not any of the actors are actually Scandinavian, but many of the accents felt a little stilted or exaggerated. But maybe I am just a jerk…

4) They treat “The West” (not the new world, but Western Europe) as though it had not been “discovered” by Norse folks yet. ¬†While pre-Vikings didn’t drop by Heathrow all that often, they weren’t completely ignorant of the world beyond the Baltic. The Viking age itself got at least some of its momentum from the earlier rise of towns when trade shifted from routes through Frankia to routes through the Baltic (creating wealth, and the demand for more wealth), Denmark was/is/and probably will be for a long time actually ATTACHED to the rest of Europe (duh), and the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who settled England came from southern Scandinavia and northern Germany long before the Viking Age. The series seems more interested in staging the barbaric here, the usual 13th Warrior, Hollywood, timber mud n chkns (+ swords) standard primitive early-Medieval schtick. OK, OK, there are some good references to what we actually “know” (as I mentioned above), but I still think “The Outlaw” gives a nicer (=less Hollywood) feel for the Viking Age. Whoops, I just looped back to a previous topic, didn’t I…

5) “I would never insult you–you’re too great a warrior. But perhaps not so great a man…” ¬†Um… do they really think virility, virtue (note the virin both), and martial competence were understood as separate back then? (or now…) ¬†Womanliness and cowardliness were essentially equivalent in the insults of the time. Penetration in battle was sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly equivalent to penetration in a sexual encounter, and the same for turning one’s back in battle (to run away) and turning one’s back so as to be… um, well… See Preben Meulengracht S√łrensen’s¬†The Unmanly Man and Carol Clover’s “Regardless of Sex” for more…

6)¬†¬†Ragnar is married to a shield maiden–OK, nice reference to the romantic liaisons between human warriors and valkyries in the Eddic poetry and elsewhere (I’m looking at you, Sigurd…and, well, at Ragnar too… look to Saxo Grammaticus for the account of his relationship w/ Lagertha). I am reluctant to admit the historical existence of warrior women in the Viking Age (excepting… well, exceptions–women may have been able to transgress gender boundaries more easily than in other places and times, though we just don’t have good access to information from that period), but hey, could be. I wouldn’t give too much credence to the sagas and heroic legends on this though–I consider those more fantasies about powerful women than survivals of actual socially acceptable roles. Doesn’t make them any less interesting to me, though. For more on this topic, see Karl Siegfried’s discussion of √Čowyn in LOTR and Old Norse warrior women (he is a bit more positive about the historical likelihood of warrior women than I), and check out (again) Carol Clover’s “Regardless of Sex” (and… well, a lot of other articles…), Jenny Jochens’¬†Women in Old Norse Society and¬†Images of Old Norse Women and Judith Jesch’s Women in the Viking Age. I’ll try to get to a dedicated post on the topic one of these days.

7) From the setting (fjords), I assume they are somewhere in Norway–meaning in the west, meaning closer to the apparently imaginary England than to the eastern Baltic. Norwegians and Dane typically went westward during the Viking Age, while the Swedes went east. So, the whole “we know the east, we dare not try the unknown west!” seems a bit off to me too… (OK, OK, see #4… I probably could have condensed these, huh…).

8) Feels like a whole lot that made the Vikings Vikings (according to our modern imagination) is finding its origin story here–not only two famous Viking names shoe-horned into the year we traditionally call the start of the “Viking Age” (it was no different than any other year to ‘them,’ incidentally), but the ability to sail in the open ocean (represented in three inventions all smashed into a single episode: sunboard, sunstone, and clinker built ship). ¬†Well, less about history, more about the idea of history–par for the course. And hey, it’s not like they’re killing puppies…

Hm, pretty sure I’m forgetting some… and there is probably a lot I just didn’t think of, so oh well. ¬†But hey, I can be a bit of a crank when it comes to… well, lots of things, so enjoy the series, just don’t take it as particularly educational! (par for the course for non-PBS ‘documentary’ TV…)

Dress Like A Viking copyRemember also to check out my brief notes on how Vikings dress (I’m not looking to argue with the series about that–again, not an archaeologist, and I really am not familiar with the full range of variation across the North and throughout the period), and remember that “Viking” literally means “Pirate,” even if nowadays people tend to treat it as a blanket term for everyone who lived in Scandinavia between 793 and 1066. Also check out this interview, and note that the historian in question has a book on the history of the Viking Age coming out next year! ¬†Cool! ¬†Been a long time since Gwyn Jones’¬†History of the Vikings.

And while my expertise lies more with the vernacular Norse literature of Medieval Iceland (which is what a lot of this is based on anyway), I have been meaning to share some general resources for the study of the Viking Age. Here are the books I used when I taught an upper division course on Viking and Medieval Scandinavia at Berkeley:

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings.  Great chapters on various aspects of the Viking Age (history-wise rather than culture-wise) and its later reception.

Medieval Scandinavia. Goes well beyond the Viking Age, but includes plenty of material on the earlier period as well. (The book Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia is also a great resource, but you will have to find it at a library).

The Vikings. Roesdahl’s introduction is still a great one (plus I modeled my illustrations for Viking clothes, shown above, on the illustrations in her book). Much more of an archaeological focus.

Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. A nice overview-source, but I did not feel like it was of the same caliber as some of the other sources–or maybe it’s just that I disagreed with the author’s take on the debate over the historical authenticity of the so-called blood-eagle ritual. Whatever. It has PICTURES!!! (Seriously though, it’s alright).

We were also going to use The World of the Vikings, but for some reason it was listed as out of print at the time–still, I found it handy to refer to occasionally (also, PICTURES!). Looks like it is available in paperback now!

I also recommend Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, edited in part by my friend and colleague Elisabeth Ward, as well as The Viking World (not the same as above). The latter is GINORMOUS and oriented towards more of an academic audience, but I think the Kindle version is relatively inexpensive, and the articles are still very introductory (I go to it for general points on Viking Age and Medieval archaeology). Peter Foote’s The Viking Achievement¬†is still great as well, but I believe out of print (for a while now).¬†If you really just want something short and quick, try The Very Short Introduction to the Vikings. I haven’t read this one, but I do like the series–in fact, I hope to talk about some of their other books (Literary Theory, Poststructuralism, etc) some other time! It is short though, so if you want anything more substantial, you will have to dig into some of the other books mentioned above. I’ll try to get around to separate posts for things like Viking Age Religion or Viking/Medieval Iceland one of these days.

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