This Is Me, Jack Vance! Or, More Properly, This Is “I” /Jack Vance
I really wanted to like this book, if only because of the alternate title, but I was expecting a totally different book. In fairness he warns you at the beginning that this will be his memoirs and that he hates talking about writing, but for such a prolific and talented writer to say almost nothing about writing or his books or where he got his ideas is kind of disappointing. Instead we have an autobiography, and while he clearly had a very sharp memory for people and places, it could just as well the autobiography of anyone who grew up in the 30s and 40s and had a bunch of jobs before becoming a full-time writer. There are very few details about his famous writer friends, very little about his own writing career, and so on.
Vance is certainly a good storyteller and I still found it interesting to read about his life. I’m sure his children and grandchildren will appreciate all the fairly intimate stuff about his family. His love of life and dry humor make the book very readable. Perhaps some day a critical biography, which also talks about his books, will be forthcoming.
On a scale of dirk to Zweihander, maybe a gladius. (I.e., 2/5 stars.)
The wreckage of Agathon / John Gardner
I have loved Gardner’s Grendel since reading it in high school but never got around to reading anything else of his until this. This time the story is set in ancient Sparta, although the chronology is deliberately vague and we have characters from several different periods (with Lyucurgus, circa 820-730 BCE, Solon, 638-533 BCE living as contemporaries). None of this really matters though as Gardner’s point is not to relate historical events. Instead we get a vivid if anachronistic picture of life in ancient Sparta as backdrop to an intense, introspective study of several characters, none of whom are ever completely revealed, but all are more real for that very reason. Alongside the character studies Gardner is satirizing the Spartan mindset, which is revealed to be uncomfortably similar to certain modern ideologies. Gardner is much more sympathetic to the Helots than to the Spartans, which is a good corrective given the misrepresentations of Sparta we see in modern culture — from Frank Miller’s demented hero-worshiping caricature in 300 to Steven Pressfield’s more realistic (but still moon-eyed) representation in Gates of fire.
It’s also a fun read for the philosophical digressions — Gardner paraphrases thinkers from Epicurus to Nietzsche as well as coming up what I’m guessing are his own original theories as the characters debate and discuss life and ethics.
While any book would suffer a little by comparison to his Grendel, The wreckage of Agathon does at least confirm that Gardner was a first-rate writer.
On a scale of hatchet to bardiche, a Danish axe. (4/5)