Recently* Read:

Disclaimers:

While I studied English and Literature in High School as per regulations, I'm by no means a scholar. What follows are one ignorant man's reactions to, feelings for, and interpretations of what he has read. You may find these reactions, feelings, and interpretations interesting, dull, pathetic, amusing, annoying, and/or otherwise unworthy. My purpose in writing these comments is less to provide any enlightenment to others, as it to force myself to clarify my muddled thinking about what I read. Before you condemn this page as an act of public masturbation, please note that there is plenty of other stuff to read online, and you'd probably be better off exploring that instead.

WARNING: THESE REVIEWS MAY CONTAIN "SPOILERS"

Read 'em at your own peril.

Four Weeks in the Trenches: the War Story of a Violinist

Fritz Kreisler, read as an e-book from BlackMask.com

This is a curiosity. A very patriotic little text on the horrors of the Eastern Front in World War I, written by a violinist who went on to compose famous works.

It is clear that Kreisler wanted to express the glory of the battle as a good patriot. The short text is filled with the kinds of things attacked by many other survivors of the war like Wilfred Owen and Reiner Maria; how bold and noble and glorious are the soldiers and the officers. Yet, Kreisler is also clearly horrified by what he has seen, by the slaughter and waste. He spends a lot of time trying to put a good light on events. He focuses on the camaraderie between the soldiers, even with their enemies, and on the positive things that the life of a soldier brings to a man. He obviously wants to write a patriotic text, and yet we can't avoid seeing the negatives, the pointless battles, the waste of life, the privation, and the suffering. With the added benefit of historical hindsight, this probably reads quite differently than he intended. His closing words, about being proud to have given a contribution, no matter how small, to the glory of the homeland seem a tragic joke today.

The Beautiful and the Damned

F. Scott Fizgerald, reading as an e-book from BlackMask.com

There is little to say about Fitzgerald that has not been said (with copious references and footnotes) by my betters. So I will merely say that this book has little to recommend it if you're looking for sympathetic characters, an engaging plot, or even a rollicking good story. It's a long book for the events it describes. The main characters are frustratingly shallow, misguided, and objectionable on virtually every level.

But don't take any of this as a recommendation to avoid the book.

The Beautiful and the Damned has an astonishing collection of descriptions of people in circumstances that are so evocative that you could swear you'd been there. It features goosebump-inducing descriptions of people's internal dialogue that ring frighteningly true. Fitzgerald makes their despair and desperation palpable. You'll find yourself sharing the characters' frequent need for a drink. And some of their less-shallow moments of self-reflection are nothing short of beautiful.

The Cave

Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 2000/2002, Harcourt Books.

This joins the list of books that can only be described as a pleasure of ambivalence. Saramago relies on his reputation (not to mention that Nobel Prize for literature) to encourage you to slog through the long, long sentences that are bereft of conventional punctuation. Sometimes unravelling the dialogue can be like a particularly challenging Scrabble game postmortem. And Saramago does not limit himself to making the mechanics of reading the only difficulty awaiting the reader -- there are many self-indulgent asides, where he explains why he chooses a given adjective to describe a character, or engages in a stylistic monologue on why he varies the names by which he refers to the characters.

Once getting past the barricades that Saramago erected, we find ourselves in the world of an old potter in a beautiful, simple dystopian world. This world is familiar: the villages are being absorbed into the city, and the ciy is being absorbed by a shopping/planned-living facility known simply as The Center. The potter struggles with his changing world, the shift of the economic environment, and the usual issues of family, inlaws, and an adopted pet. These struggles are beautifully depicted, alternating between bold strokes and subtle details, and Saramago's genius shows clearly.

The ending of the story comes abruptly, and, although we've been prepared for many of the circumstances, at least one aspect (the most significant, perhaps, and one for which the book is named) seemed forced. Perhaps it's my ignorance, perhaps it's due to the shallowness of my understanding of Plato, but the impact of the critical event didn't make sense to me.

Breakfast on Pluto

Patrick McCabe, 1999, HarperCollins

While I think I can see why this was nominated for a Booker Prize, I was left cold. It's the reminiscences of a transvestite prostitute from Northern Ireland, who, in an open secret, was born to a young woman who was impregnated by her priest. His story is mostly thinking back on the bitterness of his childhood, his revenge fantasies towards his father, swooning over the exotic shoes and clothing his various boyfriends gave him, and odd memories of his friends who were caught up in The Troubles, either with the Royalists or the IRA.

This is one of those books that leave me feeling that I should have enjoyed more than I did. It's difficult to say exactly what I found off-putting. It's well written, the narrative voice is strong, and the situations are interesting. And yet, for some reason, I never found myself completely engaged.

Ambient

Jack Womack, 1987, Grove Press Books.

It seems to me that there is a grand poker game among speculative dystopian writers, dating back to Huxley, Zamyatin, and Orwell, if not even farther, with each player trying to out-play the previous extreme. If this is indeed the case, Burgess trumped Orwell, only to have the table taken over by a bunch of young, cocky beatniks and science fiction writers: Burroughs, Ellison, Bradbury, and Vonnegut. Then Philip Dick started dominating the game, even while Brin, Atwood, and Walter Miller, Jr played a hand or two. Things changed again when Varley and Gibson anted up. Varley called, Dick folded, then Womack saw Gibson and raised him an apocalypse or two. While there are still hands to be dealt, it seems that Womack is currently the player to beat.

Womack clearly has a debt to a number of the other players. Most often noted is Burgess, as much of Ambient is told in future dialects of English; also noteworthy, perhaps, is Chandler, who taught many of the players the rules of the game in the first place. But Womack brings an amoral ruthlessness and matter-of-fact brutality to his tale that outdoes his predecessors. It's not that Womack's dystopia is just a nasty place, it's that there's concerted, unrelenting nastiness oozing out of every alleyway, human oriface, and gun barrel. Do we find any sympathetic characters? Not a one. Do we still flinch at the outrages they endure? Yes, we do. Ambient is so over the top that it would be easy to dismiss it as an exercise in exaggeration and sick bravado. But it's clear that it was written with a sense of (warped, black) humor, which allows us to stay with the story through otherwise untenable situations.

Yeah, there's nothing like a good dystopian science fiction novel. Always make me want to write a few of my own. Fortunately for you, that desire fades quickly away, and I go play a few rounds of Counterstrike or something.

The Gentleman from Indiana

Booth Tarkington, from the Gutenberg Project, read as an e-book from BlackMask.com

A well told, if conventional, love story and tale of life in the emerging American Midwest. Tarkington is at his best when he shows the changing character of places as they transition from obscure hicksvilles into "modern" American cities. He writes with the optimism of the American west, seeing the good in the evolution of the towns and the improvement of the populations, all the while giving occasional sad nods to the passing of a slower, more formal time.

This particular book lacks particularly deep characters, but nevertheless delivers an interesting tale of educated East-Coast people and their impact on a small, southern Indiana town. These outsiders come into the community and immediately set about changing it with their college-educated form of intellectual imperialism. Yet though though they come in as a force of change, they too are changed, and become a inseparable parts of community themselves.

Tarkington, in this book, shows a clear belief in the intrinsic quality of people; it is not classist, per se, because there are good but ignorant people; it is not based on race, nor is it based overtly on religion. But there is a morality that underlies his characters, and a good character is Good with a capital G regardless of minor flaws, but a bad character is Bad, and probably irredeemable. It's interesting, since we don't really see a similar belief expressed in The Magnificent Ambersons; there we find far more ambiguity and subtlety, or at least a development and evolution of consciousness among the characters.

Quicksilver
Book One of the Baroque Cycle

Neal Stephenson, 2003, William Morrow Publisher

Gosh, what a mess. Stephenson dishes out nine hundred and forty-four pages of rambling story that take us hither and yon, romping around in and through history, and spares us no detail on the mechanics of ... well, anything, really, whether it's monetary systems, or European palace intrigue. It's unfocused and goes off on countless side roads, from only some of which it beats its way back through the undergrowth.

And yet, it's a fun ride. Stephenson's greatest gift is also his greatest detriment. He loves storytelling, and this part of the telling reminds him of another story, which, half-way through, reminds him of another ... and so on. Individually, these stories vary in quality between highly amusing and awfully contrived; woven together, they form a tapestry that is both fun and tremendously tiring. Really, with the aid of a good editor, this could have been a great book. It makes real some of the early characters (charicatures, perhaps) of early modern science and medicine and it paints a picture of European politics that feels plausible. As a historical novel, it provides context for many famous people, all the while winking and nodding anachronisms for the benefit of the science fiction fans who make up much of Stephenson's fan base.

The Baroque Cycle is aptly named. In all, Quicksilver is probably best compared to one of Mad King Ludwig's crazy baroque castles -- there are individual pieces of it that are appealing, attractive, or fascinating, but as a whole it's overwhelming and leaves you with a sense of squandered wealth.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Mark Haddon, 2004, Vintage Press

"The first important book with an autistic hero" trumpets a review on the front jacket of this book. Yet by my reckoning, looking at the story from that standpoint would make it too easy to dismiss the book as a gimic. Hey -- there haven't been any popular novels told from the perspective of an autistic kid -- what a niche! While this may have come into Haddon's mind at some point, it would be missing the point to summarize the book thusly.

This is a story of discovery from the viewpoint of an unreliable narrator. The narrator is a boy discovering the circumstances of his parents' marital troubles. That he is an autistic boy, and that his autism contributes to the tension and events, just makes the journey of discovery more complicated and more involved. That he's high-functioning (as autistic boys go) makes the story tellable, and reduces the requirements for suspension of disbeleief; yet it could just have well been told from the perspective of some other clueless kid of around the same age, and still been a good story.

It's an easy book to read, and has the added educational benefits of describing some of the characteristics of autism in a way that's accessible and comprehensible. I found myself sympathetic to the narrator, even to the extent of his hatred of the color brown (which, after all, is too close to the dreaded color yellow).

The Secret Life of Bees

Sue Monk Kidd, 2002, Penguin Books

I found this to be a strangely beautiful book, less for the larger plot arc, which was a little too pat for my taste, but for the richness of the characters and their indiosyncracies.

Kidd has a really good eye for ritual and people's relationship to traditions. Some of the beekeeping rituals, like the draping of the hives in black after a death, seemed too natural to not be old traditions.

A Series of Unfortunate Events Series:
The Bad Beginning
The Reptile Room
The Wide Window
The Miserable Mill
The Austere Academy
The Ersatz Elevator
The Vile Village

Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler),1999-2004, Harper Collins Publisher.

The Lemony Snicket books have an amusing premise: in an over-the-top, affected voice, we hear of the terrible, horrible privations that befall and the evil, malevolent conspiracies that threaten three peculiarly-talented orphaned siblings. The narrative falls into entertaining repetitive patterns: we quickly learn that Violet ties up her hair before coming up with brilliant inventions, that Klaus will know key facts, no matter how obscure, and that Sunny will crawl into inaccessible places and babble non-nonsense, and together they save the day for a brief moment. We also quickly become accustomed to the voice of our narrator, who happily mis-defines words for us, who advises us to read happier books, and who laments vaguely-defined tragic events in his own story.

Repetition is a powerful tool in all literature -- but in "kidlit" it's nothing short of a juggernaut. Kids can watch Aladdin five hundred times, and tend to enjoy it more each time. Other kids want the same story read to them each night, and will correct you if you misread a single word. Clearly, the power of repetition and playing to a successful theme fuels these books. Yet, even with a good formula, familiarity breeds contempt. As the books progress, the problems and the solutions to the problems get less and less plausible (not that they were ever realistic to begin with). Yet we know in advance how the problems will be solved, more or less, and the steps that be taken to get there. Maybe because my brain has gotten older and less pliable, the repetition in this series started to get tiresome. I found myself wanting something new to happen, something unexpected. Well, maybe in the next book...

Penrod

Booth Tarkington, 1914. Read as an e-Book from the Gutenberg Project by way of BlackMask.com

This collection of stories of the eponymous eleven year old and his misadventures feels in places like a much more precious version of Tom Sawyer. Like Twain, Tarkington seems to have a convincing memory for what it's like to be a boy. The preciousness, however, is cloying in places; the flights of exaggerated description are a little too much. Coupled with the overt use of racism for a laugh, there is a lot in these stories that is offputting to today's reader.

Yet ... Tarkington gets some things just right. The pecking-order battles of the children, the coping with boredom, the dealing with adult expectations, and the ability to cause great disruption by not understanding social formalities all read quite true. And Penrod's birthday meeting with his Great Aunt Sarah Crim near the end is an enormously satisfying payoff. Her cynical wisdom makes it possible to overlook many of the other negatives.

March 2004

Beasley's Christmas Party

Booth Tarkington, 1909. Read as an e-Book from the Gutenberg Project by way of BlackMask.com

This is a sweet, mostly predictable story. The plot itself is not particularly notable, but, for some strange reason, what makes the whole thing worthwhile are the obvious mistakes in perception on the part of our very unreliable narrator.

March 2004

Dr. Faustus

Christopher Marlowe, 1588, read as an e-Text from BlackMask.com

I suppose the only things that surprised me about this telling of the Faust tale was its brevity, and, despite the brevity of the story itself, how damn much of it was dedicated to Faustus' wafflings. "Shall I repent? No! I shall not repent! Or perhaps I shall... no!" on and on and on. Look; if you're going to sell your soul to the Devil and/or one of his agents, make sure you think it through. Either limitless and subtle power in exchange for your soul is a good deal, or it's not. Figure it out. Do the analysis. But either way, make your decision and quit moping around about it.

Winter's Tale

Mark Helprin, 1983, Harvest Books; Reissue edition.

This was not the first time I've read this book, and, like each time I read it, I found new things in it this time around too. Let's start with the obvious. Helprin is what we call in my circle a right winger. What should be enlightening to my fellow ...er ... travellers is that Helprin's politics are visible in the book, as is his very warm consideration for humanity, in all its flawed glory. If I were to dare to use the term, I'd have to say that this book shines with "compassionate conservativism." If they can get around the somewhat fascist feel of the apocalyptic mayoral campaign that takes up the last quarter of the book, even dyed-in-the-wool leftists should find much to enjoy here.

Politics aside, there are a number of things that make this book such a great read. Helprin has a real tenderness towards his characters, even the evil ones. He has a deep love for New York, not only as a real city, but as a self- assembling mythology, and he enthusiastically participates in building that mythology even higher. He has a beautiful grasp of the language, which he plays with mischievously (if self-indulgently), and his blurring of magical realism into reality is nothing short of wonderful. Events and characters which would be merely cartoony in lesser hands are instead amusing, fascinating, and oddly appropriate. As an tech guy, I also enjoy his tangents off into the mad magic of early industrial machinery.

Winter's Tale taps into something epic, mythical, and mysterious. I'd argue that the first half is better than the second, but why split hairs (or books)?

February 2004

The Magnificent Ambersons

Booth Tarkington, 1918. Read as an e-Book from the Gutenberg Project by way of BlackMask.com

The Magnificent Ambersons is, indeed, magnificent. It has all of the elements of a great tragedy, tracing the transformation of a small midwestern town into a vast city, and the transition of one of the Important Families of that small town into just so many more working stiffs in the industrial age. It's simultaneously wistful for the passing of a slower, quieter way of life, and a gentle poking of fun at the mores of that time.

There are many tragedies in this tale; the unfulfilled love of Eugene Morgan and Isabel Amberson, the tragedy of the arrogance and fall of George Amberson Minafer, the tragedy of Fanny Amberson's unrequited love, and, finally, the tragedy of the passing of a way of life. Tarkington depicts these with a beautiful simplicity, warning us in advance of the inevitability of each outcome, and yet making each one poignant. No Oedipus was more trapped by destiny than George Minafer, more driven by his own hubris.

Tarkington lovingly shows people and their senses of identity. He carefully displays to us where people fit in Society, and what expectations are upon them. He makes it clear to us why the characters regard themselves as they do, and how their senses of identity give them strength -- or betray them. He gives a remarkable view of what Society was like in Midwestern cities in turn-of-that-century America. We can admire the characters who are able to break from the expectations that ensnare them, and we can understand those who wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to fulfilling them. Given this understanding, we find ourselves sympathizing (despite ourselves) with even George's most egregious behavior.

February 2004

Animal Farm

George Orwell, 1945. Read as an e-Book from george-orwell.com via BlackMask.com

There's not much to be said about Animal Farm that hasn't already been said. Many people have had this book "ruined" for them by having it assigned in High School. To them I say: read it again. It's short, moves fast, and is wickedly on target. While Orwell may have written about Stalinist Russia, we find that every revolution eventually gets taken over by the pigs.

Black Betty

White Butterfly

A Red Death

Walter Mosley, Pocket Books.

See Devil in a Blue Dress below. Same goes for these three.

January 2004

Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them

Al Franken, Dutton, 2003.

Pretty much what you'd expect. Slams against the right wing, the conservative media, and the administration. You either love it or hate it, all depending on which side of the fence you're on.

22 December 2003

The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor

John Barth, Mariner Books, 1991

Rarely do I read a book and get to the very end still undecided whether I really like it or really dislike it. This, however, is such a book.

Barth interweaves tales of legendary Arabia with modern New England, and does it in a way that's compelling. Portions such as the narrator's first experiences of love and sexuality are poignant, believable, and touching. Other portions, such as the endless plot twists in Sindbad's world, feel too long and, eventually, contrived.

30 November 2003

The Innocent

Ian McEwan, Anchor Books, 1999.

Disturbing and compelling, the better parts of this story take place inside the head of a very young British agent in post-war Berlin. The surrounding story (dealing with the historical events and cloak-and-dagger logistics of Project Gold) is interesting, but the real fascination is watching our protagonist make the mistakes of youth, and then much more serious mistakes. As suggested by the title, we delve into innocence in all its meanings, as well as what happens as innocence meets up with experience and evil.

I Thought My Father Was God, and other true stories from NPR's National Story Project

Edited by Paul Auster, 2001, Picador Press.

There are some really good stories here. Some are touching, some are profound. We see that Auster is particularly interested, however, in stories that feature touching coincidences. This wouldn't bother me, except that after a few, the Twilight-Zone-ish "coincidence ... or something deeper?" theme starts to feel hokey.

16 November 2003

Five Books of the Lives, Heroic Deeds and Sayings of Gargantua and his Son Pantagruel

Francis Rabelais, 1532 and later, as translated by Sir Thomas Urquhart and Peter Antony Motteux, read as an e-book from BlackMask.com.

Way back in college, I had overheard educated people refer to Rabelais' work as "The Porky's of the 16th Century." While I sincerely doubt anyone will remember the film Porky's five hundred years from now (does anyone remember it now, a mere twenty-some years later?), I can see why Rabelais has endured. This particular book is longer than it needs to be, but it contains a curious mixture of moralizing and ribaldry. You can almost hear Rabelais chuckling through the centuries as he tweaks the nose of the establishment, while simultaneously espousing its values (e.g., Pantagruel's morality lectures to Pantaglais).

Rabelais was fond of, and possibly one of the earliest users of, what I call "list humor." This involves interrupting a story with a list of specific details, which start out reasonable, and become increasingly absurd, not the least so because of the length of the list. He also clearly enjoyed mixing ridiculous exaggeration into the midst of more prosaic descriptions. Modern readers may experience a bit of the Shakespeare/Bible Copycat Syndrome ("I thought that book was just a big bunch of cliches...") and may find the book a bit long, but I'd recommend giving it a try.

My Life as a Fake

Peter Carey, 2003, Random House

I would argue that the hallmark of Peter Carey's writing is not necessarily the Australiana, nor his attention to details, but the way he describes people: somehow showing them to be ridiculous, misguided, and confused, while simultaneously offering a warm, human regard for them. This imbues the characters with a believability -- they are flawed, yes, but mostly sympathetic. Carey's obvious love of language further strengthens his characters, who express themselves in language that's perfectly ordinary -- for them.

My Life as a Fake is no exception. The threads of the story, woven around and extrapolated from an event in Australian literary history, are less important, in the end, than the interplay of characters and the language they use to express themselves.

Plot-wise, this is far from my favorite Peter Carey book. It has some interesting diversions through the territories of Southeast Asia, an exploration of a grand quest, and a number of people experiencing revelations of their personal histories. But, really, the total plot arc was not as compelling as the individual stories of the characters.

The language of My Life as a Fake, however, is subtle, and though it lacks the almost brutal directness of some of Carey's other works (compare The Thrue History of the Kelly Gang, or Jack Maggs), there is an elegance to it. There are some nice touches, like an Australian who has lived long years in Singapore still occasionally calls people "mate," but will also sometimes append names with a familiar "-la."

October 2003

I Capture the Castle

Dodie Smith, 1948, republished 1998, St. Martin's Griffin

Early on, the narrator of this story is dismissed as "a bit consciously naïve" by the man she will fall in love with. And he's right, although she's also strangely precocious, reflective, and sometimes wise (and even a little reminiscent of the young Brione in Ian McEwan's Atonement).

It would be easy to dismiss the book as dated or excessively cute, especially if one were to take a simple statement of the plot (e.g., poor English girls of an eccentric family looking for redemption through marriage to wealthy Americans). But such an assessment would overlook the charm and sincerity of the story. It is funny and touching. And while it uses absurd situations to poke (mostly) gentle fun at artists and the arts world, at British mores, and at Americans, it also has a very real sense of wonder for the world, it has very believable emotions and interactions between characters, and, perhaps most importantly, it is a delightful read.

October 2003

The Story of O

Pauline Réage, 1954, read as eText from MemoWare.com

Well, this eText had some problems, which appeared to be caused by an occasional missing page from the source, but the intermittent gaps in the narrative were not enough to account for my disappointment.

Given what I knew of the story (i.e., very little, other than it had been extensively banned and involved sadomasochistic sexuality), I was expecting the tale to be shocking, titillating, or at least interesting. Instead, I found myself bored. The character of O spends all her time either being abused or whining about her love for her abusers. They, on the other hand, seem utterly unemotional and without any character other than their predilection for abuse. There's no drama here, just dull repetition of uninvolving social gatherings, floggings, and mechanical sexuality.

October 2003

Devil in a Blue Dress

Walter Mosley, 1990, Pocket Books

I enjoy the hard-boiled noir genre, and am a sucker for a good Raymond Chandler novel, even if I often have trouble navigating the exact twists and turns of the plots. Devil in a Blue Dress not only fits the genre, but also manages to keep me confused as to exactly who is who and what it is they're up to. It's a fun read, that shares not only the feel of a Chandler novel, but Chandler's exuberant use of the language.

October 2003

A Princess of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912, read as an eText from the Project Gutenberg collection.

A rippin' good example of early science fiction with a few original ideas and plenty of fantastical adventures.

25 September 2003

The Heritage of the Desert

Zane Grey, 1910, read as an eText from the Project Gutenberg collection.

Zane Grey books are painted in great, broad, colorful strokes. There's not a lot of ambiguity about the nature of the characters, and there's rarely much doubt about how things will turn out in the end. Grey's West is the same West that we go to see in the movies; a Moral Universe with strict rules that differentiate the good from the bad, a place where well-defined roles and behaviors are understood by all.

What makes Grey's books such good reading, though, is not particularly the plots or the characters, unless you consider the West itself to be a character. It's Grey's obvious love of the land, and his painterly descriptions of the terrain and the weather that make the experience of reading his stories so pleasurable.

12 September 2003

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe, originally published as a serial in 1850, published as a book 1852, read as an e-book reformatting of Project Gutenberg text.

My first surprise was to learn that Uncle Tom was intended as a hero, a true example of a noble Christian. Having only heard his name used as a term of contempt, I expected to find him set up as a contemptible character by Stowe. I was also surprised to find, in a book published a mere ten years before the Emancipation Proclamation, how little the author assumed the reader knew about the institution of slavery.

The importance of this book and its effect on American history is well known; I think it's also interesting as documenting that history. It obviously is crafted as a work of Abolitionist propaganda (which is not necessarily to suggest inaccuracy), and the perspective it gives on everything ranging from gender roles and religious life in America in the mid-Nineteenth Century to the establishment of Liberia are all fascinating.

5 September 2003

The Perils of Pauline

Charles Goddard, publication date obscure, read as an e-book reformatting of Project Gutenberg Text

I'd heard the title used metaphorically many times, but knew nothing beyond the reference. In all likelihood, the reference wasn't to the book, but to the "cliff-hanger" movie serials made from the book starting around 1914, and known particularly for the image of the hero rescuing the heroine who had been abandoned, bound hand and foot, upon the tracks before a rapidly approaching train. This scene does not appear in the book, but fear not, the book is no more subtle.

In the world of Pauline, the extremely wealthy are pure and meritorious, the poor are dark, dishonest, and immoral. Motor cars, airplanes, submarines, purebred horses, and hot-air balloons are all tools for the amusement of the thrill-seeking elite, although the commoners who operate them often pay with their lives in order to propel the plot along. Thin as the plot may be, it's enough to take our heroine to other exotic locales, where she and her handsome foster-brother/husband-to-be [!] vanquish still other niedermenschen, whether they be Sioux Indians who mistake her for a goddess, gypsies who wish to kill her, the denizens of Chinatown who would trap her in their opium dens, or sinister agents of un-named countries who would do her in just for the hell of it.

24 Aug 2003

Notre-Dame de Paris

a.k.a. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Victor Hugo, originally published in 1831, e-book of uncertain origin.

Disney Lovers, Repent!

Hugo has a keen eye for the foibles of humanity, sparing neither nobility nor the emerging bourgeois class, skewering the Parisian rich and poor, thieves and mystics, church officials and students.

But Hugo's greatest scorn, evidently, is for those who don't appreciate good medieval architecture. The discussions of architecture and the story of the growth of Paris would make interesting books in and of themselves, and Hugo's theory of the printed word's ascendancy over that of architecture (as humanity's means of communication) is thought provoking.

21 Aug 2003

The Gnostic Gospels

Elaine Pagels, 1979, Vintage Books, nonfiction.

I've seen many references to the Gnostic writings of Nag Hammadi, whether in "counterculture" literature from the likes of Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs, in lit-crit rantings like the work of Hakim Bey, or in more popular literature like The DaVinci Code (see below). I had a vague idea that there was controversy surrounding this collection of texts, just as there was around the Dead Sea Scrolls. But I knew very little about the texts themselves.

This book deals with the texts from Nag Hammadi, but specifically with regard to what they tell us about early Christianity and the formation of the Church. It does not go into great depth in describing general Gnostic philosophy outside of these concerns.

The book is fascinating. Many of the Gnostic Gospels had vanished, having been purged from the historical and religious record when they were declared heretical and apocryphal. In fact, as Pagels describes it, much of the previous understanding of Gnostic Christianity came from the Church polemics against it. With the discovery of some of the original writings, the picture of early Christianity and the doctrinal divisions becomes clearer. Pagels does a remarkable job of articulating these differences, and bringing back to life the diverse interpretations of faith that defined early Christianity. We even get to hear the words of the opposition: Gnostic Christian polemics directed at the orthodoxy of the Church and criticism of their interpretations. Early attitudes towards the individual's relationship with God, with Jesus, and with the hierarchy of the Church are explored, as are differences in the value of martyrdom, mystical revelation, and validity of the non-apostolic writings.

Recommended reading for anyone who is interested in the development of religious ideas and ideology.

10 Aug 2003

The Three Musketeers

Alexandre Dumas, originally published 1844, e-book version of uncertain origin.

This book was one of the vast canon of "Great Literature Which Everyone is Expected to Have Read And Yet Which I Have Somehow Avoided." To my joy, it is no longer in that collection, as it is a ripping good yarn, a rollicking adventure, and a laugh out loud funny book to boot! Now I, too, join those who know that it's really about four Musketeers, more or less, and that they actually do use muskets (and musketoons) on rare occasions, instead of depending entirely upon their swords. It's no surprise that so many film-makers have used the book as a vehicle for swashbuckling adventure stories (although I can't claim to have watched all fifteen feature films made of the story, nor the half dozen animations, I have seen enough excerpted to know that their faithfulness to the original is, shall we say, typical Hollywood).

I enjoyed how Dumas not only shows us the King's Guard as a bunch of rough, overprivileged thugs, but actually makes us like some of them as well. His depictions of political intrigue, court gossip, and the romantic manipulations of the nobility are also particularly entertaining.

It may need to be noted that social norms change, and some ideas that are taken for granted by Dumas may annoy modern readers. Attitudes towards women, servants, Jews, blacks, Muslims, Huguenots, Puritans, or just about any other group of non-Nobility won't be mistaken for progressive. If you find yourself bothered by this kind of thing, you can take solace in the fact that Dumas attacks with a broad brush, and few escape unscathed.

The DaVinci Code

Dan Brown, 2003, Doubleday

Brown couldn't decide if he wanted to write a Hollywood thriller screenplay, or an Umberto Eco tribute. So he selected elements of each, and thus The DaVinci Code was born.

It's an action packed tale, spanning roughly two days time, where the Grail Conspiracy collides with greedy Church officials, eccentric British knights, Harvard Symbology professors, and, of course, the requisite blood-line of Jesus. While it's a fun ride, I frequently found myself wanting to get a bit ... er ... medieval on Brown. His transgressions start with his cribbed-from-Fyodor's place descriptions, to his tour-guide size comparisons. How many times must I read the square footage of a building or a plaza? And must I be told that the Louvre is longer than three Eiffel Towers laid end to end, while the Grand Gallery is as long as three Washington Monuments?

Then, borrowing a page from any techno- thriller, Brown has high-tech tracking gadgets and frequent cell phone usage. Unfortunately, he feels the need to go into detail on how these things work; even more unfortunately, he gets it all hopelessly wrong. Cell phones ringing on planes over the mid- Atlantic? A tracking dot that " continuously transmits its location to a Global Positioning System satellite that [police] can monitor" which works to an accuracy of two feet, even when the trackee is underground.

The overall plot is, as mentioned before, a fun ride. It's full of the improbable narrow escapes and now-you-see-it-now-you-don't switcheroos that make for a good Summer action film, mixed with enough history and Grail legends to give it an intellectual patina. Still, in the end, we're left unsatisfied. It's difficult to have strong feelings for any of the characters, as they're often presented as foils for a plot point or an opportunity to lecture on semiotics. The twists and turns get less and less believable as the pages pass, and, by the end of the book, we find that we wish it had ended a few twists back.

A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates

Captain Charles Johnson, 1724, republished by Conway Maritime Press, 1998, nonfiction.

This book, published in several editions in the early eighteenth century, is a fairly straightforward accounting of the lives of some of the biggest names in what is called the "Golden Age of Piracy." It includes a number of the familiar names, such as Captain Kidd and Captain Teach (Blackbeard), as well as some of whom I had never heard. The book has been republished as a portion of the edition of 1724, leaving out many of the histories, but including a preface and a discussion of who this Captain Johnson actually was (it was long believed that this was a nom de plume for Daniel Defoe). Others have noted that this particular edition mixes and matches various editions of the book, and are quite critical of the editor; as I haven't read any other versions, I'm unable to comment on this.

While probably shocking in its day, today's reader may find the book almost dry. The English language has undergone some evolution since the time of the writing, and some readers may find Johnson's text stilted or challenging. He also is very concerned with accuracy, even when it gets in the way of a ripping good yarn -- Johnson chronicles litanies of ships looted (by type, and by captain) in a Deuteronomy-style list. There is a great deal of description of the mundane aspects of sailing ships (whether for trade or piracy), such as the frequent need to careen the ships and clean the hulls, as well as provisioning them for further journeys. Johnson also frequently reproduces (in their entirety) letters or documents that may have appeared in court cases or were sent by pirates that duplicate his description of events, or the final speeches of pirates who were hanged, or proclamations that affected their exploits, or lists of names identifying who was convicted and who acquitted.

The prurient details hinted at by the lurid title are rarely detailed, although in certain histories (such as that of Captain Low), there is a fair amount of murder, brutality, and mayhem provided in shocking portrayals. Johnson also dwells on the cases of Mary Read and Anne Bonny with a particular glee, as the idea of women pirates probably was about as controversial as you could get in the 1700s.

Where I found the book most interesting was in the descriptions of places, social mores, and world events. In several places, Johnson describes (or quotes others' descriptions) of islands or places, and the patterns of life in those places. We also get a view of the American colonies, half a century before the American Revolution, not to mention views of far flung places like India and Madagascar. Having traveled in India, it's fascinating to see a contemporary commentary on Aurangzeb ("the Grand Mughal").

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

J. K. Rowling, 2003, Scholastic Press

Well, our fears of "anticipointment" were fortunately misplaced. J. K. Rowling has managed to pull off another Harry Potter book which is great fun, involving, and quite entertaining. In fact, this book addresses one of the complaints I had of Goblet of Fire, which was that everyone seemed to take Harry's word for the critical events at the end of that book, even though there were no witnesses.

As usual, I offer some predictions of what will happen in the next book(s) ... taking into consideration that I've been wrong on all counts thus far: Snapes will not survive the next book, and Harry will belatedly discover Snapes' good qualities. Harry will become the Protection from Dark Arts teacher. Harry and Ginny will finally hook up, as will Ron and Hermione. The House Elves will rebel, but probably against Hermione's organization -- they'll provide good intelligence into the workings of the Death Eaters. Neville will hook up with Luna, and Neville will be the one who finally offs Voldemort.

The Ringmaster's Daughter

Josten Gaarder, 2003, translated by James Anderson, Phoenix Press

(I'll admit to having read this book while on a long flight, so the myriad ways that such conditions affect a reader may be worth taking into consideration.)

The book is based on the premise of a brilliant narrator, Petter, who overflows with narrative. From his childhood, he has had the ability to tell stories, to invent, to embroider, and to fill in limitless detail. In fact, he has difficulty differentiating between his stories and actual events.

He has so many stories, so many scintillating aphorisms, and such an abundance of ideas that he goes into business selling them to authors who have run into writer's block ( or who are good at the craft, but short on ideas). We witness Petter's growing fear when it looks like he may be caught at his game -- perhaps some authors would go to extreme measures to avoid having their secrets revealed? We hear a few of the stories Petter creates for his authors. We also become privy to his memories of his past, particularly the bittersweet memories of his mysterious lover Maria.

The voice of this book is reminiscent of Patrick Süskind's Perfume, as it's from the perspective of an individual who is, in one field at least, vastly superior to his fellow humans. And for at least part of the book, we enjoy this perspective. Particularly when Petter dwells on those who write, those who wish to write, and those who can't write, he has some quite entertaining observations on the perception of writers versus the reality.

I found myself disappointed by a few elements of the story; Petter's imaginary [?] companion, the three foot tall man, detracted from the telling. And then there's the ending, much of which we see coming long in advance, which leaves us cold.

The Unburied

Charles Palliser, 1999, Washington Square Press

Palliser is an expert in creating gritty, dark, atmospheric tales loaded with exquisite detail, and The Unburied is no exception. It comprises three interlocking murder stories, all seen from the perspective of one of the least admirable narrators in memory. In fact, the book is singularly lacking in sympathetic characters, and yet still manages to keep our interest.

A University Professor gets called to visit an old friend, many years after a spectacular betrayal. He makes the visit, and, while there, his friend tells him of one of the mysteries surrounding the place, and the tale of an unsolved murder. From there, we get caught up in a snarled web of Gothic intrigue.

With the sole exception of one conversation that seems inexplicably drawn from a modern book on emotional recovery, the entire book moves quickly, has an unrelentingly grim atmosphere, and is quite engaging.










* Of course, "recent" is a useless word in the context of an evolving web page. So I'll redefine it to mean "written not long after I read the book," which could be further translated into "well, at least within six months of reading..."

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