|Last updated 12/29/07|
Nightrunners of Bengal by John Masters, 1951
John Masters wrote at least a dozen good novels about British India, most of them involving members of the Savage family, as in this case. The focus in this one is the Sepoy rebellion of 1857. An apparent coup in the state of Kishanpur results in the temporary assignment of Rodney Savage and his unit to that state to ensure that the succession is handled smoothly. There’s some intrigue, an attempted seduction, and an exciting tiger hunt, but Savage returns to Bhowani, although there have been disturbing signs that something secret is afoot among the local populace and perhaps throughout India. The rumor that new cartridges are greased with a substance made from cow and pig fat is the spark that eventually sets off the rebellion, since this is offensive to both of India’s major religions. Eventually the mutiny starts in earnest and most of the named characters die horribly within a few pages. Masters suggests that the reaction by the British was just as barbaric and excessive as the original massacre, and most of the European characters are portrayed in less than admirable terms. It's pretty much a pox on both your houses approach. The main character appears to literally go insane for a while and even murders a close friend in a moment of fury. This reminded me at times of Robert Ruark's Something of Value, about the Kikuyu revolt. 12/29/07
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, 1952
For some reason I didn’t get around to reading any Hemingway except for “The Big Two Hearted River” until college, probably in reaction to my high school English teacher’s pronouncement that Hemingway and Fitzgerald were the two greatest American writers of all time. She didn’t like Faulkner and Twain was too popular. Reading this shortly after The Reivers by Faulkner made the radical differences in their styles even more obvious. The Sun Also Rises was always my favorite of his novels, but this novella, published late in his career, also made a big impression. It’s a fairly simple story on the surface, though it deals quite subtly with human pride, our place in the natural universe, and other issues. An old Cuban fisherman spends two days and nights battling a particularly large fish that he has hooked. When he tries to bring it to shore, sharks repeatedly attack the carcass and he ends up effectively with nothing except the skeleton. I was always impressed by the precision and economy of Hemingway’s prose, which is particularly in evidence here. If you’ve never read it, you need to set aside an hour some time. 12/27/07
The Reivers by William Faulkner, 1962
For some reason I came to Faulkner relatively late in my reading career. This was the first book I read by him, just after it came out, and in many ways it is still my favorite. The setting is Mississippi and Memphis in 1905. Eleven year old Lucius Priest steals his grandfather's automobile along with Boon and Ned, two adults, for a joyride to Memphis while Lucius' parents are away at a funeral. The adventure seems exciting at first, but the drudgery of getting the car across a muddy road, and the discovery that they will be staying at a bordello for the night takes some of the gloss off the thrill. Then Ned trades the stolen car for a stolen race horse, confidently predicting that he can get the horse - which has never won a race - to perform and win back the car. A teenager they choose as his jockey is, unfortunately, a diminutive psychopath. Lucius gets wounded in the hand, and then discovers that he is going to have to ride the horse in the race. Faulkner's style is intricate and requires close attention at times, but it's worth the effort. It's a coming of age story (without sorcerers or dragons) full of excitement as well as tragedy. Lucius regrets the childhood innocence that he knows he has lost. I've never seen the movie because I doubt it could live up to the quality of the book. 12/23/07
The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, 1940
I was in grade school when I read this so it’s understandable that I missed some of the context at the time. The story is a deceptively simple one. A lynch mob forms after a ranch hand is reported murdered. After arguing a lot about whether or not they should wait for the sheriff, they set off on their own and capture three men and hang them without a trial, only to discover what the reader will already have guessed, that they have the wrong people. Much of the novel consists of arguments about physical and moral courage, the rule of law, and the mindlessness of mobs, and Clark apparently meant this as a commentary on the things that had happened in Nazi dominated Germany during the 1930s, and a warning that the same types of injustice had happened in the US on a smaller scale on numerous occasions. The lynch mob rides after lengthy arguments and eventually finds the three men whose stories cannot be confirmed on the spot, so they hang them despite their protestations of innocence and the ease with which they could have checked the stories. Within hours they discover that there was in fact no murder, and the three men were guilty of nothing except being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Within a day, two of the men have committed suicide, but most find ways to soothe their consciences and go on as before. One of the classic novels of the Old West, a western with multiple levels of meaning. 12/21/07
Night Flight by Antoine de St Exupery, 1931
I’m not sure when it was that I read this, undoubtedly before I was old enough to appreciate it. The story is set in the early days of aviation and follows the low key adventures of Fabien, a pilot who carries mail back and forth across Argentina. The author was himself an early aviator and was lost while flying an intelligence mission during World War II, probably succumbing to an equipment failure. It’s quite short, a novella rather than a novel, and paints brief but interesting portrayals of the pilots and administrators. Andre Gide’s introduction says that the author was illustrating that the only road to happiness is through performance of one’s duties, but that seems to be contradicted by the text, since the manager and inspector are both loyal to their duties, but unhappy about their lives and envious of the pilots. The top guy, Riviere, is one of those who believes that the best way to manage is to be unnecessarily harsh because this brings out the best in people. I read this within a day of finishing Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and the parallels with the beliefs of his fascistally inclined general are very close. 12/18/07
Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, 1932
Nordhoff and Hall wrote this and two sequels, all providing a fictionalized history of the mutiny and subsequent events following the actual mutiny in 1789. They have made Lieutenant Bligh (although he commanded the ship, he had not yet been promoted to captain) into the icon for the sadistic British naval officer, but that contradicts the actual records, which suggest he was more lenient than usual and that Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers were more at fault, though no doubt he provided some provocation. The story is told from the point of view of a young boy sailing for the first time, and he’s the only character among the crew who is fictional. Although he wants to leave with Bligh when the loyal crew members are set adrift, circumstances prevent that and Bligh unfairly accuses him when he finally returns to England. Fortunately the truth comes out at his trial. It’s well written, though a bit ponderous at times, and they’ve made Blish such a thoroughgoing villain and Christian such a nice, if somewhat conflicted guy that it wouldn’t have seemed realistic even if I hadn’t checked the actual history. The novel does make an interesting contrast to Billy Budd by Herman Melville, which I reread a couple of months ago. 12/17/07
Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts, 1936
As far as I’m concerned, there has never been an historical novelist writing about early America and the Revolutionary War to equal Kenneth Roberts. He’s the reason I became interested in Benedict Arnold, among other historical figures, and he’s one of the most entertaining writers I’ve ever encountered. His frequently iconoclastic view of history feels much more authentic than the patriotic version I was taught in school. This story – which is over six hundred pages and filled with fascinating details - is set before the Revolution, and follows the adventures of a young, would-be artist who joins Rogers Rangers to fight in the French and Indian War after getting into trouble with the authorities in his home town. The first quarter of the book is an exciting novel in its own right, describing a perilous campaign against a remote outpost. After its conclusion, the protagonist sets off to England to learn how to be a painter, despite the disapproval of almost everyone he knows. There he runs into Rogers again, who is now interested in launching an expedition to find the Northwest Passage, a sea route across Canada to the Pacific. Obviously they don’t find it, and Rogers falls prey to his political foes and ends up a broken man. A big, sweeping, constantly entertaining book. 12/11/07
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, 1948
It took me almost two full days to make my way through this ponderous but fascinating war novel. I read this in 7th or 8th grade, shortly before I discovered science fiction. My current reading obsession at the time was books about World War II, fiction and non-fiction. I was particularly interested in naval warfare, submarines in the Pacific and battleships in the Atlantic, but I’d also gobbled up Quentin Reynolds’ 70,000 to One and other accounts of the battles in the jungles of the Pacific islands. This was at the time one of the longest books I’d ever read – though I’d already waded through War and Peace, Don Quixote, and most of Charles Dickens by then. If you’d asked me a week ago what I remembered from Mailer’s first novel, I would have offered only a vague recollection that jungle warfare was even more unpleasant than warfare in general, but when I actually started re-reading it, I was surprised at how much of it seemed familiar, and how many scenes I remembered once they had started.
The story is about the mythical battle for control of a Japanese held island. We see things through two perspectives. A platoon of soldiers have various adventures, led by an overly ambitious sergeant, and a young lieutenant functions as an aid to the very competent but also very fascistic general. It’s an antiwar novel, of course, so it’s no surprise that it doesn’t glorify combat. The portrayal of General Cummings is very subtle, however, and his interactions with Lieutenant Hearn are fascinating. This remains Mailer’s most famous novel, despite occasional bloat, and belongs right alongside All Quiet on the Western Front on your bookshelf. 12/7/07
Mad Dogs by James Grady, Forge, 2007, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-5561-4
Although this starts off with a murder, it's not really a mystery. It falls somewhere between thriller and mainstream satire. The opening is at a special clinic used to treat CIA employees who have gone insane and who cannot be allowed to talk where certain ears might listen. One day they discover that their therapist has been murdered, apparently by a professional, and assume either that they are also targeted, or that they are being framed. Employing their somewhat scattered wits, they contrive to escape the facility and avoid whatever fate was planned for them. And they're all aware of the fact that they no longer have access to the medication that stabilizes them. There are flashbacks, bits of amusing madness, and a few bits of wild action but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The story never really comes together, there's no suspense, the characters are too nutty to be sympathetic and the ending is pretty flat. I really enjoyed Six Days of the Condor by Grady some years back, but this was only intermittently interesting. 12/3/07
The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson
Another novel I haven’t read since I was a pre-teen. This is in many ways Stevenson’s most mature novel, an insightful look into the psychology of a family torn between two brothers, one the charming rogue, the other the plodding but honest man. The rogue is presumed dead for many years, reveals his survival only after his former fiancé has married his brother. He then extorts money from him, eventually returning to make life miserable until his masquerade is revealed, a duel is fought, and he is bested, although he survives to have further adventures, then return in another attempt to ruin his brother. The climax takes place in North America and resembles a Shakespearian tragedy with both brothers ultimately destroyed. James Durie is one of the most despicable victims in all of fiction, but his brother’s generally tepid response didn’t make me tremendously sympathetic to his cause either. 11/31/07
Graphic Classics: Mark Twain edited by Tom Pomplun, Eureka, 2007, $11.95, ISBN 978-0-9787919-2-6
The Mark Twain edition of this series of graphic adaptations of literary works has been revised and reissued. For those unfamiliar with the series, the editor chooses works by the author in question and lets various graphic artists adapt them, sometimes closely, sometimes loosely. The combination of varied art styles and sometimes very imaginative reinterpretations is quite impressive. The art itself is all black and white, but doesn't suffer from the lack of color. The eclectic selections are in evidence here, everything from "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" to "The Mysterious Stranger." "Tom Sawyer Abroad" has excellent artwork by George Sellas and is a good, succinct distillation of the original book. "The Carnival of Crime" is my favorite in the book, good humor matched with distinctive artwork by Nicholas Miller. "A Curious Pleasure Excursion" is also amusing. The remaining entries aren't quite as good, although "The Mysterious Stranger" comes close. One of the best installments in this series, but considering the author being covered, that's hardly a surprise. 11/30/07
The Mark of Zorro by Johnston McCulley, 1924
When I set out to re-read this, I read some background and discovered that McCulley apparently wrote numerous short stories and three more novels about Zorro, but this is the original story that sets up much of the background situations. Zorro is, of course, Don Diego Vega, the son of a prominent landholder in Spanish ruled California. He’s a kind of Robin Hood who rights wrongs and punishes evildoers. He is opposed by the corrupt governor and the evil Captain Ramon, and there are lots of chases, swordfights, and subterfuge as Don Diego plays the fop. His secret identity isn’t revealed until the final chapter but it would have been obvious almost from the beginning even if I hadn’t already known. Some of the writing is crude. There are multiple redundancies, the characters spend all of their time bragging about their prowess and exploits, and some of Zorro’s efforts are significantly dumb, but there’s a kind of glorious sense of fun about it that overcomes these flaws. It’s also surprisingly non-violent. Only one character dies during the novel, and him right near the end. I’ve been keeping my eye open for some of McCulley’s other books, but the few that are available are rather pricey. 11/28/07
Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, 1900
I hadn’t remembered that the narrator of this novel is the same as the one in Heart of Darkness. Marlow tells us the story of Jim, this time, a young sailor who makes a mistake of judgment, joining the officers of a distressed merchant ship when they abandon the damaged ship and its crew of passengers. They’re subsequently rescued, but Jim is criticized by both the public and himself for his perceived cowardice. He moves from job to job, refusing to stay whenever there is any reminder of his past ignominy, although we eventually learn that rather than running from the past he is actually searching for an opportunity to prove that what happened before was not a fair statement of his worth. He eventually ends up in Patusan, a Malay state torn by violence and near anarchy, agent of a trading company. This brightens his spirits as it seems to offer a chance to clear his character of its taint. 11/22/07
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, 1826
This is the second and most famous of the five novels of Natty Bumppo, better known as Hawkeye, and his friend Chingachgook, a Mohican. I’d read two of these when I was in high school but never got around to the other three, a failing I need to remedy some time soon. Those of you who have ever seen the television might remember that it wrongly identifies Chingachgook at the last of the Mohicans, but that is actually his son, Uncas. They rescue, twice, a party consisting of a soldier, two sisters, and an ineffective young man, menaced by the Iroquois, particularly one who holds a grudge against the father of the two young women. The prose is pretty thick, but still readable, and the adventure is well contrived. I was taken aback a bit when Hawkeye and his two companions leave the party when their powder runs out, only to rescue them the next day with fresh weapons and ammunition, whose source we never discover. I was surprised at how well this held up after nearly two hundred years. The first half of the book including the siege on the island, is particularly good.11/13/07
The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexander Dumas, 1847
The final adventure of the three musketeeers - 3 of the four die during the course of the story - is actually part three of a much larger novel, the first two thirds of which are largely unread today. The story is based on a real person, who wore a velvet rather than an iron mask, rumored to have been several different people including King Louis XIV's natural father (not Louis XIII). Dumas theorized that he was Louis' identical twin, imprisoned to avoid questions about his legitimacy on the throne. Aramis, who has left the musketeers to enter a holy order, decides to free the prisoner and replace the king, whose behavior is so weak that the future of France might be in jeopardy. He recruits Porthos to his cause but D'Artagnan, who resigned from the king's service for similar reasons, is persuaded to return, and his duty soon brings him into conflict with his feelings when he is ordered to kill the two traitors. The tension between honor and duty is a recurring one in the story, which is comparatively slow during the early stages, and a bit confusing if you haven't read the first two thirds of the greater novel. The second half, however, is full of thrills with chases, swordfights, and so forth. Aramis escapes to Spain but Porthos is killed during the battle, Athos dies of a broken heart, and D'Artagnan is killed later during a war with the Dutch. A bit uneven and not as good as their first adventure, but still an exciting story. 11/10/07
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
This is THE classic adventure story of India under British rule, and I have to say that my memories of it were quite different than the actuality. I remembered Kim as a native boy who helps the British, but he’s actually the orphaned son of a British soldier who lives with the natives until he is fourteen. The military looks upon his ability to blend in as an asset for espionage, and at seventeen he’s sent on his first mission, to spy on the Russians who are plotting to undermine the stability of the subcontinent. Kim spends much of his time in the company of a Buddhist lama searching for a magical river, and the story ends with Kim deciding that his spiritual quest is more important than his British heritage. The novel is often cited for its influence on Heinlein and others because Kipling essentially presented an alien society from the inside rather than externally, as well as writing a very good story. I thought the writing was a bit too florid at times, but the depiction of the various cultures in India at the time is fascinating. 11/4/07
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1888
I read most of Robert Louis Stevenson when I was 8 or 9 years old, and this is the novel I remembered most vividly, although I doubt that I followed much of the sidebars about the Jacobite Rising in Scotland at the time. But I did remember David Balfour’s climb up the unfinished staircase in the dark, the treachery of his uncle, and the siege aboard the Covenant that was supposed to bring him to the New World and sell him into slavery. Balfour’s adventures aboard ship, after being shipwrecked, his trek across a troubled Scottish Highlands, and his eventual return to deal with his uncle are all dramatically drawn and absolutely convincing. Stevenson’s books are often dismissed as being meant for young boys, but they’re much more sophisticated than what we today think of as Young Adult fiction, and they’re just as satisfying for adults. This is as good as most contemporary adventure stories, and better than most. There’s a sequel, Catriona, which I need to read one of these days. 11/1/07
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, 1943
I’m quite sure I read this at some point in my youth, but since I know the story so well, it’s possible that I never did. Certainly there was no copy in my library until quite recently. It is, for those few who haven’t read it, the story of a young boy in Boston at the time of the American Revolution. Johnny is an apprenticed silversmith whose hand is injured in an accident. After several rocky episodes, he is taken in by a family of printers, which puts him in position to meet John Hancock, Sam Adams, and Paul Revere, among others. He also runs afoul of a prominent, duplicitous local merchant. Eventually he becomes a messenger who is caught up in the excitement of the early days of the rebellion. The story isn’t written down at all, I’m happy to say, and reads like an adult novel with a teenaged protagonist rather than a deliberate attempt to write for younger readers. Forbes, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her non-fiction about the same period, presents the controversial material fairly neutrally, pointing out the unrealistic expectations of the British and the determination on the part of the rebel leaders to force a confrontation. It makes an interesting counterpoint to Rabble at Arms by Kenneth Roberts, which I reread last year. 10/31/07
Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, 1936
I know that du Maurier’s masterpiece is supposed to be Rebecca, but when I made my way through her books back in high school, it was this novel that made the deepest impression. Young Mary Yellam comes to the Jamaica Inn (which is in Cornwall) to live with her aunt and uncle, unaware of the fact that he is a criminal, head of a gang which lures ships onto the rocks, murders the survivors, and makes off with the “salvage”. Mary remains there out of a sense of duty to her aunt, but is soon falling in love with the bad guy’s mysterious brother, putting her trust in a Vicar of questionable moral quality, and plotting to turn in her uncle. In addition to being an exciting adventure story, it evokes the atmosphere of the brooding moors better than any other novel I’ve read. I also noticed this time that she does much of her characterization by reference to animals – cried like a kitten, ran like a dog, watched like a hawk, etc – and gives human characteristics to inanimate objects – frowning cliffs, clocks that seem to breathe, and so forth. Marvelously written and the Hitchcock film version, which I’ve never seen, changed the end dramatically, so it’s high time for a new movie. 10/29/07
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1884
I’ve read this classic novel four or five times previously and it has always been one of my favorites. Huckleberry Finn escapes his abusive father by faking his own death, then travels down the Mississippi on a raft accompanied by Jim, a runaway slave, and later two con men known as the Duke and the Dauphine. Jim – despite his lack of education and apparently simple manners – is the only adult in the group. Huck begins to mature when he rebels against the consequences of a con game he has been forced into joining, but the two crooks are incapable of making adult decisions. Jim is eventually turned in by the Dauphine, but Huck – joined by Tom Sawyer – contrives an elaborate and very funny plan to rescue him. The plan fails, but everything turns out well in the end. Marvelously written, wonderfully inventive, and except for a preponderance of coincidences in the final chapters, superbly plotted. This is one of that small handful of novels I’d take if I was going to be marooned on an island someplace. 10/28/07
King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard, 1885
My favorite H. Rider Haggard novel is just as good the fourth time through as it was the first. This was the first adventure of Allan Quatermain, who leads a small group through the jungle, across a desert, over snow covered mountains, and into Kukuanaland, a lost world that includes the diamond mines of the title. The current ruler, Twala, stole the throne with the aid of Gagool, an apparently immortal crone who is the only one who knows the secret entrance to the mines. With Quatermain travels Umbopa, who turns out to be the long lost child of the original king and therefore heir to the throne. After the usual festivities, there is a somewhat lengthy civil war and Twala is defeated. Quatermain and the others are almost destroyed by Gagool in the closing chapters, but they outwit her, and she dies in her own trap. The novel features some of the most colorful and evocative descriptions of the scenery I've ever encountered, without ever interrupting the story flow. Haggard nearly duplicated this feat in the sequel, Allan Quatermain, which is of nearly the same quality, though Quatermain's other adventures are pretty forgettable. Wikipedia claims this was the first lost world novel, which is nonsense. Jules Verne beat it by more than twenty years and there are probably others. It was, however, better timed, appearing as explorers were probing into remote regions of the world, and it set off a wave of imitations from everybody from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Edgar Rice Burroughs. One of the true classic adventure stories. 10/26/07
King of the Khyber Rifles by Talbot Mundy, 1916
I read this story of adventure in Afghanistan back before I had even discovered science fiction, and long before I read the Tros books and the Jimgrim series. Athelstan King is a member of the British secret service who is sent into the hills to discover who is provoking a rebellion during the early days of World War I. He is helped, supposedly, by a mysterious woman named Yasmini who commands the loyalty of many of the tribesmen, but it is not clear just whose side she is on. King is a James Bond type character, suave, always in control, able to outthink his enemies way in advance, prepared for anything, and he proceeds confidently and with some success, disguising himself as a tribesman. He enters a vast, underground cave system and finally meets Yasmini, whose loyalties are still a matter for speculation. He survives several tests of his false identity, although she knows who he really is. There's actually not a great deal of plot. King goes from adventure to adventure and starts to figure out what's going on only very close to the end. The theosophical mysticism is laid on a bit thick at times, and the passages reminiscent of She by H. Rider Haggard are clumsy and go on too long. I don't regret re-reading this because it was a lot of fun, but I hope the Jimgrim novels and Om hold up better when I get around to reading them again. 10/24/07
Jaws by Peter Benchley, Bantam 1974
I've seen the film made from this novel several times, and I've read most of Benchley's other novels - and enjoyed them - but for some reason I had never gotten around to reading his most famous one. Time to correct the situation. If you're one of the three people in the world who haven't seen the movie, the story is about a small town terrorized by a great white shark that attacks and kills several people. Sheriff Brody backs down from his initial inclination to close the beaches under pressure from the mayor and other business people, and then feels guilty when more deaths occur. Hooper is the young shark specialist who comes to help and Quint is the grizzled shark hunter who manages to find the shark. The biggest difference is the subplot about Brody's wife, a snob who regrets having married beneath her station. It's interesting in a sad way until she sets about seducing Hooper, which not only seems out of character, but goes on for so long that it really disrupts the momentum of the main story. There is also more detail about the mayor's underhanded business dealings, and some rather forced hostility between Brody and Hooper. That notwithstanding, it's a pretty good thriller, but I'd have to say that the screenwriters cleaned it up considerably and that his later novels are actually much better. 10/20/07
Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Philip K. Dick, Tor, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1690-5
In addition to his science fiction, Philip K. Dick wrote a number of mundane novels including this one. The story chiefly concerns Al Miller, a used car salesman who rents his lot from Jim, who runs the adjacent garage, but who is really drifting through life with no true purpose. When Jim sells the property, Al's future is even more nebulous because the new owner might have different plans, and also because Jim helped maintain the cars that Al sold. But despite the imminent threat to his livelihood, he finds it difficult to remain emotionally involved. Enter Chris Harman, a businessman who wants Jim to invest his cash in a new real estate development project. It's none of Al's business, but he thinks that Harman is running a con and despite his disenchantment with the world, he doesn't want to see Jim cheated out of his earnings. The situation begins to deteriorate for both men with flashes of irrationality that reminded me at times of his SF novels. I don't think this is a lost masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it's certainly a different look from one of my favorite writers. 10/18/07
The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy, 1984
I’m not really a fan of techno-thrillers, which are often so badly written that I would have failed them in a high school writing class, so I had never read anything by Tom Clancy before this. The plot involves a defecting Soviet submarine that is pursued by the entire Soviet navy. The Americans obviously would like to facilitate the escape because it has a revolutionary new propulsion system and other technical nifty things. So Jack Ryan of the CIA finds himself part of and eventually integral to the mission to contact the submarine, remove the non-defecting crew members, fake its destruction, and move the ship to a place of safety. Clancy moves the story right along by changing viewpoints every few pages and he obviously understands the way the military operates and how international politics can obfuscate already confusing issues. I had seen the movie already so there weren’t any real surprises but I found it surprisingly entertaining nonetheless. It also makes me more inclined to try another of his books. 10/14/07.
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, 1929
Although I remembered the skeleton of the plot of this one from having read it several decades ago, I had not recalled how beautifully written it is. The story is about a group of children who are traveling back to England from Jamaica when their ship is attacked by a band of inept, non-violent pirates. Due to misunderstanding and mischance, they are left aboard the pirate ship, where they experience a number of low key adventures, growing to know and like the crew, and vice versa. It’s not an idyllic fairy tale, however. One of the young girls is molested and another threatened, a boy is accidentally killed, and there are other mishaps. Eventually they are transferred to another ship and told to lie about what happened, but the truth comes out, the pirates are captured, and one of the children testifies at their trial, effectively condemning them to death for a crime they didn’t commit. The author has a marvelous talent for getting inside the minds of children, whom he considers more akin to savages or even animals than to civilized adults. It's also beautifully written from beginning to end. This is the most famous of his four novels, and one of my favorite sea stories. 10/7/07
The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, 1899
I first read this before I was old enough to appreciate Conrad's prose, but I still had fond memories of it. Upon re-reading it, I am more impressed than ever. The story of Marlow's journey by steamboat into the interior of Africa is an impressive indictment of colonial policies. It was also interesting to realize how closely Apocalypse Now! adhered to the original inspiration. I'm very surprised that there hadn't been a film version in the original setting until the 1990s. This was attacked in some quarters as being dehumanizing to the African characters, but the fact is that the book was not about them, it was about the corruption of the Europeans involved. The criticism was aimed at the book Conrad didn't write instead of the one he wrote. Also packaged with this was "The Secret Sharer", which I had re-read more recently. A novice sea captain shelters an escaped murderer from his own crew for several days, letting him escape into anonymity. The motivations are convoluted and the story itself is deliberately ambiguous. Some have interpreted the visitor as a doppelganger or even a ghost. Both are well worth your time, and neither shows any sign of aging. 10/1/07
The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean, 1957
I was generally disappointed by the quality of Alistair MacLean's novels during the second half of his career, but his early books were exceptional. This was his second and is still his most famous novel, although I've always thought The Satan Bug was his best book. A small group of commandos are sent to a German occupied island where an artillery emplacement commands a crucial sea passage. The configuration of the cliffs has made the installation invulnerable to air and naval attacks. They must deal with an unscalable cliff, a storm at sea, snow covered mountains, a variety of German opponents on the ground and in the air, and overcome the disadvantage of having a traitor among their number. There's not a dull moment and one can easily understand why this was a natural movie source. I thought the identity of the traitor was a bit obvious, but that might be because I've read it before, back when it first appeared. It's still one of the best war time adventure stories I've ever read. 9/26/07
The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton, 1976
This caper story is based on an actual train robbery that took place in 1855, although Crichton has taken considerable liberties, including changing the names of some of the characters, many of the details of the operation, and including an escape at the end that didn’t take place in real life. It was an extraordinary story even without his changes, and a very exciting one with them. A shipment of gold was to be taken by train to a ship en route to pay the soldiers fighting the Crimean War, and through an elaborate scheme of subterfuge, misdirection, and derring do, the criminals manage to make impressions of the keys to the safes, then enter the railcar undetected, substitute lead shot for the gold, and make their escape. It was done so neatly that it was more than a month before the authorities could even decide when the gold had been diverted. The text is interspersed with short but illuminating sidelights into foibles and fads of Victorian life. Some of the narrative makes use of the same underworld slang as the dialogue, but you can usually figure out exactly what is meant. This was one of his early novels and I hadn’t read it before, but it’s pretty good, and a lot less preachy than his last couple. 9/23/07
First Blood by David Morrell, 1976
Although I’ve read several of David Morrell’s novels and enjoyed them all, this was the first time I ever picked up First Blood, perhaps because the movie had left such a bad taste in my mouth. Not surprisingly, the book is much better. It’s not a clear case of good Rambo versus the bad police. Instead, it’s a battle of right and against right, and wrong against wrong. Certainly when Sheriff Teasle hustles Rambo out of town, he is in the wrong, but even more certainly Rambo’s murder of more than a dozen police officers before he is finally killed – he dies in the novel, as does Teasle – is over compensation. The chase scenes are so one sided that we find ourselves sympathizing with Rambo, even though we know that he has to be destroyed. It's as inevitable as a Shakespearian tragedy.
Morrell’s thesis is clearly that we create monsters when we turn people into professional killers during war time, then dump them unprepared into a peacetime society that is also unprepared for them. Rambo is a sympathetic monster, but he’s still a monster, and his fate is inevitable from the first page. That said, it’s hard not to cheer on the underdog who is hounded through the mountains by hundreds of armed men. Exciting, almost breath taking at times, and all the more impressive for having been the author’s first published novel. 9/21/07
The African Queen by C.S. Forester, 1935
This is another novel I hadn’t read since my early teens, and my recollections of it were completely overlaid by images from the Bogart/Hepburn movie version, which I haven’t seen for at least a couple of decades. The story is set in Central Africa during the opening days of World War I. Rose Sayer is left on her own when her brother, a missionary, dies of an apparent fever. She has led a suppressed, subordinated life that has prevented her from realizing her own potential. When Allnutt, a broken down mechanic with a working – though disreputable – barge shows up, she joins him and discovers that he has a load of explosives on board. This immediately leads her to plan a strike against a German gunship on a nearby lake.
Unfortunately, to reach the lake, they have to pass a German outpost, a long series of rapids, and other dangers. Allnutt balks but is eventually bullied into making the attempt. As Rose develops self confidence, so too does Allnutt, and an impossible mission begins to look doable. Their arduous and dangerous journey down river is riveting, and their discovery of the truth about themselves and each other is fascinating. Forester does not provide the expected Hollywood style ending – and if my memory serves me the movie version is considerably more dramatic – but it’s still a good one. 9/20/07
The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins, 1975
There have been about twenty of Jack Higgins’ books in the house for some years now, since Sheila was reading him, but this is actually the first of his novels I’ve read. Since I’ve seen the movie, I had a good idea what it was about, but even with that foreknowledge I found myself swept into the story pretty quickly. The plot is a secret history, that is, it’s about a secret plot by the German high command to kidnap Winston Churchill while he is visiting a remote English village. A group of commandos is to be sent in a day in advance to rendezvous with a local spy, spring the trap, and hustle Churchill out to a waiting ship before anyone knows what is happening. The portions of the novel set in Germany are particularly effective in evoking the paranoia and delusions rampant during the final months of the war.
Kurt Steiner is chosen to head the operation, an honorable man disgraced for intervening on behalf of a prisoner. With the aid of an IRA operative named Liam Devlin (who appears in three other Higgins novels) and a Boer woman who hates the British, a small group of paratroopers ingratiate themselves with the local villagers until their cover is blown. They have to take the few dozen residents hostage, then engage in a violent fight with a group of American soldiers led by a glory hunting officer. Most of them die, and there's an exciting ending with a touch of irony that's perfect. Almost all of the characters in the novel are honorable, likeable men, underlining Higgins' contention that the war is a general tragedy rather than good fighting evil. A very impressive novel. 9/17/07
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, 1846
I had not known until just recently that Dumas employed ghost writers for many of his novels, and that this one in particular was plotted and largely written by August Maquet. Like the novels of Charles Dickens, this one was published serially and is at times needlessly wordy and redundant, perhaps to remind the reader of what happened in previously published installments. The hero is a typical naïve young man, Edmund Dantes, who innocently gets involved in a political struggle between royalists and Bonapartists, is framed by three conspirators, and ends up being arrested on the day before he is to be wed and hustled off to prison by an official who wishes to cover up his own family’s involvement with Bonaparte.
The first half of the novel is a pretty straightforward tale of duplicity, endurance, escape, and the early stages of retribution. The second half is far more complex, with a sometimes bewildering number of characters, multiple motivations, sometimes confusing relationships, and a mixture of madness and avariciousness. The book overall could have used some careful pruning as several of the scenes are far too long. That said, it’s still an exciting and emotionally rewarding adventure. And I also suspect that the reference to Edmund’s name being replaced by his cell number was the inspiration for that aspect of The Prisoner. 9/14/07
Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling, 1897
One of the great sea stories as well as the spoiled little rich kid who finally grows up. Harvey Cheyne is crossing the Atlantic with his parents on an ocean liner when he falls overboard and is rescued by a group of fisherman from Gloucester. They don’t believe that he’s rich, and probably would not have taken him back to shore in any case because it was the beginning of fishing season, so he’s forced to remain on the boat for four months, during the course of which he goes from indignant brat to an accepted member of the crew. His conversion is, actually, rather too quick for my taste. After one encounter with the captain, he never says a rebellious word.
That cavil aside, it’s a great story, full of details about life among the fishermen and survival at sea. They witness the loss of a rival ship, trade with a French crew, and take turns teaching Harvey the tricks of the trade, still believing that his stories about his previous life are lies or illusions. The dialogue is authentic, which means it’s pretty thick, and I was surprised to find another reference to Freemasons in a Kipling story – they’re also in “The Man Who Would Be King”, which I also recently re-read. One of the classic sea adventures. 9/13/07
Destry Rides Again by Max Brand, 1930
My mother taught me to read when I was five years old, using paperback westerns. The first authors I knew by name were Luke Short, William MacLeod Raine, Wayne D. Overholser, and Max Brand. Of all these writers, the only one I still remember is Max Brand, actually Frederick Faust, who wrote hundreds of western novels but who had such contempt for the form that he would never allow his own books in his house. Despite his dislike of them, they're among the best westerns ever written, and this is probably his most famous novel, a rewrite in some ways of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. Harry Destry is a man who never grew up, who measures the worth of a man by his abilities with a fist and a gun and who has made a large number of enemies in the small town where he lives.
Destry is framed for a crime he didn't commit, and he declares his intention of getting even with the twelve prejudiced jurors who convicted him. When he returns, he initially plays meek, until two of them decide to kill him, and discover that he's as dangerous as ever. The plot develops with his best "friend" proving to be his worst enemy, the woman he loves proving uncertain, but eventually he not only proves his innocence but discovers that his earlier attitude was immature. Those who dismiss westerns as minor obviously haven't been exposed to Brand's lean but effective prose, his powerful characterizations, and his gift for perceiving complex human relationships. This is one of the most deceptively sophisticated novels I've read. 9/12/07
Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck, 1929
John Steinbeck is among my favorite writers, and one sorely overdue for re-reading. This was his first novel, which I needed to re-read for a project I'm working on. It's a fictionalized biography of Henry Morgan, the famous pirate, although that's really not what the book is about. It opens with some rather mystical passages in which he consults an old man named Merlin, who is not the Merlin of Camelot despite the fact that he refers to it a lot. Morgan, only fifteen, has been seduced by stories of buccaneers and leaves home to become one, although he gets illegally indentured first and spends four years learning how to manage a large scale operation and to direct the work of men, so it's not such a bad deal.
Eventually he visits the Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, his uncle, but the reception is cool. He then browbeats a cowardly pirate into letting him buy part interest in his ship, becomes the captain, and sets out to revolutionize piracy. The next ten years pass in about two pages, after which there is a much lengthier account of the raid on Panama City, the apex of his career, then a much shorter closing covering his arrest, freedom, knighthood, appointment as governor of Jamaica, and subsequent fall from power.
That's the plot, but it's not what the story is about. Steinbeck works in considerable discussion about the difference between children and adults, and suggests that the reason that Morgan never really seemed to take much satisfaction from his accomplishments was because he could never make the transition. Whatever he had, he always wanted more, particularly those things beyond his reach, and eventually the failure broke him. Much of the story is invented, but the historical details are otherwise quite accurate, except that he says Morgan's wife was named Elizabeth and I think it was actually Mary. 9/11/07
The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat, 1951
Other than Three Corvettes, I had never read any of Monsarrat's books, and since this is his most famous novel, I thought it was time. Monsarrat, although a pacifist, served on convoy escorts during World War II and much of the novel is based on his experiences there. It traces the careers of two men in some detail, Captain Ericson, a seasoned man who proves to be an unusually effective leader, and Lockhart, a novice who matures quickly and becomes a dependable officer. Most of their adventures involve encounters with unpleasant fellow officers, rough weather, and the cramped conditions aboard their ships, and in fact they only sink two submarines during the entire book, and they are sunk once in return. Monsarrat was trying for realism rather than romantic adventure, and also offers quite a range of subsidiary characters. There is also considerable emphasis on the stupidity of warfare in general, and the insensitivity of civilians to the conditions under which those serving in the military must serve. I wouldn't add this to my list of favorite novels, but it's still an engrossing and sometimes emotional experience. 9/9/07
Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini, 1922
This has always been my favorite pirate story and my favorite Sabatini novel, and I’ve read it so often that it’s like visiting an old friend. Peter Blood is a doctor unjustly convicted of treason in England and transported to Barbados as a slave. After a series of mild adventures under the cruel Colonel Bishop, he and a group of fellow slaves seize a raiding pirate ship crewed by Spanish privateers, and set out to conduct their own raids, although Blood is fastidious about only attacking Spanish interests. He and Bishop’s niece have an interesting love hate relationship, and he picks up a number of enemies including an obsessed Spanish admiral, a dishonorable pirate captain, and the aforementioned Colonel Bishop.
Several of the sequences are among the best adventure fiction I’ve ever read. The siege of Maracaibo, the escape from the death trap, and a subsequent sea battle with the Spanish are all top notch, only equaled in The Sea Hawk, another Sabatini pirate story. The various plots all converge at the climax, and the story is filled with witty, often humorous dialogue, even as Blood is besting his enemies, conducting masquerades, or dealing with the two main female characters. The movie, I am happy to say, captured the tone almost perfectly. 9/7/07
The Bridge Over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle, 1954
Although I saw the film version of this way back so many years that I can barely remember it, I had never read the novel until now. Boulle was a prisoner of the Japanese in Southeast Asia and the novel is a fictionalized account of actual events, the use of prisoners as forced labor to construct a bridge linking Rangoon and Bangkok. Although the main viewpoint character is Captain Clipton, the conflict is primarily between Colonel Nicholson – who insists upon observation of the Hague convention even when that results in privation and death threats – and Colonel Saito, commander of their camp, a brutal, not particularly bright man who is determined to compel obedience at almost any cost.
The story really starts when Nicholson’s force of personality overcomes that of Saito and he essentially is placed in charge of the bridge project. He stops the sabotage and replaces the chaotic project to build a barely functional bridge with an organized effort to create a major one, and before long all of the men – with the possible exception of Clipton – are equally committed. At the same time, a team of saboteurs is preparing to destroy the bridge, and from a distance they interpret the situation very differently, believing the men to be under much more serious duress than is actually the case. Boulle develops the irony of the situation brilliantly and the ending, though predictable, is in perfect balance. 9/2/07
The Call of the Wild by Jack London, 1903
I only vaguely remembered this story from my childhood, the last time I read it. Buck is a big, powerful mongrel who is stolen from his home and sold as a sled dog in the Pacific Northwest. He goes through a series of owners, battles the other dogs until he becomes the pack leader, finally gets a good owner who is later killed by Indians. Buck gets revenge then goes completely wild. It’s one of those archetypal stories that feels familiar even if you hadn’t already read it. London’s anthropomorphization of Buck and the other dogs is pretty extreme – the dogs even have a “moral sense” – but the story is a pretty good one and ages very well indeed. 9/2/07
The Bronze God of Rhodes by L. Sprague de Camp, Bantam, 1960
Although they are very hard to locate nowadays, the five historical novels by L. Sprague de Camp are among his very best novels, and this has always been my favorite of the five, although An Elephant for Aristotle and The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate are both close contenders. This one follows the career of Chares Nikonos, a young sculptor in Rhodes who battle conservatism to introduce new methods, and then gets involved in the defense of the city from the forces of Antigonos and Demetrios, who are determined to destroy them. He also gets sidetracked into further adventures in Egypt and elsewhere.
The portrayal of a city under siege and the various efforts by both sides to break the impasse militarily is great. There are sea battles and assaults on fortifications, dues with catapults, and battles with sword and spear. Although the events are serious, De Camp maintains a relatively light tone throughout, and his use of modern vernacular makes the events seem much more real than if he had sprinkled the dialogue with “forsooths” and “prithees”. There’s a good sized cast of characters, sometimes a bit sketchy, but not so shallow as to be without interest, and the slow maturation of Chares is well handled. I’ve read this several times before, so there were no surprises, except that I seem to like it more each time I read it. 9/1/07
The Black Swan by Rafael Sabatini, 1932
I love an exciting, intelligent pirate story and Sabatini was the master, creating several of the best known pirate adventures, most of which like this one ended up as movies. In this case, the film changed virtually all of the character names, but at least they kept the core of the story, which involves a reformed buccaneer who finds himself, along with a young woman and her escort, taken captive by the dread Captain Teach. Charles De Bernis is quick witted, however, and soon convinces the pirate that she is his wife, and that he has abandoned the reformed Henry Morgan to return to the sea.
There follows an elaborate duel of wits as De Bernis plays the pirates against one another, stalling for time so that he can lead them into a trap. But Teach becomes obsessed with the supposed wife, and not even the promise of a great treasure can keep him from having his way. Exciting but surprisingly free of violence until the final duel between De Bernis and Teach. I’ve probably read this four or five times by now, but it still feels new and exciting each time. Sabatini had done his research extraordinarily well, and the little asides about life among the pirates are convincing and historically accurate. He was also skilled at evoking an exotic setting with a surprising economy of words. 8/30/07
The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883
I was seven or eight years old when I last read this classic adventure story, and I remembered nothing about it. The setting is the War of the Roses. Richard Shelton is the ward of an obvious villain who eventually discovers that his guardian murdered his father. Sir Daniel has also kidnapped a young girl, and the two of them fall in love, and much chasing, fighting, capturing, and escaping ensues. Shelton becomes a member of the Black Arrow Fellowship, sworn to vengeance against Sir Daniel and his cronies, and later becomes a fighter for Richard of Gloucester, later Richard III. And in due course, he gets the girl.
The story is exciting and colorful, but suffers from two problems, the first of which Stevenson himself acknowledged as a serious error. He adopted an archaic form of English for all of the dialogue, and it jars with the otherwise smooth narration. The second flaw is the overuse of coincidences, particularly those which twice lead Shelton to the discovery of incriminating evidence against the chief villains. Oddly enough, the last film version of this seems to be the 1948 movie starring Louis Hayward. 8/25/07
Billy Budd by Herman Melville, 1924
Another classic I hadn't read since high school. I was interested to discover that the earlier version I read is no longer considered correct, that Melville had dropped the preface, changed the ship's name, etc. but that early editions hadn't reflected these edits. There's even disagreement about the title, which is sometimes reflected as Billy Budd, Foretopman or Billy Budd, Sailor. None of them really affect the core story though, which is on the surface the irrational animosity that springs up between innocent, likeable Billy Budd, an impressed sailor, and John Claggart, the bright but twisted and evil master-at-arms. The tensions between the two men escalates, but since Claggart ultimately has the law on his side, if not justice, the outcome is predetermined.
There has been considerable debate about whether Budd is meant to represent Adam or Christ, but it's pretty clear that Claggart is the serpent from the Garden of Eden. Symbolism aside, the novella suffers structurally from some of its digressions while others contribute significantly to the background of the story. Melville was never one of my favorites, but this was always my favorite Melville. 8/23/07
Beau Geste by P.C. Wren, 1924
I first read this and its two sequels way back when I was in high school. Yes, they had books then, and electricity too. Anyway, this is the novel you read if you want to know about the French Foreign Legion because Wren, who may or may not have served there – no one knows for sure – got the details right. Like most authors influenced by Victorian adventure writers, there’s a good deal of grandstanding, people making noble sacrifices and suffering silently, in this case mostly Michael “Beau” Geste, who steals a family jewel in order to avoid making his aunt admit to her husband that she sold it and substituted a glass fake. Beau joins the Legion, gets sent to Fort Zinderneuf, almost survives a mutiny, an avaricious commandant, and attacking Arab tribesmen before dying nobly and preserving the secret. The opening chapters are a bit verbose, but one Wren settles down to his story, it’s absolutely gripping, and the siege of Zinderneuf and its clever defense are among the most exciting stories in all of literature. One of the true classics of adventure fiction, and surprisingly robust today. 8/19/07
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, 1929
I last read this novel more than fifty years ago, which is a sobering thought in itself, and I actually remembered at least one scene, the slaughtering of the wounded horses during one of the battles. This popular novel is derived from the author’s own experiences in the trench warfare of World War I; he fought in the German army. Although there are some exciting, almost terrifying battle scenes, the novel was meant as an indictment of war, which arbitrarily sets one set of people against another, shakes up the normal order of society, and is then conducted by men who don’t know what they’re doing. The protagonist and his friends age quickly in only a few months, at least those who survive, and the quest for food and rest is considerably more important than the need to kill the enemy. Modern armies don’t generally fight in trenches, but the point remains valid. 8/15/07
The Plague by Albert Camus, Modern Library, 1947
Here’s another novel I haven’t read in forty years. How time flies! The 1940s Algerian setting is sufficiently unique that this sometimes felt like a science fiction novel, many of which have speculated about new plagues devastating the world. In this case it’s the old Plague, and the scene is only one town. No one seems to take alarm when all of the rats in the city emerge to die in the streets and hallways, and even the doctors don’t wish to use the word plague when human victims begin dying with hideous sores and swellings on their bodies. It’s as if they thought they could make it cease to exist by not acknowledging its existence except, of course, it doesn’t work that way.
Eventually the town – actually a small city of 200,000 people – is quarantined. As the plague spreads, waves of emotion sweep the population, anger, sadness, hopefulness, hopelessness, frustration, confusion, and indignation. Camus jumps around among several characters, each with a different set of personal circumstances, showing us how they react to the extraordinary situation in which they find themselves. The gradual changes in attitudes of the characters, the swings from hope to despair, grim realism to flights of fantasy, are very convincingly done, and struck me as a very close parallel to the experiences of the characters in Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat", which I also just read recently. The survivors faced with the uncertainty of life and death while drifting at sea is not that different than those trapped in a city where the plague seems to strike randomly. This is an impressively realistic portrait of a community in crisis that manages somehow to stay just this side of melodrama. 8/9/07
The Second Objective by Mark Frost, Hyperion, 5/07, $24.95, ISBN 978-1-4013-0222-1
Back in 1993 I read a remarkably good novel called The List of Seven, followed by a somewhat less distinguished sequel, and that was the last novel Mark Frost wrote until this present one. This one is also high adventure, but where the first two were fantastic adventures featuring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this one is based on recently released information about the war in Europe in 1944. Reeling from multiple defeats, the German command launched a surprisingly robust counteroffensive that year, what would be their final such effort in the war. This is the story of a secret operation conducted under cover of that attack, the infiltration of specially trained units dressed in American uniforms, and within that an even more secret plot to assassinate Dwight Eisenhower. Obviously that failed, but our knowledge of that doesn't detract at all from the suspense.
We alternate between two viewpoint characters. One is a New York police detective working on cases of black marketeering and other crimes within the US army. The other is a member of the secret within a secret, but he has a secret of his own. Having spent his childhood in the US, his sympathies lie with the allies, and he is determined to expose the plan whenever he can do so safely. Unfortunately, his direct commander is a fanatic German aristocrat, and when early reversals leave the two of them as the only survivors, the tension begins to build even higher. A very exciting, thoroughly engaging, and highly plausible account of what almost happened. 8/2/07
The First Man by Albert Camus, Knopf, 1995
When Albert Camus died in an automobile accident, the incomplete manuscript of this novel was found in the wreckage. His widow didn't allow it to be printed during her lifetime, ostensibly because the autobiographical work might have been too revealing of the author's personal life - the story is largely autobiographical and deals with his youth in Algeria. There may have been other reasons, although Camus was a staunch socialist (which alienated the French right), he was an unrelenting critic of communist excesses, particularly in Russian (which alienated the French left). He also advocated a kind of dual social system in Algeria, one for the European population and one for the Arabs (which alienated pretty much everybody). In any case, when I was reading Camus in college, this wasn't available, so this was my first time reading it. His children arranged for publication - with all of his notes included - during the 1990s. The novel consists of anecdotal stories about his impoverished childhood, set within a loose frame in which the adult version of the narrator has become curious about his father, who died in the war and whom the narrator does not even remember. His disillusionment with humanity is evident throughout, as in "men pretend to abide by what is right and never yield except to force". Although the story jumps back and forth in time quite a bit, the transitions are incredibly smooth and even though there is no driving central plot, I could not stop reading it after I reached chapter three and ended up doing one of my periodic very late night reading sessions.
Reading The First Man caused me to try to reconstruct what it was that made me such an avid reader from such an early age. My mother taught me to read when I was five, and I was reading at a modestly adult level by six, and from that point on, I think the only time when I didn't have a book at hand or in process, or wasn't out looking for more of them, was during basic training in the Army. I was notorious in school for rushing between classses so I could read for five minutes before the break ended. I read in lines, when we were traveling, while waiting for anything, during the morning, all through the day, and late at night, and later on guard posts in Vietnam and during lunch breaks at work. You get the idea. Oh, I found time to be active in Boy Scouts, played baseball, dated girls, watched movies, and goofed off with friends, but there was always a book waiting for me to get back to it. I didn't discover science fiction until I was fourteen, and by then I'd already read a couple of thousand, mostly westerns, mysteries, the classics, and non-fiction.
I think the attraction was that reading allowed me to vicariously share other lives, and The First Man is primarily just that, a window into the childhood of Albert Camus. Although the setting - a very poor neighborhood in early 20th Century French dominated Algiers - seems strange at first, once the reader has acclimatized, it's surprising - or maybe not - how closely the experiences of this young, half Spanish, half-French boy parallel those of kids from other cultures. The names and details might differ slightly, but the core experiences are very much the same. What Camus adds is very powerful insight into the mind of his protagonist - not surprising since it was his own mind he was exposing - which creates a vivid picture of a boy who was ashamed of his family, although he didn't quite know why, and also ashamed of feeling that way, a boy who could lie with impunity within his family but who found it impossible to do so among others. The book doesn't feel unfinished, at least not until it stops abruptly, and the occasional variations in character names isn't even distracting. The fact that Camus never finished the book is one of the great losses to world literature. 7/29/07
Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock, Kessinger, undated (originally published 1818)
I saw an interesting reference to this in something else I was reading, so I popped onto Ebay and ordered a copy, not really knowing what to expect. So naturally I got what I wasn't expecting. This is a novella, written by a friend of Lord Byron. Most of Peacock's work is satirical and this is no exception. I was immediately impressed by his description of the youth of Scythrop Glowry. "He was sent, as usual, to a public school, where a little learning was painfully beaten into him, and from thence to the university, where it was carefully taken out of him..." He is also "cured of the love of reading". Scythrop is the son of the owners of Nightmare Abbey. He falls in love, he and his beloved vow eternal faithfulness, are separated, and three weeks later she is happily married, to someone else. Scythrop is stunned but his father blames it on society's insistence on training its young women to be little more than "musical dolls", which I suspect was a rather advanced period of the time.
Thwarted in love, he decides to reform the world, but his "brilliant" manifesto sells only seven copies. A fresh infatuation ensues, but his father has decided to arrange a marriage and disparages his son's insistence on freedom of choice. "We are all slaves and puppets of an unpathetic necessity." Much of the text consists of conversations among the various visitors to the Abbey including a man who believes that every untoward event demonstrates the intervention of the devil himself, and an ichthyologist who is determined to prove the existence of mermaids. Scythrop's new love observes that he has become melancholy and consults a third party to find out why, only to be told that "It is the fashion to be unhappy. To have a reason for doing so would be exceedingly common-place...", and that "the art of being miserable for misery's sake, has been brought to great perfection in our days".
A strange woman appears in Scythrop's tower study and lives there for some time in a secret room, while the rest of the residents begin swapping ghost stories and eventually scare themselves into a frenzy. The interloper is discovered, Scythrop's twin romances are equally in peril, and when both women walk out, he announces his intention of killing himself one week hence, but manages to avoid that fate through a bit of clever nonsense. This was a lot of fun and I'm surprised it isn't better known. 7/25/07
Flight Volume 4 edited by Kazu Kibuishi, Villard, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-345-49040-7
This is one of those books that I always have trouble deciding how to categorize. It's a collection of graphic stories, but they're clearly meant primarily as fiction, so it's problematic calling them non-fiction. So I'm covering it here for lack of a better solution. This is the fourth volume in this series, and I believe I've only seen one of the previous ones, but I remember it as being exceptionally varied and visually impressive. This one is very much the same. I don't know enough to recognize the names of the various artists and illustrators who contributed, but the publicity information says that they have varied backgrounds including work at Pixar Studios and Dreamworks, both of which are enviable entries on a resume. The styles and subject matter are extremely varied, and everything is in full color in this very large (over three hundred pages) collection. If I had to point to a trend this time it would be toward more art and fewer and shorter bits of dialogue. Sometimes entire pages progress without any text. There is almost no realistic art; it varies from cartoonish to almost abstract. If I were going to pick standouts, they'd be the contributions by Michael Gagne, Israel Sanchez, Raina Telgemeyer, and Bannister, and Andrea Offerman, but I actually pretty much liked everything this time. This is the kind of graphic art that really deserves the term "art". 7/10/07
Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus, Vintage, 1958
When I was at Michigan State back in the 1960s, everyone was reading The Stranger. It was one of a handful of novels that you had to be familiar with if you were in the English department at the time. The others included The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and Three Lives by Gertrude Stein, if that’s of any interest. Anyway, I read the Stranger, and then The Plague, and some of his non-fiction, and then realized I had read pretty close to everything Camus had written (he died in 1960), so I decided to fill in the last few holes. This collection of his short stories was the last thing I read by him and now, forty years later, it’s the first I’ve re-read. Camus was born and lived much of his life in French Algeria, which gave him a somewhat unusual background. He was in and out of the Communist Party, moved to France for a while, was associated with Sartre and Existentialism, though he never understood the linkage.
The first story is “The Adulterous Woman”, who actually never commits adultery except in her thoughts as she comes to recognize her lost youth, her loveless marriage, and her dismal future. The second, “The Renegade”, is I suspect is in some obscure way metaphorically autobiographical. The protagonist was a Christian who decided to become a missionary to a remote Algerian tribe, ignored warnings that he was too inexperienced, is capture, abused, and eventually converted by those he wished to convert. When a more experienced missionary shows up some time later, he kills him and is eventually put to death. The protagonist’s confusion is probably an exaggeration of what the young Camus felt when he discovered the Communists’ were as bad as the Fascists.
"The Silent Men" is a very quiet, restrained, but eloquent story about the way in which the relationship between labor and management, even in a very small, personal business, changes as the result of a labor dispute. "The Guest" is also excellent, the story of a man charged with conveying a prisoner to a neighboring constabulary. He refuses to become involved and sets the man free, but even having done so is unable to escape the bad karma of his brush with authority.
My favorite is the only story I remembered fairly clearly even after the forty year gap, "An Artist at Work". The artist in question is a painter whose simple devotion to his art is hemmed in by the importunities of those around him. Every writer (and creative people of every sort) is likely to feel at least a twinge of sympathy, and perhaps a thrill of fear at what could happen to them. Last in the collection is "The Growing Stone", which I also remembered, though less clearly. A French engineer in South America is caught up in the local culture during a festival. 7/9/07
At Sea by William Hope Hodgson, Necronomicon Press, 1993
William Hope Hodgson is best known for his weird fiction, much of which reflected his time spent at sea. This pamphlet made available four of Hodgson's non-fantastic sea stories. "The 'Prentices' Mutiny" brings to mind Herman Melville's Billy Budd, with a group of young seamen trainees smarting under the reign of a brutal sea captain who eventually provokes them into the ultimate crime at sea. The concept is still a good one but Hodgson lacked the skill to insert believable characters into the story, which reads more like a narrative essay than fiction. "The Island of the Crossbones" veers closer to his supernatural fiction. Sailors disappear in the vicinity of a mysterious island. "On the Bridge" is a very brief, fictional portrait of the first few minutes of the Titanic after its fateful collision. "The Waterloo of a Hard-Case Skipper" mirrors the first story, as well as Hodgson's essay explaining that he had left the merchant marine because of the tyranny of its captains. In this case his bullying leads to a confrontation which permanently destroys his image as an almost superhuman figure. 7/3/07
West Texas War and Other Western Stories by Gary Lovisi, 2007, $18, no ISBN
Back when I was five years old, the public schools didn't offer kindergarten and we didn't have a television set, so my mother decided to teach me to read. My primers came from her collection of western paperbacks, Ernest Haycox, Luke Short, Max Brand, and others, and I was reading them on my own within a year. Although I moved on from westerns to other genres very quickly after that, I never completely abandoned the genre, which has of late become very marginal in the US, although for some reason it apparently does much better in foreign countries. That may explain why the title story in this collection, actually a novel, was previously published in hardcover in the UK rather than in the USA.
Traditional westerns are very much written to formulas. There are certain stock situations which are used over and over again, and most readers don't seem to be troubled by it. Lovisi has taken several of these and recombined them in his novel, which opens with an honest but trouble farmer meeting the stagecoach returning his daughter to him after fifteen years of schooling in the East. The reunion is a brief one, however, because there's a brewing range war between the farmers and the ranchers, which inevitably attracts gunfighters. An attempt to intimidate her father goes wrong and he is shot to death. To cover their own tracks, the killers then murder the son of the leading rancher in the area, framing two farmers so that it looks like they were looking for vengeance. Troubled daughter goes to the Texas Rangers, who are too busy to help much, but one Ranger is smitten and you can pretty much figure out what happens afterward.
Although I enjoyed the novel, the short stories that have been added to this edition actually impressed me more. I don't recall ever having read any short western fiction - except occasional ones with fantasy elements like "Me and Flapjack and the Martians" - so this was a relatively new experience. "There Ain't No Men in Heaven" is another reunion story, and I have to admit the ending caught me by surprise. "Enough Rope to Hang" presents the amusing side of execution, and has some fantasy content. In "My Brother the Gun" an unlucky bank robber finally has a turn for the better. I didn't care for the next story particularly, but "Old Aunt Sin" and "After the Great War" are both pretty good. If you're looking for a radical break from SF or Fantasy, this might be just the medicine you need. Ramble House books don't have ISBN numbers and aren't carried on Amazon. To order this and quite a variety of other fiction, you should visit their website, www.ramblehouse.com. 6/29/07
Graphic Classics #14 edited by Tom Pomplun, Eureka Publications, 2007, $11.95, ISBN 978-0-9787919-0-2
I couldn't decide just where I should include this so it ended up here. This is the latest in a series of graphic adaptations of classic works of fiction. Most of the previous titles have been dedicated to a single author. They're not really in the tradition of Classics Illustrated though. The artwork is generally much better, though only in black and white, and each individual story is by a different artist and in a different style. Previous volumes have included H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson, and every one of them has been memorable.
There are three main stories included in this one. The first is an adaptation of Carmilla, the short vampire novel by J. Sheridan LeFanu. Adapted by Rod Lott and illustrated by Lisa K. Weber, it's done in a non-realistic style that nevertheless feels perfectly suited to the subject matter. Next is a rendition of The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, one of the gothic classics, adapted by Antonella Caputo and illustrated by Carlo Vergara. The style is much more realistic and, frankly, this shortened version of the "classic" novel is in many ways superior to its bloated original. The third major story is Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, which was actually a satire on gothic novels of her time. The adaptation is by Trina Robbins and the artwork by Anne Timmons. There are three additional shorter pieces, all of which are enjoyable. This is graphic work for people who might ordinarily turn up their noses at such a thing. 6/10/07
Spook Country by William Gibson, Putnam, 8/07, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-399-15430-9
Although William Gibson’s latest novel has lots of computer references and virtual reality, his usual readers might be somewhat disappointed because this one is far less speculative and is, in fact, probably not science fiction at all. It follows the interlocking experiences of a number of disparate characters, including an ex-rock star turned free lance journalist, a drug addict virtually imprisoned by the CIA, or at least by people claiming to be the CIA, a computer expert who helps create elaborate virtual reality artworks that can only be seen by special equipment, and who has divided his world into grid squares, a Cuban whose grandfather was a devoted Communist and who makes a living forging documents for criminals in the US, a rich but strange business magnate who sponsors a magazine that may or may not exist at all, and a variety of other people.
The title obviously refers to the world of spies, formal or informal, and the vanishing privacy that surrounds us. Gibson delivers all of this in his usual spare style with heavy doses of unadorned dialogue. Some of the scenes are quite powerful; others feel as though they’ve been stripped bare. I never felt that I really knew any of the characters except the rock singer journalist very well, and I certainly didn’t care about them or their vicissitudes. It took me a while to figure out just exactly what it was that I found wanting with this one, and I think it was emotional commitment. I never got the impression that Gibson cared about what happened to his imagined people, and therefore I felt little connection with them either. He does, however, have a genuine gift for portraying technologies that impact humans on an intellectual as well as physical level. 6/6/07
Astounding Hero Tales edited by James Lowder, Hero Games, 2007, $16.99, ISBN 978-1-58366-060-7
The days of the pulp magazines will never come again. It was once possible to read literally hundreds of new stories every month, most of them forgettable but fun at the time, on a variety of subjects – railroad stories, zeppelin stories, boxing, weird, mystery, Oriental adventures, and many others. This new anthology is an attempt to recreate some of the feel of that era, and to a large extent it succeeds, in both the good and the bad.
The opening story is a previously unpublished one by Lester Dent, best known for writing most of the Doc Savage adventures. This one’s a detective story with weird overtones, though everything is explained rationally, if not convincingly, at the end. It’s typical of the era, and also typical of Dent in that the prose is often appallingly bad, repeating words and phrases and with awkward dialogue. Will Murray captures much of the same mood with his “The Mask of Kukulcan”, a fantastic adventure involving pilfered treasure and dastardly criminals. Steve Melisi provides a boxing story, not one of my favorite genres, and a not particularly interesting variation.
“Wolf Train West” by William Messner-Loebs is much better, a sort of weird railroad story. Two youngsters sneak aboard a freight train headed west from Chicago in the 1890s, encounter a mysterious tramp, and are rousted by nasty werewolf detectives. The tramp turns out to be an aging Lone Ranger, still equipped with silver bullets. Steve Eller adds an enigmatic weird tale and Richard Dansky’s “Missing Pages” is a pretty good ghost story, though it needs a punchier ending. John Helfers pits cowboys against a secret German base in Mexico during World War I and Patricia Lee Macomber mixes voodoo and detectives in “Playback”, both among the better entries.
Darrell Schweitzer’s “A Lost City of the Jungle” is a jungle story set in Africa, not exactly a lost world story, cast in the form of a tale recounted at a club. “It Came from the Swamp” by Ed Greenwood is another detective story, with hints of a legendary monster but a mundane resolution. It’s okay as is David Niall Wilson’s combination of sports and a ghost story, “Slide Home” and John Pelan’s “Out West”. Thomas Reid’s story starts out quite well. The protagonist gets a letter from his old war buddy asking for help, but when he arrives, the buddy’s sister tells him that he died years ago. It’s a pretty good adventure story with a lost treasure, a map torn in two, a nasty German villain, and a pretty girl.
The final three stories are another good detective story, this one by Robert Weinberg, a blend of the weird and the communist menace by Robin Laws, and voices from beyond the grave in one of the last stories to appear by Hugh Cave. All in all, the collection does exactly what it sets out to do, with perhaps a slight tilt toward detective titles. Occasionally some modern sensibilities of prose or character slip in, but for the most part the contributors have all caught much of the atmosphere of the time. 5/14/07
Although I've enjoyed previous books by Jeff Long, I found this one at times tedious and at other times opaque. The story involves two friends who decide to indulge their hobby of mountain climbing one more time before they get too old. Before they've even started, they find the body of a dead woman who fell from the same mountain, a body subsequently stolen by a maniac, and then they're recruited into a rescue mission to find the two other women in the party, one of whom is the lover of the leader of the rescue team. Accidents, a forest fire, a storm, and a landslide follow, and one of the missing women has apparently been driven insane by her experiences. Not that the rescuers are much sounder mentally, and there's more death on its way. Despite the plot summary, which sounds action packed, most of the actual book is about the details of climbing, and they got tiring real fast. There are hints of a curse, or a supernatural entity living in the mountain, but nothing overt.
Lord of Samarcand by Robert E. Howard, Bison, 2005, $18.95, ISBN 0-8032-7355-X
The Riot at Bucksnort and Other Western Tales by Robert E. Howard, Bison, 2005, $14.95, ISBN 0-8032-7354-1
The End of the Trail by Robert E. Howard, Bison, 2005, $17.95, ISBN 0-8032-7356-8
Boxing Stories by Robert E. Howard, Bison, 2005, $14.95, ISBN 0-8032-7532-5
Robert E. Howard is best known for his fantasy and horror stories, particularly the tales of Conan, but he actually wrote a very large volume of short fiction for other pulp magazines, stories which have been largely unavailable in recent years. University of Nebraska Press has brought a large number of them back into print under their Bison imprint, gathering them into these four volumes. The first is of most direct interest to fantasy fans, stories of adventures in various remote parts of Asia, some of which contain fantastic elements and some of which were adapted by L. Sprague de Camp to make them even more overtly fantastic. A very nice collection and a great buy for the price. The two middle titles are western stories and they vary considerably in quality, although the majority are not surprisingly quite well done. Of least interest to me are the boxing stories, which I read quite a few years back. They seem more repetitive than the others although there are occasional bits that work quite well. It's very nice to have these available once more, and Howard fans should chase them down while they have the chance.
The Codex by Douglas Preston, Forge, 1/ 04, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-30700-6
I've been a big fan of the Douglas Preston/Lincoln Child collaborative team right from the outset, so I was interested to see what would happen if they wrote novels individually. Alas, in this case at least, the result was not a complete success, and unlike their collaborations, this one isn't even remotely SF, although it hints at being a lost world novel. A rich but eccentric art collector takes his wealth into the jungles of Central America and challenges his three sons to find him. They do so, after avoiding natural enemies and a murderous supposed ally, discover more than they expected about their family, are reunited with their repentant father, and all ends well. But the plot moves in fits and starts, some scenes feel under written, characters appear and disappear for no valid narrative reasons, and at the end I felt as though I'd almost read a very good adventure story.