Home : Ex Libris : 1 November 1997

ex libris reviews

1 November 1997

When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal and exhausting condition until death do them part.
George Bernard Shaw


In This Issue

This was a busy month, bookwise. I'll be discussing Scott Adams, Stephen Ambrose, Bill Amend, Joan Aiken, Sarah Caudwell, August Derleth, Dorothy Dunnett, David Fischer, C.S. Forester, Brian Jacques, Jan Karon, Patrick O'Brian, and David Weber.

Thoughts on Ten Years of Marriage

Jane and I celebrated our tenth anniversary this past month, and inevitably I reflected that many of those who were married in 1987 along with us have since been divorced. Jane and I, on the other hand, are still rolling along. The following are my random thoughts on marriage and avoiding divorce. Obviously, these are written from a man's point of view; rest assured, Jane has seen and approved these.

Don't fall into the trap Shaw speaks of in this month's quote: being in love doesn't last. But when the excitement calms, affection begins.

Never let your relationship come between you.

Never marry someone you aren't good friends with. Jane and I had been good friends for several years before we started dating.

Never marry someone if you can't live with them as they are. You can't change the things you don't like. At least, not easily or reliably.

Don't "work on your marriage"; that makes it sound like some separate entity. There's just the two of you. Learn to live together.

Be willing to change.

Marry someone who's willing to change for you. Don't abuse the privilege.

Never marry someone who doesn't share your sense of humor. If you can't laugh at life together, you're doomed. Especially, if you can't laugh at each other, you're doomed.

When you're really, really angry, so angry you want to break things, throw a phonebook on the floor. Lift it over your head, and hurl it at the floor as hard as you can, so that it hits flat against the floor. It makes a lovely thud, and you don't break anything. Repeat until your adrenalin has receded.

When you come home cranky, warn your spouse, so they know it's not their fault.

Learn to recognize when you come home cranky. Then reassure your spouse that it's not their fault.

When your spouse says, "Dear, would you like to take out the trash?", tell the truth and say "No." Then take out the trash. Don't pretend to want to do things just to seem agreeable.

Leave the toilet seat down. It's silly, but you'll get a lot less grief.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

Thus Was Adonis Murdered
By Sarah Caudwell

We didn't have anything new and exciting after finishing Maskerade last month, so we reread one of our favorites. Caudwell's three novels concern the barristers of 21 New Square, Lincoln's Inn, and are primarily concerned with taxes, tax evasion, wills, trusts, and so forth. But that's merely the plot. It's the characters themselves, and especially the narrator, Hillary Tamar, who make Caudwell's books a treat to read. This particular volume concerns a young tax lawyer named Julia, young, pretty, romantic, and hopelessly incompetent at anything but tax law, who travels to Venice on an Art Lover's Holiday. (She figured that on a packaged tour, she wouldn't have time to get in trouble.) Smitten with a beautiful young man with a lovely profile, she pursues him for several days, only to have him turn up dead. Who killed him? Certainly not Julia.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

By Brian Jacques

Brian Jacques is the author of a number of juvenile fantasy novels collectively known as the Redwall series. I've seen the Redwall books in both the fantasy and young readers shelves in the stores for many years now, and finally decided to pick one and give it a try. The experience was a qualified success.

The series takes place in the around and about Redwall Abbey, home to an order of monastic mice. Because of their healing skills, the mice of Redwall are honored by all the woodland creatures for miles around, except, of course, for the bad guys. The landscape resembles the English countryside, with the monks, peasants, yeoman, poachers, and so forth transformed into a variety of different animals. Be warned: though the blurb claims that Redwall is "In the glorious tradition of Watership Down", there's really no comparison. The rabbits of Watership Down are recognizably rabbits: they build warrens, not abbeys. The creatures of Redwall Abbey are recognizably people in animal shape, although the shapes they wear do affect their behavior.

Redwall tells of the coming of age of Matthias the mouse, a novice at Redwall who idolizes Martin the Warrior, the mouse who protected Redwall Abbey from destruction in its early days. Matthias is initially both eager and clumsy, and I found myself thinking of Maria von Trapp and humming "How do you solve a problem like Matthias...." The abbot has cause to remind him that the Abbey is pledged to non-violence, but that's before Cluny the sea-rat and his army of rats, weasels, and ferrets show up at the front gate. Eventually Matthias matures into a noble warrior, and delivers Redwall from Cluny, having won many friends and influenced many people and learned many valuable moral lessons.

It's an enjoyable enough tale, if a bit violent, and I wouldn't object to giving it to David when he's ten or twelve. I don't expect to seek out the other volumes in the series any time soon, though; unlike the best juvenile fiction it's shallow and unsatisfying for the adult reader.

Although I believe this is the first Redwall book to be written, the books themselves don't specify any particular reading order. I gather that most of the books in the series stand alone fairly well.

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
By Stephen E. Ambrose

Meriwether Lewis and the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition were the first Americans to travel overland from the United States to the mouth of the Columbia river in present-day Oregon. Some points of reference for those too long from their U.S. History classes: in 1801, Thomas Jefferson bought Louisiana from Napoleon. In those days, Louisiana comprised the entire western watershed of the Mississippi river: all of the land from the Mississippi to the Rockies. In those days there was no motor transportation; cost-effective trade depended on navigable water ways like the Mississipi river. Consequently, he equipped the Lewis and Clark expedition to travel to the source of the Missouri River, and find the shortest portage to the Columbia river, in search of an all-water trade route to the west coast.

Alas, the Rockies were a wee bit higher than the Appalachians Jefferson knew so well. Lewis and Clark found the requested route, but cheap, waterborne trade to the west remained a pipe dream.

Undaunted Courage is an interesting, worth-while book, but Ambrose is perhaps too much in love with his topic. He's travelled the whole length of the expedition's route not once but many times, and Lewis is like an old friend to him; this gives his account much additional color, but also much rejoicing in reasonably dull detail. I'd have been content with a book half of the length.

Perhaps the most annoying aspect was Ambrose' constant harping on the great scientific discoveries Lewis made throughout the expedition. It so happens that Lewis and Clark's journals were still unpublished when Lewis died several years after the expedition, and the truncated version published by Clark several years later left out most or all of the botanical, zoological, and ethnographic material. No one knew of this wealth of science until the full journals were published to mark the expedition's centennial year...by which time all of the plants and animals described by Lewis had been rediscovered by others. The best laid plans of mice and men....

Seven Years of Highly Defective People
By Scott Adams

I'm a software engineer by trade, so naturally I was an instant fan of Dilbert, Dogbert, and the gang; I'm also a comic strip junkie, which means that Adams' latest book is just my speed. It's a retrospective of the Dilbert comic strip, focussed on how the strip and the characters have evolved. Almost every strip includes a comment from Adams, some pithy, and some inane. It might not be your cup of tea, but it's certainly mine.

Come Closer, Roger, There's A Mosquito On Your Nose
By Bill Amend

Yes, yours truly is a comic strip junkie, and since the demise of Calvin and Hobbes, Foxtrot has been one of my favorites...and it's not even in our local paper!

Comic strips usually fall into one of two categories: ageless, or aging. Peanuts is mostly ageless; rarely a Rerun is born, to grow for a few years until he reaches his permanent age, after which he's stuck. Lucy, Linus, and Sally all got their start that way. But for the most part, it's the same crew at the same age year after year. Calvin is similarly ageless. Doonesbury and For Better and For Worse on the other hand, are aging strips: the characters grow and change as time goes on.

Foxtrot is mostly an ageless strip, but an odd one. The characters don't simply stay the same age; they relive the same year over and over again, with slight modifications. Denise and Peter have been dating since the beginning of the school year for four or five years now. The cultural references are updated each year, but otherwise the characters are doing the same things they did the previous year. The weird thing is, they also remember the previous years. Every summer's awful vacation is engraved in their minds. Logically, it makes no sense.

Anyway, this is the latest Foxtrot collection, and I enjoyed it.

The Cthulhu Mythos
By August Derleth

I've long been a fan of H.P Lovecraft, the creator of Great Cthulhu, Hastur the Unspeakable, and other beings of cosmic evil who, imprisoned, ever strive to re-enter our world. The gods and creatures he created have come to be known, collectively, as the Cthulhu Mythos. Nor was the Mythos Lovecraft's own sandbox, only; he encouraged other writers to extend it and write stories about it.

Lovecraft received no great fame or fortune during his lifetime, and it is largely due to August Derleth that his stories and related stories by other authors are still in print. After Lovecraft's death, Derleth founded Arkham House, expressly to publish Lovecraft's work.

This book contains Derleth's own contributions to the Mythos. Alas, whatever Derleth's gifts as publisher and editor, the stories contained therein are sadly lacking.

Or, more precisely, they lack nothing. The essence of Lovecraft's work was the notion of strange creatures and forces from outside our world that enter in and cause strange, evil, unspeakable events. Lovecraft was generally careful not to describe these evil beings too well; he hid behind his purple prose and let our imaginations do the work. Sometimes his characters learned more of these creatures from one or another ancient tome: the Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of Von Juntz, the Pnakotic Manuscripts, and a variety of others. Derleth's use of these features is the key to his failure.

Derleth is a systematizer: he had to take Lovecraft's shadowy creatures and make sense of them, and he had casual explorers after evil describe the whole system in almost the same terms in story after story. He wasn't content to mention one or two of the ancient tomes; he had to mention five or six, and the same fix or six, in story after story. And though there are perhaps fifteen stories in the collection, there are only about four plots.

As an homage to Lovecraft, the book has interest...but as someone once said of someone else's work, "The book is both good and original... but the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good." I bought it for completeness; you don't have to.

Historians' Fallacies
By David H. Fischer

This is a book about the mistakes historians commonly make in pursuing their craft. Not errors of fact--this is no Lies My Teacher Taught Me--but errors of reasoning. Fischer describes thirty or forty common errors, with examples from well-known historians. It's a funny, fascinating book, and a bit humbling as well; it would seem impossible to avoid all of the pitfalls he describes. A few examples:

  • The "holist fallacy": that you must know absolutely everything about your subject before you can draw any conclusions. If this is really the case, then every expert in the world can close up shop.

  • The "prodigious fallacy": that the more sensational something is, the more significance it has.

  • The "fallacy of fictional questions": speculating what would have happened if, say, Lincoln hadn't been assassinated--and then stating historical conclusions based on your speculations. No matter how much you speculated, you don't really know what would happen.

I devoured this book; but then, I'm a history buff.

The Ringed Castle
By Dorothy Dunnett

These are the last two novels of Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles, and I liked them immensely. I can't go into too much detail, without spoiling the earlier books; suffice it to say that Francis Crawford spends some time building an army for Ivan the Terrible in Russia, then commands French forces against England while corresponding with Elizabeth Tudor, the queen's sister, and is finally forced, much against his will, to be happy. I finished Checkmate with a sense of great satisfaction: wanting the series to be neither longer nor shorter.

Ship of the Line
Flying Colours
By C.S. Forester

In these books, which follow one directly upon the other, Horatio Hornblower is given command of his first ship of the line, HMS Sutherland, wrecks havoc on French shipping, shore batteries, and convoys, loses his ship gallantly, is imprisoned, and escapes, in great detail. Good books, I enjoyed them, but claustrophobic. The viewpoint is quite strongly Hornblower's, so that we seem to spend the books inside of his head. We see nothing clearly, but only through the haze of his fears and insecurities. Even when the Sutherland is racing along under full sail, I had no feeling of the deck under my feet, the spray on my face.

Mutineers' Moon
The Armageddon Inheritance
By David Weber

These space operas by the author of the Honor Harrington series have the goofiest premise and the most outrageous superscience I've seen in a long time. E.E. "Doc" Smith would be pleased. Fifty-One Thousand years ago, there was a mutiny on board the Dahak, an Utu-class battle planetoid of the Fourth Imperium, in orbit around our planet disguised as a natural body: the Moon. Taking emergency measures, the captain forced the mutineers (and everyone else) to take refuge on the earth. The non-mutineers fled in lifeboats; the mutineers took the Dahak's sublight battleships.

Fifty-one thousand years later, the mutiny still hasn't been resolved. The majority of the crew, having landed in lifeboats, had little technology to begin with, and soon degenerated into hunter-gatherers: our ancestors. The mutineers, with the aid of stasis fields and high-tech body stealing, are still around, and are a really nasty bunch.

Lt. Commander Colin McIntyre, while flying over the Moon, is captured by Dahak, promoted to Senior Fleet Captain as the first descendent of loyal crew to make it back on-board, and is required to resolve the mutiny so that Dahak can get on with business: protecting the Fourth Imperium from the next incursion of the Achuultani, real nasties from another galaxy who periodically come through our galaxy and kill everything.

It's the most preposterous nonsense I've read in quite a long while, but it was great fun. There's a third book out as well.

At Home in Mitford
These High Green Hills
A Light in the Window
By Jan Karon

These three books, with a fourth, Out to Canaan which isn't yet in paperback, comprise Karon's "Mitford" novels. They concern the small town of Mitford, North Carolina, a town of gardeners and good people (with a few stinkers), and focus on Father Tim Kavanagh, the rector of the local Episcopal Church. Father Tim loves his work, loves his town, loves his congregation, and is running himself into the ground. These three books tell how he finds friendship, love, and eventually marriage against a background of amusing and lovable characters.

It's hard for me to express how much I liked these books; they gave me a warm glow, and made me want to go give Jane a hug every so often. They are wholesome books, a rare thing these days; most efforts to be good, clean, and wholesome are so cloying I can't stand it.

Part of what I like is that the books are filled with good Christian people, not as they are so often presented in fiction--judgemental, narrow, hypocritical hatemongers--but as they so often are in my experience: loving, kind, supportive of others, deeply devoted to God, and (Praise God!) imperfect.

Jan Karon reminds me of a kinder, gentler Garrison Keillor. Keillor's Lake Wobegon stories are based on a lively awareness of our failings and weaknesses; Karon's Mitford books look more at our foibles than our failings. Highly recommended.

HMS Surprise
The Mauritius Command
By Patrick O'Brian

I recently was home with a cold for several days, and needed something comforting to read having finished Jan Karon's books; and I turned to my old favorite, Patrick O'Brian. These are the second, third, and fourth books of his Aubrey-Maturin series, and they are quite as good as I remembered. If you have liked Horatio Hornblower, if you have liked historical novels, if you like excellent, witty writing, go buy Master and Commander, the first in the series. You've a treat in store for you. This is my third time through these books; I don't expect that it's the last.

Children's Books

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
By Joan Aiken

Here's a picture of Jane reading to Dave; a slightly inappropriate picture as Dave won't be reading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase for seven or eight years, yet. This is a book that I first read as a child, and quite thoroughly enjoyed; I recently tried reading it to Jane, but she didn't like it at all. The story concerns young Bonnie Green and her cousin Sylvia, who are left in the care of their new governess, Miss Slighcarp, when Bonnie's father and mother (Sir and Lady Willoughby) leave on an extended sea voyage for Lady Willoughby's health. The troubles start immediately; Miss Slighcarp treats the children badly, mistreats the servants, sells Bonnie's toys, and that's only the beginning. The children come through all right, and Miss Slighcarp gets her come-uppance quite satisfactorily, but Jane, mother of a very young boy, kept thinking, "How could they leave their children with such an awful woman?" and fretted so much she couldn't enjoy it. I finally had to finish it by myself.

Wolves is definitely written for older children, but it is well-written, and I recommend it.

Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.

Home : Ex Libris : 1 November 1997
Copyright © 1997, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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