ex libris reviews
1 March 1998
[Granny Weatherwax's privy] was neat and clean and contained
nothing more sinister than an old almanack, or more precisely about
half an old almanack, carefully hung on a nail. Granny had a
philosophical objection to reading, but she'd be the last to say that
books, especially books with nice thin pages, didn't have their
I read a wide variety and vast quantity of books this month, partially due to spending almost an entire week in bed with the flu. As I had a brief cold during the first part of the month, comfort books were in season. When I'm tired or ill I reach for books that I've read and enjoyed in the past, and which I do not expect to cause too much of a struggle. Hegel, for example, is right out (not that I've read much Hegel in the past, or enjoyed it when I did). It's not the content of the book that's comforting, though, so much as the familiarity.
On the other hand, prompted by a suggestion from Rick Saenz, I started out the month reading Great Books by , and Sophie's World by , neither of which is a cakewalk, and which joined together to drag me through a good bit of western intellectual history.
In and around all of this, I managed to read a fair number of other books, including six by the inimitable. So, if one book I discuss holds no interest, skim along; you'll probably find something you like.
-- Will Duquette
This is Caudwell's last (but not, I hope, final) novel, and follows on after Thus was Adonis Murdered and The Shortest Way to Hades. The focus this time is on roguish, dark-haired Michael Cantrip. Unlike the other barristers in the series, Oxford graduates all, Cantrip was educated at Cambridge. Hillary Tamar, narrator and Oxford don, is constantly concerned about Cantrip's lack of education. The only sign of it shows up in his language, which is free, easy, and madly colloquial.
The action involves something called a discretionary trust, which is an odd kind of tax shelter (I gather tax planning is handled with extreme gravity in England, out of necessity). The essence is this: someone with a lot of money pays a non-English investment company to set up a trust. Under the terms of the trust, the trustees may legally give the proceeds of the trust to anyone they like. Any money left over ultimately goes to a particular person named by the owner of the money. The trick is this: the owner's name appears nowhere in any of the trust documents; the owner is relying on the investment company to give the money back when asked. The only person actually named in the trust is the one who gets any money not ultimately given away, and that person typically doesn't get a cent. In fact, that person is often enough the head of the Inland Revenue or similar, as a kind of joke.
Cantrip is called in because the trustees of a particular discretionary trust have somehow managed to forget who the original owner was, and they are wondering what to do. How did they forget? The trustee who knew him died earlier that year....
The action moves from London to the Channel Islands to France to the Cayman Islands, every step documented by outrageous telex messages from Cantrip. As always, Caudwell is light, witty, and fun to read.
Next, we will be reading Hogfather, by . It isn't out in the U.S. yet, but our local bookstore had a copy of the English paperback edition, and I snapped it up.
I often discuss books in the order in which I read them; several authors have so many books in the list this month that I feel compelled to organize strictly by author rather than by order. In short, I didn't read all sixall together in one big lump.
"Truelove" is the name of a ship with a relatively unimportant role in this Aubrey/Maturin novel; in England, the book's title was Clarissa Oakes, and truly the novel is as much about Clarissa as it is about Aubrey or Maturin. Clarissa Harville is a convict, a transportee to New South Wales, where she becomes a governess in Sydney. When Jack Aubrey leaves Sydney in the Surprise, he discovers that one of his midshipman, Mr. Oakes, has smuggled Clarissa on board. This was quite illegal; transportees were not allowed to leave Australia for many years, if ever. Marriage to Mr. Oakes, however, will free her, and married they become. Yet all is not well, for Clarissa is not what she seems.
Equal Rites is the third Discworld novel, and marks the beginning of Pratchett's transition from pure sword & sorcery spoofing to social satire. As everyone knows, the eighth son of an eighth son quite naturally becomes a wizard. Aging wizard Drum Billet, knowing death is near, seeks out a remote village in the Ramtop mountains to bequeath his staff to newborn child. Much to his (posthumous) surprise, the eighth son of an eighth son...is a daughter. The staff seems not to care, though, and young Eskarina is soon taken under the wing of Granny Weatherwax, the local witch. No woman has ever entered the Disc's premiere school of magic, Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, but no one ever lengthened their life by telling Granny Weatherwax what she couldn't do.
Equal Rites is a fun story with many bits that made laugh out loud on first reading; it's also the first book I read aloud to Jane in its entirety (she got tired of being interrupted for the good bits). The ending is so-so, and the connection with the later books involving Granny Weatherwax and Unseen University is tenuous, but it is nevertheless a satisfying read.
Mort is the fourth Discworld novel, and deals mostly with that most universal of Pratchett characters, Death. Death appears in pretty much every book, even if only for a few sentences; whenever anyone dies, Death is right there waiting for them. In this book, Death is feeling a little out of sorts, and finds an apprentice, a young lad named Mortimer. Mort, for short. But Mort, unlike Death, is not an "Anthromorphic Personification", and cannot help letting his feelings get in the way. I laughed out loud numerous times while reading it; I'd forgotten just how funny it was. Of course, having just gotten over the flu I was possibly a little punchy.
This is a mostly satisfactory sequel to Watership Down, which is to say that it isn't a disgrace, but isn't in the same class as its predecessor either. Most of the first eleven stories are about El-Ahrairah and his adventures, as told by Dandelion to other Watership rabbits. The stories are interesting, but several are seriously flawed by the inclusion of things the rabbits couldn't possibly know, even after many removes. In Watership Down, Adams gave his rabbits just enough intelligence to make an interesting story, while not enough to change them into something other than rabbits. A large part of that lay in keeping the various stories within the rabbit's frame of reference. Adams crosses that line several times.
The last eight stories take place the year after the final conflict between Efrafa and the Watership rabbits, and would have fit well enough at the end of Watership Down; here, the impact is lessened because we already know the end of the story.
Re-read Watership Down instead; if you skip Tales from Watership Down you won't miss much.
This is an old book of my Dad's that I found browsing through some books my parents left behind when they moved. Perelman was quite a popular humorist once upon a time; when people ask for humorous books, Perelman's name tends to come up slightly less often than. I'd never read any Perelman, and had been considering looking him up for some time when I found this book on the shelf in the guest room.
Swiss Family Perelman is the story of a trip round the world which Perelman took with his wife and two kids in the late 1940's. It reminds me of nothing so much as (Roughing It) crossed with . Light reading, and considerably less timeless than Wodehouse (Wodehouse is "period"; Perelman is "dated"), but I liked it.
Speaking of P.G. Wodehouse, the Drones Club is the London home-away-from-home of such notables as Bertie Wooster, Bingo Little, Pongo Twistleton, Freddie Widgeon, and Oofy Prosser, as well as an assortment of anonymous Eggs, Beans, Crumpets, and the occasional Pieface: well-to-do, extremely well-dressed, remarkably useless young men with habitually empty pockets and a talent for getting into trouble. Bertie himself doesn't appear in this volume, being important enough to warrant a number of books of his own, but the others come shining through.
Freddie Widgeon is a man who falls in love at first sight more often than is quite practical (though never simultaneously), and is extraordinarily skilled at persuading the adored one to return his admiration...for a while. By the end of the tale, he and his girl are inevitably on the outs, through no fault of his own. In "Goodbye to All Cats", for example, it wasn't his fault that his beloved's father was in the garden when he flung the family cat out of his bedroom window. Getting hit in the head by the cat was rather a shock to the old man, but then, the cat *had* been sleeping on Freddie's dinner shirt. And it wasn't his fault that the the family dog had...never mind.
Bingo Little figures in many of the Wooster and Jeeves stories, both before and after his marriage to noted romance novelist Rosie M. Banks. The stories in this volume concern his life after marriage; a delightful life, evidently, but a little short of ready money. Short for Bingo, that is; he will play the horses, and his beloved disapproves. The stories, though amazingly varied, are all of a piece: Bingo misappropriates some money for a little wager, loses the money, is faced with the dreadful recognition if Rosie finds out "he will be reduced to the status of a fifth-rate power" in the home, and finally manages to save face by blind fool luck. Though that bald description doesn't half do them justice.
Pongo Twistleton appears in only a couple of the stories, notably "Uncle Fred Flits By", which I've written about in the past. If Wodehouse sounds at all like your cup of tea, by all means head to the bookstore and find a Wodehouse collection containing this story. It's also in The Most of P.G. Wodehouse, and it may be in others as well.
Oofy Prosser is the Drones' token millionaire, and a man who, it is said, would walk ten miles in tight shoes to pick up tuppence someone had dropped. He usually gets bit parts in stories about other characters, who are usually trying to touch him (unsuccessfully) for a tenner; here he gets a few stories of his own. Being a miser, his motive is to get a little more of the good stuff; and being in a Wodehouse story, he naturally (and delightfully) ends up with rather less than he started with.
The Daughter of Time
The Man in the Queue
A Shilling for Candles
To Love and Be Wise
The Singing Sands
Tey wrote mystery novels in the first part of this century. She was recommended to us by my sister, who had just loaned all of her Josephine Tey books to my Mom, who loaned a couple of them to us. I liked them considerably, and went out and bought and read and enjoyed four more. As it happens, the two we borrowed from Mom were completely unlike the other four, but all were quite good. I'm not at all sure what order the books were written in, but here I discuss them in the order I read them.
The first was The Franchise Affair, which my mother really liked. A middle-aged woman and her mother are accused of a horrible crime, and a middle-aged solicitor gets drawn into defending them. It reminded me quite a lot of some of Dick Francis's books, except the hero never gets beaten up. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, and I was hooked from the first two paragraphs. Tey's sleuth, Inspector Alan Grant, plays only a minor role.
The Daughter of Time is quite different, and it's only fair to say that my Mom didn't like it and didn't finish it. Jane and I devoured it; it's one of the few books she's had time to read in the last year. Inspector Grant is laid up in hospital with a broken leg, and is bored almost beyond reason. His girlfriend suggests pursuing some historical mystery or other, and he settles ultimately on Richard III's murder of the two princes, his nephews. The mystery, for Grant, was not how Richard III did it, but why? Besides being criminal, it was a foolish act. Yet every English schoolboy and girl grew up knowing that Richard had done it.
This is not so much a whodunit or a mystery novel as it is a story about historical research. During the course of the novel, Grant and his friends delve into Richard III's life and death, and slowly uncover the truth: Richard III didn't murder the two princes. It's a fascinating story, and I recommend it to anyone at all interested in history, and how history is written down. A continuing theme is what Tey calls "Tonypandy". Tonypandy is a village in Wales where British Army troops put down a demonstration by shooting into the crowd, killing many people; the troops had been ordered into Wales by Winston Churchill. This was a well-known story at the time of Tey's writing, much talked about by Welsh nationalists. The problem is, it never happened. Churchill wouldn't allow the British Army to be used; instead, the demonstration was put down by members of the Metropolitan Police, who were completely unarmed. Injuries were minimal, and no one was killed. The story about Richard III is another example of Tonypandy; the source for it is Thomas More's life of Richard III; Thomas More wrote it for Henry VIII, the successor of the man who usurped the throne from Richard, based on information from a man named John Morton, an enemy of Richard's who supported Henry VII. It's simply not true, and the rest of the historical record makes that clear. Yet it's been told and told again, and in Tey's day was still in all of the schoolbooks despite having been thoroughly debunked a hundred years earlier.
The Man in the Queue is Tey's first book, originally published under the name "Gordon Daviot", and introduces Alan Grant. Though a first book, it's just as enjoyable as her others, and the premise is interesting. A man is standing in a tightly packed queue waiting to get into the theater. When he reaches the head of the queue, he falls over; he'd been stabbed some time before, and only the press of bodies has kept him vertical. He carries no identification...and a service revolver. As is usual in Tey's books, there are many questions for Grant to answer: Who was he? Why was he carrying a revolver? Who killed him? Had they left the queue, or were they still in it? Keep your eye on the ball--and on the questions that Grant lets slide.
In A Shilling for Candles, film star Christine Clay drowns during her early morning swim near a small village on the English coast. Did she have a cramp, or was she murdered? Inspector Alan Grant is called in to investigate. Grant is a puzzle solver, excellent at the detailed and painstaking gathering of facts, but also reliant on his intuition. Many mystery novels have no prime suspect until the very end: usually, there are a multitude of suspects. In this case (and in several of the other books) has several times used a different ploy: the obvious culprit, having motive, means, and opportunity, who must have done the deed...but did they? Grant's "flair" tells him no, but the evidence says otherwise.
The next is To Love and Be Wise. Tey spends at least a third of this book just setting the scene for the murder, and frankly I was glad when it happened. It is set in a small village that has been discovered by the glitterati of the art world. Not your typical artist's colony: this is where famous authors, actresses, and playwrights make their homes. A Hollywood photographer named Leslie Searle comes to spend the weekend in the country house of Lavinia Fitch, her nephew, radio personality Walter Whitmore, and Lavinia's secretary, Walter's fiancee, Liz Garrowby. It's worth saying at once that every woman in the book finds something compellingly attractive about Searle; Liz is not immune, and Walter notices, with predictable (but not melodramatic) results. I was personally beginning to get quite tired of Mr. Searle when he went missing, presumed drowned in the river. In the famous phrase, "Did he fall, or was he pushed?"
Usually I read mystery novels for the characters and to watch the plot unfold; I don't usually try to figure out whodunnit ahead of time. This time, being already well-acquainted with the cast, I did. I'm quite pleased to report a rare event: minus a few unforeseen twists and turns, I was right.
The Singing Sands is Tey's last novel. Troubled by claustrophobia brought on by overwork, Grant takes sick-leave (to his superior's disgust) and heads north to Scotland for a holiday with his cousin's family. A passenger on the train is found dead on arrival in Scotland, and Grant simply can't help himself. From the small country village where he's staying he alternately sleuths and fishes until, on arrival back in London, he's not only well again but has solved the mystery.
I disliked the ending; she uses a plot device that is certainly trite now, and was probably trite then, and it's a shame to see it. I'll say no more, as the book is well worth reading anyway.
When I was sick in bed for a week I needed something to read, and I asked Jane to go grab a handful of Dick Francis novels from the bookcase. It didn't really matter which handful, as they are mostly quite satisfying. The set above includes four grabbed at random by Jane, and two I grabbed myself toward the end of the week. (I alternated them with the last fournovels.) They span the period 1962--1982, and should all still be in print.
As I suppose all the world knows by now, Dick Francis is an English steeple-chase jockey who, on his retirement from racing, went on to become a best-selling author of thrillers. There's a certain amount of formula to his work, as I've said in past issues: the narrator is always male, extremely competent at his work, helpful to others just because he's a nice guy, and able to withstand multiple trips to the hospital, if necessary, to bring the book to its conclusion, which is invariably happy. Most of the books involve horse racing in some way, though the connection is sometimes rather tangential.
Not content to write the same book over and over again, Francis has made it a point to vary the occupation of the narrator, and put the mystery into his domain. In In the Frame, the narrator is a artist, a painter of racehorse pictures, and the enemy is a ring of international art forgers.
In Dead Cert, a champion steeplechase jockey is made to fall during a race and dies. His best friend, an amateur jockey who was riding just behind him, vows to find the killer.
In Blood Sport, the "blood" refers to "bloodstock". A valuable race horse has simply vanished without a trace. The narrator is an English "screener": an intelligence operative who clears people to work in sensitive areas. He's become seriously depressed (a la Inspector Grant with his claustrophobia), and his boss sends him off to find the horse. I particularly enjoyed this one.
In Bonecrack, the narrator is a business consultant left managing his father's racing stables when his father is injured. A wealthy Italian criminal tells him that he will hire his son as a jockey, and his son will ride Archangel in the Derby, or the stables will be destroyed. This is a classic depiction of the irresistable force hitting the immovable object, though maybe a bit corny.
Odds Against is one of my favorites, and features Sid Halley, one of the few Francis heros to get a second book. Here, Sid is a depressed ex-steeple chaser with a ruined hand and no zest for life who works for the prestigious Hart Radnor Agency. Hart Radnor specializes in security, detection, and so forth. I could say more, but I won't spoil it.
Finally, Banker concerns a young investment banker at a merchant bank in London; the bank loans money to a stud farm to buy this years Derby winner, and it's Tim who gets stuck with the details. This is a long one, and I'd say one of his best.
This is the heartwarming tale of a young assassin who makes good. No, really! Vlad Taltos is a member of House Jhereg, Dragaera's equivalent to organized crime, and the hero (of sorts) of a series of novels of which Jhereg is the first and Yendi is the second. Series order notwithstanding, Yendi takes place before Jhereg, and discusses, among other things, how Vlad meets his wife Cawti, and how he doesn't hold his death against her (after all, she gives back her fee and promises not to do it again). I won't go into further details, but if you like fantasy fiction at all, and you've haven't read any of Brust's work, go buy Jhereg, and read it.
It so happens that the week I spent sick in bed, I also spent in the guestroom, so as not to infect Jane or David. It further happens that, in an earlier incarnation, the guestroom used to be my bedroom. It further happens that it has a wall of built-in bookcases where my parents put books they were no longer interested in. These included a few that I had left behind, including this one. It's an anthology of ghost stories published back when Alfred Hitchcock TV show was still on the air, and targetted at teenagers. It was probably bought for one of my brothers, but I inherited it when they moved out. Ordinarily I wouldn't say much about such a book, as I suspect there are few copies left in the world, but the ghost stories in it are really quite good, by well-known writers. I say "ghost stories" because Hitchcock says ghost stories, but "tales of the supernatural" is probably more accurate, as few involve ghosts. Some are scary, but many are intended to be amusing. I particularly like "The Wonderful Day" and "Obstinate Uncle Otis" by(here listed as "Robert Arthur"), "Housing Problem" by , and "In a Dim Room", by . The latter is one of Dunsany's Jorkens stories, which I'm minded to keep an eye out for. Other notables include , and also (whom I simply cannot abide). It was a pleasant trip down memory lane, especially when I noticed the lemonade stains I'd left on the back cover around two decades ago. Ah, well. I still dog-eared pages then, too.
OK, it's Western Culture time. Sometimes, serendipitously, I read books at about the same time that strike sparks off of each other. I was given a copy of Sophie's World by my sister-in-law Kathy after she'd read it, and I happened to pick it up at about the same time as Rick Saenz prompted me to buy and read Great Books
Sophie's World is an intriguing, self-referential novel, disguised as an introduction to Western philosophy, disguised as a novel. ( fans, take note!) Sophie, 14-going-on-15, starts receiving mysterious questions in the mail, followed by a kind of personal correspondence course in philosophy. It's clearly intended just for her. She also starts getting mysterious postcards to another girl named Hilde, who shares her fifteenth birthday.
But that's only a summary of the first part of the plot, not, as the White Knight would say, what the book is about. Along with the story, the book is quite a good introduction to philosophy, starting with the few names we know of before Plato, and on through Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Barclay, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and many many others. It took me back to my intro philosophy course in college, and not only followed much the same plan but executed it better. Or perhaps I'm just older and it makes better sense now.
The focus is on identifying what question each philosopher was interested, and what they thought about it, and on how each philosopher built upon or rejected the one before. In a few cases, the author does an excellent job of showing Hegel's dialectic in action.
The book is delightfully convoluted, especially toward the end. If it has a weakness, it's that it doesn't take a stand. It shows what each philosopher disagreed with in earlier philosophers, and how the solved the problem in their own philosophy, and why they thought what they did, but there's little sense of approaching absolute truth. In fact, the book makes no case for absolute truth and almost seems to say that philosophers are those who accept that philosophical questions have no real answers. I suppose this may be a popular stance in the last century or so, but personally I disagree with it. If anyone's interested, I can talk about how I solve the problem, and why I think what I do.
Denby's Great Books is interesting because it hits many of the same thinkers head on. Denby is a movie critic from New York who decided to go back to Columbia University and take their "core curriculum" classes all over again.
In the book, Denby discusses his experiences in the classroom and alone, as he reads and discusses Plato, Aristotle, the Old Testament, the New Testament, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Rousseau, Jane Austen, and many others--not only his own reactions, but those of the students in the classroom. His interests were two-fold: to re-invent himself as a careful, critical, joyful reader, and to investigate the attacks on the so-called Western Canon, the Great Books, that have been made in recent years. There's been much talk in academic circles about the validity of the so-called "Great Books"; opponents say that they merely represent the views of Dead White Males and that it somehow oppresses minority and women students to have to read them. Somehow, requiring these books is just a means of impressing the dominant culture on those already oppressed by it. Academic conservatives, on the other hand, claim that these books are the source of our national values, and must continue to be read. Unlike many institutions, Columbia has held on to its required core curriculum based on the Great Books, though the reading lists have changed over the years.
Denby has many interesting things to say about the Great Books--more than I can even hint at--but the most important is his observation that the Great Books cannot possibly impress "Western Values" on any one, for two reasons. First, the Great Books convey not a single set of values, but a millenia-long argument. The most notable aspect of the books is how they disagree with each other. Second, the dominant force in our culture is not the western intellectual tradition but rather the mass media.
On the other hand, the books are clearly worth reading by anyone, forming, as they do, the intellectual baggage that was carried into American culture from its beginnings. More importantly, though, is the effect that reading them seriously has. For this, I'll quote a letter from Rick Saenz:
I'm making steady progress on the Denby book, and I'm more and more impressed as I read it. What's surprising to me, though, is that Denby seems to miss what for me is the real point of reading the Great Books--even though he experiences it, and goes on at length about the experience. That is, the point is to encounter the ideas expressed in those books: absorb them, wrestle with them, argue with them.
I think his failure to recognize this comes through most clearly when he struggles with (and fails to come to grips with) Dante; the idea of God that Dante puts forth is alien to Denby, but because he doesn't look at the point of reading Dante as one of grasping an idea, he reduces it all to his emotional response to the cruelty of the punishments in Hell.
That aside, I think it is obvious that encountering the great ideas has had a significant effect on him, and his experience ends up being a powerful argument for reading the Great Books.
I can only agree.
This is yet another book I found lurking on the guestroom shelves, right next to Swiss Family Perelman; it's another of my dad's old books. I'd heard of it from time to time, but had never read it. What it contains is humorous biographical sketches of a couple of dozen famous people, from the Pharoahs of Egypt down to the Pilgrims and King George III. The content is amazingly well-researched. All too often, comic material on historical subjects is based on the mutual ignorance of the humorist and the reader or listener. Here, Cuppy simply tells us the historical truth about the individual in question, with a variety of witty or acerbic comments about them and about their previous biographers. is mentioned any number of times, and it sounds as though Cuppy had actually read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
I enjoyed it quite a lot, and would have enjoyed it still more if I hadn't been feverish at the time.
The Road to Oz
The Emerald City of Oz
The Patchwork Girl of Oz
I read a few more of the Oz books on-line this month. The writing in these is better, it seems to me, than in the three I criticized last month, and I rather enjoyed them. I had read all of these but The Road to Oz as a child, so I read that one with great interest; I'd say it's the weakest Oz book I've read. Half the book is fairly interesting: Dorothy sets out on a journey to Oz with a number of unusual companions, and encounters the usual run of whimsical adventures. She arrives in Oz just in time for Ozma's birthday party, and the rest of the book is a tedious description of who the guests were, and what they looked like when they arrived, and what happened at the party, and how happy everyone was, and how they all went home. Moreover, the guest list included not only every major character from the previous Oz books, but every major character from Baum's other books as well. As a child I would have this found enchanting had I read the other books and had it been cut much shorter; as an adult it seems like a gross ploy to advertise his other books. I gather, though, that Baum got many of his ideas from children who liked his earlier books, and who demanded he write more Oz books. I I suppose the blame might not rest entirely on Baum's shoulders.
Reader Francis Murphy had this to say:
I haven't seen it yet, myself, but I'm sure I'll get around to it eventually; everything I've read by Spence has been enjoyable.
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.