Home : Ex Libris : 1 April 1999

ex libris reviews

1 April 1999

The writer of fiction is a spider. Drawing upon his inner resources and shaping them with his craft, he spins out his guts to trap his dinner.
Lawrence Block


In This Issue:
Letters Redux

There are no April Fools jokes in this issue, so don't bother looking for any.

Last month I had a bit to say about the quality of my ex libris e-mail--I think "threw a tantrum" is a little strong, but in the right direction. I described the ideal letter I'd like to receive, and said I'd suspend the "Letters" section indefinitely until I started getting some. I also said that I didn't mind getting other kinds of e-mail as well, just that I wasn't likely to print them.

I'm in a rather embarassing position this month, as I received quite a few letters that I'd like to comment upon, none of which fit my ideal pattern. The "Letters" section is still absent, so I'll comment here. Here's what I got:

  • I received pleasant, encouraging letters from Cherie LeBlanc and Dave Fandel. Cherie's was titled, charmingly enough, "Some Good Mail", which it was. Dave suggested that I need to add H. Beam Piper to my author archives, which I do.

  • I received four separate letters asking how to obtain particular books. This one almost deserves to be on an FAQ list; this is the number one question I see in my mail. (For the record, I get my books at the local bookstores, from my own bookshelves, or (rarely) from an on-line bookstore like Amazon.com or Powells' Books.) For some reason, most of these requests involve books by Alexandre Dumas; this month, that was two of the four.

    One of the Dumas requests (which I received twice, once in Spanish and once in English) concerned a Dumas book entitled (in Spanish) El Caballero de la Casa Roja. I've never heard of such a thing; if you have, please let me know and I'll pass the information along.

  • One woman had visited our "language and visual arts Web site" (huh?) and thought that what we needed more than anything else was the ability to offer subscriptions to literary magazines. Needless to say, this woman could arrange it for us.

  • Another fellow had to write a paper about C.S. Lewis' book The Magician's Nephew, comparing it with the Book of Genesis, and wanted to know if I had a summary he could use. I frown on students who don't do their own work, and so I sent him a rather stiff reply suggesting that me might read and enjoy them; if he's reading this, and I misjudged him, I hereby apologize. I have to give him credit, though: he sent me a stiff note back saying that he had now read and enjoyed them.

  • Brian Burns sent me one of the few constructive comments I've yet received ("Hey, I love your site!" is gratifying, but it's not constructive). He pointed out that he tends not to read ever word of my deathless prose, but skips reviews he's not interested in. Specifically, he wanted me to flag the beginning of each review some how, so he could skip more easily. Brian, if you're reading this, let me know how I did.

Finally, there was my favorite letter of the month, from Denise Turney, who wrote as follows:

Hi, Will and Jane:

I am the author of the fictionalized memoir, Portia. I would love to have you review my book on-line. Please let me know how you work your reviews.

I was thoroughly charmed. I almost hated to disillusion her. Clearly, she figured as follows: I write a monthly book review column, therefore I'm a book reviewer, therefore I review books that publishers send to me. Nothing could be further from the truth. I read (and re-read) whatever I darn well please, and no publisher has ever sent me anything. Nevertheless, it's the first time I've ever been asked to review a particularly book, which I found delightful. Ms. Turney went on to give a short plot summary; it's evidently a romance of sorts, filled with struggles against adversity and eventual triumph over them. Alas, from the synopsis it didn't seem like the kind of book I would ordinary read, and I wrote back and told her so, though I said I'd be happy to take look at it if she wanted to send me a copy. I also said that I'd review it fairly, but that as it wasn't my kind of book it might not get a particularly good review. She elected, wisely I think, to look elsewhere for reviews. If romance is your thing, though, you can follow the link above to get a copy of Portia for yourself.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud:
From the Not Overly Sublime to the Thoroughly Ridiculous

by Will Duquette

Starpilot's Grave
By Honor Betray'd
By Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald

These are the second and third books in the author's Mageworlds series, which we began last month (see last month's issue for a description). The long awaited Second Magewar opens in the second book with an attack on Galcen itself; the war continues and is ended in the third book. Jane enjoyed these as much as the first one, and would have happily gone on to the fourth book if I'd been willing. Frankly, I needed a rest--these are not short books, and I was spending a couple of hours reading aloud to Jane every evening to get through them. Very entertaining they were, though, with many surprises and thrills.

Life Among the Savages
By Shirley Jackson

I wanted a rest, and a change, and that's what I got. Shirley Jackson is best known as the author of subtle, disturbing, understated horror novels and stories, like The Haunting of Hill House and the chilling The Lottery. Less well known are her two books of what I call "householder humor": Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, which I'll be reviewing next month. Like S.J. Perelman in Acres and Pains, which I reviewed last month, Jackson and her family moved from New York City to a small town in the country with their little boy and girl. Much of what happens in this first book is fairly pedestrian, though funny: the problems of adjusting to life in a small town, finding a house, trying to hire competent help, buying (and learning to drive) the first car. Where the book really shines is in Jackson's stories of her children, Laurie, Jannie, and eventually baby Sally.

I make a distinction between "humor from ignorance" and "humor from knowledge". The former is a kind of mockery that's amusing, if at all, only to others in a similar state of darkness; the latter is not only truly funny, but if well done illuminates its subject most revealingly. (Dave Barry tends to do the "humor from ignorance" thing, for example.) Where Jackson writes about her children, she is clearly writing "from knowledge"; frankly, I don't think she could make this stuff up.

I first read this book as a teenager, and if it isn't quite as fun as I remember, it was still enjoyable. We are about halfway through Raising Demons, in which the family (augmented by baby Barry) move to a new house and go through many more trials. I'll have more to say about it next month, but so far it is as good as I remember, and better than its predecessor.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Rediscovery of Man, The Complete Short Fiction of Cordwainer Smith
By Cordwainer Smith

The New England Science Fiction Association has gathered together all of Cordwainer Smith's short fiction, including alternate versions and several which had never been published before. Smith is best known for the story "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell", which frankly has never done much for me, but I like many of his others. He had a knack for the unusual, poetic use of language, amply shown in such stories as "Scanners Live in Vain", "The Game of Rat and Dragon", and "The Dead Lady of Clown Town". Mixed in with the gems, though, are a number of less delightful efforts.

I made the mistake of trying to read this book straight through, like a novel. Smith's unique style is great in small doses, but gets tiresome in large quantities. Nevertheless, this is a book every science fiction fan should have on their shelves.

Triumph of the Straight Dope.
By Cecil Adams

For those not yet in-the-know, Cecil Adams is the author of weekly newspaper column, The Straight Dope, in which the Teeming Millions (you and I) ask questions about anything under the sun, and Uncle Cecil answers them. He is witty, knowledgeable, and has a certain coarse charm. This is the fifth book of material from the column. It, like the others, is a great book to pick up when you've only got a minute or two.

Master and Commander
H.M.S. Surprise
The Mauritius Command
Desolation Island
The Fortune of War
The Surgeon's Mate
The Ionian Mission
By Patrick O'Brian

Long-time readers are no doubt tired of my constant references to Patrick O'Brian; there's a pop music critic in the local paper who used to generate lots of letters to the paper complaining that he couldn't write a single music review without comparing the artist (usually unfavourably) with Bruce Springsteen. Ah, well. He thought that Springsteen was manifestly better; I think O'Brian is manifestly better. Anyway, if my continual gushing has engendered curiousity rather than distaste, the above list of books are the ones to start with, being the first eight books in O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series.

I hadn't intended to read them again, yet, but then I did something rash. I was feeling tired and out of sorts, and I wanted to read something happy, something comfortable, something rich and filling, to draw me out of mood. I particularly didn't want to tackle something I hadn't read before; familiarity was the order of the day. In this perilous mood I plucked Master and Commander from the shelf. It is due to that one rash act that the list of books this month is so much shorter than usual.

Since I haven't read much else this month, I suppose I might as well go into some detail--again--about these books and why I like them. First, the background. The tales take place in the opening years of the 19th century, when England was fighting for her life against the tyranny of Napoleon. In the opening book, Jack Aubrey, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, is promoted to master and commander and given his first independent command, the sloop Sophie. Jack Aubrey is the very type of the fighting captain: an excellent sailor, a charismatic leader, a fearless warrior; but he is more than that. He is a great lover of music (in contrast to Horatio Hornblower, who has a tin ear) and plays the violin lovingly if not well. He is human, and has his own share of flaws. By sea he is a paragon; on land he is an easy mark for any projector to come along. He also has difficulty keeping his trousers up, and a singular lack of sense in choosing his partners. About the time he is promoted, Jack meets Stephen Maturin, a fellow music-lover (he plays the cello), a physician, a naturalist, and, ultimately, an unpaid operative for Naval Intelligence. Stephen is stranded in Port Mahon on Minorca, where Jack is based; Jack needs a surgeon on-board the Sophie; and one of the great friendships in all of literature is born.

The subsequent novels relate the careers of the two men, of their loves and their families, as the war with Napoleon stretches on. Indeed, as the series progresses the books become less like novels and more like chapters in a single, immensely long work. Together Aubrey and Maturin visit the Mediterranean, are nearly captured in France during the Peace of Amiens, patrol the English Channel, sail to the Indian Ocean, the North Atlantic, the Baltic, the Red Sea, the Pacific, indeed, all over the world.

What makes it all work is the quality of O'Brian's writing. He has a richness of historical detail I have rarely seen equalled, and a depth that is astounding. I can think of few characters in all of my reading as fully realized, as fully human, as Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

And on top of all that, the books are just plain excellent adventure stories, well-told, and you can't say fairer than that.

Spider, Spin Me a Web.
By Lawrence Block

Yet another book by Lawrence Block; but remarkably, this one is not a mystery. It's like this. Long-time readers will know that I spent the last half of 1998 writing a novel. I finally put the finishing touches on it this month, and I'm actually going to send it out to a publisher in the next week or so. I figure the chances of its ever being published are low, but heck--I've already written it. It won't cost that much to send it out, and maybe lightning will strike.

Anyway, it occurred to me that I read books on software engineering to improve my technical skills; perhaps I should read books on writing to improve my literary skills. Subsequently, I was browsing the appropriate shelves at a local bookstore, and was caught by the title "Spider, Spin Me a Web". Then I noticed the author's name, and did a double-take. "Well," I said to myself, "I know he knows how to tell a tale." So I bought it. Block wrote a monthly column for Writer's Digest for about ten years; this is the second (?) collection of columns, the first being Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.

It's delightful. Witty, compelling, informative; in fact, it would be interesting reading even if I had no intention of writing another word. I highly recommend it.

Children's Books

George Shrinks
By William Joyce

We were at the bookstore this month, and I was looking at the science fiction shelves, when little Dave started saying, "I need book, Daddy, I need book!" At first I was tempted to ignore him, but then I came to my senses. We have been encouraging Dave to love books for both years of his life to date; I was browsing the shelves looking for books for me; how could I tell Dave that we couldn't look for a book for him? It would be heartless. And counterproductive. So Dave and I went off to the children's section in search of a new boardbook we would both enjoy. What we found was George Shrinks, which is a small gem.

We usually pick books for Dave based on the language; this one we bought for the pictures. The plot is simple. George falls asleep, and dreams that he wakes up small. His parents have left him a list of things to do; the list forms most of the text in the book, while the pictures show him doing everything in his miniscule state. A picture is worth a thousand words, and so I won't try describing them in any detail; suffice it say that they are beatifully rendered, witty, fun, and I'd love to have some full-size prints to hang in Dave's room. Or maybe in my office at work, for that matter. And there's a bonus: Dave loves 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.

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Copyright © 1999, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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