Home : Ex Libris : 1 October 2000

ex libris reviews

1 October 2000

In the vast register of unpublished dissertations there is one entitled 'Machiavellianism Among Hotel Employees.' I have never looked it up, preferring to speculate freely about the path of influence from The Prince to chambermaids and concierges.
Jacques Barzun


In This Issue:
The Pony Principle

Some years back I formulated a rule for living I call "The Pony Principle". It's a simple thing: always ask for what you really want. The name comes from the observation that if you ask for a pony for your birthday, you probably won't get a pony for your birthday--but if you don't ask for a pony for your birthday, you certainly won't get it. This maxim applies especially to absurd and unreasonable requests, because what seems absurd to the asker might seem perfectly reasonable to the person asked.

Our recent family vacation gave me several chances to apply the Pony Principle--and clarified the need to always ask politely. If you're making an absurd request, you must smile and be cheerful when it is denied.

We left our home early one Sunday morning, bound for Florissant, Colorado by way of Arizona and New Mexico, to return home by way of Utah and Nevada. Since our first day's drive was to be especially long, I had booked a suite at the Amerisuites Hotel in Flagstaff. I failed to apply the Pony Principle: I didn't ask for a suite with a real door between the rooms. It was my fault; I didn't realize that to almost every hotelier in America, a suite now means a room of normal size with a sitting area instead of a second bed, and with a low and completely inadequate partition separating the sitting area from the sleeping area. I had wanted a suite where we could put the boys to bed in one room, and sit up reading or talking in the other. I didn't ask for what I really wanted, and we paid the price.

Things were better two days later in Santa Fe. Still chagrinned from the Amerisuites Experience, I phoned the Radisson and asked for a suite--a suite with a door between the rooms. They didn't have any like that...but would I like a one-bedroom condo? It was really too expensive, but I decided I would. In fact, after a brief talk with Jane, I called back and extended our stay for two nights.

As an aside: it was well worth doing. Santa Fe is a delightful town, the food is delicious (sopapillas! Wow!), and we'd love to go back and stay longer.

We arrived in Santa Fe in the early afternoon, well before check-in time. Here's where the Pony Principle comes in: instead of mooching around town wanting a nap and being grumpy, we went straight to the hotel and tried to check-in. Here's where being cheerful comes in: instead of telling me that the one-bedroom condos weren't clean yet, the man at the desk asked if we'd like a two-bedroom condo at the same price.

It was the Pony Principle at work: we really wanted to check in, we cheerfully asked to do so, and not only did we get what we wanted, we got more than we wanted.

Much the same thing happened at the end of our trip, at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. We tried to check in at 10:30 in the morning, which is completely unreasonable, and naturally the rooms weren't ready. We were asked to try again in an hour-and-a-half; it was entirely possible the rooms would be ready then. I checked back two hours later, and was disappointed, but was, above all else, both polite and cheerful. And the next time I entered the lobby, the woman I had spoken to the first time waved me over and told me that they really wanted to get our family checked in, and since the rooms we'd booked weren't available yet, she'd taken the liberty of checking us into two adjoining jacuzzi suites at no additional price.

I must say, I hadn't the gall to ask for the Auto Club discount.

The highpoint of the trip, though, was our visit to our long-time friends Rick and Debbie Saenz, whom we met for the first time. That takes some explaining; Rick and I have been pen-pals for something on the order of six years. As Rick lived in Texas, and we lived in California, we'd never managed to get together. But some while ago, the Saenz family pulled up stakes and moved to a house in the wilds of Colorado, about an hour outside of Colorado Springs. (The directions to their house included the statements "Turn left at the Thunderbird Inn (a bar)" and "Turn right at the llama farm.") That was a little more doable for a family vacation, and so we planned our driving trip to Colorado.

We spent a glorious and peaceful four days with Rick and his family, and my only regret is that I spent far too little time browsing through his extensive library. It's a mild regret; I spent so little time with his books, because I spent so much time with him and his family.

Rick's library fascinates me, because it is almost entirely non-fiction--the perfect complement to my own. I didn't get to spend too much time looking at it, but I did note down a few authors and titles; you'll be seeing the fruits of that in the coming months, as I buy and read them.

Another aside: the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver is all by itself a sufficiently good reason to visit the city.

Despite the effect of Rick's library on my book buying habits, almost all of the books I read this month were genre fiction of one form or another. I didn't get much read during the first couple of weeks of the month, because I was usually too busy watching the scenery, and in the latter half I was trying to catch up from being gone for two weeks, and therefore was craving lighter books. Consequently, you'll get to read about Ngaio Marsh, Robert A. Heinlein, David Farland, Daniel Pinkwater, George Simenon, and Margery Allingham this month, but not Jacques Barzun or Mortimer Adler. Ah, well, Jacques' time will come; and I couldn't resist quoting him at the top of the page.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

A Comedy of Heirs
By Rett MacPherson

I'll start off this month's selection with a relative newcomer; this is only MacPherson's third mystery about small-town mother and family historian Torie O'Shea, and the first of them I'd seen. I bought it on a whim in (I think) Colorado Springs because I liked the title and because the blurb (and the author's name) reminded me of Sharyn McCrumb's witty Elizabeth MacPherson series.

It was adequate. Shortly before the annual O'Shea family reunion, someone anonymously sends Torie O'Shea a collection of fifty-year-old newspaper clippings about her great-grandfather's murder on the front porch of the old family home. As she'd always been told that Great-Grandpa Keith had died in a hunting accident, Torie naturally becomes curious, and therein lies the tale. Sundry amusements and diversions are provided along the way by Torie's odd and eccentric family.

I opened the book expecting to find a rare treat; instead, I found adequate writing, a somewhat less-than-thoroughly-shocking family secret, and a few watered-down eccentricities. Perhaps the first two books were better, but I'm afraid I won't be reading them any time soon.

Citizen of the Galaxy
By Robert A. Heinlein

When I first began to read science fiction as a child, I quite naturally encountered Heinlein's juvenile works. The first one I picked up was called Between Planets, about a boy who was born in transit between two planets, and therefore was judged a citizen of neither. It was an uncomfortable position to be in, and being in an uncomfortable position in school at that time, and identifying a little too much with the hero, I put the book down and never picked it up again. And while reading and enjoying many of Heinlein's later works, I've never bothered to read any more of his juveniles.

Most of Heinlein's work is being brought back into print, though, and a coworker suggested I check out Citizen of the Galaxy. I'm glad I did; aside from the welcome absence of Heinlein's obsession with free love, it reads like any of his later books.

It's the rags-to-riches tale of a young man named Thorby who rises from childhood slavery to control of one of the largest business concerns in the Galaxy. Along the way there are many adventures, including an amazing precursor to C.J. Cherryh's Merchanter novels. It isn't Heinlein's masterpiece, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Death of a Ghost
By Margery Allingham

Maigret Has Scruples
By George Simenon

Artists in Crime
By Ngaio Marsh

I decided to group these three novels together, because they shed interesting lights each upon the other. All are by classic mystery novelists whom I first encountered in the past month. And both Death of a Ghost and Artists in Crime were written in 1934 and are about artists, making comparison that much easier.

I picked up my first Ngaio Marsh mystery at the tail-end of last month because an ex libris reader recommended her. I'd frequently seen her work compared to that of Dorothy L. Sayers, which I love, and that of Agatha Christie, which leaves me cold. That book was Black as He's Painted, which readers of last month's issue will know I quite liked.

Having had success with one classic mystery novelists, and being on vacation (always an occasion for the adventurous buying of books), I sought further. I'd seen Allingham's named mentioned with Sayers', and dimly remembered seeing the cases of Inspector Maigret on my parents' bookshelves many, many years ago, so I bought one of each.

Even the best novelists have off-days; having read only one novel each by Allingham and Simenon, I may be misjudging them. But the fact is, neither Allingham's Albert Campion nor Simenon's Inspector Maigret grabbed me the way Marsh's Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn did. Now, I had read them on vacation, in fits and snatches, and at first I put down my coolness to that. In fact, I'd begun to feel that Marsh's work probably wasn't much better. And then, a couple of days ago I picked up Artists in Crime, and knew otherwise.

Allingham's sleuth is the colorless, diffident, unobstrusive Albert Campion, amateur sleuth and "occasional uncle". One gathers that he's the son of a peer of the realm, and uses an assumed name for convenience. The tale is a rather dreary one about murder and forgery in the art world. Freud's theories were still fairly new then, and there is much talk of madness, of people going mad, of people being driven mad, and so forth. The book is consequently rather dated.

An aside: a book can thoroughly evoke the era of its writing without becoming dated; Dorothy L. Sayers' work is a case in point, as is P.G. Wodehouse's. But sometimes old phrases, idioms, objects and ideas in a novel just seem anachronistic. They do not define their era but rather distance the work from our own. That's the case here.

Still, I could put up with that if Albert Campion were less of a dull stick. We see nothing of his feelings or intentions or history; he is a kind of fly on the wall that the principals tolerate for some unknown reason. One gathers that he is friendly, loyal, courteous, kind, and the whole rest of the Boy Scout litany--but we are told this, we don't see it. After an entire book, I have no idea what he'd be like to talk to.

The other characters, alas, do not take up the slack. They are nicely eccentric and quirky, but overdrawn to the point of melodrama. I have to contrast this with Marsh's superb Artists in Crime, which is one of her earliest novels. Marsh was obviously conversant with art history and with the art world of her day, and her artists and accessory characters ring far more true than Allingham's. Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn is an interesting, dynamic figure.

The result is a book which is clearly a product of its day but which is still effective over sixty years later. There are a few little things that date it; two of the artists smoke opium, there are frequent references to the use of aspirin as a sleeping pill, and one or two fairly obscure references to World War I (which at that time was still The Great War).

All in all, I find Marsh far more compelling than Allingham.

And that brings me to Simenon's Inspector Maigret. Maigret Has Scruples was written rather later than the other two, in the late 1950's. I include it here because it is similarly dated; like Allingham's, the plot turns on madness and on people being driven mad by circumstance. But my real complaint is that I don't like Inspector Maigret much more than I like Albert Campion.

Again, it's possible that I'm not being fair; there must be some reason why these author's books are still in print. Campion, for example, may be unusually detached in this particular book. Or it may be that they appeal more to the Agatha Christie crowd, where the puzzle of the mystery is more important than the story of the characters.

Grave Mistake
Last Ditch
Clutch of Constables
By Ngaio Marsh

Another thing I like about Ngaio Marsh is that the books don't follow a single formula (which is also another reason for giving Margery Allingham and George Simenon another try). I liked all three of these books, and all are rather different. Sometimes Roderick Alleyn is involved from the beginning; sometimes he comes in fairly late. And I'd particularly like to address the last of the three, which is the best mystery novel I've read in quite a long while.

In most mystery novels, a murder occurs and you follow the sleuth about as he or she tries to find the murderer. Usually the reader finds things out as the sleuth does; sometimes, the author tips her hand to the reader but not to the sleuth. But I've never before come across anything quite like this one.

As the book opens, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn is addressing a class of police officers. He's lecturing about the criminal mind, and about a particular international criminal, nicknamed the Jampot, whom he was instrumental in catching. Just as he gets to the interesting part, the action jumps to an earlier time when Alleyn's wife, celebrated artist Troy Alleyn, decides to take a five-day cruise of England's inland waterways while waiting for her husband to return from America. We know from Alleyn's lecture that the Jampot will also be on the cruise...but we don't know who he is.

This pattern goes on throughout the book. Each chapter begins with another bit of the lecture, and then continues with Troy's adventures on the canal boat as she notices odd things and starts to wonder about her fellow passengers. Thus, throughout the book we get information from two sources. Through the lectures we find out everything the police knew about the Jampot prior to his capture, as well as a few tantalizing hints as to what they found out afterwards; through the many story line we come to know each of the passengers and can begin to see how well each one fits the Jampot mold.

I found it a fascinating book; I felt like I was being played on a line like a fish. And she still kept me guessing right up until the last page.

4 Fantastic Novels:
The Worms of Kukumlima
The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror
By Daniel Pinkwater

Last month I reviewed Pinkwater's 5 Novels; these are much the same mixture of social observation, extreme silliness, and joyous nonsense. Pound for pound, 5 Novels is probably the better investment, if only because it includes the first Snarkout Boys novel (the Baconburg Horror is the second).

Personally, I'd go ahead and buy them both. In fact, I did...and I'd do it again.

The Runelords
Brotherhood of the Wolf
By David Farland

About a year and a half ago I read, enjoyed, and reviewed the first of these two novels, to my great pleasure. As my prior review still strikes me as both accurate and fair, I suggest you read it before continuing. I'll wait.

My previous review accurately reflected what I took away from the book, but it wasn't complete. The first book indeed covers the rise of Wolf Lord Raj Ahten...but it also makes it clear that Raj Ahten isn't the real threat. The reavers, ancient enemies of mankind, are beginning to stir from their subterranean homes. It's not at all clear that any human beings will survive, but the spirit of the Earth has chosen Prince Gaborn val Orden to be the Earth King, with the task of choosing from among the nations the seeds of humanity. Most will perish, but some few of the seeds may survive.

This theme is the main topic of the new book, Brotherhood of the Wolf, which is finally out in paperback. It's maybe a little long--none of these fantasy epics seem to get any editing anymore--but I found it just as satisfying as the first volume. If epic fantasy is your thing, be sure to give David Farland a try; he's far more satisfying and far less irritating than Robert Jordan has become.

Historians' Fallacies
By David H. Fischer

I bought this little book about three years ago, and loved it. As I said then, the book is not about historians' errors of fact, but their errors of reasoning. That is, it is about ways of arguing incorrectly, so that your argument does not in fact sustain your conclusions (which may be right for other reasons). I retained very little of it, and I knew then that I'd be wanting to re-read it, probably several times.

I re-read it for the first time just this month, and my experience was remarkably different. One change was that this tie I recognize the names of some of the historians he quotes--not from having read this book three years ago, but from having read the historians themselves, or having read about them elsewhere.

The more interesting change, though, is one of attitude. The first time I read it, I read it uncritically. I enjoyed watching him make monkeys (in a respectful way) of the great names in historiography. This time, on the other hand, I found myself arguing with him. Indeed, if one were to scrupulously avoid every form of argument he calls fallacious, one would have difficulty setting pen to paper.

Perhaps in three years, or ten years, I'll read it again; it will be interesting to see how my views have changed. In the meantime, if you're a history buff like me you might like it.

Children's Books

by Will Duquette

Mud Puddle
Written by Robert N. Munsch and illustrated by Sami Suomalainen

We went to a lot of book stores on our vacation, and perforce our sons went with us; and so we bought a fair number of children's books. This is one of the better ones. It's the delightfully illustrated story of a girl who is attacked by a mud puddle whenever she steps into the back yard. As the story goes, the mud puddle lurks in hiding until she comes out, and then jumps upon her. (Her broad smile as the mud descends may tell different story.)

If the mud is fun, the baths that necessarily follow are not, and so the girl plots to dispose of the mud puddle. I can't tell you whether she succeeds, or how the trick is done, but I can tell you that the book is just right for our three-year-old.

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 October 2000
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