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ex libris reviews

1 September 2001

Then the Bi-Coloured Python Rock Snake came down from the bank, and knotted himself in a double-clove-hitch around the Elephant's Child's hind legs, and said, "Rash and inexperienced traveller, we will now seriously devote ourselves to a little high tension, because if we do not, it is my impression that yonder self-propelling man-of-war with the armour-plated upper deck" (and by this, O Best Beloved, he meant the Crocodile) "will permanently vitiate your future career." This is the way all Bi-Coloured Python Rock Snakes always talk.
Rudyard Kipling


In This Issue:
The Plot Thickens

This month I need to welcome two new arrivals to Ex Libris Reviews. The first is the new non-reader in our home, whose arrival I heralded last month: our daughter Anne was born at 2:30 PM on 7/31/2001. She's a fine little girl, but not particularly intellectual as yet.

As a consequence of her arrival, I immediately dropped all projects until such time as things should settle down, and consequently got a lot more reading done; reading is one of the few activities you can combine with keeping a slothful eye on the children.

The other new arrival is our new guest reviewer, Deb English; see her debut review below. She has this to say about herself:

I am a 43 year old mother of two and wife of one who lives in a ramshackle 5 bedroom farmhouse in Southwestern Wisconsin. By day I work in a non profit child care resource and referral agency where my official title is Office Manager but I really function as the office know-it-all and goddess. By night, when I'm not doing motherwork, wifework and housework, I obsessively knit, read, do the crosswords in the paper and write in my notebook with a fountain pen. I have a BS in English which I find a burden at times since I feel I'm supposed to read "literature" and ignore all the good books out there. I overcome it with mysteries, coffee and chocolate.

We're hoping to hear more from her in coming months.

Meanwhile, as always, enjoy!

-- Will Duquette

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

To Kill a Mockingbird
By Harper Lee

I finished reading To Kill A Mockingbird a few days ago. I read it aloud to my daughter and it was actually a bit of a race to get it done before summer ended and school started. Homework and band practice take up the evenings during the school year and our reading time together is put on the backburner for supposedly more important things like long division and spelling.

I hadn't read it since I was in high school, maybe junior high. Mostly I remembered the story of Tom Robinson's trial and I remembered the wonderful moment when Scout realized that the man standing next to the wall was Boo. The recent press coverage of a little town in Oklahoma taking it off the required reading lists prompted me to take out my old copy just to see if I remembered it correctly.

What I had missed the first time thru were all the layers of conformity and intolerance throughout the whole story. The struggle of the Negro community in the South of course still stood out. The first time I read the N word, my daughter's head flew up, startled to hear so blatantly a word she had been coached never, ever to say. But what made this reading of the book so rich was all the other nuances. The questions of respectability and "background." Jem's whole struggle with his father's role in the community and what makes a man. Scouts struggle with the women she has to look to for models and what it is to be is a "lady." The question of what makes a good education versus the role of the schools. And the whole business of privacy within a community and getting Boo Radley to come out.

Harper Lee wrote a book that only gets better with rereading. And the story is only more apt and pertinent now than it was when it was published. Told thru the eyes of a child, with the understanding and words of an adult, I found it offensive, funny, nostalgic and subtle all at once. Parts of it still make me uncomfortable but only because the story is still pertinent after all this time. I still think about the book after the reading is done. And that is the best part.

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Fortune of War
By Patrick O'Brian

Each month I'm reading and reviewing one book from O'Brian's justly acclaimed Aubrey/Maturin series. This is the sixth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April Issue.

The Fortune of War is set in the beginning months of the War of 1812, at a time when the Americans had had an astonishing run of success--and this at a time when the Royal Navy (and, even more, the British public) had the expectation that the Royal Navy would be ever triumphant. More than anything else, it is the story of the dejection of the British officers and men at the British losses--and their eventual satisfaction when the British Shannon defeated the Chesapeake off Cape Cod.

I didn't fully appreciate this book the first time I read it, mostly because I was still thinking of this as the "Jack Aubrey series." In this book, however, Aubrey is primarily an observer, first as passenger on several British ships, then as an invalid and prisoner of war; he doesn't become really active until the very end. O'Brian's primary intent was simply to get him to all of the necessary locations so that he could observe the events of interest.

And then, to the extent that it has a plot beyond the sweep of history, The Fortune of War is really a continuation of the spy story begun in Desolation Island, and Stephen Maturin is the principle actor.

And read that way, it's a satisfying volume indeed.

Sick Puppy
By Carl Hiaasen

I find that I can stomach perhaps one Hiaasen novel every twelve-to-twenty-four months. On the one hand, the man is genuinely funny, and an excellent storyteller; on the other hand, the stories he tells are about as loathsome and scabrous a pack of individuals as one can readily imagine.

Sick Puppy, like the two other Hiaasen novels I've read, takes place in Florida and is fundamentally about the business and politics of land use. On the one side are the rich developers, their politicians and other tools, and on the other side are the defenders of Florida's dwindling untouched natural resources. But that description, while true so far as it goes, is equivalent to describing John Steinbeck's Cannery Row as an expose on homelessness in a California seaport. If the bad guys are all corrupt, vulgar, coarse, and inclined to weird perversions, the good guys are all demented, unstable, and equally contemptuous of the law.

It's undeniably funny, but the title is pretty well (you should excuse the pun) spot on. Read with caution.

The Boy-Bishop's Glovemaker
By Michael Jecks

This is the latest in a series of mysteries set in early 14th Century England; the sleuth is one Sir Baldwin Furnshill, Keeper of King's Peace and one-time member of the now suppressed order of the Knights Templar. I picked it up the week before our new baby was born, not having read any of the earlier volumes, as part of a conscious attempt to have plenty of light reading available in the coming month. (One of the few things you can do while holding a small baby is read a book; another is watching TV, and that palls quickly.)

Buying a book sight-unseen, just based on the appearance of the cover and perhaps the first few words, is always a gamble; readers of last month's issue will remember a similar gamble that failed to pay off. On this one, by contrast, I at least broke even--and possibly did better than that, though it's hard to say, for two reasons. The first is that, as this is the latest in a longish series, the author spent not very much time introducing us to the main characters, and thus the book had to hold our attention despite them; the second is that this is the book I brought with me to the hospital to read in odd moments, and finished in the days after the birth, so I can hardly say that it got my full attention.

The story takes place in the city of Exeter and its Cathedral close; the time is Christmas of 1321 when, in long-standing tradition, one of the young choir boys is elected "Boy-Bishop", to reign over the Cathedral and its precincts during the Saturnalia of the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The setting is fascinating and well-drawn, and the characters are believable.

I was reminded several times of The Samurai's Wife, in which the investigator's wife was so entirely (and painfully) in defiance of the culture of her day; Sir Baldwin's wife, by contrast, supports her husband through skillful use of the role she plays within her culture.

On the whole, the only major criticism I have of the book is a kind of humorless dullness--but don't read too much into that. I wasn't my normal self when I read it. It suffices to say that I was sufficiently interested to pick up the first book in the series, The Last Templar, just to give it another go. I'll let you know next month how it comes out.

Swords and Ice Magic
By Fritz Leiber

When I first read this book as a teenager I didn't much like it; parts seemed to be overly puffed up, other parts overly opaque, and the rest unappealing, and though I later re-read the remainder of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series with pleasure I mostly ignored this one. This time, for reasons which will become clear below, I chose to continue with it, come what may.

My feelings are mixed. To begin with, there's more to the book than I remembered, whole stories I had entirely forgotten. And some of these are fairly light weight. The story I thought was remarkably opaque was very slightly less so; enough for understanding, but not enough for forgiveness. The story I just plain didn't like was better than I remembered, though still not my favorite.

Bottom line--if you like heroic fantasy, read the earlier books in the series; if you like them, you might as well read this one, too. And then you can go on to the next one....

The Knight and Knave of Swords
By Fritz Leiber

This is one of the last books Leiber wrote before he died; published a decade after its predecessor, the entire book is an extension of "Rime Island", the last story in Swords and Ice Magic. I bought it when it was published in hardcover some years ago, opened it, realized that it continued from a story I hadn't much liked, and put it away, unread, until now.

I'm glad to say that it's mostly a better book than its predecessor, which is worth reading if only to provide the needed background. It's the story of our heroes' passage into middle age, and the decision that settling down, at long last, has its attractions. And in fact, to everyone's surprise, settle down they do. This is not to everyone's satisfaction, and they manage to have a surprising number of adventures while remaining mostly in one place.

That's the good news. The bad news is that there's a strain (especially in the last tale in the book) of dark eroticism that really puts me off. The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books have always been about the pursuit of women, to a degree I didn't fully appreciate as a teenager (or perhaps I just thought it was normal and took it for granted), and the theme of sadism arose more than once, but it was always an essential part of the plot. This book brings in sadoeroticism in more detail, and for no particular reason; it could have been omitted without changing the outcome in the slightest.

Ah, well. Perhaps I should simply be glad that the other tales were written in a less liberated era.

Conjure Wife
By Fritz Leiber

Continuing my Leiber-fest, I found this Leiber classic (which I had never previously read) as the first entry in an omnibus trade paperback called Dark Ladies; you may wish to look for it.

It's an engaging little tale of a professor of folklore at a straitlaced little country college. He's doing remarkably well there, despite the viciousness of the local academic politics and the narrowmindedness of the local academic wives (this was written, I hasten to add, back in the 1940's).

And then he realizes that his wife has been casting magic charms to support and defend him in his work. She's not sure whether she believes in them or not, but she's become quite obsessed with them anyway. As the professor considers this the rankest kind of superstition, he insists on her burning every last charm--with disastrous effects. It seems that she's not the only witch among the faculty wives....

Described that way, this almost sounds like a farce, but it isn't. It's really a powerfully written chiller; there was one passage in particular that grabbed me by the throat so hard that I had to sit there for some time before turning the page.

Our Lady of Darkness
By Fritz Leiber

Paired with Conjure Wife in Dark Ladies, (though I already had a copy) is the equally spooky Our Lady of Darkness. I first read this in college, and didn't appreciate its subtlety. At that time it was kind of ho-hum; this time it was much more satisfying.

Leiber was a resident of San Francisco, California, and this book is in part an ode to that city, a city he obviously loved very much. It's also about the art of megalopisomancy, a ghost that's haunting the city itself, and the dangers of loving books too strongly. If you like subtle, understated chillers, this is well worth it.

Mortal Stakes
Promised Land
The Judas Goat
By Robert B. Parker

More of Parker's series of Spenser private detective novels. Good-enough stories, lightly and engagingly told, and just the thing for when you don't have much attention to spare. But there's nothing to rave about in this crop either.

The Last Judgement
By Iain Pears

This is another of Pears' "art history mysteries"; I read the first one, The Raphael Affair, some time ago. It was adequate, and promised good things to come. I finally got around to getting another book in the series, and I'm glad I did. This one was better in every way, and had me raptly turning pages.

Stephen Argyll, art dealer and English expatriate now living in Rome, is in London concluding a deal, and as part of the deal offers to deliver a painting to a buyer in Rome, carrying it with him on the train. This is not strictly illegal, evidently, but it avoids a vast quantity of unpleasant paperwork.

And then the recipient of the painting is murdered...and it begins to appear that the painting's provenance is suspect indeed.

I'm not quite as taken with Pears' modern Rome as I am with Lindsey Davis' ancient Rome...but I'd still recommend these. I have two more on the shelf waiting for next month.

The Dead Sea Cipher
By Elizabeth Peters

As one might guess from the title, this is an archaeological mystery involving the Dead Sea Scrolls. Being a book by Elizabeth Peters, it's also something of a romantic comedy. It's fluffy, lightweight, somewhat predictable, and not her best work; plus, I thought the climax was a little heavy-handed.

If you like Peter's other work, it might not be a bad way to spend the afternoon.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
By J.R.R. Tolkien

This caught my eye and I bought it on a whim, not sure whether it was going to be worth it or not. I'm glad I did; but that doesn't mean that you should.

The two giants of my early reading life were Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote reams of non-fiction, quite apart from his academic work, and I've read most of it; I've become fairly well acquainted with Lewis-the-man, and many of my theological views have grown from seeds he planted.

But, as much as I owe to Lewis' non-fiction, and as much as I like his fiction, I've always felt Tolkien's fiction to be much the greater. And yet, I've known little of Tolkien-the-man. I hoped reading this book would rectify the problem, and it did.

The Tolkien that emerges from these letters is superficially much like the painter from his tale "Leaf by Niggle"--devoted to a project of great beauty that eludes most of those around him. Or, rather, the painter was Tolkien as he wished he could be (and perhaps felt he was)--devoted to his project to the neglect and exclusion of his duties.

Creation was hard work for Tolkien; getting down to work on his books took time and concentration that were often lacking. He did not, so far as I can tell, neglect his urgent academic duties, though he often wished to; indeed, the life that emerges from his letters is one spent mired in the unpleasant duties of the day-to-day with occasional joyous escapes to the world of his fancy.

But more than that, Tolkien was a man of one piece. One single thread--his Roman Catholicism--runs through his life and his work. He was not an evangelist; The Lord of the Rings was never intended to persuade anyone of the truth of anything. And yet, his world view is there, plain to see if you're looking for it. His faith, as shown in these letters, is a beautiful thing.

Tolkien's life overlapped mine by only a few short years (and at that he did better than Lewis, who died only a few months after I was born); he died the year after I first read The Lord of the Rings at the age of nine. It's just possible that I could have written to him and gotten a response. I'm sorry now that I didn't.

Jane and the Stillroom Maid
By Stephanie Barron

This is the fifth of Barron's "Jane Austen" mysteries. The series has ranged from adequate to good; this is definitely the best to date. Never has the idea of "Jane Austen the sleuth" seemed less forced; never has she seemed to fit so effortlessly into the grisly world of murder. Moreover, Barron has (as always) done her homework; the tale takes place during a family trip to Derbyshire, and to the very neighborhood of Austen's hero Fitzwilliam Darcy. It's interesting to watch the various characters and settings and imagine Austen drawing inspiration for Pride and Prejudice. More than that, Barron handles the question of Austen's inspiration with great dexterity; the plot of this book in no way mimics that of Pride and Prejudice, nor is any character in it a clone or caricature of one of Austen's characters. To the contrary, in Barron's characters one can see the raw materials that appear quite transformed in Austen's great work.

And with all that, it was both entertaining and gripping, and I liked it a lot.

The Haunted Looking Glass
By Edward Gorey

This is not really a book by Edward Gorey; rather, it's a book of ghost stories chosen and illustrated by Edward Gorey (one picture per story). I bought it because I'm a Gorey fan, and because I like the occasional ghost story.

That said, the tales herein didn't impress me much. Most were of the "they went in the haunted house, they got scared, they saw something scary, and then they left" variety; they don't work nearly as well in our cynical age. The last tale, "Casting the Runes," by M.R. James, was unique in that it actually had a plot, and I thought it by far the best. There were one or two others that were OK, including the famous (and over-anthologized) "The Monkey's Paw", by W.W. Jacobs. Most of the selections, though, are eminently forgettable; go read H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe instead.

The Chan's Great Continent
By Jonathan Spence

Spence is the best known historian of China at the present time; he's written many excellent books, many of which I've read. This is a survey and reflection on Western attitudes toward and depictions of China over the centuries, from Marco Polo (who may never have been there) onward. I found it entertaining enough, in the context of my previous historical reading; at the same time, I'd have liked Spence to reflect a little more on the gap between Western perception and Chinese reality. Of course, Spence being a Westerner himself, that might have been a tad too self-referential.

Anyway, it's an interesting book--if your reading has brought to the place where it sounds intriguing.

The Right to Arm Bears
By Gordon R. Dickson

The title is silly, and the cover is both cheesy and almost completely unrelated to the contents of the book; overlook both of these things. What this, in fact, is a reprint of two previous books and a short story about the residents of the planet Dilbia, and it's an undiluted (if lightweight) delight, similar in spirit to the Dickson's tales (written with the late Poul Anderson) of the overly-imaginative Hokas. Like the Hokas, the Dilbians resemble bears--albeit kodiak rather than teddy. And like the Hokas, humans have to meet them on their own peculiar terms in order to succeed. Watching them learn to recognize and use those terms is half the fun.

If you like light, humorous, not particularly cynical science ficition (this is definitely pre-cyberpunk), this book will give you a pleasant afternoon and a number of chuckles.

Oh, and the previous titles collected under this name are Spacial Delivery, Spacepaw, and "The Law-Twister Shorty".

The Judas Pair
Gold by Gemini
The Grail Tree
Spend Game
The Vatican Rip
Firefly Gadroon
The Sleepers of Erin
The Gondola Scam
The Tartan Sell
The Great California Game
The Sin Within Her Smile
The Grace in Older Women
The Rich and the Profane
A Rag, a Bone, and a Hank of Hair
By Jonathan Gash

Whenever I am suffering a prolonged interval of forced mental and physical inactivity, I start chain-reading: read a book, put it down, pick up another, resume reading. Successful chain-reading has some stringent requirements. First, the books have to hold your attention--that being their primary function. They have to be engaging and entertaining and above all distracting. Second, they can't be too much work; if one were up to prolonged mental work, one wouldn't be chain-reading. Instead, one wants them to be somewhat (but not entirely) familiar, somewhat (but not entirely) predictable. Third, one wants to know where the next book is coming from. When you finish one book, you want to be able to pick up the next one without having to think about it.

So I spent this last week having a cold--along with everyone else in the family but our new baby, Anne. I spent a lot of time feeling wretched and not up to much; I spent a lot of time holding or otherwise watching sick kids. And, it so happens, I was at the bookstore the previous weekend, and picked up three of Jonathan Gash's "Lovejoy" mysteries that I hadn't previously read. A couple of days later it seemed appropriate to pick up the first Lovejoy book and start chaining on through.

It was an inspired choice.

If you're not familiar with Lovejoy, he's an English antiques dealer. He's also a womanizer, a crook, a forger, and a con-artist. His one redeeming quality is his genuine love for genuine antiques. Money holds no interest for him, except as a means to acquire antiques; consequently he's usually broke. (He starts out the series as something of a reputable dealer with a small but valuable stock of antiques, but he quickly becomes the shabby, bent, rogue with no visible means of support that he remains for the rest of series.

Oh, and on top of this he's a "divvy". He can tell immediatley whether a putative antique is genuine or not--a useful skill, frequently in demand, but one that Lovejoy, with his singlemindedness (and, it must be said, shortsightedness) simply can't manage to profit from in the long term.

The neat thing about the Lovejoy mysteries is that each one is a combination of murder mystery and caper novel. One reads, not so much to figure out whodunnit, but simply to see how the caper plays itself out. Or, more often, "capers"; Lovejoy frequently has to play several ends against the middle. Add to this Gash's evident knowledge of and love for antiques, and you've got a guaranteed good time.

I don't much like Lovejoy; I wouldn't want to be Lovejoy; I wouldn't even want to know Lovejoy. But he's fun to read about.

The books listed above are in order of publication, but there are holes after the first ten; there are at least twenty-one Lovejoy novels, of which I have only sixteen.

Children's Books

by Will Duquette

Just So Stories
By Rudyard Kipling

My mother used to read to me from Just So Stories when I was a little boy; my favorite story was always "The Elephant's Child," about how the Elephant's Child got his trunk from a crocodile "by the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees," but I also much enjoyed "How the Camel got his Hump", "How the Whale got his Throat", "How the Leopard got his Spots", and especially "How the Rhinoceros got his Skin" and "The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo".

I've been reading the stories aloud to my oldest boy David in the past few weeks, and he likes them too.

The magic of these tales is in the language. Kipling later said that he read each one aloud over and over, until all of the rough spots had been polished away, and it shows. Moreover, he wrote for both parent and child; there are many bits that add wonder and mystery to the child while evoking a soft chuckle from the adult reader. (One such is quoted at the top of this issue.)

Kiping is not very well-regarded these days, being associated with British Imperialism (and you know what a bad word that is in these enlightened and intolerant times); but even if that is a fair accusation (and I'm not persuaded that it is), this book is worth your attention.

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 September 2001
Copyright © 2001, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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