Home : Ex Libris : 1 August 2002

ex libris reviews

1 August 2002

With fashionable subjects like physics or astronomy, the correspondance between model and reality is so exact that some people tend to regard Nature as a sort of Divine Mathematician. However attractive this doctrine might be to earthly mathematicians, there are some phenomena where it is wise to use mathematical analogies with great caution. The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent on a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea and the way of a man with a maid are difficult to predict analytically. One does sometimes wonder how mathematicians ever manage to get married.
J.E. Gordon


In This Issue:
Crass Commercialization Redux

Last month I pointed out the Amazon Honor System paybox over there on the right hand side of the page, and said that it was now possible for my readers to show their appreciation in a monetary fashion. I went on to say that no one need feel compelled to pay; that ex libris was and always will be free for the reading; that ex libris wasn't going to fold if no money came in; that I was mostly curious about what kind of response I'd get.

Within twelve hours of uploading last month's ex libris, we got a contribution in the amount of two dollars. He knows who he is, and we're grateful. Since then, zilch. Zip. Nada. Nothing.

Needless to say, it's been a humbling experience. I can't even try to make the rest of you feel guilty, because everything I said last month was true. I don't really need the money, I'd write ex libris anyway, and the great thing about doing it is the e-mail I get from the far-flung corners of the world.

Anyway, I go into this mostly because I didn't read very many books this month, and I don't want anyone to get the idea that it's because I'm sulking or slacking off. In fact, I spent most of the month working on a programming project--a personal notebook application called Notebook. You can find out more about it at the Notebook Home Page, though it isn't really ready for prime time yet. I'm finding it incredibly useful; I wrote most of this month's issue in it.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Commodore
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 seventeenth in the series; if you are new to ex libris, you may wish to jump back to the April 2001 issue.

Ho, hum. The only notable thing about this episode in the Aubrey/Maturin saga is that it takes them to Africa's slave coast, a place about which O'Brian has previously been silent. Other than that, it doesn't stand out from its fellows in any remarkable way. Jack Aubrey does his kind of things, Stephen Maturin does his kind of things, and though the familiarity is all very comforting, not much actually goes on. And the conclusion seems hurried, as though O'Brian spent more pages on the first part of the book than he intended and had to rush to get the conclusion into some pre-ordained page count.

Not that it really matters all that much. If one didn't like O'Brian's prose style, subject matter, and characters, one wouldn't have gotten this deeply into the series anyway. And given that one has gotten this deeply into the series, the book is enjoyable enough.

Next month: The Yellow Admiral.

By Dorothy Dunnett

Over the last few months I've been reading and reviewing books from Dunnett's Lymond series of historical novels. Last month I discussed the beginning of Checkmate, the sixth and last book in the series, which I hadn't yet finished. I still haven't finished it, but then it was a busy month. Maybe next time.

If you're a newcomer to ex libris, you might wish to jump back to the review of The Game of Kings in last December's issue.

Joy in the Morning
By P.G. Wodehouse

This yet another tale of Bertie Wooster and the inimitable Jeeves. The set up is familiar: Bertie is compelled to come to a country house to help his friends to marry as they wish, and must somehow escape getting married himself. There are always at least two engaged couples involved. The first always consists of a beautiful, perky girl that Bertie's known from childhood, and a friend from the Drones club who is simply unacceptable to the perky girl's parents. The second always consists of a girl who is convinced that Bertie is passionately in love with her, and a man who is convinced that Bertie is passionately in love with his girl.

In this case, the good couple are Zenobia ("Nobby"), Uncle Percy's ward, and Boko Fittleton the author. The bad couple stem from a Jeeves and Wooster short story: Florence Craye, the girl who tried to make Bertie read Nietzche, and D'Arcy "Stilton" Cheesewright, an athletic fellow Bertie went to school with.

In this outing, the locale is the picturesque village of Steeple Bumpleigh (I sincerely wish I could think of names like this), and the country house is that of his Aunt Agatha and Uncle Percy. And it's odd--Aunt Agatha was one of the chief dragons of the Jeeves and Wooster short stories, but while she's been mentioned in (I think) every one of the novels, I don't believe she's ever been on stage in one. And yet, while never even being on screen in this one, she's still one of the primary actors. People quake even at the rumor of her passing.

Anyway, it's a good time, just like all the others.

The Big Nap
By Ayelet Waldman

This is Waldman's second mystery about Juliet Applebaum, successful public defender turned stay-at-home mom; the first, which I've not read, is called Nursery Crimes. The "Big Nap" of the title is the nap that Juliet desperately needs and, thanks to her ever wakeful infant, isn't getting. Anxious for sleep, she hires a babysitter to come and watch the baby so she can nap, and this is truly a glorious thing. And then the next day the babysitter doesn't come. Her family, Chasidic Jews, don't know where she is...has she run off with the handsome Israeli Juliet saw her talking too?

I picked this one up on the strength of the title, and because, after glancing at a few pages, it was clear that Waldman knows whereof she speaks regarding being a new mom. Let me make it plain, for all of the childless folks out there--she's not exagerating. It's true, Jane has never actually bought any of our kids a new suit of clothes at Baby Gap just because the kid had a serious diaper explosion just as they were walking by the store and she needed something clean to put them in--but if the necessary circumstances coincided that way, she'd do it like a shot.

It turned out to be mildly entertaining; Juliet's childcare problems all rang a bell, and there was a lot of interesting information about ultra-orthodox Judaism. But it wasn't much of a mystery, and I don't know that I'll look for any further books in the series.

A Little Local Murder
By Robert Barnard

Barnard has an interesting way with characters. They seem invariably to be types, or perhaps caricatures is a better word, rather than real people--the sort of characters you might meet on a British sitcom. But "caricature" implies that they are drawn with a broad brush, as the saying goes, and Barnard's brush is anything but broad. He's a Hirschfeld of prose, delineating his characters with a few precise, deft strokes:

Alison had the gift of making other women feel they had had a trying day, and were showing it. Sometimes, indeed, she told them that they were. There was little subtlety about Alison. Today, as always, she was looking cool, clean, well-pressed and deadly.

Barnard's prose is one of the chief reasons I like his books.

The present outing concerns the village of Twytching (another wonderful name!), which is to be the subject of an internationally-broadcast radio program. It's not so much a question of who'll stab whom in the back to get on the show as who'll get the knife in first--figuratively speaking, of course, until the body is discovered.

Alas, Barnard is hard to find, these days. I'm going to have to pay another visit to the local used-book shops.

Don Camillo and his Flock
By Giovanni Guareschi

Yet another funny and heartwarming series of tales about the strong, stout-hearted, sometimes hasty and frequently repentant village priest, Don Camillo. All of the old crew are there, beginning with Peppone, the communist mayor, and all his gang.

I can't say much about this book without describing how July went for me--which is to say, mostly in a blur of creativity. I spent most of the month working on a personal project of mine (you can find the fruits of it on the Notebook page, next door), and of course I was going to my regular job as well, and consequently I had very little free time for reading. When I did manage to stop working on my project it was hard to concentrate on anything else.

It was at this point that I remembered that I had a Don Camillo book I was saving to read sometime this month, and when I opened it, it was like a cup of hot tea when you've got a bad cold.

For the reader, Don Camillo has an easy way about him. By the time you've read one book, or even part of one, you've invited Don Camillo and Peppone into your living room and made them comfortable. And then when you read more, it isn't like guests paying a formal call; it's like old, dear friends turning up unexpectedly. Even if you're not very keen on playing host most of the time, and your house is a mess, and the dishes haven't been washed, it's still a joy to invite them in and sit down with them, and catch up on what's been going on since you last met.

If you'd like to meet them, you're most likely to find them at your local used bookstore.

Enemy Glory
By Karen Michalson

I bought this on a whim late in June; it's the author's first book, but the blurb was interesting and the publisher (Tor Books) is usually trustworthy. It just goes to show that you can't judge a book by its cover blurb.

It's rare that a fantasy author chooses to center a book on a real anti-hero. Books about lovable rogues and thieves abound, from Fritz Leiber's tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser to Jack Vance's Cugel the Clever to Eric Flint's Philosophical Strangler. But even though these characters have their serious moral failings, you enjoy them, and even identify with them a little bit. The one great fantasy anti-hero that comes to mind, the one character that people have sometimes thrown away in disgust or continued to read about while still not liking him much is Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant.

Michalson has attempted something much more ambitious. Her character, Llewelyn, becomes something of an out-and-out villain, a priest of Hecate, dedicated to evil. We hear a good bit about his childhood, and the interesting thing is that although it's clear that poor treatment and betrayal are somewhat to blame for how he turns out, it is also clear that he was a manipulative, scheming, amoral little git from his earliest days.

He grows up as the unloved youngest child of a minor court functionary; his only friend in his youngest days is a nearby witchwoman who fills his head with the most amazing nonsense while using him to accomplish her own ends. Later he goes to school and begins to be trained as a wizard by masters more intent on preserving their own power than in teaching him anything. War comes, and he escapes from the capital, taking up with a small armed band from another country led by Duke Walworth and beginning a new apprenticeship with a wizard named Mirand. He manages to do Walworth a great service and is then, as he sees it, betrayed--banished to a monastery. But Llewelyn's sight is not to be trusted.

To this extent, Michalson has accomplished an amazing thing: she wrote the book largely in the first person, from Llewelyn's point of view. We hear him condemned, and from his own mouth. Over time, we become aware of evil traits in him that he himself is largely unaware of--that he accepts, not only without question, but without any understanding that any other way is possible. When his wizardly master Mirand finally rejects him, refusing to train him anymore because his moral senses are fundamentally flawed, we can see the flaws clearly, even though Llewelyn can't.

But alas, the book is an ambitious failure. Llewelyn is a complicated and well-drawn character, but he's deadly dull, and as he's the speaker the book is rather less than gripping. One would hope that the other characters might salvage things, but we only see them through Llewelyn's jaundiced eyes, through his natural biases. By the end, we are no more sure who is to be liked and trusted than Llewelyn is, even though we know his problems are largely of his own making.

Well, maybe the world he lives in can hold our attention. And to some extent it does. But the world has problems, to. It's an odd heterogeneous place, like no place on Earth but clearly somehow related to Earth; the people worship various members of the Greek pantheon by name, and Mirand makes a distinct and unmistakable (if implicit) reference to The Lord of the Rings, which he has evidently read. No explanation is given of these things, and while it might come out later in the series (yes, this is the first book of a series) it's simply annoying at the moment. And then while the world is an interesting place, Llewelyn doesn't get to see much of it.

I have some other qualms, too--there are some odd, inchoate pot-shots at Christianity that I didn't care much for--but I can over look that kind of thing for a rousing tale well-told. Michalson clearly sweated blood over this, but I fear her blood was shed to no good purpose.

Structures: or Why Things Don't Fall Down
By J.E. Gordon

A friend at work came in very late one day a couple of weeks ago. I asked how come, and he said he'd been up until two in the morning reading a book. I asked what it was about, and he said, "Structures." I said, "Huh?", and he said "Structures. Why things don't fall down." It kept him up late the next two nights as well, and when he finished it I borrowed it.

Structures is a book about bridges, cathedrals, ships, airplanes, and houses, and the materials they are made of. It's about the strength of materials when subjected to various kinds of stresses, and how stresses propagate through structures. It's about why well-build cathedrals seldom fall down, and why biplanes were once so much more reliable than monoplanes. It's about the contribution of the bias-cut evening gown to the development of solid fuel rockets.

In short, it's a serious work on structural physics and engineering that's intended for a general audience. It's written with a clarity that one seldom finds in books on any topic whatsoever, let alone books of physics. The prose reminds me of Jacques Barzun and C.S. Lewis; it's simple and direct.

While I can't say that Structures kept me up at night, I will say that it made enjoyable vacation reading. My only complaint is that since I borrowed it I have to give it back.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

A Finer End
By Deborah Crombie

A respected architect finds himself automatically writing in Latin in a hand not his own and with no knowledge of what it is he has written. Set in Glastonbury, the mythical burial place of Arthur and Guinevere and a center of power for pagans and Druids, the architect, Jack Montfort tries to destroy his work only to find himself continuing to automatically write. The Latin, translated, seems to be a message from a monk of the ancient Abbey that once stood on the Tor, asking him to do something. He gathers a group of friends around to help him figure out what the mysterious writings mean and in the process sets of a chain of events leading to murder. Enter the detective, Duncan Kincaid and his sidekick, Gemma Jones, both of Scotland Yard.

It only gets worse from there. I bought this book on a recent vacation, desparate for a mystery to read. At the time, it held my attention, but I don't think I will go on to read anymore of the author's books. The plot was improbable and the characters just a little too pat for me to really enjoy.

The Summons
By Peter Lovesey

Now Peter Diamond, I find intriguing. This is a later book in what I gather is a series of mysteries about him. He has quit the force in a fit of temper and is working at a supermarket shagging carts in from the parting lot. In the middle of the night, officers from the station he used to be employed at require him to come with them to the station for a meeting with his former boss. He hates his former boss. A lot. But, the boss's daughter has been abducted by an escaped convict that Diamond sent up for life years back and is now demanding to speak only with Diamond. Pay back time for Peter Diamond. The convict claims he's innocent and wants Diamond to solve the murder, correctly this time, in exchange for the girl's life.

The mystery moves along quite well. Diamond is an eccentric, stout, grumpy man who delights in playing head games with his working partner. The plot is complex enough that I never guessed the end until nearly there and by that time I was so fond of Diamond I didnt want the book to end. Definitely worth looking for more in the series. Thanks, Will, for the,um, gentle reminder of his name!

Spindle's End
By Robin McKinley

Technically, I suppose, this is a children's book, but one for more advanced readers. However, I found it in the adult section of the bookstore amidst the space operas and feminist fantasies. It is essentially the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale developed into a story about early adolescence and the identity angst that teens go thru. I found it utterly charming. The fairies who take in the Princess are believable, more wise women than witches. She is rushed off to a peasant village by a young fairy just after her naming day fiasco with the evil wish that she will prick her finger on the end of a spindle and fall into a poisoned sleep. The evil witch is aptly called Pernicia. The Princess, who has now been raised as a peasant to keep her safe, has no inkling of her real identity and finds her place in the village life as the horse leech assistant to a blacksmith. And, as part of her naming day gifts from the fairies she was given, mistakenly, the ability to understand and talk to animals. Dr. Doolittle meets the Princess Diaries with a little Beatrix Potter thrown in.

McKinley takes the basic outline of the fairy tale and builds a wonderfully funny and magic world around the plight of the poor princess, cursed almost from birth. Magic is real there, like dust, and the fairies have the job of controlling it. It's compelling to the very end when the Princess reaches her cursed 21st birthday. What happens then is even more fun than the real fairy tale plot. And, of course, there is all the spinning that's going on. As a spinner, I particularly enjoyed that. I may read this one aloud to my 12 year old daughter if she doesn't hike it up to her room and read it on her own first. She's been eyeing it up.

American Gods
By Neil Gaiman

I bought this book at the gas station on a Wednesday evening after work. I know that because I had to wait for a bunch of folks to buy lottery tickets before I could pay for my purchases and ended up by the bookstand to kill the time. The Lottery drawing is Wednesday night. So, amidst all the bodice rippers and action thrillers on the bookstand I picked this one out because the name is somehow vaguely familiar. I can't quite place it but it looks interesting enough. Later, I find out Will reviewed it last month and though I FAITHFULLY commit all his reviews to memory, I must have skimmed this one and that's why the book was just, um, familiar.

Actually, I am of two minds about the book. Mostly I thought it just ok. I kept wondering what the point was and was hoping the bad guys would come into the plot a little more so I could at least figure out why they were bad guys. Plus, I think Gaimon threw some really cheap shots in, especially at the end when Shadow turns up the son of Wednesday. On the other hand, the sequence in the middle of the book in Laketown could have been a really fine short story if he had disconnected it from the rest of the book. Almost a Shirley Jackson level of horror. And I live in Wisconsin, about 20 miles from The House on the Rock, which, trust me, really is the tackiest place in the entire state and he uses it and the surrounding area as a major scene in the novel. So there was some local interest, for me at least. All in all, it was ok, maybe a little cheesy, but it held my attention and I will likely pass it on rather than put it in the donate box.

Education of a Wandering Man
By Louis L'Amour

I have never read any of L'Amour's western novels and until my husband started buying early John Wayne/John Ford movies on the Internet, never really watched Westerns or enjoyed the ones I did watch. I am too much a daughter of the Middle Border and the West has never held the romance for me that it does for many. Anyway, a friend recommended this book because L'Amour talks about books so I hunted it up in the bookstore and gave it a go.

What an amazing man! He left home at 15 and essentially became a hobo, doing whatever to keep himself in books and food during the Depression. And he's not reading pulp junk either. He lists Eugene O'Neil plays and Schopenhauer and Tolstoy and Mann and the list is incredibly daunting. The premise of the book, though, is that you can get an education if you want one bad enough and you can learn anything if you try hard enough and are curious enough. And if you want to be a writer you have to write. Not study writing or take workshops or go to classes. You have to write. And read everything. And write.

The book has some problems. It doesn't have an easy flow in terms of timeframes. He tends to jump around and not date his stories. And he occasionally goes into a fictional account of a story he's heard rather than sticking to the memoir format he sets up originally. But for an example of a lifelong learner and the power of books to educate, it's an amazing story. Thanks, Stasia!

A Time to Be Ernest
By P.D. James

On her 77th birthday, P D James began a diary which resulted in the memoir she published as A Time to Be Ernest. I had read some biographical sketches of her life, which seemed to me to have been a hard one, so when I saw this book I picked it up to read more. It's a quiet, elegantly written account of her life couched in the daily notations in a diary. I like diaries. I read Virginia Woolf's diaries several years ago before touching any of her books and was fascinated by them. Anne Morrow Lindbergh's were good as well, though I think less than honest about some aspects of her life. James' sometimes reads like a history of detective fiction written by women in the 20th century. She is obviously connected to the publishing world and drops names like "Maggie" Drabble and Dick Francis and Ruth Rendell in the middle of stories about something else. And she did have a difficult life. Her husband was chronically mentally ill and in and out of institutions til he died. She had to support her two children on her own in post-war London and struggled to balance the necessary job with the need to write. There is a horrific story about giving birth in a London hospital in the middle of the blitz when the babies were taken to the basement and the mothers shoved in their beds out into the halls. What also comes thru from all the stories is that she is a very determined woman. She also gives the same advice I have read from every writer about writing--if you want to be a writer, you have to write. And you have to read. Even if you don't like P D James, the book is interesting and well written.

An Hour Before Daylight
By Jimmy Carter

I don't remember much about Carter's presidency. I was too wrapped up in college and grades and earning enough to keep going to school. But my memory tells me that he didn't do much that was worthy of my notice, which in hindsight may have been a good thing. And I had a general feeling that I didn't like Carter, though why I am not prepared to say. Perhaps it was the conservative, Republican household I grew up in. I only read this book because it was the selection of my book group. I was totally prepared to hate it. Boy, was I wrong. I was fascinated by it.

Carter writes about growing up in the rural South in the Depression. He writes about the sharecropping system of agriculture and the relations between blacks and whites in rural areas. He keeps his focus on his own experience as a boy playing with the kids of his black neighbors, eating at the tables of his father's tenants and learning to be the farmer that his father was. Much of what he says about being dirt poor in the 30's reminded me of my own parent's stories about them. He and my mother are the same age. I enjoyed this book much much more than I thought I would. And I was impressed by how well he wrote. It rambled a bit here and there but not unlike the ramblings of someone recounting times long ago. He also doesn't hide the nastier parts of the times like segregation in the South and the rampant malnutrition that the poor black farmers coped with. Still, when someone to sits down and tells stories of farming with mules or taking watermelons to market in the back of a wagon, the stories should be listened to, if only to remind us of how much things have changed in the course of one lifetime.

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 August 2002
Copyright © 2002, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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