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ex libris reviews

1 April 2003

I went to this hookah lounge in the Egyptian section of Bangkok....
John the Tester


In This Issue:
Back from Van Dieman's Land

I'm freshly back from Australia, where I heard my co-worker, John the Tester, utter the above words. If you're curious about the trip, you'll need to check out our weblog, A View from the Foothills. I read quite a few books during my trip, but you won't be seeing reviews of them in this issue; I'm going to posting them on the web log over the next week or so, and they'll be included in next month's ex libris. But not to worry-- in addition to Deb English and Craig Clarke, we have a new guest reviewer named Felicity McCarthy. We have some favorite authors in common, but disagree on others; as you'll read below, Felicity's a big fan of William Gibson, an author I find to be a complete waste of time. That's the power of ex libris: bringing you reviews on an ever widening array of books. Enjoy!

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Mistress of the Catacombs
By David Drake

This is the fourth book in Drake's Isles series; I didn't enjoy it quite as the others, but I was in a foul mood and blowing my nose every ten minutes, so I'm not sure if that means anything. Certainly the writing was as good as before, and once again the action wasn't simply a rehash of the previous books.

I've finally figured out what really makes this series taste different than others I've read recently--it really is a series. That is, it's a series in the old sense of a collection of standalone books about a continuing set of characters, rather than one gargantuan tale broken into N elephantine tomes. This is common enough in the mystery and historical genres (as the books of Patrick O'Brian bear witness), but it's come to be unusual in the fantasy biz.

Here the series is simply about the trials of Prince Garric and his buddies as they try to keep the Kingdom of the Isles from going under. This is an open-ended premise, as there will always be new foes and new crises; an author could milk it indefinitely. And, as it happens, the fifth Isles book is being published in hardcover this summer.

But the neat thing is, if there were never going to be any more Isles books, I wouldn't be disappointed. The fourth book ends satisfyingly; and so did each of its predecessors. I have similar expectations of the fifth, which I'll buy and read when it comes out in paperback.

Hope to Die
By Lawrence Block

This is the most recent of Block's Matthew Scudder novels. Matt is on the wagon, married, and reasonably respectable. And after a gala evening at the Mostly Mozart festival, Matt discovers that a pair of his fellow Patrons of the Arts were murdered in a particularly gruesome way when they returned home from the Lincoln Center. It's really nothing to do with him, but eventually he starts looking into it anyway.

And that's the problem with this book--it's really nothing to do with Matt Scudder. It's about the perpetrator, and Matt's just a foil. Block would have done better to rewrite this without Matt Scudder at all.

A Man Lay Dead
By Ngaio Marsh

I first discovered Ngaio Marsh a couple of years ago. I usually like to read an author's books in the order they were written, but as Marsh wrote lots of books, and as the inside cover of the current edition list them all in alphabetical order, I didn't bother; instead, I just grabbed three every time I went to the book store, and over a period of some months I'd read them all.

Now, I'm off on a business trip to Australia in a couple of weeks, and I've been saving new, unread books for the flight. So I was looking for something to read last week, and decided that it would be fun to start with Marsh's first book and read them in order, just to see how her writing and her characters evolve. Not all at once, mind you; I'll be reading other things as well.

So, A Man Lay Dead is her first book; it not only marks the first appearance of Inspector Roderick Alleyn, but also that of his friend and occasional Watson, reporter Nigel Bathgate, and of Nigel's sweetie Angela North. And frankly, it's only the presence of the three of them that really save this book.

It's not a bad book, by any means; I enjoyed it. But it's a typical country house mystery, nothing too special there, and the subplot involving a mysterious Russian secret society makes it sound just a little too much like one of Bertie Wooster's favored brand of pulp thriller for comfort.

But if the plot and the perpetrators don't shine, Nigel and Angela do; and while Inspector Alleyn isn't quite himself yet, he gets the job done.

Enter a Murderer
By Ngaio Marsh

As I noted a couple of days ago, I'm starting to re-read all of Ngaio Marsh's work in order of publication. And I was shocked, once I cracked this one open and remembered which one it was, to find out that it was only her second published work. It's far and away better than A Man Lay Dead.

Gone is the country house, gone is the absurd Russian Secret Society; instead, this is the first of a number of her books that take place at the Unicorn Theater in London. Nigel Bathgate's sweetheart being unavailable, he asks his new friend Inspector Alleyn to join him at the theater. The play is a tale of crime and betrayal, and ends with a shooting, only on this occasion the shooting is real--and it was the victim himself who was responsible for loading the gun with dummy bullets. Suicide? Or was he pushed?

Some books just become dated; others age gracefully into period pieces, and this is definitely one of the latter.

The Man in the Queue
By Josephine Tey

At the same time I started my Ngaio Marsh re-reading plan, I thought I'd do the same with Josephine Tey, another author whose work I've not re-read since I first discovered it. And again, it seemed worthwhile to read her books in order of publication, just to see how her writing develops.

I had a similar experience as I had with Marsh--part way through this book, I was asking myself just what it had been that pleased me so much about Tey's writing. And then, suddenly, Inspector Grant follows his quarry to Scotland and the book takes wing and turns out to be much more enjoyable than I'd feared.

This book also has a bearing on my post about imagination: Grant is known for his intuitive "flair", which his boss (the intelligent but methodical Superintendant Barker) recognizes but mistrusts. And sure enough, toward the end of the book when Grant is agonizing because he's might have arrested an innocent man, he tells himself that Barker has no more imagination than a paving stone.

Everything's Eventual
By Stephen King

Reading this book was a mistake.

You almost certainly misunderstood that last statement.

I like Stephen King. He's a darn good story teller, and he's darn good at evoking just the response he wants (which, it seems to me, isn't quite the same thing). I use to buy all of his books as they came out, until I got to Insomnia, which was frankly a waste of time. He told the story well, but the story itself was too silly for words. After that I more or less stopped buying him, and even got rid of all but my favorite books by him.

I kept all of his short story collections. He's a darn good story teller. So when I saw Everything's Eventual at the bookstore and realized it was a new collection, I almost bought it. Almost, but not quite. I wasn't in a buying mood, and I wasn't in a Stephen King mood.

Well, then came the day when I was to leave for Australia. I didn't much want to go, so I was in a foul mood. And then I came across this book again, at the airport, and thought it would distract me a bit, and so I bought it and started reading it in lieu of the book I'd brought for the trip.

That was the mistake.

See, when you write a horror novel you can make it as scary and awful as you like, and still provide a bit of a happy ending after all of that catharsis. When you write a short story in the same genre, you mostly can't--there's not time or space. Reading a short horror story is something like hitting yourself on the head with a hammer, because it feels so good when you stop. The horrible thing happened to someone else, someone you don't know, someone who isn't even real.

If you read a horror anthology straight through in one sitting, it doesn't stop. You just keep getting hit with that hammer through story after story. It's enough to make a guy feel really lousy, and indeed that's usually the effect a Stephen King collection has on me if I'm stupid enough (after all this time) to read it that way.

I started reading Everything's Eventually in the terminal. I continued reading it on the plane. And when I finished a story, I was still on the plane, with many hours to go (it was a fourteen-and-a-half-hour flight) before I got to Australia, feeling cramped, confined, and really out-of-sorts about leaving my family.

I guess you could say that the book fit my mood...but on the whole I'd have been better off with something cheerful. At the very least, I didn't do the stories justice, reading them that way.

Which is a pity, because it's really a rather good book, if you like that sort of thing.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

The Woman in White
By Wilkie Collins

I go to 19th century literature when I want to escape. I have been spending far too much time lately thinking intensely about education, the act of reading, what makes good writing and whether the role of public education is to fulfill the expectations of the parents or to fulfill some larger social purpose such as creating a literate public. And what is a "literate public" anyway? Or, and even scarier, do kids go to school to be socialized and exactly what does that mean? From what I can tell, manners are not part of the equation. Wearing the correct clothes and using the approved language is. Heavy stuff after a long day at work analyzing data about child care and what the projected state level budget cuts will do to the availability of quality care for parents. Not to mention my job, which may disappear pretty soon.

Anyway, I picked up The Woman in White. I've never read any of Wilkie Collins' work though I have read about it in the context of Dickens and the publishing world of Victorian London. Somehow I got the impression he wrote lurid, sensational novels that were hugely popular but of inferior quality. But this book, unlike most of what was published then, has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1860. Something has to be going on here.

What I found were amazingly well drawn characters.

The plot itself is fairly straightforward. Walter Hartwright, a young drawing teacher, has been offered the financially lucrative opportunity to go to the house of a Mr. Fairlie to teach his young wards drawing. Late at night, on the way back from a farewell visit to his mother's house just outside London, he encounters a ghostly woman dressed completely in white asking his aid in getting to London. She is mysterious, nervous and attractive. After walking with her the rest of the way and finding her a cab, he overhears the conversation of men looking for her. She has escaped from an insane asylum. And, later, after arriving at the house he is to teach in, his new student is the spitting image of her. That is just the opening. The story is told by various narrators telling their version of events from Walter's meeting with the mysterious woman to the marriage of Laura Fairlie and the final escape made from it and the revelation of Sir Percival Glyde's "Secret." There are some melodramatic moments though by current standards they wouldn't frighten a five year old. And the sexual innuendos are so tame by comparison I had to consciously think back to the times the book was written in to appreciate them.

But the characters are wonderful. Count Fosco is so hypnotically evil he sends shivers up your spine. And the interesting part is that his nastiness is so under the surface, so seemingly congenial that you just want to believe he's a good guy. Yet something about him is off. The other bad guy, Sir Percival Glyde is the foil that sets him off. He's manipulative and cunning but can't keep the ruse up in the face of frustration. His true self shows through and you hate him. But he gets it good in the end.

The good characters are just as much fun. Walter Hartwright's initial description of Marian Halcombe, the principal female narrator, is perfect. He lovingly describes her goddess-like figure from bottom to gloriously described bust and hair only to come to her face, which is, deep intake of breath here, UGLY. Ugly beyond belief. Gargoyle ugly. Butt ugly. She has hair on her upper lip. Fortunately for Marian, she has a fine mind and a perfect temperament. Laura Fairlie doesn't quite fair so well. She is perfect in a more conventional sense--frail, blonde and unassumingly compliant. I just wanted to take her by her lovely locks and shake her up a little. But had she had more backbone, the plot of the book would have been disrupted.

There are also several humorous grace notes. Mrs. Vesey, the companion of Laura and Marian, is a woman who sits. That's her role and she fulfills it splendidly. And the Italian friend of Walter, Pesca, chitters away in broken English in a perfect rendition of a Victorian writer's attempt at displaying a foreigner.

It's a good book. Read it slowly and enjoy.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Gone, Baby, Gone
By Dennis Lehane

Sacred is the third entry in the Boston-based detective series starring private sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. A dying billionaire hires the pair to find his missing daughter, Desiree, a case which leads them into a cult-like group and down to Florida. Desiree is presented as a great manipulator--so beautiful that men drop everything to do her every whim. Kenzie rejoins his former mentor Jay Becker in sleuthing a case that twists and turns and one in which the "villains" keep changing.

Not as good in some ways as the others, but better in other ways, Sacred is a solid entry that shows Lehane is testing himself as his books become more and more ambitious. He's really using that degree in creative writing to its utmost.

Gone, Baby, Gone is the fourth in the series. It is also the first one from Lehane that does not require starting at the beginning of the series to understand the relationship between the two main characters. It is going along smoothly by now and needs no introduction.

Lehane has crossed into new territory this time, making the case a missing child abduction. This ups the stakes and Gone, Baby, Gone contains many heartbreaking scenes and many truly despicable supporting characters. Lehane gives us a mother whose child has been taken, and we don't know whether to pity her or smack some sense into her.

But he delivers again on the story front. This is another page-turner and I can only hope that he begins churning out more of these by the time I finish the current series. The Kenzie/Gennaro series is also one of the few mysteries that make me feel like I'm reading literature, albeit well-plotted literature. There's something here that brings these above the normal contents of the genre. Some of the exchanges are read-out-loud funny.

Frenchtown Summer
By Robert Cormier

Cormier departs from his normal prose style of writing with this short novel written entirely in blank verse. It is a semi-autobiographical piece about 12-year-old Eugene during a single summer in Frenchtown (the fictional doppelganger of Cormier's home town of Leominster, Massachusetts).

Told in scenes separated by chapter notations, Cormier tells of several events including a long-unsolved murder and a phantom airplane. The mood is mellow and Cormier's language evocative. Frenchtown Summer is not anywhere near as controversial as his famous novels like Fade and The Chocolate War. It is simply a portrait of a man's nostalgia for the times past.

The audiobook version is read by Rene Auberjonois and includes a cassette-long conversation with the author--very interesting listening for fans of Cormier.

By Ed McBain

Tinka Sachs is brutally murdered in her bedroom as her daughter, Anna, listens from the next room, taking care to reassure her doll, "Chatterbox," that everything is all right. The boys from the 87th are called in to investigate and their only clue is a vague description from a one-eyed elevator operator who turns up missing.

It's not just another case for our heros, however, as Carella is kidnapped and Kling called upon to relive a past trauma. McBain's skills in storytelling and description, not to mention his portrayal of terrific police work, are all on fine display in Doll. It may be the best 87th precinct novel I've read yet.

Felicity's Recent Reading

by Felicity McCarthy

The Crystal World
By J.G. Ballard

Here are some words left in my mind after I finished reading The Crystal World. Beautiful. Strange, stark, illuminated, impersonal, beautiful. I feel there are some serious parallels to Heart of Darkness, but then, emulation is often the sincerest form of flattery (if, indeed, any emulation is involved). The story starts with this marvelous image of doom and light:

At intervals, when the sky was overcast, the water was almost black, like putrescent dye. By contrast, the straggle of warehouses and small hotels that constituted Port Matarre gleamed across the dark swells with a spectral brightness, as if lit less by solar light than by some interior lantern, like the pavilions of an abandoned necropolis built out on a series of piers from the edges of the jungle.

Ballard's style is old-fashioned -- in a good way. His sentences roll roundly and mellifluously off the eye/tongue, relishing the words, savoring the colors. "Putrescent dye". Mmmmm. There is a languid quality to his use of language that contrasts with the starkness of his scenes, and the bizarre quality of the violent episodes. This, perhaps more than anything, makes me think of Heart of Darkness, with horrific images couched in language that might grace an exclusive gentleman's club in London somewhere.

The core plot device is a inexplicable emanation that is invading/infecting the earth like a cancer, or like leprosy (the professional field of the narrator, Dr. Sanders). Unlike cancer or leprosy, the external appearance of this mutation is divine. Like some sort of tornado, or gale, the mutation passes over the forest, leaving perfect crystallizations in its wake. Living things caught in passage are still living, but entirely encased in amazing jewel-like structures. There are passages of disturbing, poetic, breathtaking beauty describing these breathing, crystal landscapes:

...the crystalline trees hanging like icons in those luminous caverns, the jeweled casements of the leaves overhead, fused into a lattice of prisms, through which the sun shone in a thousand rainbows, the birds and crocodiles frozen into grotesque postures like heraldic beasts carved from jade and quartz...

Divine invasion: this describes a cathedral, a neo-Eden, the garden of a thousand delights. Not some alien wind destroying and mutilating, although many of the living objects thus encased do not become so willingly.

Sanders looked down at the crystal sheath on his arm. No longer having to carry its great weight around he found that he was less frightened of its monstrous appearance. Although the crystalline tissues were as cold as ice, and no movement of his hand or fingers was possible, the nerves and sinews seemed to have taken on a new life of their own, glowing like the hard compacted light they emitted. Only along the forearm, where he had torn away the strip of crystals, was there any marked sensation, but even here it was less one of pain than a feeling of warmth as the crystals annealed themselves.

The most disturbing image that stays with me is his description of the crystallized people that he passes on the way out of the jungle:

...he passed the half-crystallized bodies of men and women fused against the trunks of the trees, looking up at the refracted sun...a soldier in field uniform, sitting on a fallen trunk by the edge of the stream. His helmet had blossomed into an immense carapace of crystals...Once Sanders came across the half-crystallized body of a small child who had fallen behind and been unable to keep up with the others...

Dr. Sanders originally came to Port Matarre in search of friends, with whom he had an ambivalent relationship. Although he does not initially realize it, his friends are enmeshed in the heart of all the strangeness. Dr. Sanders becomes trapped as well in his effort to find them. He encounters many people seeking some answer, or fortune, or surcease of pain from the crystal. Many have come in order to be swallowed by the crystallization process. During his frantic journey through the perilous country, he is told by one of the new seekers that he is not ready for the crystal, and that he should leave as soon as he can. He experiences fear, attraction, loathing, and desire. Later, like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, he does come out, scarred and shaken by the experience. Unlike Marlow, who goes back to the civilization he knows; in the end, Sanders wraps up all his affairs and goes back to the crystal forest.

The crystallation is a purifying process. Those caught by it experience revelation, a strange sort of nirvana. Ballard imposed his own crystallation; when I had finished, I sat for a long time, mesmerized, recapturing the images, not able to do anything, until some time had passed. For me, that is not strange, although rare. That is my usual reaction to books that really move me. This book moved me. I am a sucker for beautiful language. I believe I need to find more by J. Ballard to read....

Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen
By Fay Weldon

These letter were a delight! Weldon is a master of her craft. Her writing delights and inspires. I was reading part of the book at my local café, and found myself laughing and sighing out loud (not my usual public behavior). It is hard not to. She is in turn witty and profound. The premise of this work is a series of letters written to a (fictional) niece by her aunt, a professional writer. This is a thinly disguised portrait of Weldon herself (though I do not believe she has either such a niece, or such an uptight sister). The author of the letters has been abjured by her sister to instill some sense into Alice, the punk rock niece, who is making wild mutterings about dropping everything and becoming a writer. Alice is taking a feminist literature course, and must read some of the works of Jane Austen. She finds it hard going, and cannot see what value Jane Austen's work has for her. We find out everything about Alice, Aunt Fay, the family, the scandals; in fact everything, obliquely through the letters. Aunt Fay proffers the official family line, then gets down from the required harangue immediately, offering sympathy, money, practical writing advice, and above all a vast enthusiasm for Jane Austen.

For me, being a life-long devotee of Austen, I am thrilled with this knowledgeable, no-nonsense depiction of Austen's life and work. Weldon seamlessly ties her advice into her knowledge and appreciation of Austen, not to mention her tidbits of insight into Alice's family.

What a beautiful read!

I love the letter format - living someone's life vicariously, as if I was getting the letter myself. In ordinary letters, when the tedium of the humdrum details is broken by some startling statement or piece of news, the shock and titillation are greater than when a boring novel suddenly offers something that livens it up for a moment. While reading letters by great writers, or great people, there is a sense of living history. In contrived letters such as these, designed to be published, I feel all the emotions of reading a letter, plus the satisfaction of a story as well.

I love getting letters! I wish I had an auntie like Ms Weldon! I think I will go write a letter right now....

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
By Muriel Spark

There is much to be said for an elegantly written book. In one such as this, where language neither offends nor bores, when phrases are considered and crafted with care, and curious characters are polished for my delectation, I am pleased, and ready to be amused. Miss Jean Brodie herself is the epitome of elegance. Not the sort of plucked eyebrow elegance which it pains me to consider; she has elegance of soul. She is always correctly dressed, and speaks correctly. No, not entirely true. She insists on clarity of speech and thought. That is very, very different. In an educational system which is attempting to root out the unscientific, the poetic and beautiful, Miss Brodie holds out for what she believes to be a better way. Near the beginning, in one of my favorite passages, Miss Brodie shows her colors:

'Little girls,' said Miss Brodie, 'come and observe this.' They clustered round the open door while she pointed to a large poster pinned with drawing-pins on the opposite wall within the room. It depicted a man's big face. Underneath were the words 'Safety First.' 'This is Stanley Baldwin who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ere long,' said Miss Brodie. 'Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan "Safety First." But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me.'

Indeedy they do come first! Part of the charm of the novel is its understatedness. There is no violence, although there is certainly a deal of genteel nastiness. Muriel Spark views her characters compassionately, and dispassionately. Many times during the reading, I was reminded of Jane Austen, a life-long favorite of mine. The girls that comprise the "Brodie Set" seem to have been unable to ultimately live up to Miss Brodie's expectations. They go off and die, or get married, or become nurses, or enter a nunnery. Is it because of her expectations? I don't think Miss Brodie is disappointed in her chosen girls, per se; it seems to me that she just wanted them to live, to experience their lives as best suited their natures. She considers that Sandy should become a spy, and that Rose should become a great lover. Miss Brodie is brought down in the end by her "créme de la créme", Sandy, who fulfills Miss Brodie's estimate of her character, by telling the hostile school head what she needs to force Miss Brodie to retire.

The story is a retrospective, told mostly by Sandy in the third person. She adopts the Catholic faith of her erstwhile lover (the school art teacher), and enters a nunnery. She could not be freed by Miss Brodie:

And there was that day when the enquiring young man came to see Sandy because of her strange book of psychology, 'The Transfiguration of the Commonplace,' which had brought so many visitors that Sandy clutched the bars of her grille more desperately than ever.

She has been judged for her betrayal of Miss Brodie, and will spend the rest of her life behind bars. I have no sympathy with Sandy. I fear, however, that many of us perform this genteel treachery on a regular basis. Perhaps not even considering it as such; perhaps we just feel that informing someone else of the clay feet of a personal idol levels the playing field somehow. In fact, it merely performs the decapitation of the singular, destruction of the unique; lopping off the heads of those that stand a little taller than the rest.

Miss Brodie commands complete obedience and unquestioning loyalty through her personality, and by her devotion to her special students. The special students don't get particularly good grades, or get on in life, or even have a particularly good time. They do find, for a short while, that they can belong. Not a competition; there is no game to win, or another girl to get the better of. They are just able to belong somewhere. Although each of the girls in the Brodie Set feels that the best years of their life should be ahead, I felt that the prime of their lives is now, when they are being instructed by Miss Jean Brodie, who was in her prime.

There is a lot of subtle sarcasm, and some fairly pointed jabs at the mores of the pre-war years in Edinburgh. There is humor, although not the raucous humor of the last book I read (Portnoy's Complaint). It is also a very personal tale. Miss Brodie certainly seems to have much of Muriel Spark in her. I don't mind, just as I don't mind that Elizabeth Bennett says and does the things that Jane Austen must have often wished. I am not sure I would read it again. I am not compelled by it, in the way I am by Pride and Predjudice, but I am still very glad to have the opportunity to read it this time.

Pattern Recognition
By William Gibson

It seems to me that only a couple of days ago, I was wondering in a random kind of way, where I would have to be, and when I would have to be in order to perceive the normal world around me as a truly bizarre and alien place. Ha! The answer is: "Right here and now in San Francisco, New York, London, Tokyo..." as long as you are seeing the world through William Gibson's eyes.

Pattern Recognition deviates from Gibson's usual contextual environment only in actual time. The time is now, a few months after 9/11, as opposed to some time fairly far in the future. Gibson's forte is surreal, cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic landscapes, punctuated by seemingly random violence, and coincidental meetings. He does not let his readers down in this latest novel. As I swam deeper and deeper into the story, it came over me that what William Gibson does for me, is express my alienation to me in language I can savor, on a wavelength that resonates with mine. Previous novels (All. I am a big Gibson fan.) express this alienation in a time comfortably far distant from myself. Here, I realize that he is talking about the way I feel, about the things that I do. Now. He makes me realize just how bizarre my life is. Although 9/11 (an apocalyptic event if ever I experienced one) is a springboard, I don't necessarily feel that its use as a theme will date this book, or hinder it from standing the test of time. The farther I got into the novel, the harder it was for me not to be catapulted into the usual futuristic mindframe.

Gibson's language is poetic. It is the poesy of things, objects. He describes shoes, computers, jackets, the little warm wash rags the flight attendent offers first class passengers, with loving grace. His people are always well-characterized, unique, memorable. I think he has outdone himself with Cayce in Pattern Recognition. She is tough, vulnerable, sensitive, hip. She is more appealing to me than Marly (Count Zero). She reminds me of Molly (Neuromancer, Johnny Mnemonic), one of my favorite of his female characters. She has the ultimate free-lance job: coolhunter. This is a real job. There are real people, now, who do this; wandering around, watching what people wear and use, watching for infant memes. For literary purposes, Cayce has a little extra psychic sensibility here. Gibson's description of her psycho-somatic allergy to Tommy Hilfinger products is pretty funny.

A moment of magic; Gibson describes what Cayce wears to her first meeting at the London branch of Blue Ant, including the Buzz Rickson MA-1 flight jacket. Jackets have taken on a new meaning for me after reading the passage near the end of Count Zero, where I watch Marly observing wintermute, the rogue AI, cutting small squares out of her jacket, previously noted as one of her prize possessions, and placing them in one of its memory boxes. Clothing is significant in Gibson's novels (as objects). Cayce's jacket does not disappoint.

Gibson also introduces me to a new word that I have never met before: apophenia (the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated, or random phenomena). This characterises the nature of Pattern Recognition, perhaps even Gibson's world vision. Random things and events whirling around in space and time, which have seen and unseen connections to each other. By their connections, they are no longer random, but patterned. I don't know about you, but my life seems to be an eternal search for patterns. In a complex piece of music, the making and breaking of patterns gives form and meaning. There are formulas in music, math, physics, chemistry, drawing, rhetoric, cooking (everything we do, in fact) which help us initiate or make sense of what we are doing. Great creators understand such patterns easily, and make or break mundane patterns in their own work, according to some even more complex or subtle set of algorithms formulated in their psyches. Here, Gibson examines the patterns in chaos. Random connections in random events.

This is an internet kind of story. All of his stories are internet kind of stories to some degree, but this one is my kind of internet story. This story, like all Gibson's stories (and for my "money", most pleasurable stories), has a love interest. The novelty here is, who Cayce is going to hook up with. And because this is an internet kind of story, she hooks up with a blogger. Go Cayce!

In conclusion, I shall say; "William Gibson, live long and prosper, so that you may continue writing such marvelous works!".

Automated Alice
By Jeff Noon

Automated Alice is illustrated by Harry Trumbore, in something of the style of Tenniel. (Well, not really. But Alice has the right hair and clothes.)

What a twisted, tasty treat of a book! Alice is still in her original time, but in Manchester. There are special props; a noisy self-willed parrot named Whippoorwill, and a doll that looks just like her named Celia. This is the tale of Alice's adventures through time, as she looks for the parrot Whippoorwill that she has inadvertantly allowed to escape. This "Alice" is full of marvelous, dreadful puns. And riddles. And anagrams. And much, much more. Charles Dodgson would be proud of Mr. Noon.

Alice herself, since her inception by Dodgson, has become immortal. Her sayings, her character, the devices in her story, her surreal adventures and mishaps mirror our desires and fears so well, that they have become part of our common parlance and culture. Spinoffs, parodies, copies, merchandise, intellectual debates, literary commentaries abound. A couple I have run across are Alice in Quantumland, by Robert Gilmore, the Latin Alice, movies of the same name, Robert A. Heinlein's The Number of the Beast, Philip Jose Farmer's The Magic Labyrinth. There are hundreds. References from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are everywhere.

Because this is an adventure through time, Alice wanders into this new adventure through -- what else? -- a grandfather clock. Many of the egregious puns are set up in advance; radishes, ellipses, knots. Most of the puns are impromptu, arising spontaneously throughout.

The story starts with Alice visiting the home of her Great Aunt Ermintrude (and Great Uncle Mortimer). After running into the clock in search of the errant parrot, Alice is propelled 138 years into the future - a future that is dominated by a sinister cabal run by the "Civil Serpents". Alice must first figure out what is going on, solve many riddles, and find her way back to her own time and place. (Frankly, given Great Aunt Ermintrude's character, I would have been tempted to stay on in the future, civil serpents or no...) Along the way, she meets a number of curious characters, both helpful and confusing. Miss Computermite (a calculating termite), Professor Chrowdingler the crow-like chronologist, and her disappearing cat, Quark (Schroedinger, step back!) Celia (her anagramatic self) who is incarnated as a terbot, the zebra who crosses, Mrs. Minus the most evil civil serpent (who is not an adder. Ouch!), and many, many more.

Noon introduces a veritable whirlwind of literary, artistic and scientific references, in various disguises. His "Librarinth" (suspiciously like the Aedificium in The Name of The Rose, by Umberto Eco) is full of curious books, even more curiously housed, which reveal themselves to be twisted versions of books we know - "Butcher in the Pie", "Fooligans Wake", "Withering Kites". (I'm not going to say any more of them. That will spoil the fun!)

The tale is humorous - I was laughing out loud, and groaning at the puns. Occasionally, it is also a cautionary tale. The Supreme Serpent, and his myriad legions of not so "civil" serpents smell a lot like our own burgeoning bureaucracies. Noon, like Dodgson, points out some of the perils of ignorance. Alice doesn't like her lessons (who does, really?), but finds she needs knowledge before being able to solve the conundrums of her plight. The town hall has many important departments, including the Pruning Department, the Taxing Department, and the ever-present Sleazing Department. Oh, wait. We have those too. Then there was the terrible racquet that Pablo made for Mr. Hentrails (Jimi) to play on, Dr. Chrowdingler's treatise "Reality and Realicey", Zenith O'Clock's frictional words.

This Alice reminded strongly of The Phantom Tollbooth. There is the same sense of joyous allegory (totally missing from allegories such as A Pilgrims Progress!), the shameless punnery, the same love of discovery.

Read this book quick before the Radishes of Time get you...

Just kidding.

I loved this story. It was a quick romp - an afternoon's read, then I went through parts of it again to re-groan at some of the tastier puns and twisters.

There is one last puzzle left for the reader. No answer is required.

The Neverending Story
By Michael Ende

I have a soft spot in my heart for really nicely written books by authors who are primarily children's writers. This story has all the elements that insure that I will not put it down: book shop with magical book, ugly duckling, magical land, moebius strip plot, magical book that comes to life. Plus, (and this is actually the clincher) it is very well written. The neverending part of the story is literally a moebius strip; am I reading the story? Is the protagonist reading the story? Am I the protagonist? Very cool, very family. I think if one is a fan of The White Deer and The Thirteen clocks of James Thurber, or George MacDonald's writing, or The Phantom Tollbooth (I am a Tollbooth fan) or even C.S. Lewis, this one should be fun to read.

Really, it is quite nicely written. Vaguely allegorical, but with some twists. I liked the magical storybook ("The Neverending Story", of course!) that the protagonist steals from the very, very cool antiquarian bookstore. Also the Escherian trick of writing the story as one is in it. It is not profound, but I got lost and wrapped up in the narrative, and didn't want it to be done when it was. I would read it again.

The Assignment: Or On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers
By Friedrich Durrenmatt

I was surfing aimlessly one day (No! I spend very little time aimlessly surfing! Really I don't!), looking for some fresh meat, you might say. During the course of said surf, I ran into a very clever little site, Gnod, which allows you to put in (amongst other things) the name of a favorite author, and which responds with a dynamic chart of other authors that you might like. Not like Amazon, which offers you a short list of other books that people have bought, but a large list of other authors. Very cute. And pretty useful, as I got a list of at least 20 authors that I am keeping an eye out for at the library now.

Durrenmatt was on the chart of authors that came up around Umberto Eco. The chart of authors included, of course, a whole slew of authors whose works I have already exhaustively read (Gaiman, Camus, Nabokov, Dostoyevsky, etc.), but to my delight, quite a number I had not even heard of. Whee! A red letter day! Big chunky lists of authors I have not read! Well, OK, most of the ones around Eco I have actually read a lot of, but Durrenmatt came up, and one of his novels was available at the library, so I checked it out, and enjoyed one of those magical moments when you find a brand new book, that promises more books in the future.

Friedrich Durrenmatt was born in 1921, making him a somewhat more old school writer. His style (at least as translated from German by Joel Agee) is not at all old school. Loosely categorized, I would call The Assignment a suspense novel. But it's not, except in the sense that Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis might be considered a suspense story. First of all, it is a shorty; less than 130 pages. Second, it is really too surreal to be a suspense novel. There is a remarkable sense of detachment surrounding the narrative style; ominous, but detached. The watchers are everywhere. I felt unrelenting tension as I sped through the book. There was no other way I could read it (other than speeding). Each of the 24 chapters is one sentence. Each chapter pushes you fiercely into the next chapter. The surreal quality of the writing is established from the first vignette:

...the psychiatrist, well known for his book on terrorism, had the corpse transported by helicopter across the Mediterranean, suspended in its coffin by ropes from the bottom of the plane, so that it trailed after it slightly, over vast stretches of sunlit land, through shreds of clouds, across the Alps in a snowstorm, and later through rain showers, until it was gently reeled down into an open grave surrounded by a mourning party, and covered with earth...

This is weird. I like weird! How does the coffin get lowered? This is a plane! Details are both superbly unimportant, and at the same time critically necessary. The improbable story line masks masterful thumbnail sketches of his characters. "F" is the main protagonist; she is a very modern lady who becomes enmeshed in a Kafka-esque drama. She becomes increasingly less in control of events around her; detained in a sinister Arab nation, imprisoned in a ruin on the edge of nowhere, only aware of each threat to her life after she has blindly averted it, stranded with a pair of psychotic army rejects. Despite her lack of control from the moment she accepts the "assignment" to discover the murderer of the psychiatrist's psychotic wife, she does unravel the entire mystery by the time the apocalyptic climax arrives. The knowledge does no good or harm. The wife was not murdered, a different seeker after the wife was murdered, the coup would have happened anyway.

This is really about watching. "F" is a maker of film portraits, the murdered woman is a paranoid who snaps when she "realizes" that everyone (her husband) really is watching her (he is), and "F" is watched by increasingly bizarre characters, all of whom are being watched by progressively more and more paranoid meta-watchers. Whew! This was a good one.

Fables and Fairy Tales
By Leo Tolstoy

I finished Tolstoy's Fables and Fairy Tales this morning. They were short, sweet, and to the point. The flavor is distinctly Russian, but not in the formulaic way traditional Russian fairy tales are. The tastiest elements of the traditional Russian fairy tale are there - blind justice, sons in threes, tsars aplenty. All of them have a sympathetic slant towards the peasant. Very little of the dumb, lazy, serf. These are definitely empowered peasants. Still, the "Socialism" is not at all blatant, and Tolstoy is a masterful writer. Many of the longer works of his that I have read (War and Peace, Anna Karenina) are long and leisurely, almost to the point of painfulness. He is wonderful in these short, terse tales with a moral. Not all writers can manage the short or the ultra-short.

The last tale in this short little volume is the longest, and my favorite. There are three peasant sons - Semyon the soldier, Taras the big-bellied, and Ivan the fool. In a traditional fairy tale, the foolish son would turn out to be not so foolish, would marry the tsar's daughter and live happily ever after. The older brothers would lose all their ill-gotten gains, and be reduced to penury. In a way, all this is there, and true. But with a twist. There is a daughter in the mix - Malyana the dumb. Ivan turns out to be a real fool. All his life. He marries the tsar's daugher - but she turns out to be a fool as well. His brothers reduce temselves (with the help of a couple of obliging imps) to penury, but Ivan lets them come in with him; first to his father's hovel, then to his tsar's palace. After all, he is a fool. He lives happily ever after; working like a fool peasant.

There is a moral somewhere in here. The foolish kingdom has no money, no fancy houses, no army, no desirable objects. They work as hard as they can, give anything to anyone that asks. All the wise men left the kingdom as soon as Ivan took over, because he did not understand money, or payment for services, or any service that did not involve manual labor, leaving only fools living in his kingdom. If a beggar comes with callused hands, he is seated at the table. If the beggar's hands are smooth, he is given the scraps and leavings. Divine fools. Envious tsars send their soldiers to take over the fool's kingdom, but what's to take? There is no money, no gold, no great properties, no things to covet. Just a bunch of peasant fools. If a soldier demands their produce or livestock, the fools give it gladly, and then work harder to grow more.

There are some subtle shifts in the practice of Ivan's folly from pre- to post- tsar. The first time the older brothers are ruined, and come begging to Ivan and their father, Ivan welcomes them, giving over his room, and place at the table to the brothers and their wives without demanding anything. After he becomes tsar, although still as great a fool as ever, he makes some new distinctions. To those who beg but are accustomed to work (callused hands), he gives whatever is asked. To those who beg, who have never worked (smooth hands), he gives only scraps and leavings.

Tolstoy has a fairly narrowly defined set of parameters for work here.

Tolstoy makes me wish I were more of a fool.

To The Lighthouse
By Virginia Woolf

I am going to pat myself on the back a little, to commend myself for deciding to read all these "great" books impartially, no pre-judgment offered on any book, no matter how strenuously I may have avoided reading it in the past. Why have I avoided reading anything by Virginia Woolf all these years? After reading this remarkable tour-de-force of stream of consciousness writing, the embargo is down. I will seek them all. I had in my mind, for some strange reason, that she was a rabidly feminist writer. I must have read some glib synopsis of something back in my salad years, which stuck, and as I have never cared for overtly "feminist" writing, I have never sought out any of her works.

I declare a moratorium on glib synopses. From henceforth, let me like or dislike a book based on reading alone. I will no longer be a sower of half-baked, third-rate, re-digested opinions. Unless of course, they are my own half-baked ideas.

The novel is divided in three parts; the first roughly half of the novel, the other two parts divide in half the remaining pages. The first section is the recounting of one day of life of the Ramsays and their guests. We see the day's events to a greater or lesser degree through the eyes of the people present that day. Certain moments in the day are recounted again and again from the different eyes and minds of the individuals. Woolf lets us into each persons consciousness gently, and with only such shifts as one would expect from seeing some event through a different someone else's eyes. The literary artifices are nearly invisible; occasionally (as in some of the inner dialogue of Mr. Ramsay), I am jolted from my absorption by some action or statement that reminds me that I am reading a novel by someone dead, whose language is not mine, rather than being conducted through some other place (like Virgil, by Beatrice, through hell), where I can relax my "me-ness" and lose myself in the story.

There is nothing extraordinary in the plot - it could be happening anywhere, anytime. Mr. Ramsay is a respected professor and writer, his wife is a beautiful woman, they have five children, they are all on vacation, along with a varied assortment of house guests. No murders, infidelities, or any other action plot devices. The extraordinary part of the plot is that every action is made beautiful and strange, and extraordinary, because we are privileged to see the ordinary through the glasses of some one else's mind. This is not first person perspective thinly disguised; this is a global stream of consciousness. First we are in Mrs. Ramsay's mind, then Mr. Ramsay, and so on, through all the persons present. Each mental perambulation has the distinct, and very different flavor of the person through whose eyes we are looking. Certain elements of natural description are sprinkled through out the first half, mostly as by-products of the thought streams. The day ends with a dinner, with all present, so the threads of thought that have been doubling back all day, are brought together at the dinner table. Many themes are rounded up, and the section ends with a glorious literary knot, and a final thought of Mrs. Ramsay; "We shall all remember this day as long as we live".

The second part starts in the night after all the people are asleep. This is a marvel of expansion. The weather theme, which has been sporadic throughout the day, with disagreement as to whether the next day will allow for sailing to the lighthouse, with sunlight glinting, with wind blowing, becomes completely pervasive in the second part. The wind blows, the rain falls, and somehow, in the progress of the night, so too do the years pass by. We find out, as if the wind brings the rumor, of the death of Mrs. Ramsay, and two of the children, of the war, of the general malaise of the country. With the decay of fortunes during war, so also decays the summer house; empty year after year, suffering rot, mildew, and all that can be effected by the unchecked force of nature. The mortal progress of the house is tracked by the ineffective house cleaner, almost a natural force herself, so completely without mind is she. The inexorable passage of time gradually slows down, and we hear of the successful conclusion of the war, and that the family has sent a letter saying to put everything in order, as they will be coming at last. All of this is communicated through the wind, which is the only consciousness (apart from the cleaning lady) that we have left.

Mirroring the first half, the novel ends with the depiction of a day, where the tattered remnants of the original house party are assembled again. Mr. Ramsay and two of the children finally sail out to the lighthouse (a journey delayed by more than ten years). Lily Briscoe (one of the house guests), never having married, is painting. She is unconsciously still trying to finish a painting she started at the house years ago. She doesn't remember that, back then, she had resolved on a solution for her painting, but never implemented it; the painting still loomed, unfinished, on her mind. One of my favorite passages in the book is at the very end, where despite forgetting the unifying element she was going to add, she sees the original vision she had of Mrs. Ramsey and the house (the vision is so real, she sees a ghost of Mrs. Ramsay), she re-finds the missing element, and finishes the painting. That paragraph gave me goose bumps. In fact, Lily's entire final inner monologue gives me shivers. She is so wrapt up in her painting, she cries Mrs. Ramsay's name. I felt what Lily felt, how it feels to know when one's work of art is truly finished.

I particularly enjoyed Woolf's unifying devices of sun and wind and waves. These are so elemental, that we forget that they too are things, and Woolf very artfully intersperses these elements as unifying devices. In the second part, her wind picks and pulls at things in the house, moving the papers and doors, moving the scarf that Mrs. Ramsay left. The moisture is rotting all of the books left in the house. The wind and the weather are successfully combating the pathetic attempts of the cleaning lady to restore order to the house. They are everywhere.

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 April 2003
Copyright © 2003, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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