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ex libris reviews

1 April 2004

You're in the Navy? I'm in Pre-School!
My Son David, at Age 4


In This Issue:
The Da Vinci Code

When I first started accepting guest reviews, I toyed with the idea of inserting comments of my own (Like this -- ed.) into their reviews. Ultimately I dropped the idea; it seems to me that other people's reviews should be allowed to stand by themselves. Consequently, I'm going to comment on Craig's review of The Da Vinci Code here instead; it was either that or not print the review, and I'm not particularly into censorship.

As I think everybody knows by know, I'm a Christian; and as probably everyone knows, the The Da Vinci Code makes a number of startling claims about the history of Christianity. My problem with the book isn't that it "questions the tenets of my faith," as Craig puts it; good grief, if I were that sensitive I wouldn't be able to read much of anything. The problem is that The Da Vinci Code claims to be revealing the truth about Christianity, and as a history buff I know that Brown's revelations are all hooey. Quite some time ago I wrote a short post about this on my blog; it links to an article that debunks many of Brown's claims on purely historical grounds.

"So what?" you might ask. "So the book pretends to have the real inside story. That's just there to aid your suspension of disbelief, right?"

Well, yes and no. That's a fine device, so far as it goes. The problem is, most people aren't history buffs, and lots of people are being taken in by it. And I dislike seeing people being taken in by what is, after all, utter hogwash.

So, there you go....a word to the wise, and all that.

Oh, by the way--I don't mean to imply that Craig thinks that Brown's got the real goods. But you can read his review for yourself.

-- Will Duquette

Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

I used to have this section in just about every issue, but I'm not reading aloud to Jane nearly as much as I used to; no time. But I am reading aloud to David, so I've resurrected it for the stuff I read to him.

The Castle of Llyr
By Lloyd Alexander

This is the midpoint of the Chronicles of Prydain, and it's of a piece with the others. Our hero, Taran of Caer Dallben, escorts "the golden-haired Princess Eilonwy" to the Isle of Mona, where she is going to live with the King and Queen of Mona and learn all about being a princess. Nothing goes quite as planned, of course, and no sooner do they arrive than Eilonwy is kidnapped by Achren, the wicked enchantress who stole her from her mother when she was a baby. Naturally, Taran must rescue her.

As in the previous volumes, the other characters seem to be chosen for the lessons they can teach young Taran. In this case, the major learning experiences are provided by the feckless Prince Rhun and a giant named Glew. From Glew he learns that physical size has nothing to do with moral stature; from Rhun he learns that fecklessness can go with a good heart, that it is not a permanent condition, and that he really doesn't want anyone else to marry "the golden-haired Princess Eilonwy." And there are all the usual things about loyalty, courage, and the importance of good friends.

David's immediate response when we finished it was, "Tomorrow, we can start the next one!"

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Abolition of Man
By C.S. Lewis

If you're like me, you've participated in dozens if not hundreds of bull-sessions, electronic or otherwise, on the topic of "What constitutes good literature?" The presence of the book in the "Literary Fiction" section is no clear guide; the "Literary Fiction" section is mostly filled with pretentious tripe. The popularity of the book is no clear guide; people will read the most appalling trash in large quantities. And the book I revere might well revulse you. It can be tempting to cut the Gordian knot of aesthetics by claiming that aesthetic values are merely subjective. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," you might cry.

And yet, that's not a particularly satisfying answer. It's clear to me--in fact, it's clear to everyone--that some books are better than others. I might not be able to say precisely why in every case, and yet the fact remains. Some books are better than others.

Part of the problem, of course, is that there is no single measure of literary value--there are dozens of axes on which a work can be said to succeed or fail. Literary value is complicated--as complicated as people are complicated--and to say that literary value is merely subjective isn't a solution, it's an abdication.

A similar muddle exists in the realm of moral value. The modern relativist says, "Act A is forbidden in culture B, but compulsory in culture C; therefore the immorality of act A is culturally-defined rather than absolute." Reduced to simplest form, this statement generally turns out to mean "It's not wrong when the So-and-so's do it, and therefore it's not wrong if I do it, no matter what Mrs. Grundy says."

And indeed, faced with the varied customs and ethos of the cultures of the world, it's easy to cut the Gordian knot of moral value by taking up a relativist position--especially if we're looking for reasons why it isn't sinful to sin.

And that brings me to Lewis' book The Abolition of Man, which is outstanding and which I highly recommend. Lewis begins with a discussion of a schoolbook whose authors appear to espouse the notion that aesthetic and moral values are subjective. He points out that such people don't usually hold that all value is subjective--just the ones they want to belittle. Their own values, of course, are objectively good, as they will hasten to prove from first principles.

Except that they can't. You can't prove that a value is objectively good except in terms of another value. Consider the following dialog:

A: We must feed the poor!

B: Why?

A: Because if we don't do something, many of the poor will starve.

B: Oh. That's bad, is it?

A: Of course it's bad. If they starve, they will die.

B: Oh. But won't that leave more food for the rest of the poor?

A: You don't get it. If we don't do something, people will die. Some of them will be children!

B: And it's bad for children to starve?

A: Well, naturally!

B: Why?

Speaker A has a number of options here. He might conclude that B is yanking his chain and tell B to go to hell; he might (if he's unwise) try to argue the point further--for no matter what value A invokes, B can simply say, "Oh, that's good, is it? Why?"

A's best answer is simply that it's wrong to allow children to die of starvation if we can prevent it. Allowing them to starve is objectively, self-evidently, axiomatically wrong.

According to Lewis (and I have no reason to doubt him), the word "reason" has been redefined in the last hundred or hundred-and-fifty years. For the ancients and medievals alike, "reason" included not only logical thinking but also what we call common sense--and that, in turn, included the recognition that the value of bravery, charity, and other virtues are self-evident. Some things simply don't need to be proved.

This, of course, gets us back to our moral muddle. If moral values are self-evident, then why don't all cultures agree on them?

The astonishing fact is that for the most part they do, as Lewis amply illustrates in the Appendix to his book. Every culture in the world shares in what Lewis calls, for lack of a better word, the Tao. Taken as a whole, the agreement is remarkable. And taken as as a whole it becomes clear that the exceptions, so far from proving that value is relative, are simply culture-specific kinks, the besetting sins of each nation.

Moreover, although the Tao is the common heritage of all mankind it still needs to be taught; even Aristotle recognized that if virtue is not taught to a child, the child will never recognize virtue as an adult.

Thus, it's more true to say that there's no accounting for taste than that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For what is bad taste but attributing value to objects which don't deserve it? And what is virtue but attributing value to actions which do deserve it (and acting accordingly)?

Lewis naturally goes into all of these topics in far more detail than I can in a short review. But I'm seeing many things differently after reading this book;

On Food and Cooking
By Harold McGee

As I've hinted upon occasion, our favorite TV show at the moment is Good Eats, which airs on the Food Network. It's not so much that we're foodies (we're not) as that Alton Brown is both funny and informative. He doesn't just show you how to cook something; he also goes into the chemistry and physics of it. And he goes about it in a suitably whimsical way. Anyway, in Alton Brown's cookbook he references McGee's On Food and Cooking as one of his major sources--indeed, as source that often goes a good bit beyond what he needs to know.

Well, Jane was looking for a present for me this past Christmas; she was ordering me some books through Amazon and wanted to get me just one more. I'm not sure just what prompted her to add this one to the list, but I don't regret it. I've been reading it in small dribs and drabs ever since, and finally finished it up this morning.

It's fascinating stuff. He covers the characteristics of the major foods (the different kinds of fruits, vegetables, grain, meat, nuts, and so forth); the different methods of cooking, and how they work; how the body digests food; it's fairly comprehensive and very detailed.

For example, were you aware that fatty acids have a chemical structure very similar to that of octane and other hydrocarbon fuels? Octane is a chain of eight carbon atoms; each carbon atom has two hydrogen atoms attached to it on either side. The carbon atoms at the end have an extra hydrogen each. Octane reacts nicely with oxygen to give you carbon dioxide, water, and heat; it's a lot of energy stored in a compact space. Fatty acids typically consist of longer chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms, very similar to octane's longer cousins, with a carboxyl group at one end. And just like octane, fatty acids react nicely with oxygen.

The single neatest thing I learned from the book, though, is the secret of modern beekeeping: five-sixteenths of an inch, the so-called "bee space". In the old days, it wasn't possible to remove honey from a beehive without destroying the hive. A beekeeper harvested honey at the end of the season by destroying all but a few of his hives. In modern beehives, the honeycomb is built on to removeable racks which slide out the top of the hive. There's a wire mesh below the racks that prevents the queen bee from getting up into that part of the hive; consequently, only honey is store there.

And the bee space? That's the required distance between the edge of the racks and the wall of the hive. If the gap is any smaller, the worker bees will seal it with wax; if it's any larger, they'll fill it with honey comb. But if it's just five-sixteenths of an inch, they leave it open and use it as a highway.

Apparently the fellow who discovered this (a pastor and school principal turned beekeeper named Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth--and didn't his parents have a fine time rolling out that name when they were angry at him)--I say, the fellow who discovered this patented his discovery, but it didn't do him much good; infringement was too easy once the secret of the bee space was generally known.

So, if you like to cook and what to know just what's going on in your oven or stewpot, or you're just generally curious about how things work, On Food and Cooking is well worth your time.

Jaka's Story
By Dave Sim

Gosh I'm glad I don't live in Dave Sim's head.

I was extremely tempted to let that first line stand as the entire review, but I suppose I should elaborate.

Jaka's Story is the next installment of Sim's epic comic book series, Cerebus the Aardvark; I've previously reviewed Cerebus, High Society, and Church and State.

The first thing to know is that this isn't a story about Cerebus at all. It's primarily about a dancer named Jaka who appears as part of a gag in one of the early episodes. Cerebus has been slipped a love potion by some bad guys; things don't go quite as expected, and he becomes besotted with the dancing girl at a tavern. She returns his love, or so she says, but by the end of the episode the potion has worn off, and Cerebus is gone. Being, after all, an aardvark, he's not likely to fall in love with a human no matter how lovely she is.

Jaka makes a number of short appearances in High Society and Church and State, during which time Cerebus has gotten over his disdain for human women, and they have a number of bittersweet passages. This, however, is the first volume in which she plays a major role. And in fact, she's center stage--Cerebus isn't even present for most of it.

The first two-thirds are quite interesting, despite Sim's penchant for filling whole pages with four or six or eight panes of nearly the same image (I suppose it's supposed to be cinematic, and sometimes it works; there are a number of pages on which one character is having writer's block, where it's quite effective; but mostly it just seems like he's trying to get through an issue with as little writing as possible.)

But as I say, the first two-thirds are quite interesting. The volume contains two narratives side by side. The first tells of Jaka's childhood in the Tavers Family Residence in Palnu from when she was five years old until she left Palnu and began earning a living as a dancer. The second follows on from Church and State, and features Cerebus (briefly) visiting with Jaka and her shiftless husband Richard. The two stories are converging into what's looking to be a really dramatic climax when -- BANG in steps the Cirinist Inquisition. The Cirinists are a matriarchal sect of the Church of Tarim; it seems that dancing has been outlawed. All and sundry (except Cerebus, who stepped out in boredom sometime earlier) are shipped off to the Cirinist dungeons, which is where the last third of the book takes place.

I really don't know what Sim was trying to achieve, but what ever it was, he completely blew it with that last third, in both narratives. I won't say how the story of young Jaka ends--but the horrible, traumatic event that is supposed to send her fleeing her patrician birth to become a dancer in low dives all over Estarcion is too absurd for words. As for the present day narrative, the ending is truly horrific...but the only thing I gather from it is that Sim doesn't much like women and doesn't much like religion. I also gather from his introduction that he has no concept whatsoever what a healthy marriage looks like.

Anyway, I'm disappointed, just as I was with Church and State--the book's got an excellent build-up, and some truly beautiful story-telling, and then the ending fizzles. It's really rather pathetic.

Sir Apropos of Nothing
By Peter David

I'm not sure what to say about this book. I've read and reviewed it before; you can go see what I thought about it then.

What it is, is a satirical heroic fantasy. Apropos of Nothing is a bastard child of some nameless knight who forced himself upon Apropos's tavern wench mother--nameless because, in fact, there were a crowd of them. He's clever, quick, and lame in one leg. He despises most people, including himself, and including especially the heroic Tacit, a stalwart fellow who befriends him one day when he's about to be beaten up by the local bullies. He's crude, nasty, dishonest, lewd, and nicer than he thinks he is.

He lives in a fairly typical heroic fantasy world--kings, knights, dragons, peasants, thieves, the whole nine yards. The kings are fools or villains, the knights are glory-loving scoundrels, and the peasants would steal your clothes or burn you for a witch as soon as look at you. This is because it's a satire, right?

The whole thing is full of goofy puns. Apropos is apprenticed to Sir Umbrage of the Flaming Nether Regions (an area of great volcanic activity) in the service of the king of Histeria; later he is chased by the Harpers Bizarre. He flies on a phoenix, is nearly killed by a stampede of unicorns, steals the story from the hero (!), rescues and beds the princess, and on and on.

It's crude, vile, funny, clever, and pessimistic by turns, which isn't the best combination; and the tone is patchy; the author seems unsure of whether he's trying to write a serious fantasy or a farce. Or, rather, he knows he's trying to write a farce, but he keeps getting too serious about it. It should be a souffl´, but it's more like a pound cake.

So, not a success...but not entirely a failure, either.

The Woad to Wuin
By Peter David

Partway in this book, our hero Sir Apropos of Nothing travels into the Tragic Waste, and I can't help thinking that that is, indeed, apropos.

The book begins with a ridiculously obscene satire on The Lord of the Rings. I suppose it was funny if you like that sort of thing; I thought it was marginal at best. Not, I hasten to add, because I think Tolkien is above being satirized; but because David elevates a not-very-good dirty joke into an entire chapter.

It improves after that, but you still end up with the same kind of uneven tone the previous book had--it's trying to be farcical and serious at the same time. Not even P.G. Wodehouse could do that successfully.

I don't know what it says that I'll probably buy the next book in the series when it comes out in paperback.

A Wreath for Rivera
By Ngaio Marsh

The drummer fires a gun as a gimmick during the swing band's final number, and the accordion player falls down, dead. Who loaded the gun? And why? Enter Inspector Alleyn.

As always with Marsh's mysteries, the pleasure is equally divided between the puzzle and the vivid characters, and that's no less true in this case. It's a fun book, and I enjoyed it.

At the same time, there's a false note about the whole thing. The plot involves a swing band and its members, back in the late '30's when swing was most popular. And though Marsh clearly did her homework, you can't help feeling that she found the whole idea of swing music distasteful; not only do most of the characters find it an ill-sounding noise, the auctorial voice does as well. I suppose it's not surprising; swing must have seemed considerably more dangerous back then, and the bandsmen in the story are a bit of a sordid lot. It would be rather like writing a mystery about a rock'n'roll band when Jerry Lee Lewis still the marrying kind.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

Dealing With Dragons
By Patricia C. Wrede

This is Book One of The Adventures of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles; I picked it up for my daughter who's been looking for another good series to read. She's been on a Tamora Pierce kick for so long she's just about worn the books out from reading. But, of course, I had to see what they were about too, especially since I've seen Wrede's name several places and heard her mentioned as a good writer. And now I have to go get more of them and not for my daughter either. Ha, that'll teach me.

The book starts out like a fractured fairy tale. A princess, Princess Cimorene, is not the typical princess. She hates clothes, hates all the dancing lessons, hates to embroider and mostly doesn’t want to marry any of the incredibly stupid princes she's met. She wants to learn fencing and cooking and Latin and magic which just isn't done when you are a princess. So she runs away and becomes a volunteer "princess held captive by a dragon," except she loves it. The dragon actually wants her to learn Latin so she can help sort out and catalog the library. She has to learn a little magic too which she gets from learning Latin so she can read the spell books and she gets to try out recipes when she does all the cooking for the household. It's perfect; she's busy and useful and doesn’t have to worry about what she wears.

There is some conflict in the story, mostly involving wizards and princes who keep trying to rescue her while she keeps shooing them away so she can get on with her work. But what is entertaining is the way Princess Cimorene uses logic and common sense to blow holes in all the inflated notions of what is Done and what is Proper.

I enjoyed it. I laughed at parts and wondered where Wrede was going with the story at times and then watched as she used common sense and logic to get her princess out of the mess she is in. I'm hoping she can keep up the momentum and tempo in the following books. Now I have to go to the bookstore and find them.

Searching for Dragons
Calling on Dragons
Talking to Dragons
By Patricia C. Wrede

These are three more volumes in The Enchanted Forest Chronicles that Wrede wrote in the late 80's and early 90's. I suspect the Harry Potter phenomenon brought them back from dusty retirement as a way to fill up those tables at the bookstore that have large signs saying "If You Liked Harry Potter, You'll Like These." I've browsed some of those books and aside from magic or the supernatural as a leitmotif, very little else is like Harry.

However, I've been on a young adult fiction kick lately and I did enjoy these, so much so I actually stayed up late to finish one. They remind me vaguely of a cleaned up, more innocent version of Terry Pratchett's Lancre novels.

The books tell the story of Cimorene, the princess who's run away from home because princessing is too boring to be believed and has become the voluntary captive of Kazul, the King of the Dragons. Kazul is female, by the way, but King is a job description and not gender associated. There's a Queen who fulfills other functions.

In Searching for Dragons she meets Mendanbar, a reluctant King of the Enchanted Forest, while on a quest to rescue Kazul from the Wizard's Society who are using Kazul to suck all the magic out of the Enchanted Forest into their Wizard's staffs. This is a bad thing. Unfortunately, Mendanbar's magic sword leaks magic, and while out of the Enchanted Forest it stands out like a beacon on a hill for evil Wizards. Not to mention the magic carpet that they borrow has transmission problems and keeps dropping them all over the place.

In Calling for Dragons, Princess Cimorene has become Queen Cimorene and she's newly pregnant when someone, likely a wizard, threatens the Enchanted Forest with destruction. Because the magic of the forest is tied directly to King Mendanbar, he's unable to do the heroic thing and go on the quest to save the forest himself. Cimorene goes in his place, with the help of Morwen the redheaded, pretty, and nearsighted witch, and Telemain the Sorcerer who is really a magic geek speaking in magically scientific terms no one can understand until someone translates for them. Sorcerers are different from Wizards since they study all sorts of magic rather than specializing. And, oh yes, the trio have help from a bunny who's been enchanted to be 7 feet tall, then eats magical donkey cabbage and turns into a donkey and then is further enchanted to sprout wings and turn blue when he eats some specialized magic ag products raised by Farmer McDonald who is diversifying his farm. The bunny's name is Killer. They return to a really frightful situation with a war between the Wizards and the King. And the King is in trouble. Almost best of all, in this one we get to hear what Morwen's cat's are really saying when they meow.

Talking to Dragons breaks stride just a bit. The narrative switches to focus on Cimorene's son, Daystar, now 17 years old. One day, she hands him a sword and sends him on a journey in the Enchanted Forest telling him nothing except he will know what he's suppose to do when it happens. And then he has all sorts of adventures after meeting a fire-witch, a baby dragon and a lizard named Suz.

One of my theories about young adult and children's books is that the high quality ones can be read by both adults and children with enjoyment. These certainly follow that theory. I enjoyed them so much I told my daughter I want them back for MY bookshelf when she's done with them. Perhaps my son, the Terry Pratchett aficionado, will read them as well.

War and Innocence: A Young Girl's Life in Occupied Norway (1940-1945)
By Hanna Aasvik Helmersen

Memoirs and diaries are an interesting genre to read but especially so when written by non-professional writers who are merely telling a story. Polishing thoughts can be a good thing but it can also knock some of the edges off that give power and sharpness to the true story.

This book was written by a woman who lived thru the Nazi occupation of Norway, grew up and wrote this book as a response to her grandchildren's request for stories about her childhood. She tells of having to abruptly flee inland away from the bombing of the fjord they lived near and in the process leaving her toys and pet dog behind. For a time her older sister is working in a hospital directly in line of the bombs treating German and Norwegian injured, unable to communicate with the family and in serious danger. She, her mother and siblings travel to refugee sites inland without her father who works in the harbor, living in cramped quarters with strangers and struggling to find food. The stories go on of atrocities committed in concentration camps in Norway, of kids teasing the German soldiers and of adults trying to keep a sense of pride in a situation purposely designed to demoralize.

It's a story of hardship and uncertainty and, above all, trauma. It's not polished writing. There are no elegant phrases or images. It's rough and untidy and at times hard to read. But it gave me a clear picture of what her childhood was like and what her family had to do to survive. And if it seemed chaotic at times, that only reflected the uncertainties a little girl had to live with every day. It's something that should be written down and should be remembered so that I and my kids and the rest of the folks who read this book understand what it is that war does to the people living around the battlefields. I'd recommend it for that alone.

The Burglar in the Library
By Lawrence Block

I like Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr stories. They amuse me. I have found that I need to space them out and not read them back to back, however, since he tends to repeat details from one book to another. It can get annoying if you don't give yourself enough space between them. But it's been awhile since I last read one and I found this one on my shelf one night as I was prowling around looking for something to read so I gave it a go.

One thing you have to know is that this series is fairly formulaic. Bernie is going to burgle, is in the process of burgling, or has just burgled some place, and someone shows up dead there. Bernie then has to find the murderer or he's going to end up taking the blame. That has been the essential plot line of every book in this series that I've read so far. But this one is very different, enjoyably so.

Bernie has a hot weekend planned with his latest flame in a quiet country inn in upstate New York. Unfortunately, she cancels on him a couple days before because she's, yikes, about to get married. Bernie was not aware of the other guy in her life and he is understandably bummed out. But he's not so bummed that he cancels the trip. Rather, he invites his extremely short friend the lesbian dog groomer along instead. Not exactly the romantic weekend he had planned but then the owner of the inn stocks a particularly fine brand of whiskey which at least makes up for it a little. And there is this book in the library of the inn that he's kind of interested in finding. It's a book by Raymond Chandler, inscribed to Dashiell Hammett, that may have been given to Hammett during a weekend they may have spent together that Hammett may have left at the inn. Maybe. He's just going to take a little looksee around.

Things get interesting when they get there. They have to share a room and a bed. The inn is snowed in and the snowstorm is predicted to last all weekend. There is an extremely precocious kid that Bernie jokingly tells he's a burglar, which she blabs all over the place. Fortunately, it's such an absurd statement that no one believes it. Ha! And amazingly enough, his ex-girlfriend and her groom show up for a quiet honeymoon weekend. Awkward isn't strong enough. And then, he finds a body in the library when he's out cruising in the middle of the night for the book. No phone, no one in or out because of the snow and no way to call for help.

I enjoyed this one more than the others. Block is playing around with some of the basic conventions of mysteries and mystery writers here and still telling a funny whodunit. And the ending with it's nod to the deus ex machina strategy to save the hero is hilarious, especially when you realize who the deus is in the machina. If you like Block, get it and read.

A Day No Pigs Would Die
By Robert Newton Peck

I generally buy my daughter the trade books she reads for school so she can write in them. It's easier for her if she underlines the vocabulary words she has to define or scenes she has to discuss as she's reading them. It's a simple enough adjustment for her learning difficulties and since schools really don't teach more than one or two non-text books a semester, it's not a huge budget issue either. This book is taught in, I think, 7th grade. Maybe 6th. I do remember trying to help her decipher the idiomatic vocabulary and probing her for a little more depth on her critical thinking questions. It's too bad I hadn't read it at the time. Our chats about it would have been much more productive because it's really a very good book. Amazingly so.

As a coming of age story, the plot is fairly simple. Rob Peck is a young boy skipping school one day and wandering the woods brooding when he happens upon a neighbor's cow calving and in distress. He's small, the cow is huge and it's a fierce struggle to help the calf out but he does it and he goes on to save her from choking to death on ruptured goiter by reaching in and ripping it out of her throat. He's bitten and unconscious when he's found by the neighbor and carried home to be stitched up on the kitchen table by his mother. And in payment for saving his prize cow and her twin matched bull calves, the neighbor gives Rob a young piglet of his very own to raise.

That's the first couple of chapters. After that it's the story of Rob raising his pig, living during the Depression on a farm that is barely making it, watching his parents struggle and finally accepting some of the harsher realities of adulthood. It's not a happy story, though there are light hearted moments in it, particularly when a prissy friend of his mother learns he is nearly failing English in school and decides it's due to not learning to diagram a sentence. His description of his diagramming lesson was so funny I had tears in my eyes reading it. And if you are not of a farm background or don't understand the earthy way that farmers approach the breeding of animals, some of the scenes in it may be a little surprising. It adds rather than detracts from the book.

His parents are deeply proud, plain people and Shakers, although what that means is unclear to me since Shakers were a sect that believed in communal living and a celibate lifestyle. His parents seemed more along the lines of devout Quakers. No matter. The point is that he does not fit in. His clothes are different, he doesn't own a bike etc. And they are poor. His father must work off farm as a pig killer at a slaughter house to pay the mortgage. They have next to nothing and the only real thing he has of his own is the little pig he has been given. He plans on breeding her and making money from selling the stock.

The real joy of reading this book is the language. Peck plays with idiom in a way that enchanted me. It's almost poetic. I had to read slowly and listen to the words to hear it. The descriptions at the end had me in tears. The story was sad and the telling was sad. I am so glad my daughter had the opportunity to read this one. It's a jewel.

By Steven Brust

I don't have much to add to Will's review of this book. When I was reading the Vlad Taltos series in January, this was the only one I couldn't put my hands on at the time and so, moved on without it. I wish I had waited. The following books would have made more sense and been better for knowing what was in this book, I think. If you haven't Brust's Taltos series, start at the beginning and work your way thru them. They're a gas.

By Francis Schaefer

Don't laugh. It's actually a pretty good book and I'm not a big Western fan. When I was in high school, I stumbled across Owen Wister's The Virginian and fell in love with it. That was followed by Vardis Fisher's book Mountain Man after Redford made the movie "Jeremiah Johnson" out of it. And a few years back I read a few of Ivan Doig's stories about Montana, particularly "Dancing at the Rascal Fair." But the Louis L'Amour type westerns have never interested me much. However, at my book group we were talking about Westerns as a movie genre--we tend to digress from topic occasionally--and one of the guys recommended this book. He's got pretty high end taste in books too, so I was surprised.

It is good. In some ways, it's better than the classic movie they made of it. After reading it, I don't see Gary Cooper as Shane though. He's not dangerous looking enough to be true to the character in the book.

I read it as an allegory. Shane is the old west of gunslingers and outlaws trying to adjust to the new settled west of the homesteaders. He's the classic hero--tall, dark, handsome, straight, soft-spoken, dangerous and conflicted. Joe Starrett, the little boy's father, is the new west--hardworking, independent, proud, earthy, honest and striving. The conflict is between the old way of working the land in the west with open range and long cattle drives and the newer, more settled way of breeding and feeding fewer cattle but doing it more land intensively.

Of course, it also a pretty well-told adventure story. Shane is the perfect good/bad guy. You want him to win his fight to give up gunslinging and yet you know that for him to remain true to who he is, he can't. Telling the story thru a young boy's eyes only makes it more dramatic. It also gives you the great line he keeps repeating "and he was Shane." Only a kid could accept someone at face value and then, growing up, imply the deeper meaning in the story.

It isn't great literature but it is a good story well told and certainly worth the reading.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

The Mystery of the Silver Spider
The Mystery of the Screaming Clock
By Robert Arthur

On their way home from solving The Mystery of the Fiery Eye (reviewed in last month's issue), the Three Investigators (Jupiter, Pete, and Bob) almost get into an accident in the chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce they won the use of in a contest. The passenger of the other car, young Prince Djaro of Varania, apologizes profusely and invites them to go to the local theme park with him so he can enjoy it with other young boys instead of with his usual bodyguards. The boys quickly become friends and the three are then requested to visit Djaro at his castle in Varania. He would like to use their services to investigate some funny business involving the current Regent, Duke Stefan. This leads the boys on their most exotic adventure yet, involving not only a foreign country, but spiders, amnesia, imprisonment, and a Les Miserables-like escape through the country's sewer system.

The Mystery of the Silver Spider is the eighth entry in the Three Investigators series and author Arthur has lost none of his skill in delivering a cracker of a story. Although he was likely making it more interesting for himself by placing the boys in a new setting, suspension of disbelief is never difficult, even though the three never seem too upset by the unfamiliar circumstances. Jupiter, in particular, really seems to be improved by it. Spider also stands out by having Bob, usually the one who pursues the more intellectual side of the mystery, be the centerpiece of the excitement. (What with banging his head twice and the pain in his leg, recently healed after a bad break, Bob must have needed some serious downtime afterwards.) These things only added to the sense of excitement and I was eager to get to the next entry.

The subject of the ninth volume in the series, The Mystery of the Screaming Clock, is given to us on the first page, at least on the surface. So, there's this clock, right? And it screams. Why would someone make a clock that screams? The answer becomes not so simple and leads the Three Investigators to a deeper mystery concerning another kind of "screaming clock"--a former radio screamer (much in demand on the spooky shows) named Albert Clock, who has disappeared, seemingly without a trace.

The puzzle here is more of the intellectual clue-deciphering sort, involving three different messages that together will help the boys solve the case of why the man is missing, and, more specifically, why he had recently changed his name. As always, Arthur keeps the pace quick, the characters likable, and the villains despicable. I look forward to searching out the further adventures in this series.

Tropic of Night
By Michael Gruber

Jane is on the run. She has faked a suicide, changed her name, and, for some reason even she doesn't understand, adopted the daughter of an abusive woman. Lieutenant Paz is on a search for a ritualistic serial killer who has been murdering nine-months-pregnant women with no signs of struggle, but with the same strange chemicals being found at the scene. As Tropic of Night continues, it becomes clearer that these two people are concerned about the same person and that their paths will eventually cross.

There is a lot of ground to cover in Tropic of Night. Not only do we go along with Jane (now Dolores) in her new life, but we are shown her old diaries from her time in Africa with her ex-husband. Alternatively, we follow Paz in his investigation of the murders as he and his partner begin to slowly put the pieces together.

This is a very dense novel, full of detail--especially regarding African witchcraft--to the point of being educational. As a fan of Ed McBain, I found the Paz scenes the most instantly engrossing, but Jane's story slowly dug its way into my brain and wouldn't let go. The diary entries are tedious at the beginning, and I was tempted many times to just skip over them, but it eventually becomes clear that they paint a portrait of things we need to know to "get" the rest of the novel.

Unfortunately, after all the effort the reader expends in order to just get to the end of Tropic of Night, the ending is ultimately unsatisfying. I can still recommend it, but just barely, given the above shortcomings. Perhaps, the upcoming sequel is intended to continue the story, making this book a single entry, and so it's not supposed to end, per se, merely pause. They should at least let us know, though.

The Shadow Laughs
By Maxwell Grant (William Gibson)

The time span from when I began The Shadow Laughs to when I finished it was around six months, so forgive me if my memory lapses. During that time, Conde Nast Publications decided to renew their copyright on the character and have since issued Cease and Desist orders on most sites hosting Shadow novels. This really puts a knot in my plan to read all the novels by age 60, because I really had no plans on spending any money. Hopefully, though, the company is planning on resurrecting the character in some form or another. We'll see. Until then...

This is the third in the popular pulp novel series regarding the famous character of The Shadow, best known through the radio program that ran during the "golden age of radio." Harry Vincent returns as the Shadow's emissary and gets involved in the investigation of a counterfeiting operation.

The Shadow Laughs is very formulaic but this only adds to the comforting familiarity of the story. And, really, one can't really expect literature from a man who is writing a book every three months (it would soon become monthly) on deadline. There are many of the usual plot devices: the Shadow is all but invisible to the inattentive, he gives messages through emphasized words over the radio...

...and, of course, the Shadow laughs.

The Da Vinci Code
By Dan Brown

Jacques Sauniere, curator at the Louvre, has been murdered. Luckily, while he was bleeding to death, he found the time to leave an extremely convoluted and cryptic message involving the secret location of the Holy Grail. The Da Vinci Code is a really fun, fast-paced read, but this is only the first of a string of plot implausibilities. Formulaic in the most obvious way (e.g., the end-of-chapter revelation), it still manages to carry the reader to an almost satisfying conclusion.

The bulk of the book concerns Robert Langdon's attempts to solve the code with the assistance of cryptologist Sophie Neveu. As a lover of puzzles, I found these to be terrific entertainment. (If you want more, and have a free hour or so, go to the book's portion of the Random House Web site.) But this alone is not enough to recommend the book, and certainly not at the hardcover price. This is definitely more of a paperback purchase.

Author Brown also goes describes a series of presumably researched historical evidences involving Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene (and her relationship to the grail) using Da Vinci's paintings and several cited works as sources. This was intriguing reading, even though I was careful to not allow myself to believe any of it outright. Based on this lengthy passage alone, however, I would be hesitant to recommend The Da Vinci Code to any hardcore Christians, as the ones I know don't take lightly to the questioning of the tenets of their faith.

Taken on its own terms, however, I can understand why this book has taken off the way it has. It covers very familiar subject matter in a way that opens up new doors for exploration. And the puzzles are a real treat, although they wear thin near the end and the book itself is about a third too long.

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 2004
Copyright © 2004, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
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