ex libris reviews
1 October 1998
I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been
This month's issue is a few days late...but then, last month's was a few days early, due to my continuing difficulties with my Gateway 2000 laptop. I am glad to say that they have ceased. After its third trip to the shop, and its third arrival at my home with a new and different problem, I asked for, and got, a new machine from the kind folks at Gateway. It has been working without any trouble, and I'm happy again. I would like to say, once again, that the tech support people at Gateway were great: courteous, patient, helpful, and, most important, readily available.
In the meantime, I have had quite a busy and quite a long month. I've read a lot, and most of what I've read has been by. Last month I read most of his books about the New York burglar and bookseller, Bernie Rhodenbarr; this month, I read most of his books about the New York term-paper ghost-writer and international revolutionary, Evan Michael Tanner, and (much to my surprise) all of his books (thirteen of them!) about the New York ex-cop, private investigator, and alcoholic, Matthew Scudder.
It was a hardboiled kind of a month, that's all I can say. You'll read more below; I put all of the Block reviews in a single block, so you can skip them easily enouch if they don't interest you. In addition to them, I somehow found time for a mixed bag of other books, including works by, , , , , and .
Oh, and there's a new section this month. As I'm now regularly reading books on my Palm III, I'll be reviewing them in a section entitled "Electronic Books". Enjoy!
In Times to Come
Books on the soon-to-be-read stack include more by, , and . was on the list, too, but I ran late on writing and releasing this issue, and in the meantime I finished the ones I had in the stack.
-- Will Duquette
Once again (he repeated) I have no new books to talk about in this section, as I'm still working on my novel. I'm into Chapter 25, and have written over 50,000 words. Someday I'll finish it, and get back to the serious business of reading aloud to Jane.
Last month I described my new Palm III "connected organizer", a nifty hand-held PC that also serves as a platform for electronic books. When I bought it, I discounted the idea of actually reading books on it, but I was mistaken.
When I was in school, from Junior High through grad school, I pretty much always had a book with me. I always carried a backpack with notebooks and such, and one of the things always to be found in the front pocket of that backpack was some paperback or other. If I found myself at a loose end somewhere away from home, I always had something to read (except when I'd finished it already, and hadn't replaced it, a dire occurrence!).
When I left school and went to work, those days were over. Among other things, I no longer had a reason to carry a backpack around with me where ever I went. For a while I'd remember to grab a book if there was a chance of having to wait somewhere, but even that became the exception rather than the rule. Except for lunchtime. If I'm eating by myself, I've got a book with me, almost without fail.
Now I carry my Palm III where ever I go, and I find that it's a kind of electronic backpack. It's got notebooks of various kinds, a book of crossword puzzles, a calculator, a deck of cards, a few other amusements, and, yes, a book I can read when I have to wait somewhere.
Just today I had lunch at a burger joint in Pasadena, the aptly-named "Wonder Burger". I used to have lunch there frequently when my office was nearby; since then I've moved to a new office and going out to lunch is much more difficult. I was in Pasadena around lunch time, and I thought I'd stop in. But what would I read? No problem: I had my Palm III with me, and I dipped into The White Company, by . I'm only a few chapters into it, but I'm enjoying it immensely. I'll have more to say about it next month.
This month I read Orthodoxy. It's a companion of sorts to Chesterton's book Heretics, which I reviewed last month. One of the "heretics" of which he wrote justly criticized him for criticizing other men's beliefs without stating his own:
"I will begin to worry about my philosophy," said Mr. Street, "when Mr. Chesterton has given us his." It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation. But after all, though Mr. Street has inspired and created this book, he need not read it.
Orthodoxy is Chesteron's attempt, not to prove his beliefs, but rather to describe how he came to hold them. It's a fascinating, wittily written account, and frequently required me to stop and ponder. Chesterton delighted in paradox, and was not above stating his facts in somewhat stronger terms than perhaps they warranted, and it made for an interesting journey. It also made it perfect as a book to be picked up, read for a few minutes, and put down again.
I will not attempt to describe Chesterton's arguments; indeed, I'm not sure I followed all of them. The basic flow, however, was this. He had fallen away from the church at an early age, much as C.S. Lewis was to do many years later. Through observation and experience, he came to some startling conclusions about how the world worked, and about the nature of the cosmos. He felt quite bold, a freethinker. And then he discovered, much to his astonishment, every important point in his shiny new philosophy fit into a perfect slot in the edifice of Christian orthodoxy--that indeed, Christian orthodoxy was the only intellectual framework he had encountered that did.
I didn't agree with all of his conclusions, nor with all of his arguments, but I read it gladly, and will likely read it again in the future.
Bernie Rhodenbarr is a resident of New York city, a seller of used and collectible books, and an excellent (if occasionally foolish) burglar. He can pick most locks in a few seconds; if only he were wiser about picking the apartments to which the locks are attached, there'd be many fewer books in the series.
The "Burglar" books are well-written, light-hearted, and usually a little silly. This one is sillier than most, being not so much a book in its own right, but rather an homage to obscure Humphrey Bogart films. Bernie spends several weeks attending nightly showings of a Bogart film festival with a mysterious woman, and reality gets slightly skewed. It was fun, though I've seen very few of Bogart's pictures. (I was glad to discover, though, that I'm not the only one who found The Big Sleep hard to follow.)
The Cancelled Czech
Tanner's Twelve Swingers
Two for Tanner
Having read most of Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr books, I moved on to the Evan Michael Tanner series. I was only able to find the first book and the last book (Block's most recent) in U.S. editions; luckily, our local bookstore, Vromans, had most of the rest in U.K. editions, for which I paid far too much.
The Tanner books are less mysteries than spy novels, though Evan Tanner isn't exactly a spy. Evan Tanner a simply a man who can't sleep--ever. A piece of Korean shrapnel destroyed the sleep center in his brain, and now he is doomed to permanent wakefulness. He has learned to use those extra eight-hours-a-day very well, given that the alternative was to go stark raving mad from boredom. He has read almost everything there is to read. He speaks many different languages. He makes his living writing term papers for college students whose funds exceed their scholarship. But mostly, he supports lost causes. He is a member of the Flat Earth society. He is a member of the Irish Brotherhood. He is a member of the IMRO, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization. He'd like nothing better than to kick that German wench, Betty Saxe-Coburg, off of the throne of England, and give it to the rightful Stuart heir, Prince Rupert of Bavaria. In short, he's a member of every hopeless, doomed revolutionary group on the planet. So he's not exactly a spy...just a guy that the FBI likes to haul in for questions on a regular basis because of his subversive associations. He's just a guy that has illicit, underground contacts in just about every country in the world
In the first Tanner book, The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep, he uses his knowledge, his language skills, and his connections to recover a fortune in Armenian gold from Turkey. It's the first time he has ever left the U.S., but he finds interesting, helpful, and dangerous friends every step of the way. He spends a week in a Turkish prison...and that's just for starters. He starts a revolution in Yugoslavia. He's nearly arrested in Ireland. Along the way he's recruited by an American intelligence agency so secret even the FBI isn't sure who they are. So maybe he is a spy...but his actions in the following books are only occasionally in accordance with his new boss's wishes.
All five of the listed books are entertaining; my personal favorite is Tanner's Twelve Swingers. In this book Tanner goes behind the Iron Curtain at the request of one of his buddies in the Latvian-Army-In-Exile, a group dedicated to getting Latvia out of the USSR's evil clutches. It seems that as a U.S. wrestler at the Tokyo Olympics he fell in love with a Latvian gymnast. Now she wants to defect, but needs help. Tanner gets her out, along with her eleven team mates, a high-ranking Yugoslavian official, and a little girl who is supposedly the lineal descendant of the last king to sit on the throne of Lithuania (that was in the 12th century). And that's only the beginning. Among others.
The Tanner books are light, fast-paced, and fun, and frankly not as well written as the Bernie Rhodenbarr books. On the other hand, they are among Block's earliest books; with the exception of Tanner on Ice, now out in hardback, they were written in the late 1960's. I say "earliest books", but I have to qualify that. According to the introduction to The Cancelled Czech, The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep was the first book Block wrote that he felt was really his own. He'd only written thirty or forty books before that, at a rate of several a month. One took him only three days. Evan Tanner, he felt, was his first original creation.
I don't know whether any of Block's earlier books are still in print, or even if they were written under the name "Lawrence Block". But speaking as one trying to write his first book, I can only respect Block's perseverance, as well as the quality of his current products.
Time to Murder and Create
In the Midst of Death
A Stab in the Dark
Eight Million Ways to Die
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes
Out on the Cutting Edge
A Ticket to the Boneyard
A Dance at the Slaughterhouse
A Walk among the Tombstones
The Devil Knows You're Dead
A Long Line of Dead Men
Even the Wicked
The Tanner books are comic thrillers; the Bernie Rhodenbarr books are as close as Block comes to the Agatha Christie-style "puzzle" mystery, and end often as not with Bernie bringing all of the suspects together, explaining the clues, and fingering the murderer. The Matthew Scudder books are on an entirely different plane. They are gritty, hardboiled, tough, frequently disturbing, seldom light-hearted. They are also more solid, more real, than the others. Tanner and Rhodenbarr are written for fun; Scudder is written for keeps.
Matthew Scudder is an alcoholic, an ex-member of the NYPD who makes his living as an unlicensed private investigator. He doesn't write reports, he doesn't track expenses, he doesn't send returns to the IRS; he does favors for friends, for which they give him monetary gifts. His personal expenses are low, his rent-controlled hotel room is cheap, he works only when he needs the money.
I will not even try to describe each book individually; it would take pages, and would be a disservice to the reader. Taken individually, the books are about the seamy side of life in New York City, with Scudder as the hardboiled observer. Taken as a group, though, they are really about Scudder. It was fascinating to watch him develop, a process which was hampered slightly by my reading order; I started with the most recent books, and worked my way back. The first one, The Sins of the Fathers, written in 1976, is just a little too obvious; the title practically gives the story away. Scudder comes off as little more than a hard-drinking misanthrope. The second, Time to Murder and Create, is much more interesting, and better written. By the fifth or sixth volume Scudder is a fully realized creation, someone who might walk off of the page and into the lobby of your New York apartment building, supposing you happen to live in such a place.
The series really has two halves. In the first part, Scudder is a serious drinker, subject to occasional blackouts and lapses of judgement. Every drink of every day is written down; alcohol dominates his life. He's a maintenance drinker; he wants to keep the edge on, without getting completely drunk. The times he goes over the edge are chillingly well described.
The second half begins with Eight Million Ways to Die, in which he wakes up in a detox ward after having had. convulsions in public. He joins A.A. and goes on one day at a time. Not surprisingly, the longer he is sober the more he gets his life together, and the more pleasant the books are to read. Nevertheless, though he's not drinking, alcohol still dominates his life. It's a fascinating picture.
Probably the best thing I can say about the Matthew Scudder is that he rings true. He and his acquaintances are real people, in a real world. By comparison,'s acclaimed hero Travis Mcgee is a cartoon character, as are (not surprisingly) Bernie Rhodenbarr and Evan Michael Tanner. The Scudder books are not for the queasy, as there are some extremely graphic and unpleasant passages, but the writing is first rate.
I have a shameful little secret; I'm a closet Stephen King fan. His books aren't highbrow (he describes them as the literary equivalent of a cheeseburger and fries), but I like them, because Stephen King is an excellent storyteller. I especially like his short stories--in the short story form ideas that would collapse under their own weight in a novel are free to dance and frolic.
The other day I was moved to pull this volume from the shelf and give it the once over. It was as fun as I remembered, especially "The Moving Finger" and "The House on Maple Street". If you have any taste for horror and the macabre, you should check it out.
This is the fourth of Dunnett's tales of Nicholas van der Poele, the Flemish dyeshop apprentice turned successful Venetian merchant and banker. In this, the best of the series so far, Niccolo travels to Timbuktu in central Africa, the cross-roads of a trade in which salt is brought south from the Sahara, and gold is brought north from a land no white man has seen and lived. Along the way he must withstand the malice of Gelis van Borselen, the sister of his dead love Katelina, and of Simon St. Paul, his old enemy.
I do not know whether Dunnett's research is as good as it seems, but it seems very good indeed. Speaking again as a wannabe-writer, if Lawrence Block's perseverance is awe-inspiring, Dunnett's command of period detail and atmosphere is positively frightening. When I finish one of Dunnett's books I feel like I have come home from a far-off land.
The Subtle Knife
Pullman is a new author for me; I had never heard of him until my sister pointed out his books at our local bookstore. Up until now, his books have been published as juvenile or young adult fiction; these two books (and the third, soon to be released) have crossed over to the science-fiction racks.
Pullman is a consummate story teller. Both books pulled me right in and kept me reading, partially because of the plot, partially because of the characters, but mostly because he knows how to spin an enchanting tale. And he does not lack for invention.
The Golden Compass concerns a young girl named Lyra Belacqua. Raised by the masters of Jordan College in an Oxford rather different than our own, she finds herself (in proper YA-fashion) at the center of the most important doings of her day. One of my favorite bits is the Golden Compass of the title. It's not really a compass; it's actually an "atheliometer", a device for determining the truth. Another good bit is the panserbjorne, the armored bears: intelligent polar bears who wear thick armor plate into battle. Then there's the church. In this world, the Protestant Reformation went rather differently, and John Calvin became the Pope. He subsequently subjected all of Europe to the regimented lifestyle the real Calvin was responsible for in the City of Geneva. By Lyra's day, the Church, far from being fragmented as in our day, is the power in the land.
Much of what makes these books compelling is their focus on things that really matter. The Golden Compass, and The Subtle Knife, its sequel, are essentially about the role of religion, the nature of the soul, and the Fall of Man. And therein lies the only troubling part. For juveniles, the books are shockingly anti-clerical. The view espoused in the book is the Gnostic heresy: in Eden, Satan was trying to lift Adam and Eve up, to bring them knowledge and culture that God would forever deny them. The books make the claim that all culture, all inspiration in the world (ours as well as Lyra's) is the result of Satan's rebellion against God. Now a new battle is preparing; if God wins, men will become like cattle, dull, biddable, and contented.
Or is this the message of the books? There's one more book to go, and Pullman has surprised me several times in the first two books. Perhaps things still are not what they seem. I await the paperback publication of the next book eagerly; but I wouldn't give these to a teenager without blocking out lots of time to discuss them.
The Bohemian Murders
Some while ago I read and reviewed The Strange Files of Fremont Jones, Day's first mystery novel. Fremont Jones is a feminist, a Boston gentlelady who leaves the East Coast at the first opportunity to make a career for herself as a typist in San Francisco just after 1900. That first book was great fun, filled with macabre touches and menacing people, even though Jones is the sort of sleuth who just blunders about, understanding very little and raising clouds of dust, until the bad guys are forced to try and remove her. Thus, when I noticed a second and third book on the shelves, I bought them and read them.
This is called "damning with faint praise."
Fire and Fog is less a mystery and more a tale of the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906. I suppose it was inevitable; Fremont had to live through it, and the tumult could hardly have escaped dominating any book it was in. Alas, Day chose to tack on a silly little mystery which has little to do with the main plot and served only to provide a few thrills at the end of the book. She'd have done better to leave it off. For all that, the book does have its high points.
The Bohemian Murders was somewhat less interesting, though it was a better mystery. Fremont has moved south to Pacific Grove, a lovely town between Monterey and Carmel. The murders of the title take place in Carmel, which at the time was an artists' colony inhabitated by Bohemians of every stripe. If the previous book was marred by a stupid mystery on top of the on-going story of Fremont's personal life, this one is marred by stupid goings on in Fremont's personal life on top of a decent mystery.
I'll probably buy the next one when it's out in paperback, but unless there are improvements it will likely be the last.
In the last couple of issues I reviewed Cherryh's books Downbelow Station and Finity's End. The first is about the war that created the Merchanter's Alliance, which governs from Pell Station; the second takes place two decades later, and is about the resumption of normal trade after the renegade Earth Fleet has essentially been wiped out. Following these, I went back and re-read the three books listed above, and I'm glad I did. Downbelow Station and Finity's End are big books, and discuss major events in Cherryh's future history. The three listed above are small, intimate books; they discuss particular people on particular ships, with little or no discussion of larger events. I enjoyed them on first reading, but was entirely unable to place them in context. On this reading, they made much more sense.
Both Merchanter's Luck and Rimrunners take place in the \ years just after the Battle of Pell (Downbelow Station). Both discuss small ships--a merchanter in the first case and a spook in the second--which are used as catspaws by bigger ships in the battle against the Earth Fleet. Tripoint, on the other hand, takes place after Finity's End. It's the only book so far that really describes what's been going on with the Earth Fleet, the Maziani, in the years since the Battle of Pell, and then only obliquely.
All three are excellent, and I recommend them...but read Downbelow Station before Merchanter's Luck and Rimrunners, and Finity's End before Tripoint.
I wish I could say such nice things about this book as about Cherryh's others. I read about half of it, put it down, and never picked it up again except to move it from one place to another. It's fantasy, and I've never had good luck with Cherryh's fantasy; some how it just doesn't work for me.
It's possible that's it's a matter of mood; I might have enjoyed it more at another time.
Jabberwocky has been my favorite poem since I was a child. I memorized it effortlessly in third or fourth grade, and can still recite it from memory, on demand.
Dave usually gets two or three books read to him before bedtime every night; we went through a period of a couple of weeks recently where it was one book and Jabberwocky. I think part of what fascinated him was that I wasn't reading it from a book, I was just holding him and reciting it to him, with appropriate facial expressions and movements. When the hero went galumphing back, David galumphed in my lap. When the hero's father chortled to his beamish boy, I chortled to mine and gave him a hug. We've tapered off on Jabberwocky--he got tired of it eventually, and would make me stop if I started--but occasionally it still gets some giggles.
Reader Francis Murphy wrote in toward the beginning of the month, asking (in part) how I find so much time to read, especially with a small boy around the house. I've not included the letter in full, mostly because this issue is already late and the letter isn't immediately available, but I wanted to give Francis credit for writing.
It's a good question, and I'm not really sure I know the answer. I have already always read quite a lot. Even in college, along with classwork and socializing, I still managed to read quite a lot. I dunno. I read quickly, which helps some. I also read at the drop of a hat. If I have five minutes to spare, I know what to do with it.
counted as one of his blessings that he had learned to read sense wherever he was: at the table, on a train, wherever. He describes first reading some reasonably difficult book in a foxhole in France by the light of a candle that went out every time a shell landed nearby, which was every few minutes all night long. I do not have that kind of concentration--or perhaps serenity is a better word--but I try.
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.