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ex libris reviews

1 February 2001

It was not until I settled down in London that he came back into my life. We met in Picadilly one day, and resumed our relations where they had been broken off. Old associations are strong, and the fact that he was about my build and so could wear my socks and shirts drew us very close together.
P.G. Wodehouse


In This Issue:
Flu Season

It's 'flu season at our house. I've mostly managed to escape unscathed, either missing it altogether or having such a mild case that I seem fairly healthy by comparison. Things have not been very lively at Chez Duquette in recent weeks.

That said, there has been a lot of time for reading. This month we've got more Ngaio Marsh and Lindsey Davis, some P.G. Wodehouse, and one or two other things of note. Enjoy!

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

A Man Lay Dead
Dead Water
Vintage Murder
Overture to Death
Hand in Glove
By Ngaio Marsh

I've written quite a lot about Ngaio Marsh in the past few months, and I scarcely want to repeat myself once again. I enjoyed all five of these (Dead Water was particularly good).

I would like to draw attention to A Man Lay Dead, Marsh's first published novel, which to my surprise was somewhat stronger than some of those which immediately followed. It's possible that it isn't the first one she wrote; once an author gets published, past manuscripts have a way of coming forth from the bottom of the trunk. That said, and though I enjoyed it, I found it hard to take it as seriously as some of her others; what can you say about a first novel that includes a death during a Murder Mystery Party, a collector of antique weapons, a suspicious foreigner, a dagger of oriental design (to quote P.G. Wodehouse), an ancient Russian secret society, and people popping down chimneys?

Silver Pigs
A Dying Light in Corduba
Three Hands in the Fountain
Two for the Lions
By Lindsey Davis

Here we have the earliest and three of the latest of Davis' enjoyable Marcus Didius Falco novels. Had I started with any of these, I'd not have had the doubts I had after reading Last Act in Palmyra; that one still occupies of the bottom spot among the ones I've read so far.

For those who came in late, Marcus Didius Falco is a paid informer, or private eye, in 1st Century Rome. The Emperor Vespasian is new on the throne, and is occupied with putting down conspiracies (there were three different emperors in the year before Vespasian took power) and stabilizing the empire, and naturally he needs a little help.

Silver Pigs takes Falco to the silver mines in Britain where it is believe some skimming is going on. Along the way he meets the beautiful and sharp-tongued Helena Justina. It's intense dislike at first sight, so naturally they are desperately in love by the end of the book. It's illegal for them to marry; Helena Justina is a patrician, the daughter of senator Camillus Verus, while Falco's a mere plebian, a member of the lowest rank of the citizenry. But love will out, as anyone would expect, and I have to give Davis credit. Some authors would spin the angst about their forbidden love out over half-a-dozen novels. Davis gets it over with in the second, Shadows in Bronze, after which the two are a settled couple (at least in their own minds).

In the other three of this month's Falco books, Falco (and Helena Justina) deal with olive oil cartels in Spain, corruption among the animal dealers in Rome and Northern Africa, and a particularly nasty serial killer in Rome herself. All recommended.

God in the Dock
By C.S. Lewis

Last month and the month before I reviewed two books by Lewis that I recommended highly, Mere Christianity and Reflections on the Psalms. I cannot similarly recommend this collection to any but a real student of Lewis' work.

Some years ago, Walter Hooper observed that Lewis had written many things for magazines and other ephemeral media, and that these things had never been collected in book form. He gathered them all together and the result is the present volume.

There's much valuable insight and sound teaching here. The difficulty is that contents of the collection were never intended to be combined in book form. There's a considerable disparity of style between the various pieces, as one would expect. Moreover, Lewis was a man who thought deeply, came to reasoned conclusions, and then retained them. He was no reed blown in the wind. Consequently, the same arguments and points are made in essay after essay after essay. Such consistency is reassuring in one who wrote on theology and ethics, but it's a little wearing on the reader.

Worse than that, the contents are somewhat dated. I don't mean they are untrue; I believe that, for the most part, Lewis was right in what he thought and conveyed. But he was writing for a different era, with its own besetting sins. In his day, people still believed in rational proof--or at least some did. Today, so it seems to me, most people don't care much about whether an idea is true or not; they care about whether it is useful to them, or beneficial to society, or what have you. They seem to see nothing wrong in saying that two people who hold logically contradictory views are both right--that each one has his or her own truth.

Why is it so hard to see that this view means the end of rational discourse? There's no point in arguing if truth is whatever idea makes you happy to think it.

But be that as it may. Lewis assumed, as I do, that there is an absolute truth, and that the most important question about an idea isn't whether it's useful, but whether it's true. Once one has determined the truth, then one must live with the consequences. If Christianity is true, for example, then that has certain consequences which will have to be eternally borne. But Lewis appeals to one's reason, and appeals to reason aren't particularly effective with people for whom reason holds no special place. Some other approach must be found.

By P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse is sadly under-appreciated these days; most people of my generation have never heard of him. And yet he's one of the great writers of the 20th century and quite possibly the best writer of humorous tales in the English language. His control of the language is amazing, his plotting is meticulous, and his story-telling delightful. His books and stories flow in that pleasant, breezy way that comes only with painstaking effort. As a reader, I enjoy Wodehouse immensely; as an aspiring writer, I sit at his feet and try to figure out how he does it.

If you've not made Wodehouse's acquaintance, go to a bookstore forthwith and procure The Most of P.G. Wodehouse, a collection of his better known stories along with one complete novel. (I believe it's still in print; if it's not, will someone please let me know?).The occasion for reading the present volume is the publication of the first books in a new hardcover edition of Wodehouse's complete works. On learning of the new edition I decided that I aspire not only to being a writer but also to owning the complete works in a nice, hardcover edition printed on acid-free paper. They are being published by Everyman in England, and aren't generally available in U.S. stores, so I logged on to W.H. Smiths online and ordered the four books that are available to date. Of these, Ukridge is the first.

Ukridge is a collection of tales about Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, the quintessential man on the make. Ukridge always has a scheme to get fabulously wealthy; he only needs a small amount of capital to get started (and by the way, could you spare half-a-crown?). The narrator, a penurious writer, is the witness (and reluctant participant) in many of these schemes.

I'd previously read the book's first two stories in past years, in which Ukridge attempts to open school for dogs and later hopes to defraud the insurance agency, and so was eager to hear more, and I was not disappointed.

Pigs Have Wings
By P.G. Wodehouse

I had intended to save the rest of these new Wodehouse books for later, but the temptation was too much.

This novel belongs to Wodehouse's second best-known series, the Blandings Castle series. I find the Blandings tales, both short stories and novels, somewhat repetitive; one always knows what's going to happen. The pleasure is finding out how. For example, one knows that Clarence, the absent-minded Earl of Emsworth, will be greatly concerned about the chances of his prize pig, Empress of Blandings, in the annual Fat Pig competition at the Shropshire County Fair. One knows that one of his neighbors will be trying to beat him. One knows that Clarence's sister Constance will be trying to make him do a variety of other things besides think about pigs. One knows that Beach, the butler, will drink a vast quantity of port. One knows that there will be all manner of pig-related skulduggery, romantic entanglements, lost loves, and touching reunions. And, finally, one knows that there will be visitors to Blandings Castle who come there under false pretences and will invariably be found out at the worst possible moment.

But then, one always knows how a sonnet is going to go, as well.

Right Ho, Jeeves
By P.G. Wodehouse

If Blandings Castle is Wodehouse's second best-known series, then the tales of Bertie Wooster and his resourceful valet, Jeeves, are by far his best known. Wodehouse wrote a remarkable number of short stories about the Bertie, his friends, and their travails in love, along with a number of novels, of which this is one. Rather to my surprise, it's one I hadn't read before; whenever I saw Right Ho, Jeeves on the store shelf I somehow assumed it contained short stories, all of which I already have.

In this tale, Bertie comes to the aid of his friend, Gussie Fink-Nottle. Gussie has fallen in love with the dreamy Madeline Basset (he's a dreamer himself), but when it comes time to tell her so, all he can do is babble about newts, he being a newt-fancier. As the result of a disagreement over his wardrobe, Bertie forbids Jeeves to do anything about this or the other problems that arise, insisting on handling them himself. The result is a notable failure, but Jeeves--naturally--comes through in the last act.

The Perfect Host
By Theodore Sturgeon

Over the last year or so, North Atlantic Books has been bringing out the complete works of Theodore Sturgeon in trade paperback form, and I've been buying them. The Perfect Host is the fifth volume of his complete short stories, presented, of course, in chronological order. In each volume the introduction has said something like, "Look how good these stories are, and yet Sturgeon has not yet reached his full powers; there's much more and better still to come," and as I've read such classics as "The Microcosmic God" and "Killdozer" I've licked my lips with anticipation at the delights that lie ahead.

Well, according to the introduction to this volume, those delights are finally here. With this book, we're getting into the real heart of Sturgeon's work. And the fact is, I'm disappointed. While I read The Perfect Host with enjoyment, I'm not at all persuaded that these stories are better than those that have gone before; in many cases, I think they are worse. Sigh.

That said, the single story "Die, Maestro, Die!", despite the title, may be worth the price of admission.

By David Bodanis

This was another Christmas present from Jane; she made me promise not to buy any books in December for fear I'd see this one and snatch it up. She needn't have feared, as this isn't at all the kind of book I look for when I go to the store--but that only makes it an excellent present. Something that I wouldn't have bought for myself, but which nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed.

E=mc2 is, in the words of the author, the biography of Einstein's well-known equation. He begins by talking about the pioneers of science who brought us our understanding of each part of it: our understanding of energy, of mass, and of the speed of light. He explains how our conceptions of these things have changed, and who changed them. He explains how Einstein put them together. He explains how the atom bomb came to be, and how the elements are forged out of pure energy in the heat of suns.

It's an engaging, not-very-technical book; if you have any curiousity about the topic, I highly recommend it.

Children's Books

by Will Duquette

A Promise is a Promise
Written by Robert N. Munsch, Michael Kusugak and illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka

For Christmas this year, our friends the Saenz family sent us three volumes of the collected stories of Robert N. Munsch; this is the last book from the third volume.

Most of Munsch's stories are fun, light, and silly; this one stands alone. It's about the importance of keeping promises, but it's also an Eskimo folk tale about ice demons called Qallupiluit. The Qallupiluit leave beneath the frozen sea ice, and wait for children to coming walking overhead so they can eat them. Even ice demons must keep promises, though, and the Qallupiluit have promised never to take children who come on the sea ice with their parents.

I thought David might be rather scared by this story, but he's asked for it several times; and the pictures of the Quallupiluit are simply beautiful.

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