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ex libris reviews

1 October 2003

And there are times when the situation is more difficult than it appears...
Cerebus the Aardvark


In This Issue:

I usually put ex libris together on the last day of the month, or thereabouts. And somehow, that usually means that I get to do it on a Saturday or Sunday. I'm not sure how that works out. But anyway, here it is Tuesday evening, and I'm just getting started. So I'll just make a few comments, and then move long.

First, I'll be posting the final installment of Through Darkest Zymurgia this coming Saturday. If you've been putting off taking a look at it until you can read it straight through, that time is nigh.

Second, the content of my web log gets more and more varied as time goes on; if you've not seen it, take a look!

Finally, there are reviews from me, Deb English, and Craig Clarke for you to read. Felicity McCarthy is once again at home, and she's been updating her blog; I hope that soon she'll respond to her e-mail and tell me how she's doing!

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

On Stories
By C.S. Lewis

This is a mixed bag of Lewis' essays and other short pieces on the general topic of fiction, including nine pieces that have previously been collected and eleven that have not. It includes his original reviews of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, reviews of works by Charles Williams, H. Rider Haggard, and George Orwell, a tribute to Dorothy L. Sayers, and a variety of ruminations on the importance of story in fiction, the difference between novels and romances, and advice on Which Books Not To Review. As always, his words are a delight to read, and gave me much food for thought.

I could easily quote at length from any of the pieces in this book; I'll settle for his advice on Which Books Not To Review, because it's so topical. If you'll look back a month or so, the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix triggered a number of articles about how the popularity of Harry Potter was a sign of infantilism in the reading public. These essays were soundly fisked all around and about the Blogosphere, at the time; and it was with a sense of wonder that I realized that all of those fiskings could have been replaced (and all the original articles prevented) by the following quote from Lewis' essay "On Science Fiction":

For I am convinced that good adverse criticism is the most difficult thing we have to do. I would advise everyone to begin it under the most favourable conditions: this is, where you thoroughly know and heartily like the thing the author is trying to do, and have enjoyed many books where it was done well. Then you will have some chance of really showing that he has failed and perhaps even of showing why. But if our real reaction to a book is "Ugh! I just can't bear this sort of thing," then I think we shall not be able to diagnose whatever real faults it has. We may labour to conceal our emotion, but we shall end in a welter of emotive, unanalysed, vogue-words--"arch", "facetious", "bogus", "adolescent", "immature", and the rest. When we really know what is wrong we need none of these.

Starlight on the Veld
By Herman Charles Bosman

From 1933 to 1951 Herman Charles Bosman wrote many short stories and essays about life in South Africa, and particularly about life in a region called the Marico Bushveld. Though of English descent, his characters and narrators are staunchly Boer, and though the stories are written in English they are filled with Boer words: veldshoen, voorkamer, predikant, mealies, and many others. This book is a collection of twenty-two of his best stories.

Bosman is pretty well unknown here in the States--at any rate, I'd never heard of him before, and his books certainly aren't in print here--but he's become a classic in South Africa. It so happens that I have a friend in South Africa; he enjoyed Bosman's tales as a kid and enjoys them still as an adult, and thought Jane and I would like them, so he sent us a set of Bosman books: this one, and another containing Bosman's best humourous stories.

After the first two stories, I was both fascinated and somewhat repelled--the first two in the book are both really depressing, though well-written. They were his earliest tales, though, and after that he developed a lighter (thought not necessarily less serious) hand. Bosman was a shrewd observer, and many of the stories are moving and hilarious by turns. I enjoyed them thoroughly over the period of about three weeks.

I think they might be hard-going for the average American reader, as they are set in a time and place very foreign to us: the South African veld. Many are concerned with the Boer War of a hundred years ago, distant now but not so distant then, and of the later veld of the 1930's and '40's. Even though I've read books about South Africa and the Boer war I still found much that was exotic, particularly the words in Afrikaans. On the other hand, there's much that's familiar--it's as though the Wild West had been settled by Dutchmen.

Fortunately, my friend Craig came to the rescue. I'd specifically asked him what "mealies" were. One of Bosman's characters talks about growing them, and the word had popped up in several of the history books I'd read, but I'd never seen a definition. Here's what Craig had to say:

You would call it corn!

While not indigenous to Africa, it has become the staple food of most Africans. Ground to a flour -- mealie-meal is used in most African diets. The Afrikaans for cooked mealie porridge is "pap" (now adopted into most indigenous languages) -- and the phrase "pap en vleis" (porridge and meat) is commonly understood in all South African languages.

Depending on what part of the country you come from, so your preference for how it is prepared differs. I'm from Zululand so we grew up on "krummel pap" (crumbly porridge). Up North I had to get used to "stywe pap" (stiff porridge). Most school hostels serve a runny version of the stuff - which you either love or hate. If eaten for breakfast, you usually add milk and sugar (yuk!), if with the main meal, it's usually eaten with a gravy (African equivalent of Yorkshire pudding, I suppose) -- although also with "morogo" -- a wild leafy vegetable that is boiled (closest equivalent is spinach). If you eat pap as a snack (as I often do - and now am in the mood for some) you make it crumbly with lots of butter and salt added !!!

Mealies are always eaten on the cob. Usually they are roasted over the fire, and then pulled off with the fingers as it is eaten. If you're doing this at a sit-down dinner, then they're usually boiled. Mealies (and pap) are common at a braai (BBQ).

There you go, more information than you ever asked for!!

Crumbly with lots of butter and salt...darn, it does sound good. Craig goes on to define a number of other terms of interest:

voorkamer: (literally, front room). Our equivalent of the sitting room or parlour. By contrast the 'agter-kamer' (back room) is more like the living room (nowadays, the family room) with access to the kitchen and bedrooms. The bathroom (if there is one) and toilet are outside.

The house I currently live didn't have power or running water when built (76 years ago) - the loo used to be in the corner of the garden. Thankfully, all that's changed!

commando: military units of civilian soldiers -- each providing his own horse and gun, and could come and go as he chose. Really came into their own in the Boer Wars - only now being disbanded under the current government. Very controversial.

veldkornet: cavalry officer with the commandos, but also functioned in a 'law and order' capacity -- more like a marshall than a policeman.

dominee or predikant: both refer to a minister of religion; the latter literally means 'preacher'. Usually in reference to ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church. There's a lovely story (not sure if you have it) that explores religious bigotry re Reformed and Catholic.

kroes: the curly hair of indigenous African people. With the various liaisons of the early explorers and settlers, etc. attempts at dealing with people of mixed race gave birth to the whole Apartheid classification system -- in which "kroes" hair was a "sure sign" of an ancestor on the wrong side of the sheets (from a white perspective)!! School inspectors used the notorious "pencil test" to determine which school children should be going to. It's only since living in the Cape (where the first settlers settled) that I discover how preoccupied here people were (and are) about this, literally tracing mixed race to the sixteenth degree!! (4 generations). Now that our Apartheid legislation is scrapped, together with the racial clasifications, the new implementation of equity and preferment bills with affirmative action has made racial divisions more bitter than they used to be. It would be quite funny, if it wasn't so sad, how topsy turvy things have become -- especially as people who tried to claim white heritage are now trying to claim black heritage.

I'm holding off on the second Bosman book for a while; his stories are worth reading a little at a time, so as to make them last longer.

What's Wrong With Dorfman?
By John Blumenthal

I've got an interesting history with this novel. If you go use the search box on the right, you'll see that a guest reviewer reviewed this book in the most glowing terms some years ago. A guest reviewer who never reviewed another book for me, whose initials were JB, and who, oddly, shares an e-mail address with John Blumenthal, the author of the book. I discovered this a few months ago, when Mr. Blumenthal sent me some e-mail asking if I'd like a review copy.

A digression: every so often, someone will contact me asking if I'd like a review copy of something or other. I almost always say no; life is too short to spend my time reading books I don't like, and if I accept a review copy I feel like I need to read it. I've gotten burned that way a couple of times, and now I'm fairly cautious.

Anyway, I called Mr. Blumenthal on his imposture, and he not only 'fessed up but did so so handsomely that I agreed to read his book and tell you all what I think of it. And now I've read it, and I'm at somewhat of a loss as to what to say about it, as it's really not my usual thing.

So let me tell you a little about it.

To begin with, it's a novel in the proper sense: it's about characters and how they change. Most of the fiction I read--indeed, most genre fiction in general--falls into the romance category: stories that are remote in place or time and concern adventure, heroism, mystery, and so forth. This, on the other hand, strikes me as more a Woody Allen/John Updike sort of thing. (That's not a compliment, by the way...the one time I tried to read an Updike novel, I failed.)

It's a novel about a screenwriter named Martin Dorfman. He's sold six scripts, none of which have managed to be filmed. He's trying to sell a seventh script. He's worried that his career is nearly over. And he's nauseated. Seriously, deeply, falling-down nauseated. He's sick. His doctor can't find anything wrong with him. The specialists can't find anything wrong with him. His doctor thinks that his trouble is all stress-induced. His father (a retired doctor) thinks it's neurological. Unless it's stomach cancer. The tests are all negative. He tries other doctors. He tries a variety of alternative medical regimens. Nothing works. He's getting no better, and neither is his career. Meanwhile, he's reminiscing about growing up with a father for whom death by bacillus lurks around every door.

I find it very difficult to judge this book. It's supposed to be funny, and in places I found it so--but Dorfman's upbringing and world are very different from mine. I suspect that I don't have the background to appreciate where he's exagerating and where he's telling the plain truth--and where for those in the know it's laugh or cry. (What can I say, I grew up in a functional family.) I suspect it would be funnier if I came from the right background.

So did I enjoy it? Yes, somewhat. It was mildly engaging, and I was genuinely curious to see how it came out--I have no quarrel with Mr. Blumenthal's story-telling skills. While the book necessarily included the discussion of a plethora of bodily functions and symptoms, it wasn't nearly as gross as I feared it would be. And I do have to congratulate Mr. Blumenthal on Martin's liaison with the Other Woman--his handling of it was delightfully refreshing (I can say no more with spoiling it).

Will I re-read it, ever? Probably not.

But if you're the sort who likes books about neurotic people struggling to overcome both their own neuroses and those they inherited from their parents, you might like this. It's not my cup of tea, so I suppose the fact that I found it mildly entertaining anyway can be taken as high praise.

The Lord of Castle Black
By Steven Brust

This is the second volume of Brust's epic The Viscount of Adrilankha, which (like The Lord of the Rings) is really a single novel in three volumes. It's just as delightful as its predecessor, and I'm eagerly awaiting the publication of the third volume in the set.

For those who came in late, Brust has long been working on a series of historical novels set in the same world as his Vlad Taltos books. Yes, I said historical novels; they are (supposedly) written by a citizen of that world, Sir Paarfi of Roundwood, a verbose and increasingly testy academic; by the time of the current volume, his books have become quite popular in Dragaera and one senses that he's letting it go to his head.

If you like fantasy, and you haven't read any books by Steven Brust, then you need to do something about that. This, however enjoyable, is not the book to start with. Not only is the middle third of a single novel, but The Viscount of Adrilanhka, taken altogether, is the third novel in a larger series which Brust has written as an homage to Alexandre Dumas's Three Musketeers saga. These books are by no means simple retellings of Dumas' classic works--the plots are entirely different--but there are decided and amusing parallels. You can go to our Steven Brust page to find the other books.

And then there are the Vlad Taltos novels; start with Jhereg, or the more recent omnibus edition, The Book of Jhereg, which groups the first three or so Vlad novels.

The Horse and His Boy
By C.S. Lewis

Here's another kids' book I read to myself rather than to David. It had been a tiring day, and I wanted a comfort book. This one filled the bill admirably. I don't intend to say much about it; I expect that most of my readers have already made up their minds about the Narnia books one way or another.

However, this book does illustrate one of the points I made in my recent weblog post on The Two Churches. It shows how Christ (in the person of Aslan) meets us where we are--and then takes us further than we could have imagined, and often not in a direction we really want to go.

Fete Fatale
By Robert Barnard

A couple of years ago a correspondent suggested that I try some of Robert Barnard's mystery novels. I managed to find a couple at a local used bookstore, and indeed I enjoyed them, but I had little luck finding any more after that. That changed during my recent trip to Ann Arbor; at a used bookstore there, I found nine of his paperbacks at $2.50 each, and I nabbed them.

This is the first of the set, and it's a treat. It takes place in the Yorkshire town of Hexton-on-Weir. The ladies of Hexton are set in their ways, and when it comes to Divine Services their tastes are decidely low-church. Nothing Romish or papistical for them. But the long-time Anglican vicar has passed away, and the Bishop's appointee for the position is not only high-church (Heavens! He lights candles and wears a cassock!) but also celibate. This cannot be borne, for the ladies of Hexton are accustomed to running the town behind the scenes, and an unmarried vicar simply Will Not Do. How would they control him?

This is the kind of mystery in which the murder comes about halfway through, thus giving you two mysteries in one--first, who's going to die, and second, whodunnit. The details of village politics are delightfully petty without becoming farcical, and the ending is satisfyingly unpredictable. All in all, I give it two thumbs up, and I'm looking forward to the next one.

Swords of Cerebus, Vol. 1-6
By Dave Sim

A little while ago, while reviewing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen I mentioned that one of the very few other comic books I was familiar with was Cerebus the Aardvark. Man, are you in for a treat.

I first heard tell of Cerebus when I was college, back in the early '80s. I worked on campus one summer, and one day happened to visit the college library. Honnold Library had a long lobby which was used for exhibitions of various kinds, and this time it happened to contain an exhibition on Cerebus the Aardvark. To this day, I have no idea why it was there, or what, at that early date, Cerebus was considered worthy of any kind of exhibition. But there were a number of pages on display, and I enjoyed them thoroughly.

Some background: Cerebus the Aardvark is a swords-and-sorcery themed comic book which started out as a spoof of Robert E. Howard's "Conan the Barbarian"--all of which I had read by that time. The book also spoofed Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné, albino, last king of a dying race, possessor of the evil black sword Stormbringer, as Elrod the Albino. Elrod's a bit of a blithering idiot, he's got a black rune sword of his own called Seersucker, and he talks just like Foghorn Leghorn. Elrod was also represented in this exhibition, and as I was reading a lot of Moorcock just then, I was enchanted. After all, what's not to like?

The possibility of my ever getting my hands on any of the Cerebus comic books seemed fairly slim, though--I wouldn't have known where to look, back then--and I moved along.

Some years later I was visiting a friend at Stanford University, and in nearby downtown Palo Alto I found a comic book shop. Good ol' Cerebus popped into my head, and there I found five intriguing books entitled Swords of Cerebus, volumes 2 through 6 (they didn't have volume 1). Each one collected four or five of the original comic books. I immediately bought volumes 2 and 3, and went back for 4, 5, and 6 before I went home. It was all lovely stuff, genuinely funny, with outstanding dialog, impeccable comic timing, and increasingly good artwork.

One of the highlights of these early books is that Dave Sim was learning how to write and draw a comic book in his own style--and each original issue is preceded by a lengthy introduction in which he talks about that. He explains his influences, and what he thinks did and didn't work; it's a fascinating introduction to comic book art.

So I read 'em, and then they sat on my shelf. Eventually, a friend of mine found me a copy of the first volume, and I read that, and re-read the others, and then they sat on my shelf. And, having mentioned them recently in this space they were on my mind and I happened to notice them on the shelf, and one evening when I was tired and wired and restless and needed something lighthearted and fun to read, I pulled Swords of Cerebus, Vol. 1 off of said shelf and sat down to read.

Rapture! Over the next week and a half, I went through the other five volumes, which I enjoyed (if possible) even more than the first time. They've only improved with age.

Now, when I bought these, Volume 6 was the most recent; there were no others. I had the notion that the comic book had continued publication after that; but I'd never seen any reason to think that more collections were available. (Granted, I hadn't been looking.) So I fired up Google, and went looking.

There are now approximately fifteen Cerebus the Aardvark collections in print--and the six Swords of Cerebus books I've got are equivalent to just the first of the fifteen. Clearly, ol' Cerebus has been successful beyond my wildest dreams--and I've got a lot of reading to do.

I picked up the second of the fifteen collections last night; it's called High Society. The first episode in the book was so funny I had to re-read it aloud to Jane. As for the rest, I'll keep you posted.

Death in a White Tie
By Ngaio Marsh

Here's yet another delightful period piece from Ngaio Marsh. It's the height of the social season, and all London is awhirl with debutantes and their chaperones, Inspector Alleyn's niece among them. But all is not well under the surface: society matrons are being blackmailed, and "Bunchy" Gospell a well-beloved man-about-town and a personal friend of Alleyn's, has been making inquiries for him. Gospell is murdered. If Alleyn can find his murderer, he'll also find the blackmailer--if only he can persuade the society matrons to help him.

It's rare to read a mystery novel and genuinely feel sad when the victim is murdered, but in this case I'm really very sorry that "Bunchy" Gospell won't be showing up in the later books. He's a finely drawn character, and has that rare quality (rare both in books and real life) of being not only intelligent and observant but also thoroughly amiable, decent, and sympathetic. It's a pity.

How To Be A Villain
By Neil Zawacki

My brother gave me this book for my birthday. Subtitled "Evil Laughs, Secret Lairs, Master Plans, and More!!!", it's a complete guide to how to be a villain. Topics range from "Getting Started With The Forces Of Mayhem" to "Thwarting The Forces Of Good" to "Making An Evil Plan". It leads you through an aptitude test to help you decide what kind of villain you wish to be, whether criminal mastermind, necromancer, corporate bastard, mad scientist, black knight, horror-movie villain, demonic avatar, or marketing executive.

I passed a mildly amusing hour with this book; but I suspect that the Evil Overlord list is better value for the money.

Pippi Longstocking
By Astrid Lindgren

I first read this book as a kid--I inherited it from one or another of my siblings--and it was with fond memories that I bought a new copy some while back to read to my oldest boy. Fond but faded memories; all I could really remember about Pippi was that she lives all by herself, and is extremely unconventional, and her father is a sea-captain, and that in Pippi in the South Seas she and her friends Tommy and Annika go to visit her father on the tropical island where he's now a cannibal king. In short, most of my memories were from the other two Pippi books.

So given that, and given my recent unhappy experience with James and the Giant Peach, I opened this particular volume with some sense of trepidation. Having now re-read it, my feelings are mixed.

Pippi is undeniably a fun character, and her tall tales are easily the high point of the book:

Once my grandmother had a servant named Malin. She had chilblains on her feet, but otherwise there was nothing wrong with her. The only annoying thing was that as soon as company came she would rush at them and bite their legs. And bark! Oh, how she would bark! You could hear it all through the neighborhood, but it was only because she was playful. Only, of course, strangers didn't always understand that. The dean's wife, an elderly woman, came to see Grandmother once soon after Malin first came, and when Malin came dashing at her and bit her in the ankle, the dean's wife screamed so loudly that it scared Malin, so that her teeth clamped together and she couldn't get them apart. There she sat, stuck to the dean's wife's ankle until Friday. And Grandmother had to peel the potatoes herself. But at least it was well done. She peeled so well that when she was done there were no potatoes left--only peelings. But after that Friday the dean's wife never came to call on Grandmother again. She just never could take a joke.

Pippi's also outrageously strong, and in between her tall tales, Pippi occasionally gets to do something fun--like carry the policemen who've come to take her to an orphanage out of the house when she's tired of making them run after her. Apart from Pippi's stories, the humor is almost entirely slapstick.

So, yeah, there's some genuinely funny stuff here. David enjoyed it thoroughly, especially the bits I thought were a bit too silly.

But on the other hand, nothing much happens. It's not so much a story about Pippi as it is a collection of sketches in which she gets to perform, always in contrast to next-door neighbors Tommy and Annika, who are as colorless a pair of goody-two-shoes as you'd ever want to meet.

Since David enjoyed this one I'll no doubt be looking for the other two Pippi books--but I'm no longer so thrilled about the whole thing.

Deb's Recent Reading

by Deb English

The Count of Monte Cristo
By Alexander Dumas

It would be hard to summarize the plot of this book adequately in a paragraph without completely butchering it since the text runs, in the Oxford World Classic Edition, to 1,095 pages without including the notes, the biographical information or the tedious and obligatory forward by a literature professor. I will try.

Essentially, it's a tale of revenge. Edmond Dantes is falsely accused of treason on the eve of his wedding to the beautiful Catalan, Mercedes. I won't go into details about how or why. He ends up in the Chateau d'If, in solitary where he goes thru a cycle of confusion, anger and despair. The Abbe Faria tunnels his way into Dantes' cell and over the next ten years teaches him everything he knows. He also tells him the secret of the Isle of Monte Cristo, containing an enormous treasure. Dantes escapes from the prison, again, I won't say how, and finds the treasure. He then goes about exacting his revenge armed with unlimited wealth on everyone who had anything to do with his imprisonment, which actually comprises most of the book.

It's not light or easy reading. There is so much detail that sometimes the minute plot twists are not apparent. Read originally as a serial, which is how it was originally published, that may have been easier to deal with. However, I enjoyed it completely. I waffled from liking the Count and feeling sorry for him to thinking him a complete jerk, especially in the bits with Mercedes or Haydee. There were parts that were just a little too fantastic to be believable and I thought the end, which I am not going to divulge, just a bit too neat and tidy for a revenge novel. Overall, however, it was a rollicking good tale that I was sorry to finish.

The Three Musketeers
By Alexander Dumas

What this book made abundantly clear to me is that I am almost totally ignorant of French history. That is something I intend to remedy before continuing the series. It would be nice to be able to at least place Richelieu in the correct century without looking him up.

This is a romance, a spy novel, a tale of male friendship and a character study of different temperaments. Actually, it reminded me more of a superhero tale than anything else. There's dashing about and derring do, really cool fight scenes, a little romance, a lovely queen to protect and a couple of merciless and totally evil bad folks. The heroes are courageous and clever and there's even loyal sidekicks to step in and help out them out.

Dumas occasionally gets a bit wordy, but then I have never had a problem skipping or breezing thru something if it bored me. I can always go back and reread if I miss something. I definitely plan on continuing the series, after brushing up on the actual history behind it.

Domino Knitting
By Vivian Hoxbro

I was cleaning out a knitting basket the other day and rediscovered this little book at the bottom under the debris of the last couple of projects I had used it for. And of course, the first reaction to finding a lost treasure is to sit down and read it again, happily something that in this case didn't really take all that much time.

It's a short book that wonderfully illustrates a construction technique using bias knit squares of knitting to build a garment. Essentially you knit a square from corner to corner increasing to the desired width and then decreasing off to the other corner. Then you pick up the stitches from one side and do the same with some more simple increase and decreases. Then add one onto it on the other side and keep going sort of like putting together a patchwork quilt. There are no seams since all stitches are picked up and decreased off to points so there is no tedious sewing at the end. There are some limits to the design variations since it uses the square as the basis for all the designs with half squares to make a straight edge when wanted but when combined with color, the possibilities become amazing. And, whatever you make can be designed to use up the odd balls in your stash.

One word about stash--all knitters who are true knitters have one. It's a room, closet, boxes under the bed, whatever, where you keep all that incredibly luscious yarn and fiber you have bought over the years. That you have no project exactly in mind for it has no bearing on whether you purchase it. And "Stash Reduction" is a serious topic. Some knitters I know, and I am not making this up, have agreements with friends to clean out their stash and find it a good home in the event of their untimely demise. Honest. It takes years to develop a good stash.

Anyway, because I tend to prefer what a friend calls "dirt colors" to knit with, I have a box full of all sorts of single balls in shades of cream, gray, and brown to almost black that are just crying to be made into something using this method. Maybe a reading shawl. With a pocket on it. And there is that half skein of lapis blue left over from The Husband's Christmas vest a couple years ago that I could toss in to pick out a little color once in a while. Hmmm....

Maniac Magee
By Jerry Spinelli

I find it useful to take an occasional peek into the books my kids are reading. I gave up trying to keep up one-for-one with them, especially during the summer months when they are knocking off 5 and 6 books a week. However, books make good lead-ins to chats in the car or over dinner and it's amazing how much you can pry out of a normally reticent teenager, or worse, preteenager, by asking them about what they are reading.

So, in the interests of good parenting and mutual discussion, I read this one. My daughter is on a Spinelli kick lately and he gets a fair amount of good press from those "in the know" about what kids are reading. However, so do the Lemony Snicket books and I have yet to come up with any meaningful dialogue based on them. I read one and it bored me to tears. The nice thing about Spinelli books is that with adequate reading skills, you can read and digest one in about 2 hours. And this one, at least, gave me some fodder for discussion.

First of all, Maniac, the main character, is a homeless kid. His parents are dead and he's run away from his horrid Aunt and Uncle. Second, the themes in the book like bullying, racism, homelessness and the meaning of community are treated lightly enough to be manageable for children and completely enough to raise some thought provoking questions. I mentally made a list of all the ways things in the book are divided into pairs or separated and that alone could keep me chatting for quite awhile.

Is it deathless prose? No. But it is a pretty good read and it has a happy ending. That's always nice.

The Iliad
By Homer

It has been my custom to try to learn something new every fall. One year I took a drawing class. Another year I learned to spin wool. This year for no particular reason except curiosity I decided to read Homer. I went out and got copies of the Robert Fagles translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey and just for good measure tossed a copy of the Richard Lattimore edition of The Odyssey and a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses on the pile. I faintly remember reading excerpt of the last one in a college Classical Mythology course many, many years ago. My battered copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology has a nice little plot precis of both of Homer's stories so I read that first as a way of prepping myself. And then I started in.

First, I have to say, I don't usually read poetry. I like action and plot and characters in my reading and while poetry can be fascinating, it doesn't normally fulfill my desires for reading. However, if you completely forget that Homer or whoever the storyteller was that put together this story was doing it in meter and feet, it reads pretty much like an action novel. Actually, it reads like a really bloody action novel. There's a lot of hack and slash in this book. Eyes falling out, blood dripping down, brains splashing out the back of helmets etc etc. Not for the faint hearted. I skipped my way thru the long lists of guys being cut down in battle when one of the hero's went on a rampage after figuring out that most of those named don't play much of a part in the action except to die in some gruesome manner involving spears or swords.

What intrigued me were the similes included. Homer describes something that's happening on the battle field or over the campfire, and then, for the audience's visual sense, gives them a homey picture that looks something like it. So the Achaeans leaving the ships are likened to bees swarming out of hives and a hero slashing his way thru a line of men are likened to the reaper scything a field of grain only in much more detail and vivid language. He does this over and over in the text and the only reason I could come up with was to create a visual for his audience who may not have seen anything like it.

The second thing that intrigued me are the Homeric epithets. Not so much which ones but how they were used. This I got from reading Bernard Fox intro to this edition. There are usually several epithets assigned to each character or place. The ships of Troy are black, hollow, beaked etc. Hector is the breaker of horses, the great runner etc. And apparently this is so the storyteller has several choices of descriptive words that will scan into the line depending on where they are placed. And entire sections are repeated word for word, especially if a message is sent and given to someone. Apparently that was to give the storyteller mental time to think about what comes next. Fascinating.

I found I didn't much like Achilles. He was much too full of himself sitting there pouting because Agamemnon took away his girl. I thought Hector was the real hero of the story especially since he's out there sweating away in battle while Paris the wimp who started this all is hanging around inside the walls of Troy. And the parting scene between Andromache and Hector where he is going off and she stands there holding her infant son knowing Hector will never come back was incredibly moving. I did come away from it a little confused about the role of divine intervention vs. free will in the fate of men. It seemed like men had free will and then something would happen and the gods would come down and intervene, changing the course of events. I have to think about that a little more. I am curious to see if it comes thru again in The Odyssey.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

Payment in Blood
By Elizabeth George

It's a little off-putting when a mystery one is reading turns out to relate to a bit of one's own history, but that is the case with Payment in Blood, the second in the Inspector Lynley/Sergeant Havers series by Elizabeth George. Playwright Joy Sinclair is murdered and the solution hinges on a Chekov play I was in during college, and the final speech of the character I portrayed.

Objectively speaking, though, Payment in Blood is a terrific English mystery--surprising, given that author George is an American. She mimics the style so well that she has been compared to P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, two of the modern masters of the genre. Lynley and Havers have a fascinating relationship and, once the plot headed off properly, I was taken with it. I will admit it was very slow going to start, however.

My mother-in-law is a fan of George's and, upon not being able to finish one of the books due to its dark nature, decided to give it to me. I said I had never read George (but I'll take a free book any day), so she gave me her whole set, missing only the first one. Which is why I've begun with #2. But, as I've already begun the series, I can't see going back. But as you'll see if you haven't already, my series reading is haphazard at best.

The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza
The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian
The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams
Lawrence Block
By Lawrence Block

To be completely fair, I didn't read all of these within the last month. However, as I was reading The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, I realized that I had not yet reviewed them. This is what I mean by haphazard.

Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr series is all about the characters. The style is highly reminscent of other series, particularly the "gathering all the suspects together to reveal the murderer" ending, which Bernie does in every book. So, unless the characters are appealing, you're not going over any new territory, so why bother? I keep returning because Bernie, Carolyn, and Ray are such a fun people--folks you wouldn't mind spending some real time with. Another reason is because he owns a bookshop, I learn about rare books (one of my interests), and, well, it's always good to keep in mind things that are worth stealing, assuming this writing thing doesn't pan out. Burglary looks like a nicely independent occupation, assuming you don't mind spending a little time in jail, the way Block writes it. Seriously, though, I don't think I have the nerves for it.

The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza involves a rare coin, the 1913 V-Nickel, of which only five copies exist in the world. Whether it's true, I don't know, only that the characters insist that "everybody" knows about it. I didn't, but then coins aren't my thing. Bernie and Carolyn break in to rob the place as the owners are out of town, but someone's already been there and ransacked it. He takes the coin and a few other things to Abel, his fence, who takes it on consignment and promptly gets murdered. The owner's wife also turns up murdered and Bernie is the prime suspect because evidence points to his M.O.

This is the way it always happens. Bernie breaks in, somebody gets killed, and he has to solve the crime to clear his name. Helping out is Ray, the cop, with whom Bernie has an antagonistic friendship: Ray is always out to get Bernie collared but usually knows when he didn't do it.

The details of the plots are really unimportant, the fun lies in watching the action unfold. Block has a devious way of writing action without letting you in on details too early. Like this exchange from The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza:

"You changed the subject again."
"I guess I did."
"Well, change it back again. Who killed Wanda and Abel."
I gave up and told her.

And that's it. The scene changes and we go on clueless. It's like a movie in its crafting, which makes sense, as I gather Block is a fan of old movies, particularly from the 1940s and 1950s. The "Burglar" books aren't about to win any awards, but they're light and fun and quickly read. The action flows smoothly and Block writes tightly, wasting few words. They're always full of details, though, and so one can learn a great deal about whatever kind of item is the novel's subject. I learned a lot about art from The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian and about baseball cards from The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (most interesting because I live in the Boston area, where the great Red Sox batter is considered a hero to millions who don't even follow baseball--who are rare).

The Bernie Rhodenbarr stories are perfect airplane, beach, or train reading because you can stop easily in the middle and pick them up again later with no confusion of plotline, or of feeling like you're missing something. Few characters are discussed in any detail and, one of the things I like, they all have very different names and so are easy to tell apart (unlike the above Payment in Blood with two lead females named Jo and Joy, and two males named David and Davies). So pick one up--any one, it doesn't really matter--and dive into the larcenous world of Bernard Grimes Rhodenbarr, The Burglar Who Reads Like Gangbusters.

Eyes of the Shadow
By Maxwell Grant (Walter Gibson)

"Maxwell Grant" serves up another delicious boiling pot of pulp with the second novel in the Shadow series, Eyes of the Shadow. (More details about the history can be found in last month's review of The Living Shadow).

Bruce Duncan, sleeping in his late uncle's bedroom, is awakened in the middle of the night as an ape-like figure steals into his room and takes something from a secret compartment above the fireplace. His decision to remain still is his salvation as the strange figure is later responsible for at least four deaths. Duncan later finds out that his uncle Harvey Duncan was to be the heir to a great fortune to be shared with six others. When the other six begin dying, Duncan calls upon the forces of The Shadow through Harry Vincent. Vincent and Duncan trace the villain (who has utilized the ape-man to do his dirty deeds) to a cabin where the denouement involves premature burial, "the rack," and a drowning of justice.

Eyes of the Shadow heralds the first appearance of the Shadow's use of "Lamont Cranston"--the man who was the radio Shadow's alter ego--as one of his disguises. (The man himself does not show up until the next book, The Shadow Laughs.) These books are the literary equivalent of a "greasy spoon" cheeseburger--lots of fun but not really very good for you. I think even the Flashman series has more literary value but The Shadow is an unmistakable hero--always arriving at the right moment (suspension of disbelief is an important part of the reading experience) and slinking off at the end, leaving just his mysterious laugh to fill the space he has vacated. I plan to read all of them eventually. But at this rate (one a month), it will take me over 25 years to finish the 300+ installments.

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