Home : Ex Libris : 1 May 2005

ex libris reviews

1 May 2005

Then Kolokolo Bird said, with a mournful cry, "Go to the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees, and find out."
Rudyard Kipling


In This Issue:
More Walking, Less Weight

Notebook took up most of my time this month, and I'm still walking and dieting (and losing weight, 32 pounds so far!), but I managed to do a little reading, as did Craig Clarke.


-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Death of a Fool
By Ngaio Marsh

If I was less pleased with Scales of Justice on second reading, I was more pleased with Death of a Fool. On first reading I found it dreadfully strange and confusing, mostly because it involves the weird and wonderful world of Morris dancing. I know very little about Morris dancing even now, but I knew nothing of it then, and wondered what kind of rabbit hole I'd tumbled into.

Here's the little I've gathered; but don't quote me. At certain times of the year in English country villages, a group of men would put on costumes adorned with ribbons and bells and dance an odd sort of group dance. Sometimes there would be a sequence of dances and something like a play, with ritual actions and words. The usual explanation is that the dance, the play, and especially the words were a hold-over from pre-Christian fertility rites.

Death of a Fool was first published in 1956; at that time, I gather, what you might call authentic traditional morris dancing was greatly in decline. The book takes place in a small village, where the the "Mardian Morris", or "Dance of the Five Sons", is still performed every winter on "Sword Wednesday", just as it had been for centuries. But Mardian is described as perhaps the last village where the authentic thing still persists as an authentic tradition, performed by the villagers solely for the villagers, and as yet unnoticed by outsiders.

If you want to know more about morris dancing, just do a Google search; I found buckets of websites all about various morris dancing associations, and I confess I did not particularly scrutinize any of them.

The tale itself is an interesting variant on the locked room mystery. The play calls for one of the dancers to hide in a hollow behind a low stone for a time, and then eventually rise up; and when the time comes for the dancer to rise up it's discovered that he's been beheaded. And yet the stone was in plain sight throughout, and no one was seen to go near it. So how was the deed done?

Inspector Alleyn is in his usual good form, and there are a number of memorable characters among the villagers; it made for a nice, comfortable read.

Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism
By Georgia Byng

This is a book I got at a book fair at my kids' elementary school a year or two ago, with the expectation that maybe I'd read it to them as a bedtime story. It looked somewhat interesting, and the first few pages were not bad, and David that it looked really good. It's been sitting on the shelf ever since, and I decided I'd read it through myself first, rather than starting on it with the kids and getting myself in another Lemony Snicket situation.

Molly Moon is your basic unattractive-and-poorly-behaved-in-spite-of-her-best-intentions young ragamuffin girl; she lives at your basic orphanage-run-by-sadists-who-don't-like-little-kids. Most of the other kids call her names and are mean to her, and the woman who runs the school makes her clean out the toilet with her toothbrush for misbehaving, and her only friend is adopted to a family in New York. Molly finds a book on hypnotism, learns how to hypnotize pretty much anybody, and proceeds to start making a few changes around the orphanage and in her life in general. Along the way she travels to New York and has to outwit the evil Professor Nock, who wants her hypnotism book for his own nefarious purposes.

I found the book less annoying than Snicket's The Bad Beginning--not a difficult trick--but although it had some good bits it was a bit tedious, with a fair amount of heavy-handed moralizing and some thoroughly unbelievable changes of heart toward the end. The dust jacket describes the author as "Another challenger for the crowns of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman," which is laughable. On the one hand she's not nearly as skilled as either, and on the other nobody does heavy-handed moralizing with such self-defeating panache as Philip Pullman.

If things run according to form, I'll probably get two or three comments from kids who think Molly Moon is simply the best. And that's fine; my point is simply that unlike Rowling's books, or C.S. Lewis's, or Lloyd Alexander's, you're not going to see many adults reading about young Molly for their own pleasure.

In the meantime, I think I'm going to save the book for a few years, and let the kids read it to themselves if they like. I've been through it once, and I feel no need to read it again.

Singing in the Shrouds
By Ngaio Marsh

A serial killer has been fascinating and terrifying London. Dubbed the "Flower Killer" by the press, he strangles women, drops flowers on their bodies, and walks away singing. The final victim is found on the London docks just as the freighter Cape Farewell pulls away; the freighter is carrying eight passengers. The victim had a torn piece of embarkation notice for the Cape Farewell in her hand. The inference is clear; the Flower Killer might be on board the ship. There isn't enough evidence to call the Cape Farewell back to port, but plenty enough to be worried, and so Inspector Alleyn boards the freighter at Southhampton as "Mr. Broderick", an official of the shipping line.

What follows is an interesting variant of the snowbound country house mystery. The passengers are trapped on board the ship with a demented killer, and only Alleyn and the ship's captain are aware of it. Without alarming the passengers, Alleyn must determine who the killer is, and prevent him from killing again.

As a mystery it's enjoyable enough, but Alleyn's reflections on serial killing and serial killers are dated, and the psychological explanation for why the killer kills is ridiculously facile. But hey, it was 1958.

Prince Caspian
By C.S. Lewis

I read this to the boys as a bedtime story, and as a reward to myself for actually finishing The Bad Beginning. 'nuff said.

Apropos of nothing in particular, this happens to be Jane's favorite of all of the Narnia books.

Wellspring of Chaos
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

This is Modesitt's latest volume of the long-running Recluce series. As often before, it's about a person learning that they have the talent and need to become an order-master, with all that that entails. And yet, it's refreshingly different. Rather than an impatient kid from Recluce, the hero is a middle-aged cooper from Nordla. His emerging need for order and truth brings him into dire conflict with the local ruler, and he's forced to flee his home. He finds employment with a sympathetic ship's captain of his acquaintance and travels as a ship's carpenter to a number of places we've heard of in previous books but never seen. Everywhere he travels he learns a little more about his ever increasing powers.

This is the first of two books about Kharl the Cooper; the second is called Ordermaster, and I'm rather looking forward to it.

By George MacDonald Fraser

Last month I reviewed The Game, by Laurie R. King; the title is a reference to the "Great Game", a cold war of intrigue and exploration in Central Asia that spanned most of the 19th century and continued into the early years of the 20th. King's book takes place at the very end of the Great Game period, in the years after the first World War. I mentioned in that review Peter Hopkirk's outstanding book The Great Game, and afterwards decided that it was time to re-read it.

And that, let me tell you, opened a largish can of worms.

See, I'm a history buff. And about eight or nine years ago I became interested in 19th century history, and the British Empire in particular--not surprisingly, because you really can't even talk about the 19th century without talking about the British Empire. And I read voraciously on the subject, and one book led to another, and that's how I found The Great Game. And as I was reading it I came to the section on the first Afghan War.

It's like this. During the first half of the 19th century, the Russians were looking for new markets for the products of their nascent factories. They couldn't compete with the British on either price or quality in those markets where the Brits were established; so they looked to Central Asia. Central Asia had other advantages as well; the further Russia expanded, the closer they got to India. And at that time India was the Jewel in the Crown, the source of British power and wealth. The Czar couldn't help salivating over the idea that India might one day be Russia's.

Now, in order to travel overland to India from Russia, by the most direct route, you pretty much need to go through Afghanistan. And it's much easier to do this if the Afghans aren't trying to kill you while you do it. And so the Czar sent a Russian officer ("sent"! what amazing worlds of experience are hidden behind that little word!) to negotiate with Dost Mohammed, who was then the ruler of Afghanistan. The Brits had been trying their best with Dost Mohammed as well, but eventually concluded (foolishly, I think) that he was not to be trusted. And so they sent in an army, fought their way from Herat to Kabul, captured Dost Mohammed, and installed a puppet named Shah Shujah in his place. They felt extremely virtuous about this, because Shah Shujah was, in fact, the "rightful" king of Afghanistan, having been ousted by Dost Mohammed some years before. Trouble is, the Afghanis weren't too happy to have him back, especially the tribemen in the hills. So the Brits left a garrison, and put a couple of idiots in charge: an elderly general named Elphinstone who should have been retired long since, and an exceedingly smart and clever idiot (the worst kind) named Sir William MacNaghten.

OK, there's the situation. The Brits are in Kabul, their leaders there are fools, and the populace is unhappy. Now we can get to Fraser's book.

Harry Flashman, the protagonist (I just can't use the word "hero") of the book, is a bully, a scoundrel, a cad, a coward, a cheat, a drunkard, a toady, and a womanizer. He's the sort of plausible rogue who's smart enough never to show his true colors if he can avoid it, the better to use his acquaintances to his advantage. He can be engaging, it's true--and the next moment commit enormities of the worst kind.

He begins the book by being thrown out of Rugby School for drunkeness, after which he persuades his father to buy him a commission in the Royal Army. An odd choice of career for a coward, but he's careful to choose a regiment that's just home from India, and consequently won't be going anywhere to fight any time soon. But thanks to some missteps of his own he has to leave the regiment and soon finds himself posted to India...where he's assigned duty as an aide to General Elphinstone in Afghanistan.

In short, Fraser gives us an "eye-witness" account of the retreat from Kabul, a fiendish mess that left only a handful of survivors--including, of course, bluff, hearty Harry Flashman.

I don't entirely like reading about Harry Flashman; he's too beastly. But Fraser's an excellent storyteller, and his attention to detail and historical accuracy is first-rate. He's especially skilled, through a careful and judicious use of endnotes, at telling us what really happened while maintaining the conceit that he's simply editing Flashman's own memoirs.

And given that Flashman was "present" at nearly every major 19th century military event from 1842 onward, including the Charge of the Light Brigade, the American Civil War, Little Big Horn, and every hot outbreak in the cold war that was The Great Game, Fraser's books are nearly indispensable to anyone wanting to acquire a vivid picture of what it was like. A rather jaundiced and slanted one, no doubt, but vivid and indispensable none the less.

Just So Stories
By Rudyard Kipling

I've reviewed Kipling's Just So Stories before, back in 2001 when I was reading them to David. After that they got put on the shelf, not to be taken down again until we were reading Prince Caspian. There were several evenings when David wasn't available at story-time, and on those evenings I needed something different. I scanned the shelves, and Aha! This book fell right into my hand.

There are many stories I remember my mother reading to me as a child--picture books like A Fish Out Of Water and Stop That Ball, and B'rer Rabbit and the briar patch, but the one that reminds me most of her voice is Kipling's "The Elephant's Child," one of my all-time favorites both then and now. And it's just one among many: "The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo", "How the Camel got his Hump", and "How the Rhinoceros got his Skin", are my other three favorites, though I don't hear my mother's voice when I read them; instead, I hear Sterling Holloway, Disney's voice for Winnie-the-Pooh, for I once was given a record of him reading those three stories.

The stories are tall tales superlative told, with excitement and danger and romance, set in colorful exotic places; but the best part of them is Kipling's language and the fun he has with it. He delights in using large an unusual words to make the text even more exotic--but only when it won't harm the sense. For example,

    And the Rhinoceros upset the oil-stove with his nose, and the cake rolled on the sand, and he spiked that cake on the horn of his nose, and he ate it, and he went away, waving his tail, to the Desolate and Exclusively Uninhabited Interior which abuts on the islands of Mazanderan, Socotra, and the Promontories of the Larger Equinox.

Wouldn't you just love to visit the Promontories of the Larger Equinox? In another story, he writes,

    One fine morning in the middle of the Precession of the Equinoxes this 'satiable Elephant's Child asked a new fine question that he had never asked before. He asked, "What does the Crocodile have for dinner?"

The Precession of the Equinoxes has nothing to do with anything, but there's glory for you.

    Then Kolokolo Bird said, with a mournful cry, "Go to the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees, and find out."

Read that sentence aloud to yourself. "Go to the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees..."

    That very next morning, when there was nothing left of the Equinoxes, because the Precession had proceeded according to precedent, this 'satiable Elephant's Child took a hundred pounds of bananas (the little short red kind), and a hundred pounds of sugar-cane (the long purple kind), and seventeen melons (the greeny-crackly kind), and said to all his dear families, "Goodbye. I am going to the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees, to ask the Crocodile what he has for dinner."

Some time later, he meets a Bi-Coloured Python Rock Snake. Shortly thereafter he meets the Crocodile, and gets into a bit of difficulty, at which point the Bi-Coloured Python Rock Snake advises him,

    "Rash and inexperienced traveler, we will now seriously devote ourselves to a little high tension, because if we do not, it is my impression that yonder self-propelling man-of-war with the armour-plated upper deck" (and by this, O Best Beloved, he meant the Crocodile) "will permanently vitiate your future career." This is how Bi-Coloured Python Rock Snakes always talk.

If you've not encountered the Just So Stories before, and these brief quotes aren't enough to intrigue you, grown-up though you are, I'm afraid I must conclude that you have no ear for language and an insufficently developed sense of whimsy.

Watership Down
By Richard Adams

When I'm feeling sick and mostly brain-dead, I turn to one of two kinds of book: either a rather shallow series that I can chain-read without much effort, or an old favorite that I know so well that reading it is more likely reminiscing with a friend. Watership Down is one of the latter. I first read it when I was in junior high school (what they call "middle school" around here these days), and the copy I have now I got in England when I was 14. I was on a trip with my parents; it's the only time I've ever been to Europe. I've got copies of James Herriot's first four books from that trip as well, though you likely wouldn't recognize the titles--they were repackaged for American publication as All Creatures Great And Small and All Things Bright And Beautiful.

But I digress.

Are any of my readers unfamiliar with Watership Down? It's a tale of adventure and romance, of resourcefulness and steadfastness, of courage and honor and integrity, of causes and things worth fighting for, of grace under pressure.

And, of course, it's about rabbits. Not country bumpkins in rabbit-form, not talking beasts with waistcoats and pocketwatches, but rabbits. Real rabbits, with the concerns, problems, and enemies of rabbits. They talk, certainly, and tell stories, and they are a degree smarter than real rabbits, but they remain rabbits. They do not build towns or plant gardens or write books; instead, they dig warrens and eat grass and bear young and keep a watchful eye for the thousand enemies that beset them.

It's a remarkable achievement, and I don't believe it has ever been matched. The closest book I can think of is William Horwood's Duncton Wood, which seems clearly patterned after Watership Down (it was published eight years later). It's about moles, who at first mostly seem to have the concerns of moles; there's even a General Woundwort figure named Mandrake (of all things). But as the book progresses it emerges that these moles aren't real moles. Some of them write books; and there are even pseudo-Buddhist enlightened monk moles. In other words, Watership Down is a mainstream novel that appeals to lovers of fantasy, Duncton Wood is unequivocally a fantasy novel whose characters happen to be moles.

In any event, I re-read the book with great pleasure; and the ending has become only more moving with time and familiarity rather than less. I always have to have a box of kleenex handy for the last ten pages or so. Fortunately, given that I'm sick no one's surprised that my eyes are watering.

Craig's Recent Reading

by Craig Clarke

A Ticket to the Boneyard
By Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block is the greatest author of dark crime fiction (sometimes known under the moniker shared by its film counterpart: noir) writing today, and his Matthew Scudder series is the best reason why. One of literature's great flawed heroes, Scudder manages to repeatedly cross the line of the law, yet continues to endear himself to readers. On top of that, he's a recovering alcoholic who always seems to be just seconds away from taking the drink that will knock him off the wagon he has struggled to stay on since Eight Million Ways to Die (three books before this eighth entry). Block makes Matt's repeated visits to AA meetings somehow seem interesting and folds them seamlessly into whatever case he happens to be working on.

In A Ticket to the Boneyard, the case involves himself, his prostitute girlfriend, and a serial killer he put away twelve years prior (through a distinct massaging of evidence) -- James Leo Motley. Motley's promise to kill Scudder "and all your women" is being kept -- and in some very unexpected ways.

That Block stretches this minimal plot over 330 pages without showing signs of bloat is a testament to this Mystery Writers of America Grand Master's skill. He is also careful to create a villain who, oftentimes, is smarter than our hero. Even the solution to the plot is not the kind of thing one would expect to find in a "lighter" mystery that plays by the rules -- the reason why the average writer grows stale after a few books and Block is still going strong after more than 50.

Everybody Dies
By Lawrence Block

First off, I'd just like to say that reading two of these books in a row was not the best decision I've ever made. They mostly consist of the angst of detective protagonist Matthew Scudder, and while they didn't affect my mood in quite the same way as Jimmy Corrigan, a cloud nevertheless hung over the proceedings for an hour or so.

Early on in Everybody Dies, Scudder lets us in on the fact that the story he is telling belongs less to him and more to Mick Ballou, his Irish gangster friend who speaks in a brogue that you can hear coming off the page -- just another reason to praise Block's skill. But it is Scudder's tale, as well, and more of his friends die -- in fact, two people that have been vital in his life.

Everybody Dies is the perfect choice of a title for this entry, not just because it's a fact of life, but because death's existence permeates the story. There have always been multiple deaths crossing Scudder's path, but here they weigh much heavier on the proceedings, seeming somehow more serious than in even other Scudder novels.

When he won't back down from an investigation, he becomes a target, and thus feels responsible for the deaths of those who were unlucky enough to be in the same place as him at the same time. Matt is so down throughout most of this book (and the series seems to be getting darker and darker as it progresses) that I began to wonder if Block weren't setting him up for a suicide at the end of the series. (His one grounding factor appears to be his relationship with his wife Elaine.)

Throughout, though, he remains a fascinatingly complex and gripping character and I'm not about to stop reading about his exploits. Nevertheless, after two in a row, I'm ready for a break.

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.

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