Home : Ex Libris : 1 January 2006

ex libris reviews

1 January 2006

My mother loves me! Not like you, you nasty old barracuda!


In This Issue:
Things Can Only Get Better

I took the week between Christmas and New Year's off from work. I spent it having a really nasty chest cold; it kicked in on Christmas Eve, just after dinner, and still isn't quite gone, though I feel better today than I have all week. Jane, now, Jane got pneumonia instead. She's not over that, either.

So that's this month's excuse for not having more reviews. The good news is that 2006 can only get better from here on out.

-- Will Duquette

Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

Death of a Dormouse
By Reginald Hill

I like Hill's mystery novels, but only his Dalziel/Pascoe books are generally available here in the States. As a result of cleaning up my study, I've consolidated my to-be-read pile onto a couple of shelves. Here's a book I got on my last trip to Australia (several years ago) that I only got around to reading this week.

Trudi Adamson has had a quiet life in the twenty-five years since she got married. Her husband has taken jobs in Switzerland and in Vienna and such-like romantic locales, and she, being shy and agoraphobic, has spent most of them quietly at home ignoring the world while her husband travels on business. Now her husband is dead in a car accident, leaving her almost nothing, and she somehow has to learn to live by herself and for herself. She crashes for some time, surviving only with the help of an old friend from her school days, but eventually scrapes some gumption together and gets a job.

And then, of course, peculiar things begin to happen. Her husband's death didn't occur quite the way she'd been told. In fact, she begins to come across evidence that her husband's life away from home was rather different than she'd thought. And that, of course, is just the beginning.

What we have here, really, is Charade artfully redone as a thriller rather than as a screwball comedy with moments of violence. And without Cary Grant, of course. As I was reading it, it all seemed a little too farfetched, and Trudi's metamorphosis from shy agoraphobia to self-reliant assertiveness doesn't quite work. Still, I wanted to find out what happened, and the final twist was both unexpected and rather touching.

The Complete Peanuts 1955 to 1956
The Complete Peanuts 1957 to 1958
By Charles M. Schulz

These are the third and fourth volumes of The Complete Peanuts, and they are surely a treat.

I had a pretty sizeable collection of Peanuts paperbacks once upon a time, one or two which were bought just for me (the one I remember in particular was a green book with an angry kite chasing Charlie Brown on the cover--I don't remember the title) and a whole bunch I inherited from my siblings. As near as I can tell the set spanned the period from maybe 1952 or 1953 until probably 1960 or so. Friends of the family had a book or two that covered the earliest strips.

Thus, I was on familiar ground in these two books, and was delighted to renew my acquaintance with many an old favorite.

One of my joys in reading old comic strips is watching the strip and the characters as they develop. At the beginning of this pair of books, the classic cast is pretty well complete: Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Pigpen, Shermie, and Violet are all here, all recognizeably themselves, all drawn just as you'd expect them to be drawn. Sally hasn't been born yet.

But Snoopy--these are the books where Snoopy really begins to come together. In these books, Snoopy first dances, first tries to sleep on top of his dog house (with mixed results), first kisses Lucy on the nose, first begins to exercise his imagination. At the end of 1958, he's still not drawn quite like the iconic Snoopy of today, but he's getting closer.

I can't wait for the next volume.

The Words We Pray
By Amy Welborn

Jane and I have been reading Amy Welborn's weblog for some time now, so when I ran across this book at the Border's in Newport Beach I grabbed. It's an interesting book, and I'm glad we got it.

First, some context. When I was a kid, my mom taught me to pray. Prayer usually involved the Our Father, and "God bless"'s: you know, "God bless Grandma, God bless Grandpa," and so on. In catechism class (I was raised Roman Catholic) I learned a number of other prayers, especially the Hail Mary and the Act of Contrition. And except for those "God bless"'s, pretty much all the praying I did took the form of one or more of these traditional prayers.

During high school my faith lapsed for a time; and though I remained Roman Catholic when it came back I also got involved with Protestants. (Mostly Episcopalians, but still, Protestants.) And in some Protestant circles, traditional prayers have a bad name. How can you pray sincerely when you're using somebody else's words? You should always, or at least mostly, pray in your own words. Have a conversation with God, I was told. And that's how I mostly prayed all through college, during which I was still Catholic but mostly hanging out with Protestants, and it's how I mostly prayed after I got married and joined the Episcopal Church, and it's how I've mostly prayed until now. I've prayed the Lord's Prayer fairly often during all of that time, but other traditional prayers very seldom, except as part of the normal Sunday liturgy. The Hail Mary I prayed very seldom; if Protestants are down on traditional prayers, they are especially down on Mary.

In the last few years, though, thanks largely to the efforts of certain lunatics in my denomination who shall remain nameless, I've been re-examining my faith, and especially the roots of my faith. One of those roots is liturgy--I'm simply not comfortable attending a non-liturgical church. And really, in light of this, it's surprising that I absorbed so much of the Protestant attitude toward traditional prayers, because that's really what the liturgy is. And the joy and delight of the liturgy is very simple--it's always there, it covers all of the bases, and it makes sure you don't miss anything. The liturgy isn't there for those days when it's a joy to go to church; it's there for those days when you'd rather be anywhere else, and when trying to focus on the service is nearly impossible. It's there, it's an anchor, and because it's always the same it helps you to stay focussed.

Standard prayers are really the same thing--but for every day, rather than just on Sunday mornings.

So this book came into my hands at just the time when I'd find it the most useful.

The Words We Pray is a survey of nineteen traditional Catholic prayers, many of which I learned as a child, and many of which were new to me. Only a few are specifically Catholic; most are used by Christians of all traditions. Each chapter begins with the text of one of the prayers, followed by Welborn's commentary. She discusses the origin of the prayer, how it evolved over time, and how and when it is usually prayed; and the purely factual material is leavened with her own personal reminiscences about occasions of prayer. (As fellow parents, Jane and I felt right in tune with many of them.)

The old familiar prayers include the Sign of the Cross (about which there is more to be said than you might think), the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Creed, the Act of Contrition, and the Prayer of St. Francis; I was also already familiar with the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner), and St. Patrick's Breastplate, though I learned both of those as adults--that one's particularly stirring, and I need to spend more time with it. Of those that were new to me my favorite is the Anima Christi, which somehow I never learned as a kid.

Anyway, it's a quietly joyful book; and if reading it has turned my prayer life upside down, that's rather a good thing.

The Drawing of the Dark
By Tim Powers

I've been fond of Tim Powers' books for many years, ever since he wrote The Anubis Gates. He's not extremely prolific, though, and although I've read everything he's written, and I review everything I read, I've not reviewed many of his books since I started writing reviews eight years ago. It was clearly time to renew my acquaintance, and so I grabbed a couple of his books when I went on a business trip last September. This is one of them.

The Drawing of the Dark is one of Power's earliest books, and the first to reveal his interest in "secret history", the stories that might lurk behind the stories in the history books. In this case, the setting is the Seige of Vienna, about which Wikipedia has this to say:

The Siege of Vienna of 1529, as distinct from the Battle of Vienna in 1683, represented the farthest Westward advance into Central Europe of the Ottoman Empire, and of all the clashes between the armies of Christianity and Islam might be signaled as the battle that finally stemmed the previously-unstoppable Turkish forces (though they continued their conquest of the Austrian-controlled parts of Hungary afterwards).

The Islamic advance began with Mohammed and rolled, seemingly inexorably, through the formerly Christian lands of Asia Minor and North Africa, striking into Europe as far as Southern Spain in the West...and as far as Vienna in the East. There the tide was stemmed; had it not been, the Western World would look rather different today. It was truly a clash of civilizations. But what really happened?

Enter Brian Duffy, an Irish mercenary down-on-his-luck in Venice some years after being injured at the disastrous Battle of Mohács. He's hired by an odd old man named Aurelianus Ambrosius to travel to Vienna and there take up a position as bouncer at the Zimmerman Inn, until recently a monastery, and age-old home of the Herzwesten Brewery. It's a vital position, for the future of the West depends on the safety of the, yes, the Dark.....beer. The Herzwesten Dark is nearly ready to be drawn, for the succor of....

But that would be telling.

It's an absurd premise, that the fate of the Western World depends on a cask of beer, and ought to produce a novel that's at best a low farce, but somehow it's better than that. Powers takes the idea and has far too much fun with it, as Jane would say, but somehow by refusing to play it for laughs he escapes being sophomoric and pulls it all together so that it somehow, miraculously, it works. It's a lot of fun, and I always enjoy coming back to it.

Watch out for the dried snakes, though, they're addictive.

Dream of Darkness
By Reginald Hill

Usually I like Hill's stuff a whole lot. Usually I finish books I start. Neither is true in this case.

Dream of Darkness, which was originally published under a pen name, is something of a schizophrenic thriller. The main plot concerns a young woman named Sairey Ellis, who is tormented by nightmares involving her mother's death in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin, and the therapy she receives at the hands of a psychiatrist who is also an old family friend. She was just a small girl when her mother died; now, save for her dreams her memories of those days have vanished.

Sairey's story is interlarded with brief memories of Idi Amin and his reign of terror. Some are cast as letters, reminiscences, and journal entries from some kind of government intelligence archive; others are excerpts from a book being written by Ellis' father, a British agent who was instrumental in bringing Amin to power and now regrets it.

The point of the book seems to be that Idi Amin was a very bad man, and that Britain did wrong to covertly assist him--assuming, of course, that they actually did. OK, fine. Amin was a monster; I buy that. I've met men who narrowly escaped being killed by him. But the piecemeal nature of the Ugandan side of the narrative isn't compelling, and young Sairey Ellis and her problems are frankly dull. There's some evidence, up to the point that I've read, that the events of yesteryear are going to intrude into Sairey's quiet if troubled life, but unfortunately I can't bring myself to care.

Possibly Hill was trying to awaken a national sense of guilt by exposing Britain's complicity with Amin's rise. I dunno. But the book sure fell flat for me.

Last Call
By Tim Powers

There are not many authors who can steep themselves in the myths of the Grail and the Fisher-King and put that together with mobster Bugsy Siegel and a sleepy little town called Las Vegas and come up with anything at all. Add in the tarot, poker superstitions, and a generous helping of the truly odd, and you've got Last Call, a long-time favorite of mine. Powers has a talent for making the strangest things plausible for just long enough. For example, how do camouflage an SUV against bad guys searching for it magically? Tape face cards to the hub caps.....

I really don't know what else to say about this book; it rather defies description. It's not a novel of the occult, though, despite the mention of the tarot. Good triumphs over evil, and a case can be made that underneath the symbolism it's a deeply Catholic novel (Powers is Roman Catholic, I recently discovered; who knew?).

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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