20 December, 2011

Casual violence for children

Henry Treece

There was a time when i read everything i could get my hands on by Henry Treece; it must have started at least forty years ago, because i know that i was at Shrewsbury House when i first read any of his books; i can also remember in the very early 1970s, in Vancouver, visiting the book bus that came around to West Point Grey, and desperately searching for any of Treece’s works ~ usually unsuccessfully. It is thus now at least thirtyfive years since i’ve read these books i loved, and i almost jumped for joy when i came across this one in the Machynlleth market; in fact, i had to physically restrain myself so that the stall-holder wouldn’t suddenly raise the price (50p ~ can you beat it!) knowing she had a live one. Of course, i could have bought all of them at any time (assuming i had money!) in any bookshop or on-line, but how much more joy has been brought to me by this method than that. Furthermore, a particular joy of this book is that i think it could well be the exact edition i read previously; certainly, the cover art looks very familiar, it is a Puffin book, and is price-marked at 3/6 (verbalised as “three and six” meaning three shillings and six pence, or rather less than half the very good price i just paid for it [50p equates to ten shillings, old style]!), so clearly this volume dates to prior to 15 February 1971, Decimalisation Day. So, the book itself? Well, what can there be other than joy in rereading something one has held in rosy memory for so long? To be sure, it’s simple: It was written for children; it’s more story than history: It is fiction; it’s casually brutal: It was written prior to the contemporary concern with correctness and concern for “lesser” peoples. But these are not really faults, merely descriptions of what, why, and when it was written. It is also a great story, exciting, based in truth, a superb introduction to an era of history, and, to put it simply, extremely enjoyable. I’d like to read this aloud to JAG.

04 December, 2011

Parody, but not completely successful

The Chronicles of Blarnia

Michael Gerber

A parody along the lines of The Va Dinci Cod (itself essentially a parody of a parody), so much along the lines, in fact, that it’s probably published by the same people, possibly written by the same person (though the name is completely different). I have to say, however, that this one is not quite as clever, and definitely more tedious, than the other, so not nearly as successful by my estimation. To be honest, i found it dragging at points, much as the Wide Witch’s sledge dragged and fought against travel, particularly towards the end of the novel, when the repetitions of the jokes became merely annoying (thinking here, for example, of the beavers’ log babies, the hairballs Asthma brought up, even the mock-Tudor speech of the children once they became kings and queens).

At first, though, i have to say i enjoyed the book; it is quite clever, though i should think that the original, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is quite an easy target for the author, with nice touches such as children living in the present, but still thinking that the Second World War is raging, being sold for human experimentation to a mad professor, and the Beavers as a lesbian couple. Indeed, i did not not enjoy the thing, i simply found it going more slowly than i wanted; for, when the reader (in this case me) starts looking at page numbers and working out how many more are to be read, it is surely a bad sign for the author.

09 November, 2011

Quality Rules, OK?

The Treehorn Trilogy

Florence Parry Heide

A book from the Library Thing Early Reviewers programme. To be truthful, a trilogy from the.... I’m reviewing it as one, however, since each book is short and i received the three together. Before i start on the books themselves, i have to comment what a pleasure the Early Reviewers is; i had a note in my letterbox from the postman, indicating they’d tried to deliver something but it was too big and i hadn’t been there, so i walked to the other end of town, to the sorting office, wondering what it could possibly be. Then walked back, carrying a parcel, having no idea what was inside it, actually shaking it, trying to make deductions about the contents!

First things (almost) first, then. The three books come as a box set; and what a box it is! Unlike many i have or have had, it is solid, well constructed, a container that will take a lot of beating from a child who is likely to treasure these books for years; it has a different colour on each face, reflecting the use of these attractive, gentle (not the bright, sharp colours popular with children’s publishers) pastels on the covers of the books within; there are also three illustrations by Edward Gorey, a foretaste of those to come, as the drawings in the books are by him.

The books, then. Again, like the box itself, the quality is high; it’s been a long time since i have bought books for children of the age these are aimed at (a good half dozen years, i should think, with the prime book buying several years earlier, as JAG tended to have his sisters’ books recycled, rather than new ones bought), but i do not remember many that were of this quality: Good strong covers i imagine could take quite a beating; pages of thick paper which won’t fold or tear as easily under little fingers; a slight gloss to the surface which might well protect the content by aiding in slowing down staining by juice spillages.

The content, then. I do not remember reading any of these books when our children were younger; i’m not saying it didn’t happen, just that i don’t think it did. The point is that i’m pretty sure i’d have recalled them (even apart from my very good memory for books i have read) because they are lovely. Treehorn is a young boy, maybe eight or ten years old, though his abilities seem to vary at times; he has parents who are, while physically present, in any meaningful sense absent, having no understanding of his life, nor any ability (it seems) to even hear him when he speaks ~ at least, what he says makes no impact at all upon them, and it ought to, because he reports some fairly strange happenings in his life. These happenings are, of course, the point of the book as Treehorn tries to make sense, and take value from, a tree which temporarily grows money, a genii in a jar, the sudden and inexplicable downsizing he goes through. In each case the reader can see he acts rationally (at least from his point of view) and the people around him cannot because they don’t understand, being caught up too much in their own lives ~ surely how some adults much appear to children much of the time. As i mentioned earlier, the drawings are by Edward Gorey, for as long as i can remember, one of my favourite illustrators. They add hugely to the value of the stories, as always with good illustrations, as they help to interpret what is happening, often with a delightful humour.

All in all, this is a lovely set, beautifully produced, written, and illustrated; Heide died last month, but i hope that she had the opportunity to see what this publisher had done with her trilogy, as it much surely have made her happy. The opportunity to receive and review it has certainly made me happy, and i look forward to the time (perhaps not too soon in the future, thank you) when i can read these to grandchildren.

04 November, 2011

Another winner

The English Parliament

Kenneth MacKenzie

Neither an history of Parliament, nor a description of how it works, this book is more an history of how it developed the functions it has from the precedents allowed it under the feudal system. One of the great strengths of the British Constitution, unwritten, but not undefinable, is that everything in it can be traced back, mostly to the late mediæval period and the structure of the England’s governance under the feudal monarchy. It is for this reason that attempts such as those by the current Labour and Liberal Democrat parties to essentially remove the House of Lords are so wildly misguided, to be resisted with all Parliament’s ability, and why any attempt to make the United Kingdom into a republic are (it is devoutly to be hoped) doomed to failure. This continuity of the feudal state, which in some measure we still live in, is almost unique among the world’s nations; i don’t know of another which has the same ability to trace back all the forms of government to the system of seven or eight centuries ago, though it may be possible in the case of, perhaps, Japan, whose history is something i am largely unaware of.

I'm really fortunate; i've been going through a patch of good books lately ~ of the last twenty i've read i'd say there're only about two i haven't enjoyed. Yay! Yay for good books. Yay for clever authors. Yay for me for finding them.

31 October, 2011

Grammar Rules, OK?

What, precisely, does this say about me? My boss visited me at work the other day, to give me a letter from someone high up in the company, changing somewhat my working conditions, and to cover those changes with me; he gave me the letter to read, then asked if i had any comment. The very first thing i did was to point out a grammatical error in the letter (“lot’s” for “lots”) and laugh that the higher up clearly doesn’t have a proof reader like my boss (i perform that task for him quite regularly). In fact, there were three errors in the letter ~ which in itself surely says something about the value that higher up puts on us more lowly types!

What got my curiosity going, however, was my reaction to the letter. The changes are not really dramatic, nothing that will badly affect me, though i am going to have to work a little bit later twice a week, which could be a problem if i were with someone also working full-time and we had young children at home ~ and there are bound to be some of my colleagues affected in this way ~ so i didn’t really have to question the content of the letter; nevertheless, it is surely a little odd that my first reaction is to examine the form of the message, not the message itself. In truth, errors such as these stand out to me when i read something, stand out so dramatically that i struggle to overcome them (doesn’t mean i cannot make them myself, however, so don’t bother pointing out any of mine own!) and move on to the meaning.

This confusion (though that isn’t quite the right word, since i know what i am doing, and can tell the difference) between medium and meaning affects me at other times, too. One of the most obvious is reading books. If i come across an error of spelling, grammar or (heaven help us) fact in something i am reading i am confounded by it. I am truly amazed that, whatever it is, it was not picked up by the author in proof-reading, or by his editor, or by a copy-editor or someone paid to do the job at the publishing house. How, i wonder, can such carelessness have been allowed to slip through? Frequently, if i go back and read my book reviews, i have been so incensed by a series of such errors that i have had to mention them in the review; on occasion, such an error is almost all i can recall of a book i have read: There was a book i read in seminary, for example, by a man called McBeth, and though i know i enjoyed the book, the single thing i remember about it (other than its physical dimensions and feeling, of course) is that there was an error in which he mis-dated the Glorious Revolution, or misspoke in naming the participants. How silly of me, for the subject of the book was Church (specifically, Baptist) history, not secular, and the actual error made no difference at all to his argument, yet now, some twentyfour or five years later, that’s all i recall.

Thus comes the real joy of reading articles on Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopædia: If i come across a nasty spelling or grammatical mistake, i can correct it. Immediately. What a lovely feeling of accomplishment; what a super way to learn. And, indeed, a large number of edits that i have made to Wikipedia are corrections of such simple errors. Usually i say that i am doing a “Typofix”, which seems kinder in implication than something along the lines of “Correction of grammatical ignorance”. The latter, though, is sometimes closer to the truth!

25 October, 2011

People who ought to know better

I am annoyed on occasion by people saying or writing something that they really ought to know better than. It happened not that long ago (in the great scheme of things) listening to BBC Radio 4, usually a source of intelligent conversation ~ except when politicians are interviewed in the morning on the Today Programme ~ but not this time. I was listening to a woman talking about books and, to aid her in talking about The Screwtape Letters, she brought in a literate vicar (i believe those were her actual words, though i could be mistaken). In the process of saying that the Letters had once been one of his favourite Christian books but now was not, he mentioned that one of the things he dislikes about C.S. Lewis is the way he condemns Susan, in the Narnia books, because she likes lipstick and make-up.

Now this is just plain false, and it annoys me to hear it. I do not know if this literate vicar is misremembering, or not as literate as the presenter apparently thought, or if he and others (including Philip Pullman) whom i have read or heard making the same point are consciously and purposely misrepresenting the facts. Certainly Pullman, if none other, is intelligent enough to know the truth. That truth is, of course, quite different from what is said, and i am annoyed because this gives an incorrect idea of Lewis and Aslan and of the God who stands behind both those two, which, certainly in Pullman’s case, suits his intentions.

The truth is, clearly, that Susan has chosen to be a grown-up, which is symbolised by the cosmetics, rather than to retain the childlike faith in and desire to be close to Aslan. Peter, when asked by Tirian, who remembers that there were four children, about his sister, says, “My sister Susan...is no longer a friend of Narnia”; their cousin Eustace adds that Susan claims the others are merely “thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children”. Clearly, if one reads the text, the grown-up interests of Susan are simply a symptom of her attention and focus, which is being in this world fully, rather than the reason she is condemned.

Two or three times during the Chronicles Lewis makes it clear that Aslan does not have the power, or has chosen to limit his power, to break through someone’s unbelief: The dwarves in The Last Battle, for example, and Andrew Ketterly in The Magician’s Nephew are permitted to block out Aslan’s voice so completely that his goodness is unable to reach them. This limitation is obviously parallel with that of Jesus, who never gave up on those who didn’t believe him, but warned them about misascribing the actions of the Holy Spirit to the Evil One (Luke 11:14ff., for example).

It is important to recognise that i am not pretending that Susan is not condemned, having chosen a poorer way; i am, though, concerned that the truth be seen, that Lewis not be condemned himself, purposely or accidentally, for something he did not do. He himself passes no judgement on Susan in the narration: All the words against her are spoken by the characters in the books and, within the series’ world it is clear that she herself is responsible for her own poor choice. The fact is, just as Susan is not condemned for liking lipstick but for refusing to continue her friendship with Aslan, Lewis’s orthodox belief is that a person is not damned for doing evil but for turning his back on God. A subtle difference, but incredibly important.

07 October, 2011

Ah, how i love language.

Lost English

Chris Roberts

Bought this for Chen for her birthday and, naturally enough, read it! It is different from the other books of words which have dropped out of common use in English because the words and phrases here are very much of recent vintage and loss, rather than the more usual centuries old words. Certainly, some of the entries i’ve read here i have used within my life, indeed, some of them i’m not sure i wouldn’t still use (which may speak more to my innate conservatism than anything else!), such as “Heath Robinson”, “blotting paper”, or “pell-mell”, for example. The book is nicely written, with good language (definitely necessary in a book about language) well controlled. In fact, the only real complaint i have about it is one i have run across previously, though i’m not sure if i have expressed mine aggravation in any of these reviews: Certain publishers (for it is a publisher stupidity, not anything to do with the author) seem to get mixed up between the “1” key and the capital “I” when writing dates, so here, in a book which frequently uses dates, i was often annoyed by things like this ~ “the late I950s” or “from I972 to I985” ~ which look really idiotic. Small point, but very annoying in terms of disturbing the flow of reading.

Curiously, just as i post this, i have read a review of this book on Library Thing (or Librarything ~ i refuse to follow the ridiculous trend of putting capital letters in the middle of words), and the person who wrote it was rather less appreciative of the book than i. And they claim to be an English expert. I'm a little disappointed ~ in myself or them? Not sure!

27 September, 2011

Been too long; i'm not really much good at regular updating, which is silly, as i have a backlog of reviews that could be posted. Oh well, here's one now...

Are God and the Gods Still There? How Poetry Matters

John Newton

This is the most recent book i bought, about six weeks ago, and it’s taken me that long to read it, as opposed to the average of under four days per book over the past twelve years. Of course, i have been reading other things at the same time (it’s very rare for me not to have two or more [frequently up to half a dozen] books going at the same time), but i’m not claiming that as the reason; it is, rather, that i have taken my time to try and more fully understand what this book of criticism is about: If i want to write effectively, and oh i have longed for that most of my life, then it behoves me to pay attention to what people who read and think about what they’ve read for a living say. And so, what does this critic have to say about writing poetry and its place in the world?

Well, if i have understood correctly, Newton is saying that poetry (or perhaps all beauty; he may not wish to be restricted) is linked within us to the religious feeling or aspiration; tis is not to say that it is religious in origin, nor that the proper subjects of poetry are religious in nature, but that the impulsion towards religion in (at least some) people’s make up is similar, even related, to that towards poetry and beauty. He also argues, and this may be a different facet of the same point, that good poetry ought to be accessible to and appreciated by everyone, not just the special few: In fact, he is quite strongly against the current world of poetry ~ he calls it the poetry “scene”, with scathing quotes (those quotes are almost the only point of Newton’s style i disliked) ~ implying that it is incestuous, tasteless, and of no quality, or at very best, little quality. I have to say, i was quite happy as i read, as much i have read scarcely seems worthy of the name poetry, and i found on the couple of occasions when Newton compared various works that my judgement coincided with his prior to his giving his; of course, that could just mean that the two of us are wrong, but i enjoyed the feeling of being a bit vindicated with regard to my views of poetry.

Whether or not, of course, mine own poetry (as opposed to my views) meets Newton’s criteria of beauty is an entirely different matter. One with a resolution i’m not sure i’d be happy with ~ maybe one day i’ll get an objective view on it!

17 September, 2011

The Wicked Son

by John Wardroper

What an interesting book. I am unable, unfortunately, to judge just how speculative it is, as i have read nothing else on this Ernest (or Ernest Augustus, as he seems sometimes to have used both his given names). Whatever the truth, and i’ll look at that in a moment, Ernest seems to have been an appalling character, even by the extraordinarily low standards set by George III’s sons; i should think it must probably be universally acknowledged that the UK was quite fortunate that, for all her flaws, his older brother’s daughter Victoria was born and survived her uncle William to become monarch on his death. What would the Ernestian age have been like, with such a model as he, rather than Victoria for the Victorians? An age of open and complete depravity, perhaps; certainly a reactionary age, perhaps even the repeal of the Great Reform Act, and without any doubt no passage of further reform until substantially later in the century than it did occur, possibly even not until the next century.

So, on to the specifics of Ernest’s character and actions. Wardroper’s central contention is that the rumours which have swirled about Ernest for over two centuries are, in fact, more likely than not, true; in particular, the two rumours which state that he fathered his sister Sophie’s child, Thomas Garth, and that he was actively involved in the death of his valet Senlis, not subject to attack by him immediately prior to his committing suicide. I cannot possibly evaluate these claims, i haven’t the knowledge of either the facts or the current status of interpretation of those facts. All i can do is record that, in mine opinion, Wardroper seems to have done his research and not to be ashamed of it (a dozen pages of notes and bibliography) and, again simply my view or assumption, any future work about Ernest will have to take his research into view and answer the allegations.

08 September, 2011


For some years now i've been picking up quotes from various places and saving them. Wanna see a couple?

There never was a good war or a bad peace.

Benjamin Franklin

If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.

Albert Einstein

I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.

Jorge Luis Borges

02 September, 2011

At 50+, i find a new author...

The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula le Guin

For no reason that i can fathom, i have never previously read one of le Guin’s novels. I remember her name, probably from back in the day, when i was reading Asimov and Heinlein daily, rather than going to classes, and in the process failing Grade Ten at UHill. Despite my being aware of her, however, i didn’t read any, and i don’t know why. It certainly wasn’t for gender reasons, though generally men are better at the science fiction i have enjoyed, because Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series was one of my greatest loves. Not being able to pin down my motives then, some thirtyfive years later, i’ll put it down to the fact that she had an odd name that didn’t appeal to me ~ i mean, what else can i do?

So, having established my complete lack of experience with le Guin, what do i make of this, the first of her novels i’ve read? I picked it up in the library, i think, because i recognised it as one of the 501 Must-Read Books, and was ready to read another of them. And i am glad i have now done so. Pity i waited this long? Well, no, because now i have the option of finding and reading more of her work and developing an attraction towards a new author (new to me only, of course! She started writing back in the Sixties) is a great pleasure. It may not be immediate, but i reckon i will read more, perhaps from the same series, perhaps not; i don’t know enough about her work to know the ratio between the two categories, so i’ll just take them as they come, i suppose.

27 August, 2011

True-crime: I'll read anything!

Couples who Kill; Profiles of Deviant Duos

Carol Anne Davis

One of those true crime books, though different from the ones i read at Bob & Fran’s because they (by Ann Rule, maybe?) are written more in a novelistic style and this is tending towards the factual, documentary style, though still intended to be entertaining. Also, of course, this is the stories of about a score or so pairs of people who have committed murder, once or more times, either together or, in a few cases, with some doubt about the involvement of one of the partners; the couples are not necessarily (though frequently they are) married, nor even lovers, though that is the first impression given by the title (“couple” is not a restrictive descriptor, but we do tend to use it that way: More often than not “a couple” in common parlance are sexually involved, if not more), which is perhaps a little misleading.

The book as a whole was quite interesting; Davis does not write badly, although she isn’t, perhaps, a natural writer ~ by which i mean that i can feel her struggling sometimes, trying to make the thing flow ~ but she is certainly interesting, and knows her facts thoroughly. The main issue i have with the book is the organisation; it appears that she has given some thought to how to arrange her couples, putting some of them into categories, and telling the stories of others in far greater detail in chapters by themselves. The problem is, however, that the categories don’t seem fully natural, and within the chapters that make up the categories, the flow ought to be broken a bit more clearly between couples, perhaps with a slightly bolder sub-heading, or a new page, or some other typographical device making it clear to the reader that the subject has changed. These are minor points, however, and i would not wish to belabour them. Another minor quibble i had was with Davis’ occasional habit of referring to her other books in the same series, i imagine, Women who Kill and Children who Kill; it has always seemed a bit like blatant advertising for authors to make such references (other than novelists, whose characters think about previous events, sometimes to be found in other books, but that doesn’t usually include the title of the relevant novel), and i half expect the author to continue, “Available for 3/6 from all good booksellers” which tips the thing over into comedy, if not farce, not at all the effect one wants in a work such as the current one. Overall, though, i did enjoy the thing, and might well flip through another with her name on the spine.

20 August, 2011

Who is that woman?

The Masked Woman

Johnston McCulley

By the same author as the original Zorro book, and i bought it for the same purpose, to read to JAG, but we never got around to it, unfortunately. He would have enjoyed it, i think, with the same enthusiasm he gave Zorro, though the plot here is, perhaps, a little weaker, and the characters are definitely not as interesting.

The rôle of protagonist seems to be split between the eponymous masked woman and the professor she ends up with in a love match. Unfortunately, neither of them are particularly interesting, nor at all convincing: The professor, for example, at the very beginning of the book, decides with no visible thought to become a criminal simply because an unsuccessful burglar claims to have an annual income twice that of his; at the end of the book he, again with absolutely no reflection, gives up the life of crime to go back to academe. The masked woman, whose motivation is revenge largely against certain criminals, builds a gang around her with no effort at all, the criminals in question being, apparently, the most trusting of men. In addition it turns out, with no prior preparation for a revelation of the fact to the reader, that she is actually a twin; this rather smacks of concealment by the author, rather than the distraction or misdirection which is the stock in trade of the mystery writer, or deus ex machina to get himself out of a position he’d written himself into.

As far as the plot itself goes, it moves quickly, so much so that the one interesting, maybe even original, twist is given no time at all to develop, and the reader is left with the image of a man convinced he has been imprisoned for murder, when in fact no murder took place; that ought to have been developed. All in all, i’m glad i’ve read the book, because it’s been sitting on my shelves for several years now, but i’m less likely to seek another of McCulley’s works than i would be if this were up to the standard of Zorro.

13 August, 2011

Looking through a Glass Onion

The Walrus was Ringo; 101 Beatles Myths Debunked

Alan Clayson and Spencer Leigh

I was delighted to find this in the library the other day; i’ve never heard of it before, that i remember, but the title alone grabbed me, and the subtitle made it clear that this was going to be a book i read soon and quickly. And so it proved. It does, for the most part, live up to its billing, though there are a few nits to be picked.

As Chenowyth mentioned after looking at it for an hour or so on the beach the other day, some of the “myths” aren’t really ~ i.e., they’re not well known ideas, or no one really believes them ~ and some of the “debunks” are rather petty, quarrelling with semantics in order to make the number up to 101. Nevertheless, though, sufficient are well known and countered well enough to make the book as a whole worth the time. There are a couple of other points, however, which i must make.

First, it’s rather poor form for a book which complains at least twice in its bibliography about other books without indices not to have an index itself; i suppose i can see the argument, “It would just be a lot of entries about John, Paul, George, and Ringo, so we won’t” but it’s hardly a convincing one.

Second, there is an Afterword, “Just Like Starting Over”, which seems to have absolutely no contact with the rest of the book, as it is apparently an imagined newspaper story anticipating the return to playing music of John Lennon in 1980, after not having played since being kicked out of the Beatles in 1962; no explanation given, no reason for the presence of this afterword, and really no point to it in the context of the book. Certainly as a bit of counter-factual history, interestingly imagined, but entirely useless here. I really do wonder, sometimes, about what authors are thinking as they write, or editors as they publish: Do they imagine that everything has value and must be inserted somewhere, even if it doesn’t fit?

In the end, though, despite both these points, which really are problems with the editing, which certainly needed to be done better, the book is sufficiently strong and interesting to overcome these weaknesses; i’m glad.

07 August, 2011

Classical (self-)education continues

Cicero: Selected Works

Michael Grant, tr.

I have had this book since living in Rome thirty years ago; i’m pretty sure that i bought it at the second-hand shop just off Piazza di Spagna, the Paperback Exchange, i think it was called. And i remember having read portions (probably small portions, knowing my reading laziness when it comes to assigned reading!) of it at that time, while attending AUR, for a course on Latin Literature. And yet, here we are, nearly thirty years later, and i have just finished reading selections from one of the greatest of Roman orators and writers for the first time! My education really has been hopeless, all along! I don’t really have much of an excuse, either, because not only have i had the book ~ and had it with me for most of the time ~ but i’ve known i needed to read it, and now that i have, it has turned out not to be the chore i expected it to be. Certainly, parts of it were slower than i would have preferred; the correspondence in particular did not hold mine attention too easily; in the main, however, enjoyable, and i’m glad i have read it, added slightly to my continuing education, which is sorely lacking in classics.

03 August, 2011

Puzzling to Scary

The Mourning Vessels

Peter Luther

As with Luther’s other book, i found this a bit difficult to get going, the first fifty pages or so were hard, possibly because i found it awkward to work out who was who and what was happening. After i reached the conversion point, however, something changed for me and i raced through the rest of the book. As with his other book as well, the themes and plot here are such as to make me wonder just what Luther (especially with a name like that) believes about the world of spirit; he has no difficulty writing about Satan and, to a lesser degree, God with none of the embarrassment that frequently seems to be found in modern writing which mentions those two entities. I don’t know, he may just be good at concealing it, or maybe is willing to force himself past it in order to tell the story he’s made up; either way, the plots in both novels are true horror stories, with Satan as the motive behind the horrible actions in each case. The plot here is quite convoluted, with a couple of twists that are probably foreseeable, though i didn’t as i was struggling to keep up, and revolves around a temple, of sorts, based on an old phrenological society which has been perverted into a bereavement counselling charity which, in its turn, is a front for evil to be done to people after they die. In some way, and for a reason never, as far as i recall, explained, the souls of some believers are captured in items they loved and held in this temple, perhaps for all time; maybe that’s the reason, to keep them away from God? The book follows three of these victims and their mourners, and the attempts to prevent the evil charity from capturing and preserving the dead. Sounds really bizarre as i realise what i’m writing, but it sure made compelling writing as far as i was concerned.

29 July, 2011

There's a tiger...

Life of Pi

Yann Martel

It has taken me years to read this novel; i’m pretty sure Lynne bought it or gave it to me a long time ago, probably in the States, so perhaps it’s waiting there in the boxes i may never see again (sob), but i did take out this copy from the library here when i saw it, somehow the time was right for me to read it. And i’m glad i did, as it was very enjoyable Like much fiction it is more than just a story, though it’s hard to say for certain what the underlying themes are; certainly, there are questions raised about the meaning of story, or the ability to tell story, or the possibility of story to be true or not true, not to mention the question of how do we tell the difference between truth and fiction, when both are stories. I’m not sure about the framing story, though i accept that it is part of the novel; actually, if i think about it, i find that what i don’t quite get or like about the frame is the old Indian’s assertion that Pi’s story is one that will make you believe in God, or a god, which is not, it seems to me, at all the reaction drawn out by Pi. That incorrect assertion seems to grate a little, and that causes a discomfort within me, about the frame itself, somehow. Nevertheless, all in all, a lovely story, fiction or not, whichever story one might accept as truth in the end.

22 July, 2011

Cryptographically questionable ~ exciting plot, though.

Digital Fortress

Dan Brown

We found all of Dan Brown’s books in the library when The Da Vinci Code first came out and caused a furore, and borrowed and read them, so i have read this previously; nevertheless, it was fun to go back and take another look at it, seeing what i remembered from before, and what i could work out as i was going along. Result? Brown provides an exciting read, as he can certainly plot with the best of them ~ so long as plausibility is not essential, and it’s not always, to be fair ~ though he does tend to use and reuse substantial elements of the one plot in each book.

The point i found most frustrating about Digital Fortress was the way that Brown chose to explain his background; an author does have a problem when something outside the experience of the majority of his projected readers is essential to the point of the story and, the more so as, in this case, it subsequently enters that experience. Brown’s plot focusses on computer codes and privacy and the ability of the NSA to break the latter by means of their expertise with the former. What Brown does is use his main character to help the reader understand codes: She realises and suddenly understands and so on things which she would have had no puzzlement about at all if she were really the cypher and code expert, but Brown has to explain to the reader about code keys and viruses and so forth; i think, though, he chose the wrong way to make his explanations, as i found myself irritated each time Susan needed something explaining she should have known ~ like a biologist needing to be reminded about sex when wondering why animals are in pairs. Trivial point, perhaps, but it did affect my reading experience.

All in all, as with each of Brown’s books, i found that the plotting is excellent, if extreme or a tad unbelievable, the characters are acceptable, though not of the same level, and the writing itself is very average, with much that does not recommend it. A shame.

18 July, 2011

I've got a secret

Lady Audley’s Secret

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

There is a facet of my personality that is brought to the fore in the reading of this book. It’s not new to me, i’ve known it, and on occasion been frustrated by it, before; with this book, however, at one point it became dominant, and affected the reading of the book. The issue is that i sometimes have a tendency to become so involved with a book’s characters that i cannot bear to continue reading, for fear of what is going to happen to them. In Lady Audley’s Secret this happened at a point when Robert Audley is accused of madness for his beliefs; i didn’t want to know what was going to happen, and it was, in fact, probably a week, possibly more, before i picked up the book and finished it. The thing is, i knew the whole time, obviously, that in the end everything was going to be all right, i just couldn’t bear to face how the plot was going to reach a satisfactory ending, the struggles, trials, and tribulations that Audley was going to have to go through. I suppose that such a feeling by a reader for one or more of an author’s characters is one of the signs of real success in that author’s work. I’ll take it that way, anyway, rather than poking fun at myself for worrying about an imaginary person in a book written a hundred and fifty years ago. So, it quickly becomes evident, if that was my reaction, that i liked this book, that it is well written, a pleasure to read. In fact it is, to use a popular and almost meaningless word, a classic. It is listed in my copy of 500 Books you must Read, which is one of the reasons i was keen to buy and read it; it has an article of its own on Wikipedia; it has had films and plays and radio dramas made of it. None of these alone means much, but taken together they do lend an air of importance to Braddon’s work; that air is borne out by the book itself. Well worth picking up, reading. Even worth forcing yourself past the point where you worry about Robert Audley’s future!

11 July, 2011

The Puzzle of Meaning

The Rosetta Stone: The Story of the Decoding of Hieroglyphics

Robert Solé & Dominique Valbelle

I had wondered before, just how the Rosetta Stone had been used, the process of finding out the meaning of hieroglyphics, and this book explains quite clearly the process; not in as much detail, perhaps, as Chadwick used with his explanation of Linear B, but enough that i now have a flavour of the difficulties involved, and a very small understanding of the method of hieroglyphic writing ~ and cumbersome it seems to have been! I’m tempted to point out just how straight-forward English writing is by comparison, there being fewer decisions about how to put down the meaning intended but, of course, i’d be deceiving myself, as the process of writing this very review is fraught with decisions, many of which have caused me to stop, pause, backtrack, even, to slightly change or shade what i have written.

08 July, 2011

On Not Living up to the Hype

Does God Believe in Atheists?

John Blanchard

Quite a few things i need to critique about this book, ranging from the trivial to the potentially very damaging. A brief overview, first, to set the scene. Blanchard is writing to combat any possibility that atheists can make coherent or cogent arguments against the existence of God (or gods, i suppose). He begins by giving a very brief history of philosophy and religion; he then examines, again briefly, half a dozen or so major world religions; next comes a questioning of science and whether or not it has anything to say on the existence of God; he moves, finally to the Bible and orthodox Christianity and proves to his satisfaction that the only coherent option is a belief in the God of the Bible and Jesus.

Having raced, extremely quickly, over the book (at just over six hundred and fifty pages, with something like sixty of those as end matter, any single paragraph about it is bound to be perfunctory), i’ll pass on to some criticisms, starting with the trivial. The first is simply about the physical appearance of the printed pages; i don’t know if it the font at fault, or the size, or some other factor, but i found the superscript numbers linking to end-notes very frustrating; on several occasions i misread them as a form of punctuation, not a number, and i had to reread in order to be sure i had not misunderstood what Blanchard was saying. This is minor, but caring for the ease of your reader is quite important, if you plan on keeping the interest and attention of that reader for long periods. Perhaps we can put this down to the publisher, who did not realise the effects of his choices.

Next are the simple mistakes, the sort of thing which ought to have been caught by a fact checker or a copy editor or some such person (though, of course, they oughtn’t be made in the first place!). An example of this is that on page 288, in which Blanchard says Erasmus Darwin wrote the poem “The Temple of Nature”, and that it was “first published in 1903”; he did write it and, while it was published posthumously, it was a century earlier than Blanchard suggests. Lest one think i am being extraordinarily picky over a simple typographical error (“1903” for “1803”), i point out that less than a page later he assigns Pasteur to a time “[n]early fifty years before Darwin’s charming composition”, whereas, of course, Pasteur lived and worked contemporaneously with Darwin’s more famous grandson, Charles. Clearly, Blanchard is highly confused at this point of chronology, if at no other, which is worrying in a book claiming to deal so firmly in fact-based arguments.

Another couple of examples of this error are to be found on page 413, where Blanchard states that “slavery was eventually abolished in 1807” while speaking of the effects of scripture on William Wilberforce. Of course, it was only the British slave trade which was abolished in 1807; slavery in the British Empire was legal until 1833, and elsewhere in the world until 1848 (French Empire), 1865 (USA), or 1888 (Brazil). In the very same paragraph as this error, Thomas Barnardo is credited with founding the first of his famous homes at the age of five ~ in 1870, immediately after his dates are given as 1865-1905; in fact he was born in 1845. These simple mistakes (and there are plenty more than the examples given) do not fill the reader with any confidence that Blanchard is any more accurate in the rest of his writing and argument.

Perhaps the next most serious critique i have is that Blanchard stacks the deck at the very beginning of the book. He gets to make his definitions clear, and clearly his definitions are not the most usual senses of the words, so he aids his argument in this rather underhanded manner before he actually starts arguing. The most obvious definitions which are manipulated are those of “atheist” and “god” or, to be precise, in the reverse order. He defines God as “a unique, personal, plural, spiritual, eternally self-existent, transcendent, immanent, omniscient, immutable, holy, loving Being, the Creator and Ruler of the entire universe and the Judge of all mankind”. This is, in essence, the God of orthodox Christianity; unfortunately, as far as i can tell, giving such a definition completely begs the question, because his second definition is of an atheist as someone who does not believe in his definition of God. The vast majority of people, then, are atheists.

Another point that concerns me, linked with these two words, is the title. I could not understand, before i picked up the book, what exactly it meant, nor could i as i was reading it; it seems particularly pointless, a play on words which doesn’t really work because it only has one meaning, and that self-evident. In fact, the only time the title is even referred to in the book is on page 497 in a postscript to a chapter giving an extended analysis of a passage in the Epistle to the Romans which (the postscript) asks, “Does God believe in atheists?” then tries to define the meaning of the question itself. The problem is that the chapter this “P.S.” is tagged on to has not had anything to do with the issue and, secondly that Blanchard answers both yes and no, depending on the definition of terms. It is of no help at all, but appears to merely be something that was added at the last minute, shortly before press time, when someone realised that the book’s title made no sense within the book itself.

Moving on to a more serious criticism, in one of his main arguments for the existence of God, in which he uses science, it seems that on a number of occasions Blanchard misunderstands the position or arguments of those he disputes. On page 381, for example, in examining the source of morality, which he claims cannot be explained by any evolutionary processes; he tries to refute Peter Atkins, who attempted to show the possibility of evolutionary morality by the very fact that people survived with morality, he does this by asking, “where is the connection between survival and morality?” and then even adds, “what is the value of survival...?” Within evolution survival is the value in itself, it is the goal; and Atkins’ point that morality has evidently helped ~ or at least not hindered ~ that survival makes it a potential evolutionary point of differentiation. Blanchard thus clearly demonstrates that he does not understand evolution, which makes it difficult to imagine he can argue against it convincingly.

Later in the book, while he is discussing mankind and its rôle, having moved beyond trying and succeeding, to his own satisfaction, to prove the existence of God, on page 473 Blanchard makes the astonishing statement that “language...[is] something which can never be accounted for by evolution”. He offers no proof for this assertion, obviously because it is both unprovable and quite easily falsifiable; even i can see that communication between animals of the same species clearly has a survival value and would be selected for, and manifestly the more complex the communication possible the better the chance of survival, leading ultimately to language as the pinnacle. Even more plainly, if Blanchard’s assertion were true, it would already have been touted and proclaimed by all sorts of anti-evolutionists as proof of their position, and many linguists would be spending huge amounts of time questioning it, trying to resolve it; that that is not the case speaks against it. Thus i have to wonder in what way does Blanchard think that making false statements helps his case?

There are other critiques to be made, but i think i have gone far enough to indicate that the book does not live up to the billing it is given in the assorted quotes on the back cover, the inside flaps of the dust cover both front and back, in three and a half pages of affirmation prior to the title page, and in the foreword by a man with seven letters after his name! There is, it is true, much in this book to enjoy, much to learn from, much to cause the reader to think, but it is, i have tried to show, so poorly presented and argued that the job needs to be done again, by someone better qualified.

26 January, 2011

The book took days (to read)

Book of Days
James L. Rubart

The most recent of the Early Reviewer books from Library Thing; the irony is that the previous book by this author, Rooms, is the first book i’ve not been able to finish in years, so how delicious that i have been asked to read and review this, his second work. I have to say that this is definitely an improvement on the other, at least i was able to finish it ~ though not, it must be added, without some procrastination and struggle. I’m not sure how to continue with this review, there’s quite a lot i want to write, and it seems to go in several different directions. Maybe first of all, reasons for my difficulty in reading it.

I was at least a hundred and twenty pages into the book before i had even a shred of interest in the characters or cared for them in the least; that in itself is a poor route for an author to travel down. If he doesn’t have the characters, though, maybe the author can offer a strong, believable, imaginative, seductive plot; maybe, but not this author. With neither plot nor characters just about all that’s left is the possibility of delightful, insightful, masterly writing style, near the quality of a Faulkner or a Sterne; sadly, Rubart does not have that ability, either. All that these lacks leave, as far as i can tell, for a piece of literature to have in order to be compelling, is its theme; here too, as i’ll detail below, the book fails.

Characters: The protagonist is a successful, on the cusp of being very successful, film-maker who is haunted by his father’s dementia-ridden death, with the belief that he is himself going down the same road of memory loss; secondary to him is his (also dead) wife’s foster-sister, who has her own issues revolving around her family’s identity and her past; together they are drawn to a small Oregon town, Three Peaks, where she seems to have come from, and his father had some experience involving the Book of Days, and once there they meet the other characters in the novel, each of whom seems to have a secret, though none has any reason for it to be secret and none keeps it in the end. The townspeople seem to revolve in several groups, each of which has its own take on the big secret of the town, that there is some spiritual or new age benefit there, perhaps involving the supposed Book of Days which Cameron and Ann are looking for.

The plot, then, revolves around this Book of Days, referring to Psalm 139:16, which Cameron is convinced is going to resolve his memory loss, Ann hopes will help her gain closure with her sister’s death, and Jason Judah, the chief prophet of the new age in town, imagines will confirm his leadership and empower and propel him to greater heights. Against them in their search is Taylor Stone, a man who appears to have some knowledge of the existence (or otherwise) of the Book, but is determined to extend the plot and keep his secret. Perhaps, at this moment i am being overly cynical, and Rubart does have a valid reason for Stone to keep his secret, other than prolonging the novel, but if he does it is never convincingly explained. Through assorted plots and counter-plots Cameron and Ann eventually discover that there is not a physical written book, but it is possible to have visions of the future, or a potential future, in a particular lake hidden in the valleys between the eponymous three peaks.

The problem with this plot, as i have indicated above, is that it is not compelling. There is no good reason to think that a book with everyone’s actions written in it is going to heal Cameron’s memory loss; the secrecy is purely a plot device; the ultimate solution, visions in a lake, is not shown to resolve any of the issues the imagined Book of Days is expected to. All in all, the plot, no more than the characters, gives no good reason to read the book.

Next reason, then, is style, writing ability. Here, too, i’m afraid that Rubart falls down. This book just isn’t likely to become a great classic, a book handed down from generation to generation for the sheer beauty and skill of the language. The language use is simple; not, however, the simplicity of Hemingway, but more along the lines of Dick and Jane ~ which is fantastic for beginning readers, but i don’t believe that group is the target audience.

Finally we could look to the book’s theme as its saving grace, the sole point that makes it worth while any and all trouble and time given to reading it, as it teaches a lesson never to be forgotten, it allows us to change our lives for the better, it carries a meaning beyond the simple characters, the unbelievable plot, the basic language. Except, it doesn’t. After i finished reading Book of Days i was talking with the other person in the household who has also read it, and i was challenged to come up with the message of the book, why Rubart wrote it. I was stumped for, literally, minutes; eventually i was able to say something along the lines of, “Be careful what you decide, because decisions have consequences” ~ surely a foolishly simplistic piece of advice to base a book on. Later, however, i read the note that Rubart put at the end of the book, explaining his purposes and reasons (hmm, maybe he also recognises that his writing needs clarification!); there i discovered that he wrote because, “my desire is you find hope in this story, that you will embrace the idea that not one of the treasured moments...is lost.” The problems with this are at least twofold. First, why should i “find hope” in a book of fiction, which clearly doesn’t offer hope? The hope that some people might (there’s no certainty in the visions) have some views of the future? That is no hope. Second, even within the confines of the story Rubart doesn’t offer hope, as Cameron’s memory loss is not addressed (how can it be, by a series of visions?), let alone cured.

In the end, it seems to me, the only hope that this book offers is that of the believer. If you already believe in a God who controls, or at least has seen, the future, you have hope, and that hope may be reinforced by this story (if you can force yourself through it). If not, it offers nothing.