The Garden Party

The Garden Party
The Garden Party

by Katherine Mansfield; from Librivox, narrated by Luci Burgoyne

Mansfield’s book collects a series of stories about life in the 19th century, mostly for women, mostly for the wealthy or at least the middle-class.  There are a number of character sketches or scene sketches with lot plot arcs that deliver a punch.  Some thoughts on a couple that I liked the most:

  • “The Stranger” does a great job describing the longing and sadness of a husband who’s missed his wife.  But there’s a deeper need there that gets wrecked, and the end of the story is quite poignant.
  • “Miss Brill” shows the way a few offhand comments from a couple asshats will ruin your whole day.
  • “The Singing Lesson” is perhaps the most sad, to me.  A teacher leads her choir to sing songs that reflect her mood regarding a grim letter from her fiance.  The end that uplifts her spirits isn’t, in fact, uplifting.

Now that I think about it, this is one grim book.  Not as many “women downtrodden by their roles in the world” as I thought there would be, but more just stories about the dark reality of life in the modern world.

Day of the Triffids

The Day of the Triffids
The Day of the Triffids

by John Wyndham

Is great. If you aren’t familiar with the book, Day of the Triffids is a classic post-apocalyptic story about two things. First, these mysterious plants (which the book sort-of attributes to man-made science shenanigans) that provide a delicious new source of energy are also extremely dangerous, as they can walk around and they have a vicious stinging barb with a venom that will kill an adult very quickly. Second, a display of comet dust in the sky turns everyone who sees it blind, leaving most of the world stumbling around and mostly helpless. The story goes from there.

Some thoughts:

  • Nearly every plot standard from apocalyptic (particularly zombie apocalypse) stories gets used and perhaps originates here. Check out my list below.
  • Despite the title, the real trauma of the book comes from the fact that nearly everyone is blind.  But it’s the combination of the two that makes the story really work.  The first half of the book really deals with the sudden blindness aspect, the second with the triffids.
  • The book engages in quite a bit of ideological wrangling, pondering the best way to reenvigorate society after total destruction, and at the same time thinking about society and gender roles.
  • It also fits the “man vs. technology” and “man vs. nature” plot scenarios, with a heavy dose of allegory — for either high technology itself or for bioengineering or more likely for atomic power.

But most interesting to me was the incredible number of apocalypse tropes the book hits.  I’ll outline a few of them, along with movies or books I’ve seen use them afterward.  Note, I’m not including 28 Days Later because that movie uses pretty much ALL of these tropes:

  • Wake up in a hospital to find the world changed: The Walking Dead
  • Astrological event that changes most of humankind: Night of the Comet
  • Shopping spree in abandoned city: Dawn of the Dead (1978), Night of the Comet
  • Survivalist gangs taking over cities: Diary of the Dead, World War Z
  • Rape or threat of rape, dehumanization of women: Dawn of the Dead (2004)
  • Out of control military authority dudes: Day of the Dead
  • Starving to death/ under siege by dangerous monsters outside the fence: many, many zombie stories

It’s an excellent read. Go get it.

The Thin Man

The Thin Man
The Thin Man

by Dashiell Hammett

I usually suggest books to my mystery book club that make them grumble. I’ve asked them to read City of Glass and Gun with Occasional Music and Storm Front, none of them a conventional mystery. This time around, I picked The Thin Man, which a few people in the group had read, but many had not. I liked the idea of mixing in classics with these newfangled weird mysteries. Plus, I wanted an excuse to read it myself. Some thoughts (spoilers ahead!):

  • The movie (one of my favorites) is a pretty close adaptation of the book. I’d say the film brings the humor of the story to light a bit more than does the book. The repartee between Nick and Nora still appears in this book, but it doesn’t seem as silly as the film does.
  • I was able to follow the actual plot of the mystery better than I can when I watch the film. It’s pretty convoluted, with the side characters twisting things up into a big ol’ knot.
  • As a mystery, it turns a lot on what the witnesses say. The detective has to assume they’re all lying (often because they ARE) and keep returning to them as new evidence shakes up their stories. It helps that he’s a wealthy drunk.
  • Best line: One morning they get up and Nick asks Nora to prepare him a drink
    Nora: How about staying sober today?
    Nick: We didn’t come to New York to stay sober.
  • The writing, as always with Hammett, is crisp and witty. It zips along very quickly and pushes the story almost too fast to follow.

A delight to read, but not as enjoyable as the film, IMO.

That sneaky ol’ Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; trans by W.A. Neilson; narrated by mj for

Sir Gawain arrives for the big chop
Sir Gawain arrives for the big chop

So I’m not much of a reader of medieval poetry or romance.  I’ve read The Song of Roland and Beowulf, of course, but I’d be lying to say I feel confident interpreting the work.  That said, a few thoughts (replete with spoilers):

  • I totally saw it coming that the king was the Green knight.  I probably knew that somewhere deep down in my grad-school memory, but I didn’t actively remember it.  That said, when the Queen offered Gawain her magic girdle, I was like “Booyah!  That’s the Green Knight’s protection.”  Nailed it.
  • The hunting and excitement were amusing, but it made me wonder why everybody thought Gawain was so great.  By my reckoning, the king went out hunting every day while Gawain slept in and fended off the king’s randy wife.  Of course, the whole test was devised by her for, um, no reason at all as far as I can see.
  • Arthur and his round table must have been one badass bunch of dudes.  Picture it, somebody rides in during Christmas dinner and says “Check out my big ol’ axe!  If somebody chops at me with it, I’ll return the blow one year from now.”  The knights take him up on it and, after Gawain chops off his head, are surprised to find him taunting them and riding out.  They laugh about what a great day it is.  I’m sorry, if I see some dude’s head get cut off and then he gets up and says “no problem,” I don’t put that in my “great day” column.
  • There’s an awful lot of space given to preparing Gawain’s horse for the road and the sacrifices and prayers said on his behalf.  I’m reminded of Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato which suggests that these long passages in poetry are actually bits of instructions, important knowledge embedded into the poem.  Like the advice for card sharps built into “The Gambler.” My Kenny Rogers knowledge tells me when to walk away, and when to run.
  • The Green Knight’s kind of a dick at the end.  First he starts to swing the axe and, when Gawain winces, taunts Gawain about being Chicken.  Then he swings it again and stops just to, um, wind him up some more.  Finally, he gives Gawain a little nick on the neck and then says “FOOLED YOU!”

The Librivox reader, mj, does a fine job with the text, though there are a few fits and starts as she stumbled over a few passages.  Otherwise, well done.

Great Expectations

Ms. Havisham
Ms. Havisham

by Charles Dickens; narrated by Mark Smith for

I only read one Dickens book before I started on the “1000 books to read before you die” project.  And while A Tale of Two Cities is pretty great, in High School it was just a book to read.  But now I’ve read both Great Expectations and Martin Chuzzlewit, and enjoyed both immensely.

Great Expectations tells the story of a young man, a blacksmith’s apprentice, who comes into the eponymous inheritance from an anonymous benefactor and proceeds to learn important lessons about friendship, life, and love.  Delightful.  Some additional thoughts:

  • Now that I’ve read this, I’m going to have to return to Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series to discover the army of Havishams again.  Her creepy, disturbing, pitiful existence doesn’t come through very clearly if you, ahem, don’t get the references.  And by the way, the table full of rotted food with creepy crawly bugs all over it … YUCK.
  • Once again, I’m surprised by the humor sprinkled throughout the book.  It’s not as overt as the humor in Chuzz, but Pip’s descriptions of his interactions and his understated way of saying he dislikes things work really well.
  • Dickens often gets flack for his constructed stories, the way that nearly every character who appears will later be very important.  One might call it an over-reliance on deus ex machina.  But I’m reminded of formula detective shows like Bones or Castle.  The biggest flaw in these shows is that for the mystery to seem both mysterious and satisfying, the suspect needs to be someone we don’t suspect while still being someone we’ve encountered before.  So most of the time, the villain is the first or second witness they interview, someone beyond suspicion early on.  Dickens uses this strategy, bringing back characters from early in the narrative to play important roles later.
  • I’ve commented before on the fact that audiobooks created an association between the book and the place or activity where you read them.  I read the last half of this book while painting my house over the weekend (long story).  I’ll associate the big reveals in the last chapter with slopping Killz on my old-as-dirt window sills.

And Mark Smith does a great job with the book, just as he did with Captain’s Courageous.  My only complaint (and it’s a pet peeve more than anything) is that he says domain with the stress on the first syllable, DO-main, rather than on the second syllable, do-MAIN.  Otherwise, his characterization, diction, pacing, inflection, and emotion are all excellent.  Particularly good in this reading were his voices for Joe and for Wemmick.

Re: Colonized Planet no. 5, Shikasta


Personal psychological historical documents relating to visit by Johor (George Sherban) Emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Last Period of the Last Day, by Doris Lessing

Sigh. I picked this book for my book club and it’s a bear. I didn’t really like it much until the last 100 pages or so, and even then I only kinda liked it. The book moves glacially, without much in the way of character to capture your imagination. In all honesty, I only remember the last portion very well, since it’s in that last part that the story solidifies with a narrower set of characters.

Shikasta tells the story of a world (which we come to discover is Earth) that’s being monitored by aliens from elsewhere, some of whom are good and some of whom are bad. These aliens compete to control the destiny of the people on the planet by influencing our behavior through visits both direct and unseen. The end of the book focuses on a single visit by “Johor” in which that particular administrator visits Earth to try and influence the symbolic trial of the white race held by the youth of the world. The trial, which takes place an unspecified amount of time in the future from present day, suggests that the imperiled and dying white race is responsible for the rapacious and cruel modes humankind has adopted. No clear resolution is given, though perhaps it appears in one of the remaining books of the series (which I won’t be reading). Some additional thoughts:

  • The trial aspect reminds me of James Morrow’s work, particularly This is the Way the World Ends and Blameless in Abaddon, both of which focus on symbolic trials (of humankind for the death of future humanity and of God for all things bad, respectively). I think Morrow’s work is much more accessible. And good.
  • Lessing writes the book in the bureaucratic tone, creating the idea of a giant bureaucracy overseeing Shikasta. The book is a compilation of primary documents from that supervision, as well as reports written by the supervisors. There’s a reason people don’t like reading reports, generally. It’s because they’re usually boring as snot.
  • The book has an interesting allegorical connection to the idea of heaven and hell. Jenny has just read This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti, an evangelical story that describes Angels and Demons at war in our midst. This book has a similar feel, except that the war appears in dribs and drabs, undescribed and mentioned bureaucratically.
  • The idea of “Zones” seems to suggest alternate universes to which people go when they die, and a big part of the supervisory project is returning those people to Shikasta again by means of reincarnation, I think. There are also some sort of spiritual vampires that live in these alternate zones.

Ultimately, I feel like the plot description on Wikipedia makes the book sound far more interesting than it actually is.

P.S. — my thoughts on this book expanded a bit after the book club.  Check out the summary of that meeting at our blog.

Arsene Lupin: the George Lasenby of Gentleman Burglars

I think this is a leaf from a copy of The Gold Bug.
I think this is a leaf from a copy of "The Gold Bug."

The Hollow Needle: The Further Adventures of Arsene Lupin
by Maurice LeBlanc; narrated for Librivox by various readers

The second novel in the Arsene Lupin series by Maurice LeBlanc finds the master thief and head of a criminal underground hunted not only by his old police nemesis and by the copyright-avoidingly-named Homlock Shears, but also by a precocious high schooler. The tale involves a single long hunt, rather than a series of masterful crimes as in the first book. An enjoyable book with a shift in narrative scope that shows growth in LeBlanc’s style.

  • As before, Lupin is almost omniscient. He anticipates his rivals to a laughable degree, and his mastery of the art of disguise rivals that of any character in literature. But this time he faces a high schooler who can match him step for step. He also faces, again, the Doyle ripoff Homlock Shears, who tracks him to the last.
  • The extended tale works pretty well, but because of its length, the levels of intrigue get a little extreme for me.
  • I enjoy the incursion of historical mystery (a Dan Brown-ian lost treasure of the French kings becomes part of the story). Unlike The Scarlet Pimpernel, this book seems to feel sorry for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
  • The book also relies on cryptography for a significant part of its clue. The connection to various Holmes stories and to Poe’s “The Gold Bug” cannot be missed. That said, the translation of text clues into audio format doesn’t work very well.
  • Spoiler: The end of the book is particularly amusing, as Lupin surrenders his treasure-hoard and his secret lair to fake his own death and then start life anew with the woman he loves. Just as he thinks he’s getting away with it, though, Homlock Shears shows up, there is a pistol duel, and Lupin’s brand new bride falls dead. He’s left, Lasenby-style, lamenting both his lost career and his lost love.

The Librivox recording is really solid and enjoyable. Most of the readers do very well, with a nice mix of accents shading the reading. The reader of the second-to-last chapter had a hammy vocal style that was particularly amusing, if a little over the top.

I, Robot

by Isaac Asimov

I just finished reading the seminal story collection by Isaac Asimov about the emergence of robots and their effect on mankind. Predicated on the three laws of robotics, Asimov’s stories explore various problems that arise from different ways these play out. As usual, they’re well written, character-driven stories that tease out particular ideas logically.

A couple thoughts:

  • In “Evidence,” Asimov tells the story of a politician accused of being a robot. Unwilling to submit to testing, the politician becomes a lightning rod for activists and stuff. In this story, Asimov explains how the three laws of robotics are actually analogs of good human behavior: “Of course, every human being is supposed to have the instinct of self-preservation. That’s Rule Three to a robot. Also every ‘good’ human being, with a social conscience and sense of responsibility is supposed to defer to proper authority…. That’s Rule Two to a robot. Also, every ‘good’ human being is supposed to love others as himself, protect his fellow man, risk his life to save another.”(221)
  • One of my favorite parts of reading old SF (this book was originally copyrighted in 1950) is to see the mis-predictions. Asimov has us productively living in space far faster than we did, but he strongly underestimates the speed the world’s population will bloom.
  • The last story asks the larger question explored many times over by a variety of SF writers — what happens if we give over control to the robots. Do we get a Skynet debacle (Terminator), a HAL malfunction (2001), or a benevolent dictator so powerful we don’t even know we’re being guided? Asimov returns to this idea in the Foundation series, more successfully there, I think.
  • I like the interview style. It makes the book a sort-of Citizen Kane of robot stories. Without the sled, though.

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice the distinct absence of the story about a robot who kills his master and the renegade, handsome, popular rap artist police detective who solves the murder.

This scene is not in the book.
Alright, which one of you murdered Isaac Asimov and stole the rights to this title?

The Three Laws play an essential part in the plot of the Will Smith vehicle, and a distillation of the story seems like the missing story, one left out of the book that was crafted for the movie under the same kinds of ideas, and with cool action sequences involving speedy cars and AI rejects. Even more disconcerting, I read the movie-release version of the book, so I have a glowering, worried Will Smith on the cover of my book, along with the nonsensical tagline: “One Man Saw It Coming.” Having read the book inside, I’m not sure what he saw.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Roger Ackroyd
I'm not sure what spilling red liquid has to do with this book

by Agatha Christie

The only Christie novel to make the 1000 books you must read before you die list, Ackroyd serves as a metonym for every Christie novel, or at least every Poirot novel. It’s skillfully written, with a wide net of characters, an intriguing puzzle mystery with plenty of side distractions (affairs, debts, scoundrels, liars), and a great resolution. I won’t comment much on the plot because I want you to read it eventually and I don’t want this to be a spoilery review. A couple extra thoughts:

  • One of the biggest problems the scientific movement faces in the era of the Internet are “Google degrees,” people who spend a few hours reading information on line and presume themselves to be experts (or capable of speaking on equal footing with experts). This phenomenon occurs often in the anti-vaccination movement, but is a regular part of the interaction between experts in any field and amateurs. The lesson from How to Think About Weird Things is thus “There is good reason to doubt a proposition if it conflicts with expert opinion.” Christie crafts a scene in which a denizen of the 1920s Internet, a gossip who knows everything about the village, argues with her brother’s (a doctor) analysis of a corpse.

    “Mark my words, James, you’ll see that I’m right. That Russell woman was here that morning after your poisons. Roger Ackroyd might easily have been poisoned in his food that night.”

    I laughed out loud.

    “Nonsense,” I cried. “He was stabbed in the neck. You know that as well as I do.”

    “After death, James,” said Caroline, “to make a false clew.” [I love the way they used to spell “clue” — BR]

    “My good woman,” I said, “I examined the body, and I know what I’m talking about. That wound wasn’t inflicted after death–it was the cause of death, and you need make no mistake about it.”

    Caroline merely continued to look omniscient, which so annoyed me that I went on:

    “Perhaps you will tell me, Caroline, if I have a medical degree or if I have not?”

    “You have a medical degree, I dare say, James–at least, I mean I know you have. But you have no imagination whatever.” (229-230)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

  • The cover art I’m seeing on line oscillates between hilarious vagueness and preposterous imagery. The first cover listed there shows someone spilling a drink. There aren’t any spilled drinks. The copy I read (at right) is even stranger. I have no idea why it features a knife in a cucumber. The house and blue envelope and even the knife itself make sense. But the cucumber?
  • Another appearance of Crippen. You’ll remember the story of Dr. Crippen–detailed in Erik Laarsen’s Thunderstruck–the British pharmacist who murdered his wife and ran away with his lover, but was caught because the ship had a newfangled Marconi device. BOOM. Technology all in his grill. Dr. Crippen was the O.J. of his day, and thus appears in a bunch of books and stuff. To whit, Dr. Sheppard’s sister says “I knew he’d try to get away to America. That’s what Crippen did.” (228)
  • Finally, I think there’s some potential for some awesomeness in using the relatively rare name of Ackroyd to write a parody of the story called “The Murder of Dan Ackroyd.” At the same time, I wonder how Dan Ackroyd would feel if he read that story. Kind of like John Malkovich must have felt when first encountered Being John Malkovich, or Paul Giamatti with Cold Souls.

Miss Lonelyhearts

Miss Lonelyhearts
Miss Lonelyhearts

by Nathaniel West

There seems to be a distinct slice of fancy-pants literature in which mopey people mope about, do mopey stuff, and generally bemoan the lack of motivation that leads them to mopery.  I’m thinking here of The Magus and The End of the Affair.  In this case, West’s novel focuses on the eponymous hero, an advice columnist beset by depression under the weight of the letters he receives daily.  He slumps around, unable to do what he thinks right, and stuck in the rut of drinking, joyless debauchery, and did I mention moping around?

West certainly wields an entertaining descriptive power, with solid, entertaining metaphors and similes.  His secondary characters, particularly the brutal and sarcastic editor, Shrike, bring some jauntiness to the story, but usually at the expense of any hope Miss Lonelyhearts might foster.

The discussion of the novel in my 1000 books you must read before you die suggests that the protagonist struggles with his Christianity, but I found that to be an ambiguous proposition at best — it’s completely unclear to me whether he cares about Christian views at all.  He’s mocked for them by Shrike, but he doesn’t really buy into them either.  And he makes terrible decisions.  Terrible.

So in the end, I have trouble understanding the fuss.  Thinking about this post and the one I wrote yesterday, I’m inclined to wonder if there’s something in my critical faculty missing.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Having never read the non-zombie version of this book, I started out reading both editions side-by-side, one chapter at a time.  The process was extremely unsatisfactory, as whichever book I read second became an exercise in reading for differences, rather than a reading of the novel itself.  Around chapter 15, I abandoned the effort and proceded only with the undeadified one.

P&P&Z is, overall, quite delightful.  The bottom layer of the palimpsest worked well for me, as the story charms on its own merits.  There’s an awful lot of misunderstanding and sighing behind closed doors, but that’s what these novels were about, I think.  Grahame-Smith’s additions, the zombie overlay, spice up the story nicely.  His technique is simply to have added a backstory that the zombie plague has been part of British culture for 55 years or so.  The society has survived, but the menace is unending.  As a result, people are admired not for their money as much as for their skills in the deadly arts.  Of course, Elizabeth is unmatched in her fighting ability.  A few other thoughts:

  • There are a number of clever touches in the way SGS integrates zombies into the buttoned-up Victorian culture.  The most prominent: they refer to the zombies as “unmentionables.”  Darcy is admired not for his 10,000 pounds a year, but for the 1000 zombies he kills each year.
  • The book also does an excellent job of keeping the tensions between the characters alive despite the undead.  In the original book, Lady de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt, visits to tell Elizabeth off because the latter is too uncouth.  The same confrontation occurs in the new version, except that the argument takes the shape of a duel in the Bennet dojo, with this sort of ruckus:

    After several minutes of flying about, attacking one another with force that would have sent legions of lesser warriors to their graves, Lady Catherine’s sword was dispatched with a well-aimed buttefly kick.  Defenseless, her ladyship retreated to the wall of weaponry, where she hastily procured a pair of nunchucks; but these were promptly cut in two by Elizabeth’s Katana.

    Elizabeth backed Lady Catherine against a wall, and held the tip of her sword to her wrinkled throat.  “Well?” said Catherine, “Take my head then, but be quick about it.”

  • Grahame-Smith does trim the book a bit, in part because some of the conversation doesn’t easily translate, in part just to make it a bit more palatable for non-Austen fans.

Worth a read, but probably only enjoyable if you appreciate both Austen and Romero.

The Ethics of Creating Life, Part 1: Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley

My students in New Millennium Studies read Frankenstein over the last couple weeks, and we’ve been discussing it in class.  I’m most interested in the notion of obligation as it appears in the book.  To whit: Victor starts all the problems when he violates his essential parental obligation to his ‘child,’ the monster.  You’ll remember, of course, that he spends years lovingly crafting a monster (though the movies make explicit that he made it out of body parts, the book is cryptic about its actual science), he never considered what it would be like when he brought it to life.  When he finally does, it scares the bejeezus out of him and he does a runner.  The monster has to raise itself on its own, living in a woodshed and spying on a German family for its intellectual nourishment.

My students and I all easily agreed that Victor was horrible for leaving the monster, yada yada yada.  But the interesting part comes in the discussion of his later obligations.  Is he obligated to make the partner for the monster?  Is he wrong to want to kill it (particularly after it shows its malevolence toward humankind in general)? 

The students also brought up the idea that the monster wasn’t necessarily wrong in its desire to kill people.  Being of a “superior stock,” it wouldn’t be beholden to our particular rights.  Having years of Star Trek-style Prime Directive thinking under my belt, I was appalled at the idea that he isn’t obligated to respect sentient life (nor are we, by our discussion).  I brought up the question of what we do when we visit another planet and find a civilization, but the class was ready to finish our conversation before we got there.

But to get back to Victor and parenting, I found the class’s assertion that Victor was responsible for the monster’s vile behavior particularly interesting in light of our previous readings, particularly Our America.  Should parents be held responsible for the mis-deeds of their children?

Finally, I stressed the elements of Frankenstein that I find most interesting: the idea that it’s now becoming very important in terms of thinking through the science we’re currently undertaking.  As gene therapy becomes more likely and DNA manipulation mainstreams, we’re going to see new kinds of life created in ways we’ve only thought of in fiction.  And we should be ready for those assholes who look at their creation and do a runner.

Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

I re-read this book in preparing to teach it for my New Millennium Studies class this semester and enjoyed it still.  I’m most interested here, however, to talk about the role of the title in shaping the book.  Unlike many books I read, whose titles are more prosaic in describing the shape and action of the work (such as the other book I just finished, Endurance), Things Fall Apart creates a distinct environment for the novel.  It’s a sense of dread and foreboding that might not exist were the book titled The Life of Okwonko or something similar.

I think this title stuff will be one way into the book for my class discussion.  I’ve talked with my students of the new millennium about the value of titles in shaping the viewer/reader’s understanding of the work.  In particular, when a student creates a piece of art with a more obscure pedigree, I push her/him to use a title that will help the viewer to leap the gap between the aesthetic experience of the project and the often complex set of associations and ideas the student is trying to convey.  It’s Barthes’ lesson on photo captions — also taught by the associated press during Hurricane Katrina.

The book’s also really powerful for its mixed message about its protagonist.  I dislike Okwonko quite a bit.  He beats his wives and children and fears the world because he’s so afraid of failing.  But at the same time, as the Europeans showed up and began running their kangaroo courts for a people they were suddenly governing, I would certainly have enjoyed a little vicarious thrill at violence against that unjust colonization–nevermind that my people directly benefitted from that colonization and the gathered wealth of that period still powers our cars and buys our lattes.

Additional thoughts on the phrase
The title, of course, is the single easiest way to create a sense of doom and despair in a text.  The first place I remember encountering it was in the made-for-television adaptation of King’s The Stand.  I’m always creeped out and entranced by it when I encounter it again, and I think it has a lot with why I like zombie movies.  Zombie movies are usually about how regular people descend into anarchy and viciousness, and shambling corpses.  But I’m usually most frightened by the urban anarchy at the heart of many zombie movies.  I don’t find the second half of Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead all that scary, but I’m haunted by the suburban anarchy Sarah Polley stumbles into in her front lawn.  Things do fall apart.

Readers: what’s your favorite use of this phrase in media or elsewhere?

The Man Who Was Thursday, a nightmare

The Man Who Was Thursday
The Man Who Was Thursday

by G.K. Chesterton; narrated by Zachary Brewster-Geisz for Librivox

Chesterton’s writes of a philosophical police detective on the trail of a secret anarchist’s society whose leadership council is organized around the days of the week (hence the main character, Symes, becomes Thursday).  As the story progresses, it becomes a meditation of the very notion of society and anarchy, and the relationship of civilization to God.  The book evolves as an entertaining mystery with heavy philosophical undertones.  There are chases and swordfights and philosophy and masked men and automobiles and a mystifying finale.

  • The book is much easier to understand as it progresses in the context of the subtitle “a nightmare.”  Thinking about the book as representing a dream rather than a rational adventure helps a lot.
  • As an allegory, I can see why the importance of the keeping of one’s word is a moral thing, but as a narrative point, it seems like an undercover police officer swearing oaths to a criminal shouldn’t be morally obligated to keep those oaths, should he?
  • The descriptions of the various members of the committee are awesome.  My favorite is the menacing Dr. Bull, an angelic police officer who looks positively evil when he dons clouded spectacles.

Brewster-Geisz does a great job for Librivox, inflecting the main characters with a wide-enough range of voices that they come off nicely, and managing the carefully-crafted prose with precision and grace.

I’ll write a bit more after the break, but it’s spoilerific.

Continue reading The Man Who Was Thursday, a nightmare


She by H. Rider Haggard
She by H. Rider Haggard

by H. Rider Haggard; narrated by various readers for Librivox

She disappointed. I’ve read two other Haggard novels, King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quartermain. Both of these novels could be summarized using roughly this plot description:

A group of English Gentleman adventurers travel into the the depths of unexplored Africa, where they encounter ancient civilizations, befriend noble but vicious savage men, best foes in combat, and finish out the adventure in fine style.

Despite the numerous worrisome aspects of the stories, they’re generally redeemable adventures with enjoyable characters. By contrast, She leaves much to be desired. Here’s the plot:

A young man and his devoted friends travel into the depths of unexplored Africa seeking a legend about his family and an immortal woman. They find the woman and, despite her vicious nature, fall in love with her, only to find her immortality taken from her.

Unlike the Quartermain adventures, this book plods along in its contemplation of the mysterious title character. Despite the fantastic archeologies of the mysterious people, it just doesn’t hold up to the other two books. And yet this one is the most famous. This is the novel that gets recognized, and included in lists like The 1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die. Bah. A couple other thoughts:

  • We do learn the name of the title character–Ayesha–but she’s usually called just She or her full title, She Who Must Be Obeyed. I couldn’t help but chuckle at this because I had a boss once who affectionately referred to his wife by that very pet name.
  • The cannibalistic natives in the story use a method of killing in which they heat a small pot on a fire and kill their victim by placing it on his/her head. They call this “hot potting.” I chuckled every time I heard this, as I can’t help but think of the plastic ewer-shaped device I used to boil water in my dorm.
  • Most interestingly, perhaps, Haggard constructs a story in which the moral is that lovely ladies and wealthy men can have whatever they want. In fact, at one point he says as much:

    Men are faithful for so long only as temptations pass them by. If the temptation be but strong enough, then will the man yield, for every man, like every rope, hath his breaking strain, and passion is to men what gold and power are to women—the weight upon their weakness. Believe me, ill will it go with mortal woman in that heaven of which thou speakest, if only the spirits be more fair, for their lords will never turn to look upon them, and their Heaven will become their Hell. For man can be bought with woman’s beauty, if it be but beautiful enough; and woman’s beauty can be ever bought with gold, if only there be gold enough. So was it in my day, and so it will be to the end of time. The world is a great mart, my Holly, where all things are for sale to whom who bids the highest in the currency of our desires. (Chapter 18)

    The story bears this out, as both the narrator and his twenty five year old ward are brought under her spell just by gazing upon her face. Then, despite her villainy, they follow her willingly.

The Librivox recording is pretty good.  The variety of accents makes it especially enjoyable, oscillating from upper class British to New Zealander to Indian to what sounds like Eastern European.  A couple of the readers even have a charming set of mispronunciations that surely stem from reading aloud words that one only knows from reading.  One reader pronounced probably as though the second syllable rhymed with rehab. I remember being startled to discover that the phrase I’d always read in my head as “Whores De Ovrahs” was, in fact, hors d’oeuvre.  I’d always assumed those tasty treats would have been spelled Ordurves.