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When Randy Bragg, an aimless Korean war vet who has developed a taste for bourbon in his coffee while living in his hometown, Fort Repose, Florida, gets a telegram from his older brother Mark, a Colonel for Strategic Air Command, that closes with ???Alas, Babylon,??? Randy realizes that hydrogen bombs are about to start flying between the USSR and the USA. The rest of Pat Frank???s novel, Alas, Babylon (1959), depicts how Randy and his Fort Repose neighbors survive after ???the Day??? on which the bombs fell. Frank convincingly imagines the geo-politics that could lead to such a war, as well as the social and inter-personal dynamics of survival that would likely follow it.
Frank???s novel is a post-holocaust communal Robinsoniad, with key things (like an uncontaminated river, an ancestor???s journal, an unlimited source of salt, and even a well-equipped attic) in retrospect a little too convenient for ???island??? Fort Repose. But I let that pass because I respect and care so much for Frank???s characters as they are pushed to their limits to find ways to survive physically and emotionally, and the main thrust of his novel is to test his characters to see which ones will survive with humanity intact and which will not.
I like Frank???s attempt at a progressive vision of race (for its time and southern setting), but George Stewart???s earlier novel Earth Abides (1949) may be more radical in that respect. In general, Earth Abides is more philosophical, cyclical, beautiful, and moving than Alas, Babylon, which is more political, tactical, exciting, and martial. Alas, Babylon is an anti-nuclear war novel that nevertheless valorizes the heroic American male soldier/leader.
Will Patton???s reading of the novel is fine; his voice is appropriately manly and dry with undercurrents of emotion that bring the story to life.
Anton Chekhov's The Kiss and the Duel and Other Stories translated by Constance Garnett (1916-1923) is an excellent collection. Each story features a crisis in some human relationship: between strangers in "The Kiss" (1887), when a bespectacled, lynx-whiskered, milquetoast army officer is mistakenly kissed by an unknown woman in a dark room at a tea party; enemies in "The Duel" (1891) when a coldly superior botanist challenges a lazy, spoiled, and amoral intellectual official to a duel; brother and sister in "Excellent People" (1886), when a listless sister who has always worshiped her wannabe literary figure brother begins asking him about the principle of non-resistance to evil; dupes and vamp in "Mire" (1886), when a younger cousin and his older cousin take turns visiting a cynical and mercurial Jewess who owes one of them money; brother, sister, and friend in "Neighbours" (1892), when a young country gentleman rides to confront his beloved sister and the idealistic and pathetic married man she's run away to live with; and royal and subject in "The Princess" (1889), when a spoiled princess who believes she's an angel dispensing light and joy to humanity asks a doctor she's fired to tell her the truth about her mistakes.
To explain the crisis and prepare for the climax of each story, Chekhov dispassionately and sympathetically cores the human soul. His insights into the human heart and mind are accurate, humorous, and devastating. He excels at placing people out of their depths in intolerable situations, so that if they manage to swim back to shore it's a heroic feat. At the same time, he concisely depicts Russian culture near the end of the 19th century, complete with growing conflicts between different classes, cultures, regions, philosophies, and so on.
Interestingly, Chekhov's stories, no matter how bleak, give me intense pleasure, and make me feel more alive. How does he do it? It must be his irony and empathy, keen eye for observation, and original mind for metaphors. Whenever his characters resolve to righteously take someone to task and then find themselves instead wimpishly appeasing the person, I think, Ah, that's me! The best we can hope to achieve, it seems, is coming to understand, as one character says near the end of "The Duel," "No one knows where the real truth lies." That and trying to treat people with humanity and kindness.
Fred Williams gives a solid reading of the stories. He doesn't dramatically change his voice for different characters, unlike virtuoso actor-readers, but he reads every word clearly and every sentence with appropriate rhythm and emphasis, and he enhances the text with appropriate wit and emotion. And I really like his deliberate, deep, and slightly gravelly and nasal voice. The only difficult point about the audiobook lay in my unfamiliarity with Russian names, so that, especially in the novella "The Duel," I sometimes mixed the characters up in my mind when listening. So I'd recommend getting a text version of the story (many free ones are online) and reading the character names in it once or twice so as to be able to hear their differences more readily.
You have to love lines like this from "Neighbours":
"It's a charming house altogether," she went on, sitting down opposite her brother. "There's some pleasant memory in every room. In my room, only fancy, Grigory's grandfather shot himself."
And it's a testament to Chekhov's genius that of the conclusions of the last two stories in the collection, the self-realization of the first nearly makes a happy ending, while the self-delusion of the second surely makes an unhappy one:
"From Koltovitch's copse and garden there came a strong fragrant scent of lilies of the valley and honey-laden flowers. Pyotr Mihalitch rode along the bank of the pond and looked mournfully into the water. And thinking about his life, he came to the conclusion he had never said or acted upon what he really thought, and other people had repaid him in the same way. And so the whole of life seemed to him as dark as this water in which the night sky was reflected and water-weeds grew in a tangle. And it seemed to him that nothing could ever set it right." (from "Neighbours")
Trying to look like a bird, the princess fluttered into the carriage and nodded in all directions. There was a gay, warm, serene feeling in her heart, and she felt herself that her smile was particularly soft and friendly. As the carriage rolled towards the gates, and afterwards along the dusty road past huts and gardens, past long trains of waggons and strings of pilgrims on their way to the monastery, she still screwed up her eyes and smiled softly. She was thinking there was no higher bliss than to bring warmth, light, and joy wherever one went, to forgive injuries, to smile graciously on one's enemies. The peasants she passed bowed to her, the carriage rustled softly, clouds of dust rose from under the wheels and floated over the golden rye, and it seemed to the princess that her body was swaying not on carriage cushions but on clouds, and that she herself was like a light, transparent little cloud. . . .
"How happy I am!" she murmured, shutting her eyes. "How happy I am!" (from "The Princess")
Terri Windling's Introduction to Charles de Lint's Dreams Underfoot (1993) accurately describes the “urban magic” infusing the collection of nineteen short stories as using “the tools of myth, folklore and fantasy” to “record dreams,” mixing “ancient folklore motifs and contemporary urban characters.” Most of the nineteen stories in the collection are set in Newford, de Lint's fictional American city of subway and alleys, parks and rivers, cafes and clubs, university and library, cathedral and record shop, dangerous districts and upscale neighborhoods, official and unofficial histories, and so on. In his stories de Lint presents us with a series of urban protagonists (outsiders like artists, writers, or musicians) who are confronted with some disorienting fantastic thing or being and then must decide whether to reject it as only a dream or to incorporate it into their world-views.
The collection begins promisingly, when in "Uncle Dobbin's Parrot Fair" (1987), a middle-aged woman takes in a beaten punk teen, and their respective fantasies (benign balloon men and demonic booger) conflict at the beach, informed by an urban fantasy short story.
In the funny and scary "Stone Drum" (1989), Jilly Coppercorn has an eye-opening encounter with the goblin-like denizens of the subterranean Old City that leads her to become an artist specializing in urban faerie.
"Timeskip" (1989), narrated by Jilly's friend, the street fiddler Geordie Riddell, is a romantic story about his tragic encounter with a time traveling ghost.
In "Freewheeling" (1990) Jilly tries to protect a simple boy who goes around Newford at night freeing locked bicycles to ride off on their own.
In "That Explains Poland" (1988) the spunky Latina narrator LaDonna recounts her hunt for Bigfoot in the derelict and slummy part of town.
In "Romano Drom" (1989) punk singer-guitarist Lorio encounters a wounded hyena-wolf being who introduces her to the war raging between forces of creation and destruction on the multiple roads between the multiple worlds.
In "The Sacred Fire" (1989) Nicky Straw is tired of hunting and being hunted by vampire-like monsters who pose as human beings to eat their life fire.
"Winter Was Hard" (1991) is a moving story depicting the relationship between Jilly, some girlish punkish place-spirits, and a writer living in a home for the aged.
"Pity the Monsters" (1991) features an immigrant to Newford from England, a creepy old woman, and a scary multiple-personality "monster" called Frank.
"Ghosts of Wind and Shadow" (1990) depicts the struggle of a conventional mother who has rejected faerie to understand her teenaged daughter who is drawn to it, while the Oak King's daughter and her wizard-bard husband help out.
In "The Conjure Man" (1992) local poetess Wendy St. James learns about the Tree of Tales.
Graveyard shift DJ Zoe Brill is approached by a spooky handsome guy with a knack for giving people bad luck in "Small Deaths" (1993).
"The Moon Is Drowning While I Sleep" (1993) features Sophie Etoile telling Jilly about her vivid dreams in which she is supposed to rescue the maternal moon.
"In the House of My Enemy" (1993) is the most harrowing and moving story in the collection (and is the one story that doesn't feature the fantastic), as we learn why Jilly is so keen to help waifs like this pregnant girl from the streets.
In "But for the Grace Go I" (1991) Maisie Flood, a street-wise young woman taking care of a mental institution cast off and a pack of dogs while squatting in an abandoned house, tells how receiving a mysterious letter changed her life.
In "Bridges" (1992) Moira Jones has moved to Newford to escape her bad high school reputation when she walks into an Escher-esque world of hope and despair.
"Our Lady of the Harbour" (1991) retells the Little Mermaid story, the target of her desperate love being a genius musician who cares only for music.
In "Paperjack" (1991) Geordie (with help from Jilly and a mysterious old black man who is an origami sensei) tries to come to terms with the tragic events of "Timeskip."
In the last story of the collection, "Tallulah" (1991), Christy Riddell, whose stories have been popping up throughout Dreams Underfoot, explains his (and de Lint's!) themes "about love and loss, honor and the responsibilities of friendship, and wonder, always wonder" and recounts his intense relationship with a mysterious, well-read, punky woman who can only be with him at night.
I liked the sense of Newford that de Lint builds more richly with each successive story. I liked the connections between music, art, writing, and magic. I enjoyed Jilly Coppercorn popping up in multiple stories. I cared about many of his characters. And I like the idea of a world into which the fantastic may intrude at any moment.
However, I found that nineteen stories was about ten too many, for I became tired of their base pattern (spunky, punky, tough but tender outsider artist type protagonists, in medias res openings, explanatory flashbacks, and climactic epiphany endings). Too often de Lint signals early on that the fantastic is real, so that when his characters encounter it and try to figure out if it is real or not, the reader has no doubt. And although there are moments of wonder in many of the stories, they're usually not so sublime or enduring (unlike similar moments in, say, John Crowley's Little, Big).
Kate Reading’s voice is clear, compassionate, and appealing as she reads the stories, and she modulates her voice effectively for male and female characters. But her compassion combined with the over-familiarity I began feeling with de Lint’s typical story to nearly become cloying by the end of the collection.
I might return to Newford in the future via one of de Lint’s novels set there, but not for a while.
A dog drowning in a tank full of water is pulled out by researchers just in time to be revived in order to undergo future such "experiments" to determine how long he can swim before drowning. After detachedly agreeing on the proper time at which to fish the dog out of the tank, Mr. Powell and his chief Dr. Boycott discuss a monkey who is to be indefinitely subjected to sensory deprivation in a cylinder. Business as usual at the Animal Research Scientific and Experimental (ARSE) complex situated in a national park in the Lake District in England in The Plague Dogs (1977) by Richard Adams.
The drowning dog, Rowf, regains consciousness in his pen when his neighbor, a fox terrier named Snitter, wakes him up by saying something like "Rowf? They've taken away all the rhododendrons and replaced them with maggots." Snitter has received experimental brain surgery, leaving him with a "rakish" bandage cap, periodic nightmarish fits, and the belief that either everything is happening inside his own head or that everything he imagines comes true in the world. Snitter is by turns a sensitive and thoughtful dog or a mad canine seer in the line of Lear's Fool. In the beginning of the novel, the dogs manage to escape from their pens and embark on a Dantean journey through the circles of hell, a series of experiment rooms populated by cats with covered ears and eyes, guinea pigs with amputated limbs, homing pigeons with damaged sensory organs and brains, mice who've been injected with the urine of potentially pregnant women, rats who've been given cancer and then dissected, and so on. (Many more horrible experiments are described later in the novel, and probably no single real world laboratory complex could perform all the experiments undertaken by ARSE, and for that matter no research institute would ever name itself ARSE, but all of the experiments mentioned in The Plague Dogs have been and or are being done to animals.) Much more than in Adams' Watership Down (1972), we are here in the fearsomely human-dominated world experienced by animals.
After Rowf and Snitter escape from ARSE, they struggle to survive among the farms, fells, tarns, and mountains of the Lake District. Should they try to find a good master like Snitter's recently deceased man? Should they go wild and live by a kill or be killed code? Or should they return to the "white coats" (researchers) like obedient dogs?
In addition to the unempathic white coats, Adams introduces a cast of human characters affected by the escape of the "plague dogs," an unethical investigative newspaper reporter, no-nonsense local farmers and shop keepers, and some self-serving politicians. None of them care about the dogs as fellow living beings. As Rowf repeatedly tells Snitter, "The world is a bad place for animals." The dogs want to believe that the world is like that due to some unknown human motivation, that men must have a good reason to "destroy the natural world and replace it with a wilderness" and to hurt so many animals. The novel depicts dogs (like most animals) as slaves or holocaust victims of humanity.
The Plague Dogs would be unbearably grim were it not for two balancing virtues, Adams' humor and varied style. The book is often very funny, even amid the grueling suspense of Rowf and Snitter's attempts to survive outside ARSE and the horrible experiments going on inside ARSE. And Adams writes in a variety of registers and styles for a variety of purposes, among them caustic satire (targeting scientific research, the media, and politicians), existential comedy, surreal madness, scatological humor, sublime natural beauty (especially of the Lake District), Lake District dialects, doggy songs and poetry, and allusions to literature by the likes of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. Adams even pokes fun at himself when some naturalist animal experts debate the virtues of enthusiasts like Adams who over-anthropomorphize animals like rabbits (in Watership Down).
Snitter often utters a Fool-like patter like this: "Perhaps you're not out at all. You're drowned. We're dead. We haven't been born. There's a mouse—a mouse that sings—I'm bitten to the brains and it never stops raining—not in this eye anyway." And when excited, he may indulge in a cracked canine rap like this:
"The white coats dyed a mouse bright blue
And stuffed his ears with sneezing glue.
They shone a biscuit in his eye
To see what lay beyond the sky."
And he's often given to canine idiom, like this: "That remark's in very poor smell."
If Rowf and Snitter are too articulate for dogs, they have appealingly canine perspectives. They tend to think that every mysterious thing that happens is a result of some man doing something somewhere, from turning on a light in a lab room to cutting away pieces of the moon each night. They even tell tales of a benevolent Star Dog who created all the animals and then the world to give them a home and then made man to take care of the animals while He was away on other business and who cursed man with never being able to live in the moment after he began abusing his charges.
Ralph Cosham gives his usual unassuming and perfect reading of the novel, handling the northern dialects so smoothly that it's easier to listen to them than to read them, making his Rowf speak slightly deeper and his Snitter slightly higher, and generally enhancing the novel in all the right ways.
Adams's anger with animal experimentation burns through his satiric riffs and sarcastic asides. He pulls no punches about how awfully we treat animals. Proponents of experiments on animals for the supposed future benefits to science, humanity, and animals might feel defensive and resentful reading this novel, while opponents of such experiments might become enraged and nauseated. At times Adams lays it on too thickly, with a bit more sarcasm or satire than the truth requires, and some of the parts devoted to unpleasant people last a bit too long and repeat too much information. And I love and worry about Rowf and Snitter so much that I nearly thought about putting the book down when their plight becomes unbearable, but finally I am glad to have read this novel.
The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Maddox Ford is "the saddest story" the narrator has ever heard, but because it's so well written about unlikeable characters who have been emotionally destroyed before the first chapter begins, it engrossed rather than moved me. The narrator, John Dowell, a Pennsylvania Quaker and a member of the American idle rich, is telling the tragic story of the relationships in the early 20th century Europe between himself and his wife, Florence, the relationship then between a married couple of the English aristocracy, Captain Edward Ashburnham ("the good soldier") and his wife Leonora, and the relationships between the four of them. He's telling the story in the way that people who witness disasters like "the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people" feel compelled to write about them for the benefit of future generations or simply "to get the sight out of their heads." Unsure whether to begin at the beginning and progress chronologically to the end, or to tell his imagined listener whatever comes to his mind when it comes and to fill in missing things as needed, he settles on the latter method. This makes the novel innovative for its time, an early example of modernism, though without the stream of consciousness of writers like Virginia Woolf. Dowell recounts how his wife, "poor dear Florence," was, he thought, an invalid with a heart condition that required him to live as her caretaker for the twelve years they were together, carefully monitoring all subjects of conversation to suppress any "dangerous" topics (involving religion or strong emotions or politics, etc.) so as to avoid upsetting her weak heart. It also involved complete celibacy, so that her bedroom door (in whatever European resort or spa hotel they happened to be staying in) was always locked to him. After three years in Europe, Dowell and Florence met the Ashburnhams in Nauheim, Germany, a famous heart spa town, and for over nine years the two couples made a happy foursome, Dowell believed, and if the apple he thought was perfect turned out to be rotten at the core after nearly nine years and six months, to him it was delicious until the end of that period.
This is not to spoil the book, because from the beginning Dowell tells us that the two seemingly happy loving couples, who seemed to make together "an extraordinarily safe castle," or "one of those tall ships with the white sails upon a blue sea, one of those things that seem the proudest and safest of all the beautiful and safe things that God has permitted the mind of man to frame," or a perfectly choreographed and instinctively coordinated "minuet de la cour," were destroyed by adultery, falseness, hatred, love, and death. The Good Soldier employs the cuckoldry or philandering of husbands, the duplicity or domination of wives, and the innocent cruelty of youth to explore the opacity of human nature, the impossibility of knowing what another person (especially a spouse) is really feeling and thinking, and the ungovernable nature of the human heart.
Despite Ford's incisive insights into our flawed human nature, the different influences of Protestant and Catholic Christianities on true believers, and the differences between early 20th century American and British characters and cultures, and despite his vivid metaphors, distilled dialogue, innovatively non-chronological story-telling, and perfectly constructed narrative (told by a man scrupulously relating the history of his devastating obtuseness), The Good Soldier and its characters were rather unpleasant.
The reading by Ralph Cosham is, like any book he reads, flawlessly delivered without showing off, adding to his voice the perfectly appropriate emotion and intention for every scene in the novel without any straining after different characters' voices. The problem is that whereas Cosham's method and style and voice are all just right for Watership Down, The Plague Dogs, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Robinson Crusoe, for example, here his tendency to turn phrases and sentences down at their ends works with the sordid story to make it all the more of a downer.
I recommend this novel to people who like a good tragedy revealed in layers and layers (like a morose and moldy onion being unpeeled little by little), or to people who want to read one of the best 100 novels in the English language to see what it's like and how it was innovative, or to people who are interested in plumbing the sad and mysterious depths of the human heart.
Two Years Before the Mast (1840/1869) is a slow-paced and absorbing book. In it Richard Henry Dana, Jr. recounts with the aid of his diary entries how he went to sea in 1834 on an American merchant ship called The Pilgrim, sailing south from Boston, going around Cape Horn, and then north to work in the cow-hide trade off the coast of California. He'd left his studies at Harvard University (and his status as scion of an elite Boston family) to work as a novice common sailor to improve his measles-weakened eyes.
Rather than a ripping sea adventure yarn (the only naval action ala Hornblower or Aubrey/Maturin being a suspenseful moment when the Pilgrim eludes a suspicious ship flying no colors), Dana intended to fill a void in the sea literature of his day by authentically showing what it was like to be a "Jack before the mast" on a merchant ship in the age of sail, because the norm then was fictional and inaccurate accounts penned by former naval officers and civilian passengers. His “design,” as he puts it, "is to present the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is, -- the light and the dark together." So he devotes much of his narrative to detailing the workings of a ship in fair weather and foul on weekdays and Sundays, including accounts of the work done (reefing, furling, and maintaining the various masts, yards, sails, and lines, as well as keeping watch, cleaning the decks, mending clothes, stowing hides, etc.), the food and drink consumed, the power hierarchy obeyed, the indelicate masculine culture endured, the few leisure activities enjoyed, and so on. He also depicts the changing features of the lands, oceans, and climates of the different latitudes and longitudes through which he sailed during his two-year sojourn.
I confess to being unable to clearly visualize Dana's detailed accounts of managing the different parts of the ship's rigging (topgallants, studdings, royals, mizzens, hawsers, cleats, tackles, yards, etc.) and to daydreaming through them. I still don’t have a clue as to what a clew line is, but it's not really necessary to follow all the nautical details, because Dana so vividly conveys the challenging, skilful, and crucial nature of the work.
In addition to giving such factual information, Dana achieves by turns a sublime poetry (from endless oceanic vistas to gargantuan ice bergs), a comic touch (for human foibles and salty phrases), a suspenseful flair (during cataclysmic storms involving rain, hail, snow, ice, thunder and lightening, driving winds, and vast swells), and a sanely indignant tone (at the abuses of power by the captains directed at the sailors). And he believes that "We must come down from our heights, and leave our straight paths, for the byways and low places of life, if we would learn truths by strong contrasts; and in hovels, in forecastles, and among our own outcasts in foreign lands, see what has been wrought upon our fellow-creatures by accident, hardship, or vice." Indeed, Dana’s younger self was open-minded, admiring uneducated but brilliant, handsome, or interesting shipmates and making fast friends with the Hawaiians who lived on the California coast to sell their services to the ships plying the cow hide trade there.
As a native of California, I was fascinated by Dana’s description of its coast in the first half of the 19th century. Places like San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Barbara, San Juan Capistrano, Los Angeles, and San Diego were all so different from what they are today, being sparsely populated, undeveloped, and colorfully and sleepily California-Spanish-Mexican. I'd always regretted America grabbing California from Mexico by war, but Dana reveals some unappealing aspects of Mexican-Californian culture, how it rigidly divided classes according to skin-color, with the aristocrats at the top being those with “purest” Spanish blood and the Indian serfs (at best) at the bottom doing all the hard and dirty work in return for poor food and shabby loincloths. Not to mention the related unfair application of justice, the need to convert to Catholicism to be able to live there, and the brutal use of horses and avid bull and cock fighting.
Two Years Before the Mast was first published in 1840, but this audiobook is the 1869 revised edition that includes a long epilogue in which Dana revisits California 24 years after he was there as a young man, describing the explosive growth of San Francisco and his feeling of nostalgia for the demise of the California cow-hide trade he loathed so much when he had to labor in it and bringing us up to date on the lives and fates of the ships he sailed on and the men he sailed and worked with.
I really liked Bernard Mayes' reading of Herodotus' Histories, as his gravelly, thin, and dry voice aptly evoked a witty and aged Herodotus, so I was looking forward to listening to his reading of Two Years Before the Mast, but I found myself at times wishing for a younger man's voice for this book, for Mayes' tended to crack and quaver when shouting ship-board orders. But he is in fine form through most of the book and in moments like when an enraged captain flogs two men, roaring with peevish tyranny, "If you want to know what I flog you for, I'll tell you. It's because I like to do it!-because I like to do it!-It suits me! That's what I do it for!"
There are two flaws in this audiobook: it lacks Dana's interesting footnotes and offers occasional faint microphone bumps.
Finally, brief remarkable moments like when Dana observes the white sails of his ship full of quiet breeze like a marble pyramid on a starry night or when he watches a solitary albatross asleep with his head under his wing, rising and falling slowly up and down the heavy swell of the waves make Two Years Before the Mast a classic.
Jonathan Rebeck, the failed pharmacist-cum-witch-doctor, has been living in the Yorkchester cemetery (half the size of Central Park) in NYC for 19 years, hiding there from the real world of living humanity. His only friends are the profane talking raven who brings him bologna and roast beef sandwiches and the like, and the new ghosts who confusedly appear before him after their bodies have been interred and, he believes, need him to act as cemetery guide, guidance counselor, and friend for about a month, the length of time it typically takes them to forget every aspect of their living lives and so to finally disappear.
Into his precocious first novel, A Fine and Private Place (1960), Peter S. Beagle soon introduces some complications into Rebeck’s comfortable life: Michael Morgan, a former history professor who believes that his wife poisoned him but who has to admit that he can’t remember whether or not he committed suicide, Laura Durand, a young woman who lived her life with too little confidence and too much longing and delusion until a truck ran her over, Gertrude Klapper, a feisty middle-aged Jewish widow who visits the cemetery to check on the huge mausoleum that she had built for her husband, and Campos, a giant, taciturn Cuban who works the nightshift in the cemetery. The rest of the novel depicts the developing relationships, characters, conversations, and monologues of these ghosts and people as they discuss and search for love and the nature and meaning of death and life.
It's amazing to me that Beagle wrote the book when he was only 19, because he's so good at depicting adults and at opining sagely on life and death, in addition to being a ready-hand with apt allusions to and quotations from various literary works and figures. And he effortlessly captures the voices of gabbing New Yorkers.
In fact, the novel tends to be too talky. Beagle likes to set his characters wittily, metaphorically, and philosophically pattering to each other and themselves, and at times I thought, “Enough already with the humorous comparisons and quotable aphorisms and psychological probings and intense debates! Let’s quit showing off and get going with the story now, OK?”
But there are many great lines in the novel, among them:
"Death is something that has to be learned. Just like life, only you don't have to learn so fast because you've got more time."
"Heaven and Hell are only for the living."
“He [a sanguine squirrel hitching a ride on a truck] drew himself erect on the tailgate, as if he were facing a firing squad, having just rejected blindfold and cigarette.”
“Her hands moved in her lap like captured butterflies. ‘Death has been very good to me,’ she said finally.”
“I will love you all the days of my death, however few or many they may be. As long as I can remember love, I will love you.”
"Love is no excuse for bad taste."
“I think the only way to become real is to be real to yourself and to someone else. Love has nothing to do with it.”
“So they strayed around the cemetery, trying hard to look like an average middle-aged couple, and secretly believing that anyone could look at them and tell that they were very unusual people who were about to do a very unusual thing.”
“Asking a favor of Campos, Rebeck thought, was like praying to a jade god with blind onyx eyes.”
“The dead do not appreciate the importance of gestures to the living.”
“Sainthood is not for me, nor wisdom, nor purity. Only pharmacy, and such love as I have not buried and lost.”
And the novel movingly treats the transitory nature of life and love (even for the dead!).
I like Peter S. Beagle's reading voice and manner. It sounds appealingly New Yorkish, warm, nasal, and deep. Although he hardly changes his voice for different characters (female, young, male, old, raven, squirrel, living, dead, etc.), so that his reading is as far from that of an actor like Tim Curry as it's possible to get, being the author of the novel he sure understands the meanings and moods of his words, story, and characters and reads with perfect pace, and when a character is angry or sad or happy or introspective, his voice expresses the emotion just right. And he has a savory Spanish singing voice, too.
Fans of light urban fantasy and psychological ghost stories with a melancholy, philosophical, romantic, and NYC backbone should enjoy A Fine and Private Place.
The sub-title of Daniel Defoe's novel Moll Flanders (1722) says it (almost) all:
"The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums."
It sure is an odd book! I suspect Defoe of having his cake and eating it too, of presenting Moll’s story as a cautionary tale replete with Christian moral lessons, but also writing what was for its era a titillating, suspenseful, and social novel. After a rather slow first half or so, in which Moll recounts her birth in Newgate Prison, her childhood, her youth, and her romantic relations in a well-to-do family, as well as her marrying of the first two or so of her several husbands, her story becomes more involving and exciting as she begins thieving. This second half is more compelling because it is morally disturbing and darkly revealing of human nature, and because Defoe gets the reader to root for the careful, quick, and lucky Moll as she frankly recounts doing wicked criminal acts that must psychologically and financially hurt her victims. She tells us of robbing a little girl of a gold necklace and even contemplating killing her to silence her, of robbing a woman whose house is on fire by pretending to be there to help her, and of tricking a host of gullible or unobservant maids, tavern boys, shopkeepers, traders, gentlemen, gentlewomen, justices and constables, and even fellow thieves. Defoe must have done a lot of research into the practices of pickpockets, shoplifters, and scam artists.
We know from the sub-title of the novel and hints that she sprinkles about that Moll will be caught, and one of the pleasures of the novel involves anticipating and then finding out how things that we know will happen to her (like marrying her brother) will come to pass. Despite gaining enough money from her thieving to live comfortably on and despite seeing several colleagues collared, imprisoned, and either transported to the colonies or hanged, Moll continues her criminal career, offering up moral lessons about how we should be more observant when among strangers and about how the devil, fate, poverty, and avarice can lead people into wickedness. Moll is a fascinating character: fearlessly honest to her reader in narrating her exploits and cannily dishonest to nearly everyone she encounters, from her victims to her confidante-mentor "governess" and her husbands and son.
Defoe establishes the authenticity of Moll's story by saying that he has edited her "memorandums." And it is easy to read Moll Flanders, like Robinson Crusoe, forgetting about Defoe and believing in the reality of his fictional autobiographical narrator. Although Moll is a very different person from Robinson, being more sinful and less pious, as well as being more reliant on society than on nature to make her living, both characters are intelligent, resourceful, and strong-spirited in the face of exceptional adversity.
The imagination necessary for Defoe to write in the voice of Moll Flanders as a “real” woman must have involved a good deal of empathy for women and sympathy with their plight in the male-dominated and morally corrupt early 18th century. A woman like Moll born in Newgate Prison had few opportunities to make something of herself, and she was lucky to wind up in a relatively nurturing and comfortable place, but even if she were fortunate enough to find a good husband, he would automatically possess any of her assets which she hadn’t previously hidden. The end of the novel was partly disappointing, because it seems as if Moll (and Defoe?) has forgotten her many victims as she complacently lists her and her "gentleman" husband's plantation wealth and luxury objects almost as though they are heavenly rewards for having become "penitent." But throughout the novel Defoe does express through Moll many devastating insights into human nature, among them the fact that in time anyone may become used to hell, as Moll and her fellow inmates come to accept living in Newgate Prison.
Davina Porter is a clear and engaging reader, with a rich and gravelly voice, especially for men's lines, and she’s quite good at inflecting her speech for wit, grief, fear, or love (though all her men sound pretty much the same).
In short, if you are interested in the early 18th century (especially in their treatment of women and criminals) and in vivid novels about frankly wicked women of a certain age and experience, you should give Moll Flanders a try.
In Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998), 21st century historians at Oxford University use time travel to conduct eyewitness research into the pasts of their various specialties. Unfortunately for them, the wealthy and domineering Lady Schrapnell has temporarily bought their entire department by promising a vital endowment on the condition that their entire staff devotes itself to her pet project, the recreation in Oxford of Coventry Cathedral exactly as it was before being fire bombed by the Germans during World War II. Single-minded, she cares nothing for the delicate aspects of time travel, such as the condition of "time-lag," extreme fatigue and disorientation caused by too many time "drops" into the past in too quick succession, or the natural laws of "the time continuum" and "the conservation of history" that prevent historians from changing historical turning points by blocking access to the time machine-like "net" or by forcing into their time drops temporal or spatial "slippage" to different times and or places so as to avoid "parachronistic incongruities" (time paradoxes). It is ostensibly impossible to bring objects or living creatures from the past into the present, which has led big corporations to abandon the technology and yield it to academics.
Ned Henry has recently done so many drops for Lady Schrapnell that he's suffering from a bad case of time-lag, which causes him to hear the wrong words, to hallucinate, and even to fall in love at first sight with Verity Kindle, a fellow researcher. Lady Schrapnell has mobilized the Oxford staff to find the "bird stump" (an "atrocity" of Victorian art) belonging at some point to the Bishop of Coventry Cathedral, because the artifact apparently inspired her ancestor Tocelyn "Tossie" Mering to change her life for the better, and the deadline for the 21st century consecration of the "new" cathedral is rapidly approaching. Ned is sent by his teacher Mr. Dunworthy back to Victorian Oxford in June of 1888 to hide from Lady Schrapnell and to rest and recover from his time-lag and also to return a cat that Verity unthinkingly rescued from drowning and brought back with her into the 21st century, thereby risking intense and potentially far-reaching parachronistic incongruities that might cause Germany to have won WWII before the time continuum is able to repair itself. The rest of the novel follows the comically frustrating attempts of Ned and Verity to find the cat (Princess Arjumand) and to return it to the pretty and spoiled Tossie and to ensure that she marries the right man and hence that the Victorian past follows its proper course to the proper 21st century.
While Willis' earlier novel, Doomsday Book (1992), features the same 21st century Oxford University historical time traveling research center, it has a completely different mood, dealing with two horrific plagues centuries apart and being a devastating tragedy of biology, fate, and history. To Say Nothing of the Dog, by contrast, is a time travel detective comedy of manners, featuring many mysteries (Who is the mysterious "C" whom Tossie must marry? Where is the Bishop's bird stump? Just what is the true temporal incongruity and who caused it and why? What is secretary Finch's secret mission?) and references to vintage literary detectives, as well as much satire of Victorian culture and human nature. Willis' characters repeatedly mistake the meaning of their interlocutors and the nature of phenomena, making for droll conversations and scenes. The novel is laced--often wittily--with references to historical personages and events, from important battles like Waterloo, documents like Magna Carta, events like the French Revolution, and figures like Abraham Lincoln. A pair of eccentric Victorian Oxford professors are feuding over the prime movers of history, whether blind natural forces or individual human actions, with Ned figuring that it's both those mixed up with chaos theory (because the time continuum is a "chaotic system" with myriad threads linking everything up). Willis loves history, especially the Victorian era, as well as literature like that by Shakespeare, Tennyson, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Sayers, and Lewis Carroll, and especially favors Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, from which she borrows messing about in boats on the Thames and detailed and enticing chapter sub-titles.
The novel is fun and funny, and there are some hilarious scenes, including a cutthroat croquet match, a church money-raising "fete," a contentious séance, and an appreciation of the crowded, clashing, and mawkish Christian, pagan, and historical motifs of the bishop's bird stump. However, too often I smiled rather than chuckled at Willis' constant humor and even wearied of it. Furthermore, while telling the story from Ned's point of view, she makes it too easy for the reader to divine the identity of "C," which made me impatient with Ned and Verity, who are intelligent young people. And my impatience was exacerbated by the related feeling that, no matter how much Ned and Verity believe they must correct the altered past to preserve history, after all it's only a cat, a marriage, and a bird stump. Especially during the many deliberations and explanations about time and diversions from history and incongruities and strategies for repairing them, I began muttering that finally Willis will just do whatever she wants with history and her story by having the deus ex machina time continuum correct or protect itself anyway, and To Say Nothing of the Dog should have been shorter, and I sure prefer the longer Doomsday Book, which haunted me for days after reading it
Stephen Crossley gives a great reading of the novel, full of wit and personality, and even manages to be humorously convincing when doing things like Tossie's baby talk to her cat and Mrs. Mering's hysterics.
I can't believe no one has written a review of or even rated The History of Titus Groan, the 2011 BBC radio dramatization of Mervyn Peake's wonderful Gormenghast trilogy and his widow Maeve Gilmore's moving fourth book, Titus Awakes. To be sure, it's probably best listened to by aficionados of the original novels, because it might be difficult to follow for someone unfamiliar with them. And yet it retains the grotesque grandeur and beauty of the original trilogy, as well as all of the important plot developments and many of the most memorable lines of Peake's prose, and the voice actors are all top notch. However, although I really wanted to like the radio drama and was caught up in most of it and moved or appalled by some of it, too much of it felt hurried and some of it felt irritating.
The radio production is made of six 50 or so minute episodes, Titus Arrives and Titus Inherits (mostly from Titus Groan), Titus Discovers and Titus Departs (mostly from Gormenghast), and Titus Abroad and Titus Alive (mostly from Titus Alone, with a little from Titus Awake). The adaptation begins with Titus arriving as a young man at an island where he takes up with an artist who has been sketching and painting scenes and figures provocatively similar to ones from Titus' past in the castle of his birth, Gormenghast. And as the young man and the older man talk about the pictures, they begin taking turns narrating the radio drama that follows, Titus setting the scenes and giving first-person psychological insights, the artist speaking the third person poetic and painterly descriptions, so that the narrative dialogue between the two provides the listener with context and imagery with which to understand the action and the lines of the various characters. Carl Prekopp and Miranda Richardson are excellent as Steerpike and Lady Gertrude, while Luke Treadaway and David Warner are perfect as the young adult Titus and the Peake-like artist-writer. And the radio-play is enhanced by sound effects (birds calling, babies crying, doors opening, shoe heels clacking, glass breaking, bells ringing, fires burning, and so on). The music usually works well with the story, but I often wished for it to be more spooky and melancholy and less electronic and hokey, especially when a theremin-like instrument warbles up like some old Doctor Who or Star Trek theme song and clashes with Gormenghast's stony, time-eaten buttresses.
I liked the first four episodes, which depict the birth of rebellious Titus (who as an infant violates the Book of Baptism and drops into a lake the symbols of his role as 77th Earl of Gormenghast) and the climb of amoral Steerpike (who as a youth insinuates himself into the heart of the castle) and the effects that both of these have on the ritual-clotted and hermetic castle culture and its eccentric inhabitants. These episodes also include sub-plots like the violent hatred between Flay and Swelter, Keda's tragic love, and Irma Prunesquallor's quest for a husband. Titus and the Artist work together smoothly as co-narrators, and it's a tribute to both Brian Sibley's adaptation and to the voice actors that the essence and texture of the first two dense novels are expressed in the radio medium. It does require concentration, because Sibley's text is distilled Peake, and if you daydream for a moment, you might miss some signpost for the next direction the adaptation takes. And things felt a bit rushed or sketchy for key story arcs like the flood and the hunt for Steerpike.
The last two episodes, which mainly adapt the third book in Peake's trilogy, Titus Alone, made for difficult listening. The disorienting sense of being in a more modern and science fictional world than Gormenghast is effectively conveyed, both by the text and the sound effects for cars, airplanes, police radios, glass surveillance globes, and the like. But Titus is so self-centered, proud, nervous, confused, and often delirious, that Luke Treadaway is too often reduced to sobby or febrile voice acting, which began making me grit my teeth. As in Titus Alone, the courtroom scene is great, but I missed the missing Under River sequence, and was too relieved when Cheeta's surprise party for Titus ends. But the last fifteen minutes, taken from Gilmore's Titus Awakes, movingly conclude the whole thing and nearly redeem all other problems of the dramatization. Titus and the Artist, character and creator, kindred spirits, recognize each other in a simultaneously voiced "You."
If you've read the Gormenghast trilogy and you like well-produced radio dramas, you would probably like this one. But I prefer Sibley's earlier BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (1981) because it's roomier (13:19) than The History of Titus Groan (5:42) and hence has more of its original novels in it.
When fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away from his Tokyo home, he brings with him a supply-filled backpack, a boy called Crow (his "imaginary" friend or "real" alter-ego), and a heavy load of Oedipal baggage. In Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku, he begins frequenting a private library staffed by Oshima, the beautiful, well-read, and understanding young man behind the front desk, and Miss Saeki, the middle-aged woman in charge who could be Kafka's mother, who abandoned him when he was a little boy. Meanwhile, back in Tokyo an old man called Nakata tries to find a missing calico cat called Goma. When he was an elementary school student during WWII, Nakata fell into a mysterious coma and woke up from it empty of memory, including the ability to read and write. He therefore receives a government subsidy for the mentally impaired, supplementing that income by finding lost cats, which is facilitated by his coma-granted ability to speak with felines.
In Kafka on the Shore (2002) Haruki Murakami suspensefully and entertainingly merges those two plot strands in chapters that alternate between the protagonists' points of view. And the novel, which begins mysteriously (Why is Kafka running away? Why is Kafka his alias? Why does he hate his father? Why did his mother run off with his sister and leave him behind? Who exactly is the boy called Crow? Is the young woman he meets on the bus his sister? What is Oshima's story? What happened to Nakata when he was a boy? Can he really speak with cats? What is his connection to Kafka? Etc.), is also at first quirkily charming. But it darkens, like a bright dream of flight morphing into a nightmare in which you commit terrible acts and are pursued and prodded by strange forces and fates beyond your will. The novel remains funny throughout, but becomes ever-more thought-provoking, frightening, and moving.
Murakami relishes dismantling the boundary between reality and fantasy, waking and dreaming, the flesh and the spirit, which makes reading his books--like this one--a disorienting experience. On the one hand, his characters navigate a sea of cultural artifacts and signs that would seem to fix them (and us) in the real world, like Radiohead and Prince, Chunichi Dragons baseball caps and Nike tennis shoes, weight-lifting machines and routines, and Japanese noodles and omelets, and his characters perform everyday physical actions like eating, eliminating, washing, and sleeping. On the other hand, they may be led by a talking dog to a fancy house where a madman who is making a flute from the souls of cats asks them to do something awful, meet "concepts" who take the form of cultural icons like Colonel Sanders, wake up in strange places splattered with blood without having any idea of what happened, have sex with ghosts, dreamers, or spirits, or enter hermetic worlds outside time. That juxtaposition between the cultural and sensual and the fantastic and spiritual is one of the appeals of Murakami's fiction.
Finally, though, when Kafka on the Shore ended, I felt somehow disappointed. I felt partly that either I'm not smart enough or careful enough a reader to see all the loose ends tied up or that Murakami left some things a bit too vague. And I felt partly that Kafka is too precocious for 15, knows too much, is too capable, and that Murakami's device of demonstrating his youth by making him easily blush is too pat. When Kafka guesses that a piano sonata is by Schubert because it doesn't sound like one by Beethoven or Schumann, or sees that a man "has three days' worth of stubble on his face," or knows that a pair of soldiers from over 60 years ago are carrying Arisaka rifles, I am jarred from suspension of disbelief. As a result, when Kafka is plunging into a dense forest as he tries to whistle the complex tune of John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" until he reaches the piano solo by McCoy Tyner, I understand that Murakami is amplifying the labyrinth effect, but it strikes me that he's also showing off his cultural knowledge through an unconvincing vehicle.
And that made me think that, although most of the sex scenes in the novel are necessary for the story, for at least one Murakami seems to be indulging a desire to titillate, as when he has a university philosophy student "sex machine" girl perform oral sex on a truck driver while quoting and explaining concepts from Bergson and Hegel. The philosophical ideas tie in with things going on in the novel, but perhaps could have been communicated less raunchily.
All that said, I loved Nakata and was moved by his past and present, and enjoyed his relationship with the ignorant and feckless young truck driver Hoshino, whom I also came to like a lot. And I was intrigued and moved by Kafka's relationship with Oshima. And I am glad to have read Kafka on the Shore. It made me think about things like the ever-decreasing darkness in our modern city nights and the ever-present darkness in the human heart, the relationships between metaphors and the world, and the rooms of memory that we maintain because life consists of losing precious things. It also made me want to read "In the Penal Colony," The Tale of Genji, and The 1001 Nights and to listen to Beethoven's Archduke Trio, to eat broiled fish, and to try again to talk with a cat.
The readers are superb, especially Sean Barrett as Nakata and Hoshino. Listening to Barrett narrate Nakata's strange and sad childhood and life and then deliver Nakata's lines in his aged, diffident, and beautiful voice (as when he says, "Nakata is not very bright," or "Grilled eggplants and vinegared cucumbers are some of Nakata's favorites," or especially "I felt them, through your hands") was very moving. And Oliver Le Sueur is a convincing Kafka, ultra bright, sincere, and thoughtful.
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