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The Inimitable Jeeves is the funniest audiobook I???ve listened to. Bertie Wooster is a consummately idle idle rich chappie, rather foolish and none too intelligent and prone to getting into absurd fixes regarding women, betting (what he calls sporting), or relatives. Bertie's laconic "genius" valet Jeeves relies on his network of connections among the upper crust???s servants and cooks and butlers and his knowledge of human nature and of Bertie???s foibles to fish Bertie ???out of the soup??? or even to solve Bertie???s mooching friend Bingo Little???s serial love troubles. If all that weren't enough, Jeeves prepares the perfect cup of tea and is a reliable (though severe) arbiter of fashion.
The chapters tell a linked set of amusing and suspenseful stories with colorful characters and perfect, comical payoffs. All are narrated by Bertie in the first person, so that the reader is treated to a plethora of colorful similes (???He lugged them out of the drawer as if he were a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of the salad???) and slang. Influenced by Bertie, I now find myself ???biffing??? about saying things like "the rummy thing" and "eh, what?" and "ripping fine day" and "simply topping" and "what's the sitch" (situation)" and "cove" (guy) and and ???right-o??? and ???he???s got a goodish pile??? (money) and "rather" and "What the deuce" and ???Dash it all." At one point Bertie asks Jeeves, ???Did you put that pie-faced infant up to bally-ragging Mr. Basington-Basington???? Another time he asks Jeeves if some ???chappie is not a blighter or an excrescence.??? I could go on and on quoting the exquisite Bertie-isms!
And the reader, Frederick Davidson, is perfect, making Bertie sound so refined and buffoonish and sophisticated and ignorant, and Jeeves so terse and superior. Even if you didn't usually like Davidson's manner, you couldn't resist his Bertie!
When I began Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929), a fictional essay based on lectures about "women and fiction" that Woolf presented at two Cambridge University women's colleges, I expected to find a well-written proto-feminist tract (if not a "blazing polemic" as the book description on Audible calls it). I did not expect to find a beautiful, funny, stimulating, and readable pleasure. While expressing Woolf's plea that women be accorded the same things that most men have always taken for granted--enough money, privacy, space, and freedom to live and write how they will--her book presents a concise history of (mostly) British literature and a modest account of aesthetic creation, both informed by an accurate and respectful view of the sexes. Although she twice humorously confirms with her audience that no men are hiding in the room, Woolf wrote her book for both men and women. And though much of it is most applicable to the early 20th century, much of it is still relevant to the early 21st.
After introducing her core "opinion," that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," in the first chapter Woolf talks about visiting "Oxbridge," a fictional hybrid of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. There a Beadle gesticulates her off the grass, protecting the turf of the male Fellows and scholars. There a man tells her that ladies are only admitted to the library in the company of a Fellow or a letter of introduction. There she decides not to attempt to enter the chapel for a service. With sweet-tempered sour grapes, she figures that "the outside of these magnificent buildings is often as beautiful as the inside." She ponders all the gold and silver on which the university was built and is maintained and attends a sumptuous luncheon at a male college and a poor dinner at a woman's college.
Woolf's Oxbridge experience sends her in the second chapter to the British Museum to search its library for answers to questions like, "Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?" She discovers that all of the many books on women were written by men, many of whom, despite living in patriarchal England, must be angry at women because they suspect that women want to seize their power.
In the third chapter Woolf cites a dead bishop as opining "that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare." This inspires her to speculate on the lives of historically invisible middle-class Elizabethan women and to imagine Shakespeare's sister Judith, whose era prevented her from becoming a playwright and drove her to suicide.
Woolf gives a history of women authors in chapter four, beginning with a couple of "eccentric" 17th-century aristocrats derided for writing poetry, moving to the first middle-class woman to earn a living by her writing, and then comparing the four great 19th-century women novelists, Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, and George Elliot, explaining how difficult it was for them to write in a world in which women had no private rooms and could not own anything.
In Chapter Five, Woolf examines the state of contemporary women's fiction, riffs on the scarcity in past literature of women who are close friends with women, and advises the female author of today to "be truthful" and to write "as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself."
In the sixth chapter Woolf ties together threads from earlier chapters and promotes androgyny ("one must be woman-manly or man-womanly"), for any purely masculine or feminine mind will be sterile and barren. Interestingly, she also thinks that the sexes are too similar and that their differences should be increased. The conclusion to her book is that if women could have 500 pounds per year (enough to live on) and a room of their own (a private space) they may be themselves, write what they wish, and in time bring Shakespeare's sister to life.
Throughout her book Woolf explains interesting observations about literature: WWI replaced the "illusion" of romance with "reality," Charlotte Bronte's situation deformed her genius, "masterpieces are not single and solitary births," some writers (like Shakespeare) are more "incandescent" and "androgynous" than others, and fiction written with integrity (truth) intensifies the reader's experience of the world. And everywhere she writes supernally, whether describing prunes ("stringy as a miser's heart") or sunlight on windows ("The beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder"). Placing Woolf's great novels, To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and Orlando in the context of A Room of One's Own shows that she did write poetic, incandescent, and androgynous fiction illuminated by integrity and experience.
This audiobook version of A Room of One's Own, read to perfection by Juliet Stephenson, whose clear, intelligent, and sympathetic voice enhances Woolf's wry sense of humor, keen insights, beautiful imagery, original metaphors, and flowing sentences, is followed by four short stories by Woolf also read by Stephenson:
--"Monday or Tuesday," in which, "Lazy, indifferent, shaking space easily from his wings, knowing his way," a heron flies above a series of vivid images.
--"The Haunted House," in which a ghostly couple searches a house for buried treasure, "The light in the heart."
--"Kew Gardens," in which an intrepid snail tries to reach its goal as several imperfectly communicating couples walk by beautiful flowers.
--"The New Dress," in which Mabel Waring wretchedly regrets wearing the wrong dress to Mrs. Dalloway's party.
Adrash, the 30,000 year-old "god" of the world Jeroun, has spent the last 20,000 years trying without success to change the nature of humankind, whose petty and violent behavior (especially through their worship of him) has led to predictably cyclic rises and falls of civilizations. Bored, Adrash longs for the challenge of some prophet uniting the competing nations and feuding religious sects of Jeroun and leading them into war against him. But (sigh) people can't change, can they? Adrash thus has a decision to make: "Return to Jeroun as mankind's redeemer, or cleanse the world of mankind forever."
Zachary Jernigan's weird epic fantasy novel, No Return (2013), is largely about the human (in)ability to change, alternating between two story-strands featuring five point of view characters. One set, a man, a woman, and a "construct," are traveling together across the continent of Knoori to the city of Danoor, there to attend an influential combat tournament that's held once each decade. Vedas Tezul, a devout warrior monk, plans to win the tournament for his Black Suits, Anadrashi devoted to the downfall of Adrash and opposed to the White Suit Adrashi who worship him). For twenty years Vedas has not removed his skin-tight magical black armor (and has not had sex). Despite his faith, he suffers persistent guilt and grief whenever a child recruit to his Order is killed in a skirmish against the White Suits. Vedas' companion Berun is an assassin construct, a robot made of magical metallic spheres. Caring nothing for money or religion but liking fights and festivals, Berun plans to win the secular tournament following the religious one. Able to change his shape and to repair damage at will, the prodigiously strong Berun is a formidable fighter, but he can never tell whether his thoughts, feelings, and actions are his own or those of his mage creator-master-father ("Have I never admired anything for myself?"). Vedas and Berun's guide, Churli Casta Jons, is an earthy veteran/mercenary on the run from gambling debt collectors. Not overly religious ("I try not to mix religion and killing. . . it's liable to get you killed"), Churls will also enter the secular competition. She is either insane or haunted by her daughter's ghost, and the latter more likely possibility is scarier than the former. Vedas, Berun, and Churls are an entertaining trio as they travel through badlands, over steppes, and across bodies of water, for their relationships and problems feel real, funny, and moving (especially the sexual tension between Vedas and Churls). If they embrace change, there will be "no return."
Contrasting with the road buddies are Ebn Bon Mari and Pol Tanz Et Som, half-human, half-elder rivals in the Academy of Applied Magics. Ebn and Pol are Royal Outbound Mages, who don magical Void Suits to travel 30 miles up from Jeroun to the region of the moon, where Adrash lives. Ebn, Pol's mentor and captain, wants to appease Adrash by seducing him, while Pol, her handsome and gifted student, wants to impress the god by attacking him, each scheming against the other's plans and life. With their mutated bodies, intellectual superiority, merciless cruelty, sex magic, and unhealthy views of love ("The only true expression of [which] is submission"), Ebn and Pol are a morbidly fascinating pair to follow.
Complicating the above situations is a sentient species of nine-feet tall "elders" whose advanced cultures fell over 100,000 years ago and whose mummified bodies are so imbued with magic that "corpse miners" collect them so that their skin may be fashioned into Black Suits and White Suits for battle and Void Suits for space travel and their bones may be ground into dust for money and spells.
Not for the squeamish, the book has some unpredictable, suspenseful, arousing, revolting, and mythic violence and sex, most of it integral to the development of character, plot, and theme. The violence is never dully repetitive, and the sex can even be cosmically funny (it might convince you to never masturbate aboard a ship).
The novel is about love, friendship, parents and children, change and identity, free will and fate, and the drawbacks of organized religion. It has plenty of humor, beauty, weird wonder, and great writing:
Beauty: "She drank the sunlight like an elixir."
Violence: "carving people from crown to scarum."
Life: "Fate held a person like a mother holds her child, lovingly or with revulsion."
Romance: "Your name was the first word that came out of his mouth."
Sublime: “For a moment, the scope of the animal could not be fathomed. When she turned her head, the large black object a few feet from her head resolved itself into one of its talons. . . the animal seemed to be watching the city.”
Uncanny: “Holding her daughter's hand felt like air passing through her lungs.”
The reader of the audiobook, Jonathan FitzGibbon, is perfect. His base narration voice is nasally sophisticated, reminiscent of Vincent Price. All his character voices are interesting and appropriate. Vedas sounds frank, rational, and restrained, Berun deep, ponderous, and boomy, Churls sarcastic, seasoned, and coarsely accented, Ebn and Pol intellectual, arrogant, and decadent. And Churls' daughter sounds cute and creepy, a sweet kid learning to be a mighty ghost.
My disappointment lay in expecting No Return to be a self-contained novel like J. M. McDermott's Last Dragon (with which it shares literate style and "weirding" of genre tropes), when it turned out to be more like the first book in a series like Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of The Fallen (with which it shares vast scales of time, varied species, cultures, and religions, and "gods"). Jernigan is surely crafting his own desires and fears, and I'd like to read more books about Jeroun, but hope for a trilogy rather than a decology.
The first chapter of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) begins with a nightmarish opium-vision involving a cathedral spike on which an impaled body ought to be writhing, until the spike seems to resolve itself into the rusty post of an old bed, on which a man is "shaking from head to foot" as he lies next to the drug-stupored bodies of "a Chinaman" and "a Lascar," while the mistress of the den, "a haggard woman," offers him another lit pipe. Later that same day, the man dons his white robe and joins the choir of a Cathedral for the vesper service. Yikes, this is vintage Charles Dickens, but perhaps a Dickens with a darker urgency than in his earlier novels.
The novel is mostly set in Cloisterham, a moribund Cathedral town peopled by or visited by plenty of "Dickensian" characters, ranging from the grotesque and comic to the malevolent and innocent, most equipped with idiosyncrasies. There are Edwin Drood and Rosa Bud, a pair of orphans engaged to be married from when they were infants by their fathers' wills; Neville and Helena Landless, mysterious orphan twins from Ceylon; Hiram Grewgious, the kind-hearted and "particularly angular" lawyer; Thomas Sapsea, the egotistical auctioneer/mayor; "Stony" Durdle, the alcoholic stonemason; Deputy, the demonic-cherubic stone-throwing urchin; Dick Datchery, the stranger with an unbelievably thick shock of white hair; Rev. Septimus Cripsarkle, the physically and spiritually fit minor canon; and the conflicted choirmaster John Jasper, uncle of Edwin and music teacher of Rosa. Dickens sets their fates in motion in a melodramatic murder mystery plot for which we can guess the identity of the villain early on but are left wondering about his psychology and fate, until we reach the end of Chapter Twenty-Three, at which point Dickens died, leaving his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), tantalizingly half-finished.
Dickens was a genius and a pro, so most of what he wrote has much of interest in it, and his last book is no different. Plenty of funny, original, and apt descriptions of his grotesque characters. "Miss Twinkleton, in her scholastic state of existence, "is as ignorant [of matters of the heart] as a granite pillar." The philanthropy of the great philanthropist Honeythunder "was of that gunpowderous sort that the difference between it and animosity was hard to determine." And Mrs. Billickin "came languishing out of her own exclusive back parlour, with the air of having been expressly brought-to for the purpose, from an accumulation of several swoons."
Dickens of course also writes plenty of evocative descriptions of places, as in moonlight and sunlight scenes of the cathedral.
"They enter, locking themselves in, descend the rugged steps, and are down in the Crypt. The lantern is not wanted, for the moonlight strikes in at the groined windows, bare of glass, the broken frames for which cast patterns on the ground. The heavy pillars which support the roof engender masses of black shade, but between them there are lanes of light. Up and down these lanes they walk."
"Cloisterham is so bright and sunny in these summer days, that the Cathedral and the monastery-ruin show as if their strong walls were transparent. A soft glow seems to shine from within them, rather than upon them from without, such is their mellowness as they look forth on the hot corn-fields and the smoking roads that distantly wind among them."
And Dickens gives a dark underpinning to his human dramas: "They were but a sign of broken joys and baseless projects; in their very beauty they were (as the unlikeliest of men had said) almost a cruel satire on the loves, hopes, plans, of humanity, which are able to forecast nothing, and are so much brittle dust. Let them be."
However, for all his professional genius (or maybe because of it), at times Dickens seems to go on autopilot riffs that don't seem to visibly advance the plot, significantly develop character, or appealingly tickle this reader's funny bone. One example might be the cold war waged by Miss Twinkleham and Mrs. Billickin over what should be prepared for dinner.
And, after all, the novel is unfinished…
David Timson gives his usual wonderful and dexterous reading of a novel, enthusiastically and variedly voicing the lines of all the characters, taking especial pleasure with Grewgious, Deputy, and the opium den mistress, Princess Puffer, who is quite scary.
In conclusion, any of Dickens' completed novels would probably be better to read before The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but for people who have read most of his other works, this book is an impressive flash of the master's brilliance.
The one and only Minotaur is in North Carolina working as a cook in a popular restaurant called Grub's Rib. He cannot deny the "cannibalistic nature of his job," roasting and carving beef ribs: from the shoulders up he is a bull, complete with tough black skin, huge nose, giant tongue, full lips, and sharp horns. In his thousands of years of life--he is tepidly immortal--the Minotaur has been almost everywhere and seen almost everything, and his power, spirit, wildness, and, yes, malevolence, have been eroded by time and experience ("high, the costs of living"). Today his only ambition is to order his life around errands and work, keep a low profile, and belong, however tenuously, to the "team" of workers at Grub's Rib and to the community of tenants at Lucky U Mobile Estates, where he lives rent-free in return for fixing the used cars the owner sells there. No charismatic, bestial force of evil, the Minotaur is slow to anger and prone to worry, and is at core a voyeur who witnesses rather than influences events. He is not wholly useful in an emergency.
Steven Sherrill's The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break (2000), then, is a slice of life from the Minotaur's millennia. He has a crush on an epileptic waitress; he must tolerate a pair of obnoxious young waiters; he is assigned a more public role at Grub's Rib; and although he deftly handles knives, tools, and the like and is a proficient and experienced cook, when distracted he is prone to accidents involving sharp instruments, hot oil, and unwieldy horns. The Minotaur senses a change coming, the kind that has in the past forced him to leave familiar places and roles to live and wander nomadically until he could find new ones.
The Minotaur is a compelling character. As the quintessential outsider, he is able to view humanity objectively and freshly without ever quite being able to fit in. His otherness is increased by his inarticulateness: words fall "mutilated" from his mouth, and he communicates mostly via grunts ("Unnnnnh"), letting the context convey his meaning. His status as Other means that people use him as a sounding board or a confessional with which to express their plans, problems, and experiences, led to believe by the Minotaur's grunts that he's listening carefully and agreeing or disagreeing according to their needs. There are times when his linguistic limitations are unfortunate. There are times when his lack of common sense is boggling.
One of the interesting features of Sherrill's novel is the way in which, after initial shock, disgust, or fear, people generally suffer the Minotaur as if he is "cloaked in a tenuous veil of complicated anonymity." Luckily, the important people in his life, like his boss, his landlord, and his fellow cooks are kind-hearted. Luckily, unlike what happens in The Man Who Fell to Earth, here no scientists try to imprison and study the Minotaur, who is, after all, indigenous to earth. Indeed, the Minotaur was created by the human psyche, he is at least half human, much of what he thinks or does or experiences "would be true even if he didn't have horns," and his blood "carries with it through his monster's veins the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love." Sherrill, then, uses the Minotaur to imaginatively explore what it might feel like to be an immortal monster living a mundane life among mortal humans, thereby expressing what it might feel like to be any unusual human longing to fit in ("Even the monstrous among us need love").
Sherill's style is rich, literate, and varied. He writes occasional poetic chapters to depict the Minotaur's memories and dreams:
"For the meadow near Cnossus, where the hyacinth petals
turn and turn out like so many palms refusing applause.
Think of me, Pasiphae, in your moment of cramped ecstasy."
He writes the vivid minutiae of life, as, for instance when he depicts some wasps in the glove compartment of an old car in a junkyard: "Whether the dozen or so wasps clinging to the nest, wings tucked like hard coats over their pinstriped articulated bodies, somber as pall bearers, but for the nervous antennae, whether they protect this treasure or are oblivious of it, is hard to tell."
He writes pitch-perfect dialogue: "You ever stick anybody with one of them horns?"
He writes lots of humor, dry ("It was an unsettling show, but he had seen worse"), bawdy (putt-putt golf accompanied by the sound from the speakers of an adult drive-in theater), cultural ("The GI Joe doll, singed and shell shocked"), or philosophical ("The crow's shadow mimics its master"). He is especially good with boys, so creative, destructive, sweet, malicious, stupid, and entertaining.
The reader Holter Graham is perfect. His Minotaur grunt is great ("Unnnnh") and his white, black, and Hispanic male and female North Carolinian kids, teens, and adults all sound convincing and human. Graham makes nary a misstep--even when voicing porn actors in action.
The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is a quirky book. I'm not sure what it resembles. It is surely no heroic fantasy adventure or horror story! Neither does it feel like an urban fantasy of the Charles de Lint variety, because Sherrill uses the fantastic to show how human nature, relationships, and life are wonderful, terrible, bleak, and hopeful rather than to show how magic is just around the corner. Perhaps it most resembles Edward Scissorshands. If you don't expect a page-turning story featuring a quick-thinking, take-charge, "normal" hero, Sherrill's novel might make you chuckle, cringe, and sigh.
"But remember, no lies! The dead may speak the truth only, even when it discredits themselves." So ends the "Invocation" that begins Robert Graves' The Golden Fleece (1944), Graves having asked the ghost of Little Ancaeus, the last survivor of the Argonauts, to "unfold the whole story" of their quest to retrieve from far Colchis the sacred Fleece. The account begins years after the famous voyage with the death of Ancaeus, when he tried to live among the Maiden, Nymph, and Mother worshiping people of Majorca, because on his home island of Samos the Triple Goddess had been replaced by the Olympian pantheon. Ironically, the priestess who interviews Ancaeus decides that his knowledge of "indecent" and "topsy-turvy" Greek culture (in which, unbelievably, people worship fathers and women are forced to marry men and remain faithful to them and let them ride on top when making love) is too dangerous to let loose on her island and so has her Goat men servants stone him to death.
The conflict between the original Triple Goddess and matriarchal culture of the Mediterranean on the one hand and the Olympians and patriarchal culture of the invading Greeks on the other moves the entire story of the Golden Fleece. Readers who can remain patient through a few chapters of such "historical" context setting are in for a treat, for The Golden Fleece is a bawdy, beautiful, comical, exciting, and violent adventure set in the ancient age of myth, a "real" account of events before they were transformed into legends, an exotic travelogue, and a satiric clash of cultures and genders. And it's just so full of life in all its brutality, brevity, humor, and pathos.
The Golden Fleece is an encyclopedic novel of all things Greek and pre-Greek. Graves incorporates or refers to many myths and legends, from the cosmogony through the trade war between Troy and Greece and the Twelve Labors of Hercules. And from various cultures, including Pelasgian, Cretan, Thracian, Colchian, Taurean, Albanian, Amazonian, Troglodyte, and of course Greek, he works into his novel many interesting customs, about fertility orgies, weddings, births, funerals, and ghosts; prayers, sacrifices, omens, dreams, and mystery cults; boar hunting, barley growing, trading, and ship building, sailing, and rowing; feasting, singing, dancing, story telling, and clothes wearing; boxing, murdering, warring, and treaty negotiating; and more. It all feels vivid, authentic, and strange.
Because Graves writes the novel from the point of view of someone living in the time and place of the Golden Fleece, many fantastic things are recounted matter of factly. For example, people who eat sacred oranges in the sacred manner live as long as they want, gods and goddesses speak to people through oracles and dreams, an augur can understand the speech of birds, Hercules has superhuman strength, and so on. Graves also realistically treats some traditionally fantastic things. For instance, hybrid creatures like centaurs, minotaurs, and satyrs are men belonging to horse, bull, and goat fraternities; cyclops are smiths who squint while doing their work; any woman can cow men by making "gorgon grimaces" (distorting her face and hissing); the sons of gods were born to prostitutes of the temples of those gods; and so on.
And the heroes are so human! Butes the bee keeper loves honey too much. Idas provokes everyone (even Zeus) with his obnoxious jests. Sharp-eyed Lynceus doesn't warn anyone about the malevolent ghosts only he can see. Atalanta the virgin huntress sends mixed signals to Meleager. Echion the herald speaks so smoothly that he believes his own lies. "Accidents" happen to people who get in the way of Peleus. Hercules doesn't know his own strength, is prone to berserk rages, harms more friends than foes, and suffocatingly loves his boy-ward Hylas. Jason is an indecisive, sullen, "wild and witless young man," envied or despised by other men. No great warrior, seaman, painter, orator, or wizard, he leads the Argonauts only because women fall in love with him at first sight, a gift he abuses by using the same "my heart began a golden dance" pick up lines on different women and then loving and leaving them. The jealousies of the heroes are potent: "'How generous you are, prince Hercules,' cried Jason, wishing him dead and securely buried under a towering barrow of earth and stone." Indeed, Orpheus is vital to the quest because he must regularly calm the Argonauts with his music when their egos spark conflicts.
The Golden Fleece is rich with epic similes: "After so long a period of abstinence, [the women of Lemnos] are wallowing in the pleasures of love as Egyptian crocodiles wallow in the fertile ooze of the Nile."
And with pithy lines: "For drunken men have short memories."
And with vivid descriptions, whether beautiful ("Here the mountain, which was shaggy with wild olive and esculent oak, sloped sharply down to the sea, five hundred feet below, at that time dappled with small banks of mist, like sheep grazing as far as the horizon line"), spare ("The wind made the pyres roar lustily, and soon there was nothing left of the dead men but glowing bones"), or sensual ("The orange is a round, scented fruit, unknown elsewhere in the civilized world, which grows green at first, then golden, with a hot rind and cold, sweet, sharp flesh").
Nigel Carrington gives an excellent reading of the novel, speaking an elegant and educated British English for the aristocratic heroes, a gruff, boneheaded, and crafty voice for Hercules, a crude cockney for the savage boxer King Amicus, stately voices for the Goddess and her priestesses, and so on. Every pause and emphasis and trick he employs enhances the story.
Fans of Robert Graves' other novels, like I Claudius, or of Greek myths and culture, or of exotic historical adventures, would probably enjoy this book.
When Dan Torrence was a five-year-old boy in The Shining (1977), his wannabe writer father succumbed to alcoholism and to the malign influence of the haunted Overlook Hotel and tried to kill him and his mother. (I still remember being terrorized by Stephen King's book when I read it back then in high school by a pool in broad daylight.) Fast forward to the present era in King's Doctor Sleep (2013), and 40-year-old Dan is still struggling to survive. For most of his life, he has been afflicted by the shining (the psychic ability to dream future events, to mentally receive and send thoughts, and to see dead people up and about, etc.), fearing that the gift was a curse that would drive him insane and believing that the only way to handle it was to drink it away: "The mind was a blackboard. Booze was the eraser." But the more he drank, the more he unleashed his inner feral dog and the more people he hurt and jobs and towns he lost. Luckily, in the opening chapters of this sequel to The Shining, Dan seems to find his home and calling in Frazier, New Hampshire, living and working at the small town's hospice, where, with a stray cat named Azzie, he helps terminally ill patients peacefully fall asleep into whatever comes next. Unluckily, the Overlook isn't finished with him.
Into Danny's life King interweaves two more story strands. The first features the True Knot, a "family" of self-proclaimed "Chosen Ones" who travel around America feeding on the "steam" emitted by the shining-gifted kids they torture to death. By feeding on steam, the True Knot members attain near immortality, not unlike vampires, though of an ironically all-American type, for, far from the usual sophisticated European aristocrat look, the True Knot adopt a "harmless RV folks" one, sporting tacky tourist t-shirts and driving gas guzzling campers and sporting conservative bumper stickers. Then there is Abra Stone, a precocious girl born just before 9/11 with a prodigious amount of the shining, much to the consternation of her parents. Despite hiding her gift to ease her parents' minds, Abra comes to the loving attention of Dan and to the scary attention of the True Knot. With exquisite suspense, King brings the three sets of characters ever closer together.
King writes great action set pieces that are exciting, scary, funny, unpredictable, inevitable, and inventive fusions of the physical and the paranormal. One of the reasons his work is so suspenseful and moving is that he's so good at writing three-dimensional characters we care about. Dan is fragile, brave, caring, and witty, Abra immature, sweet, vindictive, and powerful. The supporting characters are mostly convincing. And True Knott members like Rose the Hat, are scary and vulnerable, inhuman and all too human.
One of King's great insights is that perhaps the most terrifying thing of all is the possibility that our closest family members may harm us, especially when we are children. Just in the novel's "Prefatory Matters" he introduces a father who rapes his eight-year-old daughter, a grandfather who molests and torments his grandson, an uncle who beats his toddler nephew, not to mention Dan's own abusive father. King also of course taps more typical horror reflexes: our fear of pain and death and of powerful people who may do with us what they will. And he depicts the disease of alcoholism with harrowing realism (Dan's struggle against it and his AA organization feature prominently in the novel).
The novel is about families (dysfunctional and functional, biological and relational), about death (and life), about the way in which our childhoods, genes, and environments shape our adult selves, about power and responsibility, and about culture and horror. Despite depicting harrowing psychic and physical violence and potent evil, King maintains faith in some higher power balancing things out in our mysterious and mortal universe: "Life was a wheel, and it always came back around."
King is a pro with a keen ear for memorable lines, whether vivid descriptions ("His smiling, predatory face was the damp whitish-green of a spoiled avocado"), cool similes ("He felt like some breakable object that has skittered to the edge of a high shelf but hasn't quite fallen off"), quirky humor ("The hungover eye had a weird ability to find the ugliest thing in any given landscape"), frisky frissons ("At some point, as she had been concentrating, a corpse had joined her in the tool shed"), philosophical nuggets ("Death was no less a miracle than life"), and personal epiphanies ("I am not my father").
Another fun virtue of this book is King's keen eye for American culture, as in his pithy descriptions of recent presidents by their renowned identifying features, his understanding of how small towns function and feel, his depiction of highways as the arteries of the body of America, and of course his many cultural references, which range from the popular (Shrek, Twilight, Catching Fire, Facebook, etc.) to the literary (Moby-Dick, East of Eden, Ezra Pound, etc.) and cult (Pink Flamingos). The most intense action scenes occur in spots redolent of Americana: a mini-railroad picnic area, a highway, a campground.
Will Patton gives a stellar reading of Doctor Sleep. His voice is scratchy, tender, masculine, clear, and flexible. He is convincing as a child, adult, or old person of either gender in any mood. His scary characters become even scarier in proportion to his voice becoming softer. He enhances King's contextual humor and horror. The audiobook features an opening dedication and closing author's note, both read by King.
People who like The Shining should enjoy Doctor Sleep (though it's not necessary to have read the earlier book to appreciate the sequel), and anyone who likes character-driven, theme-laden, page-turning, well-written paranormal horror should like it, too.
After foolishly watching Jack Black's abominable Gulliver's Travels movie on TV, I had to purge myself of the experience by re-reading Jonathan Swift's original novel. The imaginative, humorous, and scathing depiction of human nature and civilization in Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) set me right with the world. Ah, it's salutary to be reminded that we are all Yahoos! The novel uses the device of an Everyman traveling to imaginary cultures and living among their fantastic denizens to reflect back on our own cultures and selves in quite humbling ways. Swift's first person narrator and alter-ego, Lemuel Gulliver, is an English ship's surgeon who likes his country but can't resist traveling. Over sixteen years, by chance he ends up in various lands hitherto unknown to Europeans, among them Lilliput (whose people are about six inches tall and have accordingly tiny flora, fauna, and things), Brobdingnag (whose people are about sixty feet tall and have accordingly giant flora, fauna, and things), Laputa (whose people live on an adamantine island that floats in the sky), Luggnagg (among whose people are a handful of senile immortals), and the country of the Houyhnhnms (whose people are a race of wise, reasonable, and clean-living horses).
Swift makes the major places and peoples feel "real" and interesting on their own terms. He imagines neat details about what it would be like to be a giant among the Lilliputians (e.g., extinguishing a palatial fire by urinating on it) and a small animal among the Brobdingnagians (e.g., climbing up and down ladders to read giant books). He entertainingly extrapolates to absurd extremes the Laputians' excessive pursuit of mathematics, music, and innovation, rendering the learned men so engrossed in their speculations that servants must "flap" them on the eyes or ears or mouth to get them to attend when something vital to see or hear or say turns up. And he presents the Houyhnhnms as perfectly reason-based beings, with obvious merits (health, chastity, honesty, loyalty, etc.) and less obvious demerits (a lack of sympathy for the presence of a certain Yahoo from abroad).
At the same time, Swift uses all those places to critique 18th-century England and Europe in such a way that applies to our own 21st century world, because, after all people are people no matter when or where they live. He satirizes our political factions (the Lilliputian court is divided between High-Heel and Low-Heel wearing men), ambitious gymnastics (Lilliputians who want high positions in court must dance on a tight rope), and religious disputes (Lilliputians who break an egg at the small end persecute those who break it at the big end and both sides invoke their holy book). He satirizes our complicated law system and career military system through the Brobdingnagian law against the interpretation of laws (which may be no longer than the 22 letters in their alphabet) and custom of fielding an army as needed without pay. And he satirizes our dysfunctional governments by having a learned man suggest that because the human body and the body politic are equivalent, all Senators should be dosed with Palliatives, Laxatives, and the like, which would beget unanimity and shorten debates. After Gulliver interviews spirits of the dead raised for him by a necromancer of Glubdugdribgub, he condemns "modern History," by which "the World had been misled by prostitute Writers" who have made cowards, fools, and traitors appear to be heroic leaders and obscured the fact that the only successful "great Enterprizes and Revolutions" in human history have arisen from "contemptible Accidents."
When among the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver discourses on the unworthy causes of war among European nations and lists the weapons devised by humans to kill and maim as many people and destroy as many cities as possible. He tells his equine master about lawyers, "a Society of men" paid to "wholly confound. . . the very Essence of Truth and Falsehood, or Right and Wrong." In explaining money, he points out "that the Bulk of our People were forced to live miserably, by labouring every Day for small Wages, to make a few live plentifully." One of the funniest moments in the novel is when Gulliver lists the many civilized Yahoo vices and crimes he is free from while living among the Houyhnhnms, of which the following is a small sample: "here were no Gibers, Censurers, Backbiters, Pickpockets, Highwaymen, House-breakers, Attorneys, Bawds, Buffoons, Gamesters, Politicians, Wits, Splenetics, tedious Talkers, Controvertists, Ravishers, Murderers, Robbers, Virtuosos . . . no Lords, Fiddlers, Judges, or Dancing-Masters." His master's conclusion is that we use our small share of reason "to aggravate our natural Corruptions, and to acquire new ones, which Nature had not given us."
So urgent is Swift's need to puncture our pride that excrement and urine play comically gross roles in each of the Four Parts of his novel, from embarrassing accounts of how he "discharged the Necessities of Nature" in Lilliput and Brobdingnag to moments like meeting a scientist who is obsessively researching a way to return human ordure to its original food content.
I found David Hyde Pierce to be a capable but not wonderful reader with one exception: he pronounces Houyhnhnm words with a charming hint of a neigh.
Readers who want plenty of suspenseful and exciting action and adventure might do well to read a different book. But readers who love the English language beautifully, bitterly, imaginatively, and humorously employed by a keen (if misanthropic) observer of humankind would like Gulliver's Travels. Gulliver explains that he could overlook human vices and follies if only people would not be so proud of themselves. If you feel proud to be human ("the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin" according to the Brobdingnag king), reading this book ought to take you down a peg or two.
Is Bartimaeus of Uruk, as he claims, a swashbuckling, debonair, and clever djinni renowned over the millennia for numerous magnificent achievements in architecture and war on behalf of various notable magician masters, including Gilgamesh, Ramses, and Nefertiti? Or is he really a wicked, duplicitous, and cheeky demon, as many of his masters complain? Jonathan Stroud's fourth novel featuring Bartimaeus, The Ring of Solomon (2010), reveals that the djinni and his detractors are both right, for although he can perform great feats (despite being but a middle-ranking spirit), he also remains ever eager to eat abusive magicians who mistake the wording of their spells or the drawing of their pentacles. Readers familiar with Bartimaeus from Stroud's earlier trilogy, The Amulet of Samarkand (2003), The Golem's Eye (2004), and Ptolemy's Gate (2005), will be happy to spend more time with the djinni in this stand-alone prequel, while readers new to Stroud's work will enjoy getting to know Bartimaeus, who is in fine form here, both as a witty, egotistical, and discursive narrator and as a resourceful, guileful, and plucky fantastic being.
The story involves the titular ring, which is a portal to the Other Place (where the djinn and other spirits live as pure and free essences) and which is interestingly similar to and different from Tolkien's Ring of Power; King Solomon, ruler thanks to the ring of Israel, the most powerful nation in the known world; Khaba the Cruel, one of Solomon's seventeen magicians with something of the crypt about him; Asmira, the loyal seventeen-year-old top bodyguard of the Queen of Sheba; and, of course, Bartimaeus. Although it is not difficult to guess early on whose machinations are causing trouble in Israel and environs, resulting in Asmira being sent on a suicide assassination mission and Bartimaeus becoming caught up in the affairs of the humans he purports to loathe but secretly enjoys, Stroud does unpredictably play with our perceptions of Solomon and write an entertaining novel.
One reason for the popularity of Stroud's Bartimaeus books is that they are so funny. Kids must enjoy the occasional body-humor, as when Khaba, he of the vicious essence flail and cruel essence cages, bends over at a temple work site, and Bartimaeus makes a farting noise that echoes "off the valley walls like a thunder clap," while adults must enjoy the in-jokes, as when Bartimaeus picks up a crumpled ball of parchment on which Solomon has written some songs, and says, "they were unlikely to be much good."
Stroud's writing is replete with wit, as in many of his similes, like "Avarice shimmered on [his eye] like a film of oil," and "With the eager energy of two criminals shuffling to the gallows, [we] set off downstairs," and "The voice was soft as tomb dust shifting." And Bartimaeus' many notes humorously interrupt his suspenseful tale, as when he explains the units of measurements used by djinn: "a rat's arse, a camel's thigh, a leper's stretch, and the length of a Philistine's beard."
Stroud writes many well-turned phrases and evocative descriptions, of which the following are but a snack:
--"A cadaver would have crossed the street to avoid him."
--"All around was a land of desolation and absence, of bleached hills fading to the edge of vision. The sun was a white hole in an iron sky. It warped the air into slices that danced and shimmered and were never still. "
--"Ripped from the infinite, plucked back down time's corridor... I dropped like a shower of gold down an endless well. I funneled inward to a point and landed... at the center of a pentacle."
--"Her eyes retained that glassy fixity that humans get when they are the self-appointed agent of a higher cause, and their own personality, such as it is, has faded out altogether."
--"And all at once, as if an unseen barrier had been penetrated, there broke upon her a rush of sound like a sea of sand poured down upon the earth. It was the whispering of the demons' wings."
In addition to being a well-written, humorous, suspenseful, and imaginative historical fantasy, The Ring of Solomon is a dramatic exploration of the nature of servitude that champions personal freedom and integrity against the selfish or zealous pursuit of wealth and power: "Gods and nations, what are they but words?" says a spirit at one point. Moreover, because Bartimaeus has been enslaved by so many amoral magicians and has witnessed so many flawed kings and queens, destroyed cities, and fallen empires, he has acquired a jaundiced opinion of human nature and civilization. He regularly describes human beings as selfish, greedy, cruel, and false, and enjoys mentioning things like the fact that while spirits like him can see all seven planes of existence, fleas, tapeworms, and humans can only view one. Interestingly, however, his fellow djinni Faquarl is perhaps not incorrect when he accuses Bartimaeus of being soft on people (and not only because he likes their fresh and seasoned bone marrow).
Simon Jones relishes reading the novel, giving Bartimaeus an urbane, snide, and camp British drawl that even Tim Curry or Oscar Wilde might envy. His other character voices, like for the quietly malevolent Khaba, the attenuated but strong-willed Solomon, and the naïve and committed Asmira, are fine, too.
The Ring of Solomon is not without flaws. I like Asmira and accept that some third person chapters from her point of view are necessary for the story, but I enjoy Bartimaeus so much that I wish the entire novel were narrated in his first person voice. I also felt that in the climax Stroud has some characters do or not do some things they normally would not do or do and is probably hoping that we'll be too caught up in the exciting action to notice. But the resolution is neat, and fans of the Bartimaeus trilogy, as well as fans of savory, satirical, comical, and page-turning young adult historical fantasy should enjoy this novel.
The first book in Mira Grant's Newsflesh Trilogy, Feed (2010), begins in Northern California in 2039, twenty-five years after the Rising, when a super virus infected all mammals weighing at least 40 pounds, wiping out 35% of the human population in the summer of 2014 and leaving behind pockets of hungry undead. The first chapter seems to be standard zombie fare: a mob of infected surround a pair of astonishingly reckless heroes, the 22-year-old first person narrator Georgia Mason and her thrill-seeking brother Shaun. (Like many other post-2014 kids, Georgia was named for George Romero, who became a national hero after the Rising because people realized that his films were useful survival guides rather than bad horror movies.) I couldn't believe that someone as savvy as Georgia would let her brother and herself get into such a fix, or that they'd be able to escape it the way they do.
But the second chapter explains the siblings' behavior: they are bloggers who leave the relative safety of their community to enter infected danger zones to make, become, and report the news about all matters zombie so as to spread the "truth" and increase the market share of their blogs. Indeed, in 2039 bloggers are the most entertaining, popular, and accurate news source: "Newsies" like Georgia who report the truth without spin or opinion, "Irwins" like Shaun who record sensational close zombie encounters, and "Fictionals" like their partner Buffy who write gothic stories and poems. Georgia and Shaun are each other's best friends, colleagues, and confidants, because they were born a few weeks apart to different families, orphaned during the Rising, and adopted by parents who love their own blog ratings more than their kids.
The novel takes an unexpected turn when Georgia, Shaun, and Buffy become the "pet-bloggers" embedded in the presidential campaign of the Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Peter Ryman. Georgia believes that he represents the best hope for improving the difficult economic, political, and social world of the virus, because he would rather improve the lives of the living than wage war on the undead, while his opponents want to exterminate all zombies and to reassert faith and family in America to convince God to stop plaguing us with plagues.
Feed is neither like Walking Dead, in which pockets of humans try to survive in a post-zombie-apocalypse world, nor like Raising Stony Mayhall, in which the protagonist is a sympathetic zombie. Nor is it a non-stop zombie action story, having few set piece attack scenes. Instead, Feed is a science fiction zombie novel. It features a scientific explanation and behavior for the virus, which derives from a mixture of cold and cancer cures, lies dormant inside everyone in the world, and is at any moment ready to undergo "amplification," destroying its host's consciousness and turning the host into a ravenous meat eater (the virus needs protein) and dangerous virus spreader (the virus needs new hosts). The novel then carefully extrapolates the resulting future world. Feed is also a political zombie novel, condemning hate- and fear-mongers who wield national security and religion to deny others the freedom to learn and tell the truth with which to draw accurate conclusions and make informed decisions. I like the message, but I don't believe that journalists can objectively tell the truth once embedded in an organization, whether a political campaign or a US military unit.
I'm also unsure about other things in the novel. First, although I enjoy the banter between Shaun and Georgia ("Behold the bitchiness of George when she hasn't had her beauty sleep") and am moved by their close relationship, I also find Shaun irritating when he talks like a 22-year-old surfer Bart Simpson.
Second, despite interesting virus-driven changes in the world of 2039, some things too closely resemble our world now, as in the important politicians, bodyguards, scientists, and campaign staff all being men. At the same time, some of Grant's 2039 USA feels outdated, as in same-sex marriage still being a controversial issue, whereas in our 2014 USA it's already legal in 26 states.
Third, despite the scientific approach to zombies, and despite the neat touch that everyone already has the virus, the amplified infected could after all be extras from a George Romero movie.
Fourth, there are some inconsistent points in the story and characters: in the first chapter, for example, Georgia had to bribe daredevil Shaun into wearing a Kevlar vest in the Santa Cruz danger zone, whereas later she twice notes him in safer situations carefully tightening or checking the links in his chain mail armor.
Fifth, the novel wants pruning. Georgia twice tells us that Shaun only calls her Georgia when he's upset or concerned and twice that the Apple blood testing kit is the top of the line model, and repeatedly depicts getting blood-tested and using high-tech elevators. And her pursuit of the truth would be more powerful were she to mention it less often.
To be sure, there are plenty of neat lines like these:
"He was a journalist after all, and we're all incurably insane."
"Most girls learn to accessorize for dinner parties and dates; I learned to do it for hazard zones."
"I am a god among men and a poker into unpokable places."
“Social norms can bite me.”
The readers enhance the book. Paula Christensen's Georgia is spot on (intelligent, passionate, ironic), and she's good with southern accents and even a British one. Jesse Bernstein is fine with Shaun and other male characters.
But although I enjoyed Feed, and admire its unsparing climax, I won't be in a hurry to finish the trilogy.
The preface of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980) explains that "as an act of love" and "For sheer narrative pleasure gloriously lacking any relevance to our world today" (because "it is about books"), the "author" is publishing his "Italian version of an obscure neo-gothic French version of a seventeenth-century Latin edition of a work written in Latin by a German monk toward the end of the fourteenth century." (And the Italian version has been translated into English by William Weaver!)
The German Monk is Adso of Melk, who, as an old man wrote a chronicle about his time in 1327 as the novice disciple of the Franciscan Brother William of Baskerville, when the pair traveled to an Italian Benedictine abbey whose name must remain secret due to the terrible events that happened there. William was on a mission to represent the separation of church and state views of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis to the Papal legates of Pope John, as well as to try to arrange a meeting of the minds between the Franciscan monks who embraced the poverty of Christ and the Papal authorities who denied it (to avoid calling into question their great worldly possessions and powers). No sooner do William and Adso arrive at the abbey than they learn that a talented young illuminator has fallen to his death from a high window, and William, a former inquisitor (a post he resigned because he could no longer distinguish between heretics and holy men or stomach the use of torture to obtain confession), is asked by the Abbot to investigate. Thus begins a murder mystery lasting seven days and involving the abbey library (both the greatest in Christendom and a labyrinth), a dangerous book, the Apocalypse, and a motley set of monkish suspects.
In addition to being an absorbing mystery, The Name of the Rose is such a vivid and detailed historical novel that it becomes both an encyclopedic window into the past and a distorted mirror of the present. The ethos of the Catholic monks, how they felt about science, love, women, animals, infidels, class, authority, heresy, piety, art, books, the Word, the world, the hereafter, Christ, God, Satan, and the antichrist, is fascinating. They earnestly argued about things like the laughter and poverty or lack thereof of Jesus, and lived in a chaotic era marked by feuding Emperors and Popes, starving peasants, and ravening vagabonds. The abbey feels like a real place, including the Church, Dormitory, Infirmary, Stables, Smithy, and Aedificium (the building with library, scriptorium, kitchen, and crypt). While vividly depicting all of the above, the novel treats themes about epistemology, semiotics, truth, and love, and explores matters like the preservation, pursuit, and sharing of knowledge, the uses and abuses of fantasy, nonsense, and humor, and the difficult attempt to find design, pattern, and meaning in a world that possesses either many or none of such things.
William is a medieval Sherlock Holmes, hailing from Baskerville and sharing with the great detective a faith in deductive reasoning, intervals of torpor, occasional "drug" use, a tall and thin body, and a desire to find the truth by reading the world like a book. His deductive method is opposed to that of Catholic inquisitors, who use torture to prove the guilt of the accused. The relationship between William and Adso, his naïve and earnest Watson, is entertaining and moving. Adso feels hero-worship for his master, punctuated by moments of incomprehension or disappointment.
The novel is replete with great lines, from descriptions (as when Adso sees the "glabrous face" and "bony skull, to which the skin clung like that of a mummy preserved in milk," of the revered monk Ubertino and feels that "He resembled a maiden withered by premature death") to statements about books, life, and the world:
"Books speak of books."
"A dream is a scripture."
"Inquisitors create heretics."
"True love wants the good of the beloved."
"Formulating hypotheses made me nervous."
"Madmen and children always speak the truth."
"The devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith never seized by doubt."
Adso, who believes that "There is nothing more wonderful than a list," lengthily lists infernal animals (manticores, vultures, octopi, incubi, etc.), rascals (cardsharps, tatterdemalions, false paralytics, pardoners, etc.), relics (lace from the Virgin Mary's wedding dress, a portion of the crown of thorns, a shred of the table cloth from the last supper, a piece of the manna that fell from heaven, etc.), and more. The lists pleasurably express William's belief that "the beauty of the cosmos derives not only from unity in variety, but also from variety in unity."
The novel is often quite funny, as when a lovesick Adso reads various erudite texts about his condition: "How can a young monk be healed of love?"
Sean Barrett reads the chronicle, Nicholas Rowe the preface, and Neville Jason the chapter titles and headings. All three are excellent. Barrett has the perfect voice for this kind of book, sensitive, scratchy, and flexible. He's particularly good with senile, holy, or evil old men, scary inquisitors, wise, humble, and humane men (like William), and innocent, easily inspired or crushed young men (like Adso). His Salvatore, the ex-vagabond monk who speaks the language of Babel, is inspired. The only drawbacks of the audiobook are that it lacks the useful map of the abbey provided in the physical book, and if you don't know Latin (like me) you might at times feel left out without the printed text to aid you.
People who want to read an expeditious history or a tight mystery might mutter, "Adso, get on with the story already!" But patient readers interested in fourteenth-century Europe and the history of the Church and open to the pleasures of words, images, signs, lists, and ideas, must enjoy this book. It made me slow down to savor everything and to delay the end for as long as possible.
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