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I've never read anything by Richard Dawkins and had never heard him speak before, so I was interested in hearing him interviewed and found his manner and voice and rational thinking and careful articulating of his ideas and experiences very impressive. This interview is pretty short, though, and part of it is almost concerned with promoting his God Delusion audiobook, but it's free, and he's an important, necessary figure to our cultures right now.
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.
In Garth Nix' Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr (2001), the second novel in his Abhorsen trilogy, Touchstone and Sabriel are now the King and Abhorsen (anti-necromancer) of the Old Kingdom lying north of the Wall that separates their land of magic and pesky undead from the world of machines and countries in conflict (reminiscent of our early 20th century world). And things are not well in their Old Kingdom. An unknown "Enemy" is manipulating Necromancers into attacking villages with bands of undead "Hands" and "Shadowhands," while at Red Lake something ominous is happening that even the clairvoyant women of the Clayr are unable to see.
All fourteen-year-old Lirael wants is to gain the Sight like the other girls and women of the Clayr. Her black hair and brown eyes already mark her as too different the others, while her father is unknown and her mother abandoned her when she was a little girl. And each year on her birthday Lirael has grown older without gaining the Sight while increasingly younger girls have come into their own. Luckily, she is given a job as Third-Assistant Librarian in the nautilus shell-like ancient library of the Clayr, which suits the increasingly anti-social and magically curious girl. But poor Sameth, the teenage son of Touchstone and Sabriel, is pulled out of his elite boarding school south of the Wall and returned to the Palace at Bellisaere, where everyone expects him to train to succeed Sabriel as Abhorsen, when he is physically and mentally unable to even touch the Book of the Dead. Instead, he prefers fabricating magical "toys," like a nifty flying, mosquito-eating frog. Both young people are good young adult fantasy Ugly Ducklings: they believe that they are flawed and cannot fit in and yet are really gifted in ways destined to become appreciated.
Despite his young protagonists' morose moods, Nix writes his novel with humor and imagination. He has carefully constructed his magical world, in which most of the Free Magic that randomly pulses everywhere is ordered by the Charter, a seemingly infinite set of marks a bit like Chinese characters which adepts write on paper or in the air to make magic. Necromancers bypass the Charter to tap into Free Magic to do unnatural things like transform dead people into cannon fodder minions, while Charter Mages access it to protect the Kingdom, and the sole Abhorsen walks into Death (leaving his or her frosty body behind in the world) and then rings any of a set of seven bells to force the undead back down through the gates set in the river of Death till they reach their proper state.
Nix has great fun with that setting, imagining various nearly sentient magical books, constructs, sendings, spells, and artifacts. The most enjoyable such magical things in the novel are a pair of droll and mysterious talking "pets," the hungry, spunky, and loving Disreputable Dog, and the sarcastic, cynical, and sleepy white feline Mogget, both of whom are much more than they appear to be. The great thing about it all is that Nix often describes the magic with magical prose, vivid, sensual, and sublime, to evoke a sense of wonder, beauty, and terror (which are nearly absent from YA magical fantasy like the Harry Potter series).
Take, for example, the time Lirael loses control of a spell and "She tried to scream, but no sound came out, only Charter marks that leapt from her mouth towards the golden radiance. Charter marks continued to fly from her fingers, too, and swam in her eyes, spilling down inside her tears, which turned to steam as they fell." Even when nothing magical is happening, Nix may summon magic, as when Lirael is exploring the Library and finds herself in "a vast chamber, bigger even than the Great Hall. Charter marks as bright as the sun shone in the distant ceiling, hundreds of feet above. A huge oak tree filled the center of the room, in full summer leaf, its spreading branches shading a serpentine pool. And everywhere, throughout the cavern, there were flowers. Red flowers. Lirael bent down and picked one, uncertain if it was some sort of illusion. But it was real enough. She felt no magic, just the crisp stalk under her fingers. A red daisy, in full bloom."
And at his best, Nix writes suspenseful scenes that develop his world and characters and excite the reader, as when Lirael meets a stilken (a woman-shaped Free Magic entity with silver eyes and arms as long as her legs ending in the claws of a mantis), or when his heroes sail beneath a mile-wide bridge-city and are targeted by a crossbow bolt shooting assassin and a fiery Free Magic and swine-flesh construct masquerading as human.
When I read Lirael several years ago, I found it overlong and burdened by mopey characters, but I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the audiobook version, largely thanks to the virtuoso reading of Tim Curry. He deftly balances on the Edge of Too Much, reading with infectious relish lines by foul necromancers gloating over how they're about to kill you or Disreputable mongrels getting ready to sink their teeth into your calf to snap you out of your funk or snarky magical cats asking for fish after just failing to help save your skin. And isn't there a hint of Dr. Frank N. Furter in his Mogget?
Sabriel is a fresher and more self-contained book, whereas Lirael really makes part one of a duology completed by the third volume in the "trilogy," Abhorsen. But fans of imaginative and dark young adult magical fantasy and of Tim Curry should enjoy this book.
The first meeting between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin is humorously inauspicious. At a performance by an Italian quartetto in the music-room of the Governor’s House at Port Mahon on the island of Minorca near Spain, Jack is so enthusiastically enjoying the music, beating the time with his hand and humming “pum-pum-pum,” that Stephen elbows him sharply in the ribs, so that Jack must master his desire to pick up a chair and dash it over the villain's head. Yet after receiving the wonderful news that he’s been promoted to Master and Commander of the Sophie, a small sloop, Jack is in such high spirits that when he runs into Stephen around town he invites him to a sumptuous meal, during which he invites him to become the surgeon of the Sophie. (Whereas other naval historical fiction, like the Horatio Hornblower and Alan Lewrie series, begin at the beginning of their heroes’ naval careers as midshipmen, O’Brien opens his with the promotion of Jack, who has nominally been at sea since nine and factually since twelve, to master and commander, a proto-captain.)
Jack and Stephen differ in so many ways! Jack, an officer in His Majesty’s navy, is tall, robust, tanned, good-natured, and blond-maned, while Stephen, an out-of-work civilian physician-biologist is small, slender, pale, melancholic, and be-wigged (with a weird hair-piece made of wire). Furthermore, Jack tends to speak his mind, often unintentionally offending his interlocutors, is bad at languages (as when he comically confuses “putain” with “patois”), is hot-tempered (which gets him into trouble with authority figures), while the highly educated and intelligent Stephen is more careful in his speech, more philosophical, and is fluent in Catalan and speaks Spanish and French as well. Nevertheless, the two men are roughly the same age (between twenty and thirty), share a love of music (Jack playing the violin, Stephen the cello), and are naturally drawn to one another as boon companions. One of the great pleasures of the novel is beholding their friendship unfold.
Other pleasures involve the exciting scenes of naval action that suddenly pop up, from inconclusive minor skirmishes between pairs of ships to major battles involving multiple ships and shore batteries (for in the year 1800 when the novel takes place England is at war with Spain and France), as well as the occasional brief, vivid, and lyrical descriptions of the world viewed with relish from a ship at sea:
“At almost the same time the sun popped up from behind St. Phillip’s fort; it did, in fact, pop up, flattened like a sideways lemon in the morning haze and drawing its bottom free of the land with a distinct jerk.”
“The sea itself already had a nacreous light that belonged more to the day than the darkness, and this light was reflected in the great convexities of the topsails, giving them the lustre of grey pearls.”
O’Brien also writes many spicy and funny lines, as when some of the Sophie’s men comment on the middle-aged Master’s obvious feeling for Jack: “Old Sodom and Gomorrah is sweet on Goldilocks.” Or as when Stephen looks forward to working on a patient: “It has been a long time since I felt the grind of bone under my saw.” Or as when Jack tells Stephen about the poor food he’ll have to endure till the Sophie can get better supplies: “Salt horse and Old Weevil’s wedding cake for most of the voyage, with four-water grog to wet it.”
There are also poignant lines about the difficulties we face in life, as when the conflicted Lieutenant James Dillon says to his fellow-Irishman Stephen, “We understood one another better before ever I opened my mouth.” Stephen himself has a philosophical turn of mind, and is often observing and then commenting on human and animal nature, as when he tries to explain to the straightforward Jack how a man might be torn between conflicting loyalties, or as when he intently observes the macabre copulation of a praying mantis couple, during which the male mounts the female and grasps her body with his legs, only to have her bite off his head and eat it, leaving his body still copulating, which leads Stephen to tell Jack that at times a woman doesn’t need a man’s head and heart. (The depiction of women in the novel is definitely done from a male point of view!)
And of course there are plenty of nautical details in the novel, about the different ships in the age of sail, and of the different sails, masts, guns, crews, officers, punishments, techniques, procedures, protocols, strategies, food and drink, toilets, sleeping arrangements, and so on involved. Some of them remain opaque to land-lubber me, but many of them become more or less clear thanks to O’Brien’s device of inserting Stephen, a man with “no experience in naval matters,” into Jack’s world, so that he may ask questions and make comments on our behalf, so to speak, as when early in the novel he’s given a tour of the Sophie by a midshipman. Anyway, the nautical details never get in the way of the story, which is full of psychological and physical excitement, humor, relish, and suspense.
Ric Jerrom reads the novel with clarity, feeling, and wit, modifying his voice effectively for the different seamen, whether common or elite, English or foreign, old or young, drunk or sober, pleasant or nasty, and so on. He brings the book vividly to life.
Fans of the Hornblower or Lewrie books should enjoy Master and Commander, as should anyone who likes historical novels featuring compelling characters and authentic settings and exciting action.
Imagine Jane Austen teaming up with Oscar Wilde to write a historical fantasy featuring class, gender, identity, sexuality, swords, and acting (and the pursuit of single-life rather than marriage), and you catch a glimpse of Ellen Kushner's "mannerpunk" novel The Privilege of the Sword (2006).
The novel is (partly) the coming of age story of Katherine Talbert, a plucky, good-natured, and innocent fifteen-year-old daughter of a country aristocrat family in financial straits. As the action begins, the wealthy and eccentric Duke Tremontaine, AKA the Mad Duke of Riverside (his residence in the bad part of town near the docks), has written to say that if his sister will send his niece Katherine to live with him in the city for six months according to his rules, he will pay all her family's debts. Katherine wants to see the big city and envisions making a stunning appearance at fashionable balls in fine new dresses. Contrary to her expectations, though, Uncle Alec has all of her dresses removed, forces her to wear the clothes of a young man, and makes her take sword lessons from a grizzled master swordsman who calls her, "Duke boy."
The Privilege of the Sword has no supernatural events or magic, no elves or wizards, and no epic wars between good and evil. It is a fantasy by virtue of its well-imagined secondary world, a pseudo Elizabethan or Jacobean place in which the nobility has expunged kings but still lives off the labor of their "tenants," in which people drink chocolate, brandy, and wine and smoke drugs, in which in addition to aristocrats there are poets, scholars, actors, merchants, pickpockets, and prostitutes, and in which the nobles wield the privilege of the sword, the right to decide their feuds by hiring professional swordsmen to duel matters out.
Among the many themes interestingly worked out by The Privilege of the Sword is the difficult but vital need for women to become independent and free to express their true selves in a male-oriented world. The gadfly Duke wants to transform his niece into a swordsman to free her from the usual fate of upper class women, who typically end up having to marry philandering and or abusive husbands. One of the refreshing things about the novel is that Katherine never attempts to hide her gender when she's dressing up in guys' clothes and sporting her sword and dagger. And Kushner writes other interesting female characters who are trying to get by in that man's world, like the Black Rose, a charismatic actress, and Teresa Grey, a "woman of quality" who secretly writes popular plays for the theater.
In addition to gender themes, Kushner expresses an open-minded view of sexuality. Katherine, for example, is attracted to both the Black Rose and to Alec's servant-ward Marcus, and another of the compelling developments in the novel is the frank and humorous awakening of her sexual self. And readers familiar with Kushner's first Riverside novel, Swordspoint (1987), will recall the romantic love between Alec and the master swordsman Richard St. Vier, which The Privilege of the Sword develops eighteen years after the events of the earlier book.
Kushner also writes interesting themes relating to identity and acting. Katherine reads a sensational romantic novel, The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death, watches a play based on it, and begins thinking of her own actions and those of her friend Artemisia Fitz-Levy in terms of the characters and the actors portraying them. Lucius Perry, a handsome young nobleman, plays different roles as male prostitute, heterosexual lover, faithful cousin, and noble scion. And to what degree does the Duke feign his "madness" to discomfit his peers? The line between acting and being one's true self is blurry, and not just for professional actors.
At times I tired of Katherine's superficial and hysterical aristo friend Artemisia ("The only time I pick up a book is to throw it at my maid" is her best line), and the climactic showdown between Lord Ferris and Duke Alec discomforted me, but I found the resolution of the story delightful and still continue to savor Kushner's characters.
I had a great time listening to the audiobook version of The Privilege of the Sword.
I really like Kushner's reading of the first person chapters narrated from the voice of Katherine (spunky and clear) and Barbara Rosenblat's reading of the third person narration of the other chapters (husky and androgynous), and the different audiobook "luminaries" who read the voices of the different characters in the "illuminated" sections (specially important or intense scenes). I especially enjoyed Joe Hurly's decadent drawl as the Mad Duke, sounding like Oscar Wilde bathing in a hot tub full of turquoise absinthe.
I have mixed feelings about the occasional sound effects sprinkled throughout the audiobook, door knockings, paper rustlings, owl hootings, boot clackings, sword clangings, and so on. Often these are implied or directly mentioned by the text, as when the narration mentions how Katherine’s sword "rattled and clanged," and we hear the sound effect of a sword rattling and clanging. Even moments like when the narration says someone leaves a room and we hear the sound of a door closing, which at least are not redundant, felt more intrusive than immersive. On the other hand, the music beautifully and appropriately enhances the moods of the various scenes, and is more appealing and original than the majority of movie music these days.
In conclusion, fans of Swordspoint would love The Privilege of the Sword, and anyone interested in fantasy that focuses on social customs, psychological conflicts, and witty dialogue should enjoy it.
Maybe it was the slightly "Russian" flavor of the highly readable translation by Elinor Huntington, or maybe it was the fearless examination of the human heart, or maybe it was the frequent feel of Russian folktales, but while listening to The Scar (1997/2012) by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, I kept imagining Dostoevski writing heroic fantasy. Typical genre tropes like mages, arch-mages, and sorceresses, creepy apocalyptic cults, powerful and mysterious artifacts, and a pseudo-medieval setting appear, but the Dyachenkos are so fresh in their treatment of the fantasy elements and so ruthless in their exposure of the human soul and so witty in their story-telling and so original in their metaphor-making that The Scar feels like a breath of bracing fresh air cleansing the stale genre.
The novel opens in the martial and macho town of Kavarren, which is dominated by aristocratic families and the Guardsmen to which their privileged sons belong. Each family's home is a fortified castle, and their main forms of entertainment are drinking, wenching, dueling, and boar fighting. The star of the day is twenty-and-a-half-year-old Lieutenant Egert Soll, a handsome hunk of a genius swordsman who has fought two duels ending in deaths, as well as others ending in assorted injuries for his adversaries. He has his way with any woman he wants, throwing knives near willing barmaids one moment and sleeping with the wives of superior officers the next. Egert's hapless sidekick Karver Ott basks in the great young man's glory, but also suffers from his self-centered and callous treatment. Egert is a thoughtless bully and a superficial lothario until into town one day comes a seemingly mismatched couple: the scrawny and humorless scholar Dinar, whose fingers are ink-stained rather than sword-callused, and his fiancée Toria, the most beautiful woman Egert has ever seen. Egert immediately sets about seducing Toria with his bold charm and ready money, but she is immune to his wiles, and seems genuinely more interested in pursuing the scholarly quest she shares with Dinar in the Town Hall's ravaged records, the search for a manuscript written by a legendary mage called the Sacred Spirit Lash who, having gone insane, left behind an army called the Order of the Lash that still exists and is waiting impatiently for the End of Time.
How the Dyachenkos develop their novel from the fateful encounter between Toria, Dinar, and Egert is disturbing, moving, romantic, and unpredictable. They write appealing and complex characters, like the mage Luayan, the Dean of the University of the big city that makes Kavarren look like a provincial backwater, the young student Gaetan, nicknamed "Fox" for his mischievous and clever antics, the beautiful and intelligent Toria, and, of course, Egert, for whom life, after surrendering itself to him so easily for his first twenty years, becomes an existential harrower. The characters get into unpredictable situations that evoke a delicious suspense.
Although some of the Dyachenkos' descriptions and metaphors feel odd, as when Egert's "blades started to move like fish thrown out of the water onto the ground," or wrong, as when a dagger whizzes by his ear like a bullet, even though apparently there are no guns in the fantasy world, most often they are vivid and interesting, as when "An enormous, impudent raven was strutting ceremoniously through the wet university courtyard like a judge" or when Toria "spoke reluctantly, like a doctor assuring a patient who is near death and covered with sores of his imminent recovery." Another neat moment comes during a cold spell, when "Red-breasted robins with white snowflakes on their backs were sitting on girders attached to walls, looking like the guards in their bright uniforms; and presently the guards themselves strolled by, with their tall pikes and their red-and-white uniforms, shivering just like the robins."
Jonathan Davis gives his usual perfect reading of the novel, effectively varying his delivery for the different characters without straining after dramatic effects. His conflicted Egert, wise Dean Luayan, irreverent Fox, and commanding Toria are all perfect.
The Dyachenkos' imagining of the ironic and devastating twists and turns that life and destiny may put us through, as well as their evoking of a rich fantasy world with its own history, make for a compelling read (though after the nearly unbearably suspenseful climax of the novel, the resolution feels too brief and rushed). The Scar stands on its own, but also feels as though there may be an as yet untranslated novel before it and one after it. People interested in unconventional heroic fantasy and Russian (or Ukrainian) literature should try The Scar.
On the surface not much happens in Virginia Woolf's semi-autobiographical modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse (1929). In Part I: The Window, Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay (based on Woolf's own parents), their eight children, and several guests are vacationing at the Ramsays' summer house on the Isle of Skye in the early 20th century. Mrs. Ramsay, a meddling and kind fifty-year-old Greek-goddess, goes to town on errands, reads a fairy tale to her youngest child James, knits a stocking, presides over a dinner, communes without words with her husband, and holds the different people in the house together with the gravity of her charisma. Mr. Ramsay, an eccentric philosopher-academic, carries on with egotism, insecurity, and emotional tyranny. James' desire to visit the local lighthouse is thwarted by his father and the weather. Mr. Charles Tansley, an uptight disciple of Mr. Ramsay, asserts himself charmlessly. The somnolent and cat-eyed poet Mr. Carmichael reclines on the lawn. And independent, Chinese-eyed and pucker-faced Lily Briscoe works on a painting of Mrs. Ramsay and James and critically contemplates the family. In Part II: Time Passes, the forces of entropy besiege the house as it stands empty of people for ten years. And in Part III: The Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay coerces his two youngest children--now moody teenagers—to accompany him to the lighthouse while Lily Briscoe--who partly represents Woolf herself as a writer--comes to terms with her feelings for Mrs. Ramsay as she tries to capture her vision in the painting she'd attempted ten years earlier.
Woolf is so good at sympathetically and honestly exposing people's minds and so good at revealing the beautiful and awful world we live in, and her writing is so beautiful, flowing, controlled, and poetic, that spending only a couple days with her characters is an indelibly rich experience. She employs a modernist stream of consciousness narration, and fluidly moves from one character to another. Her technique in the novel has been likened to that of the lighthouse beam moving across the benighted island world, briefly illuminating one mind and then another as it goes round, but Woolf's narration feels more organic than that. I relish her long, elegant sentences comprised of multiple clauses attached by semi-colons, her original and vivid metaphors, and her insights into human nature in a variety of vessels (male, female, old, young, educated, simple, etc.). I expected To the Lighthouse to be beautiful, philosophical, and sad, and it was, but I was surprised by its constant humor. At least as often as a poignant pang, I felt a flush of pleasure, similar to what Cam feels while sailing towards the lighthouse:
"From her hand, ice cold, held deep in the sea, there spurted up a fountain of joy at the change, at the escape, at the adventure (that she should be alive, that she should be there). And the drops falling from this sudden and unthinking fountain of joy fell here and there on the dark, the slumbrous shapes in her mind; shapes of a world not realised but turning in their darkness, catching here and there, a spark of light; Greece, Rome, Constantinople."
The dense novel explores the miraculous fragility and meaning (or lack thereof) of life; the varied and complex nature of love; the losses and gains involved in making families or living alone; the fraught relationships between children and parents; the confining roles of men and women; the surprising vividness and poignancy of memory; the complex nature of perception; the doomed but necessary attempt to understand other people; and the doomed but noble attempt through art to capture truth and to avoid entropy.
Juliet Stevenson was born to read Virginia Woolf! Her voice is lovely to listen to and full of understanding, irony, and sympathy, a perfect accompaniment to the text. With skillful subtlety, she modifies her voice for the thoughts of men and women and children and adults (and for the local Scottish workers who help the Ramsays). She carried me off To the Lighthouse. The only thing, perhaps, that is lost in the audiobook is Woolf's use of parentheses and brackets and semi-colons, which visually shape the reading of the text.
To the Lighthouse, like Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, should be read by anyone interested in gender, art, love, life, modernism, beautiful prose, and early 20th century British culture.
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