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What was this experience that just warped my sense of reality, fantasy, beauty, and story? Viriconium. How can words describe the city? ???I???m a dwarf, not a philosopher!??? And the past of Viriconium is so vast that it ???made of the air a sort of amber, an entrapment.??? As the caf?? philosophers say, ???The world is so old that the substance of reality no longer knows quite what it ought to be.???
The first novel, The Pastel City (1971), in which a morose poet-swordsman named tegeus-Cromis leads a raggedy bunch of legends in an attempt to save Viriconium from Northern barbarians, reminds me of Michael Moorcock???s Elric or Corum wandering Jack Vance???s Dying Earth. If you like dark epic science fantasy, you???d love this.
In A Storm of Wings (1980), Galen Hornwrack, a bitter aristocratic assassin, becomes caught up in a quest to protect Viriconium from an alien insect reality invasion. Recalling Lewis Carroll and Philip K. Dick, this novel was the most densely and richly written Viriconium and hence the most challenging to listen to. Superficial skimmers of pages steer clear!
Evoking Laurel and Hardy, Oscar Wilde, and Kafka, In Viriconium (1980) depicts the milquetoast portrait artist Ashlyme trying to complete a commission and to save his subject as a plague of attenuation spreads through the city. This is the most funny and disturbing novel of the three, as well as the most difficult to understand, as the reality of Viriconium warps and ramifies.
The collection of seven short stories called Viriconium Nights (1985) nightmarishly develops the mirroring of alternate Viriconiums until characters reappear with similar or different names, careers, lives, and deaths, the city accrues overlapping names, rulers, and histories, and finally we are left in our real world desperately seeking Viriconium, which is, after all, only a fiction (isn???t it?).
M. John Harrison???s sad beauty and humorous grotesquery, his painterly, poetic, and pregnant descriptions of landscapes, buildings, and people, his explorations of time, memory, reality, art, and love, his flawed and moving characters and the overwhelming city they live in, leave from, or long for, provide a deep and altering dream. He makes new his ancient Evening Earth and our real world.
Simon Vance???s urbane and warm voice relishes Viriconium and makes listening to it an affecting and absorbing experience. Just hearing him talk like a lamia or croon ???Ou lou loo lou loo??? is worth the price of admission.
Philipp Meyer's The Son (2013) is an absorbing historical novel about the history of Texas (Indians, Mexicans, whites, nature, cattle, land, oil, blood, etc.) told via three different narrative modes and writing styles from three different point of view characters from three different generations of the McCullough family. (And late in the book a fourth one appears.) As indicated by the epigraph to the novel, a quotation from Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ("the vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works. . . buries empires and cities in a common grave"), Meyer takes no sanguine view of the sanguinary history of Texas and the McCulloughs (and of America, the world, and humanity in general).
The first voice of the novel belongs to Colonel Eli McCullough, who in 1936 at age one hundred is recording his autobiography for a WPA project. Thinking that his life has been too short, the self-proclaimed "heathen" begins by explaining how Texas became a republic, how his family came to be living in Comanche hunting grounds, and how the Indians captured him at thirteen in 1849. Eli's experiences are horrible, beautiful, and vivid. No idealized noble savages, the Comanche are human beings attuned to the natural world and capable of as much cruelty and kindness as any people. The details Eli relates about making bows and arrows, hunting, raiding, being a captive, using buffalo, making love, giving names, and so on, are mesmerizing and authentic-feeling. And he often evokes a terse beauty: "the water glassing over the stone, skunk tracks in the mud, a heron in a far pool. There was a bobcat ghosting through the willows, thinking no one saw him." Looking back in 1936, Eli feels the thinning of life in the world with the loss of the rich wilderness. "The human mind was open in those days. We felt every disturbance and ripple. Man today lives in a coffin of flesh, hearing and seeing nothing." If a fire came to destroy everyone on earth, he would pour coal oil on himself. As for his family, Eli knows what his son did, but he's not talking about it for the WPA.
The second point of view character introduced, with third person narration, is that of Eli's great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne McCullough, an immensely wealthy eighty-six year old woman who in 2012 is lying paralyzed on the floor of the deserted family mansion, recalling and reflecting on her tomboy childhood, her admired great-grandfather, her all-consuming work, her big brothers, and her disappointing children. She has come to realize that, "The Colonel had been right; the only one you could depend on is yourself." As a woman trying to succeed in and be accepted by the male world of land and oil, she has not had an easy time. She thinks, "There had never been a place for a person like her." But fracking is for her an act of creation, and she doesn't care (too much) that some people view business empires like hers as evil. She has hired a man to write the history of her family, but for years he's only researched without writing anything; is he the "author" of the book we're reading? And what are the papers she regrets not having burned? As for her family, she knows that at one point her grandfather Peter McCullough (Eli's son) disappeared in disgrace, but tantalizingly prefers not to think about why.
The third narration is that of "The Son" of the title, Peter McCullough. Writing in his diary at age 45, the guilty pacifist Peter depicts painful events during the "bloody summer" of 1915, a time of horrific violence between white and Mexican Texans. With Peter trying to defuse a potential massacre ("the old family ritual"), he believes that his journal is the only true account of the McCulloughs. Not unlike Jeanne, he has often felt out of place: "I am an exile inside my own house, my own country." Unlike Jeanne and the Colonel, he believes that "This family must not be allowed to continue." Peter is given to morose self-criticism like, "Looking back on my forty-five years I see nothing worthwhile--what I had mistaken for a soul appears more like a black abyss--I have allowed others to shape me as they pleased. To ask the Colonel I am the worst son he has ever had." He says that he remembers everything, so when is he going to tell us what he did to become expunged from his family?
The haunting "western" music beginning and ending the audiobook is perfect, and the readers, Will Patton, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Shepherd, Clifton Collins Jr., are excellent, fully inhabiting the characters whose narratives they are relating. Will Patton is especially appealing as the laconic, leathery, masculine, and sensitive Eli.
I did find Jeanne and Peter and their stories less compelling than Eli and his. As Meyer rotates among the three characters, his novel reads like a fusion of Conrad Richter's The Light in the Forest, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County family novels, and the movie Giant. In addition to telling the complex and gory story of the American west, Meyer's novel is about parents and children, the inexorability of fate, and the futility, greed, and destruction of human endeavor. Eli's last chapter is apocalyptic ("I looked into the book of the earth"). Human history consists of one people displacing another, whether Indians, Spanish, Mexicans, or Anglos, all parties being expert at atrocity. Meyer at times uses that kind of past to evoke a forlorn, numinous mood, as when Eli is digging graves and finds an ancient black cup: "Because it had lain there a thousand years or more it made Toshaway [his Comanche father] and all the others seem very young; as if they were young and there was still hope." People interested in American and western history full of detail, blood, love, and loss should like The Son.
Swords in the Mist (1968), the third entry in Fritz Leiber's set of sword and sorcery tales featuring the giant barbarian Fafhrd and his compact ex-slum-boy comrade in adventuring and thieving, the Gray Mouser, cobbles together four stories from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s in fix-up rather than publication order, along with two transition vignettes written for the collection. As in the other volumes in the series, the "blood brothers, tall and small," engage in supernatural, loopy, and eerie adventures, maintain their spirits (and ours) with plenty of snarky banter, and fully command the stage fashioned by Leiber's baroque and poetic prose.
In the amusing and creepy "The Cloud of Hate" (1963), the friends are desultorily debating why they are moneyless and homeless, Fafhrd boasting that it is due to their independence ("When we draw sword it is for ourselves alone"), the Mouser skewering his optimism, when they are attacked by four formidable thralls of an ectoplasmic cloud of hate ("human venom" empowered by religious fanaticism) that could "shake the city and land of Lankhmar and the whole world of Nehwon."
"Lean Times in Lankhmar" (1959) is a satirical, farcical, and perfectly plotted story that ambiguously plays with religion, friendship, and financial vs. spiritual paths to security. Hard times and the two friends' different personalities and interests have led the Mouser to become the paunchy lieutenant of Pulg, a racketeer extorting protection money from the priests of the myriad wannabe Gods in Lankhmar, and Fafhrd to become the acolyte of one of the most ascetic, pacific, and boring deities, Issek of the Jug, and his senile priest, Bwadres. Conflict arises when Fafhrd's imaginative story-telling sends Issekianity rocketing to popularity and riches, which attracts the attention of Pulg and company. An absurd chain of coincidences leads to a hilarious climax that seems to mock faith and religion, but mightn't the closet believer Pulg be right when he says that there are more things in this world than we know, like an unseen Hand guiding events towards a Second Coming?
"Their Mistress, the Sea" (1968) is a short and cute transition "story" in which the Mouser and Fafhrd get back into adventuring shape by cruising around in their sloop Black Treasurer, exercising, failing as pirates, and savoring their mistress the sea in all her moods.
"While the Sea-King’s Away" (1960) is a fantastic, funny, and absorbing story in which the two companions pay a submarine visit to the wives of the absent king of the sea, Fafhrd promiscuous and pomaded, the Mouser skeptical and reluctant. Leiber's conception is impressive, magical air tubes rising from the bottom of the sea to the surface, down one of which Fafhrd and then the Mouser climb on a rope tied to their sloop, and when the descending Mouser looks up, "the circle [of sky] overhead did grow smaller and more deeply blue, becoming a cobalt platter, a peacock saucer, and finally no more than a strange ultramarine coin that was the converging point of the tube and rope and in which the Mouser thought he saw a star flash."
"The Wrong Branch" (1968) is a short transition "story" explaining how Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser could have adventures on our earth, there being hidden inside the mazy caverns of Ningauble of the Seven Eyes’ cave doors exiting into other worlds and times and universes.
The final piece in the book, "Adept's Gambit" (1947), opens in Tyre, where the two friends are style-crampingly cursed: any woman they kiss turns temporarily into a sow or a snail. Ningauble of the Seven Eyes explains that a powerful black magic adept has targeted them because of Fafhrd's elder gods caliber laughter, and that they must purloin a set of legendary artifacts and wait for "the woman who will come when she is ready." They have no choice but to accept the fatal quest. But who is the charismatic, cryptic, and hermaphroditic young lady watching the be-spelled duo from the tavern shadows? This is a weird novella, being (I think) the only Fafhrd and Mouser story that takes place on earth, which gives Leiber license to pillage a host of ancient cultures, religions, myths, histories, cities, and figures. Reading by turns like a ribald comedy, a historical horror adventure, and a gothic family story and exploring love, power, knowledge, free will, and life, "Adept's Gambit" is redolent of mood ("certain of the scrolls seeming to smoke and fume as though they held in their papyrus and ink the seeds of a holocaust") and philosophy ("He who lies artistically, treads closer to the truth than ever he knows").
Jonathan Davis does his usual masterful job of reading the stories, enhancing the pleasure of Leiber's prose, the appeal of his characters, and the interest of his tales. His Fafhrd speaks American English, his Mouser British-Australian English, and his loving and abused girl Ahura recalls Emiko from The Windup Girl. His strategic pacing adds much, as when the Mouser asks, "Am I right?" each time he impudently interrupts one of Ningauble's oracular statements, to which, though the text reads "You are not," the wizard answers, "You are. . . NOT," Davis' pause giving a moment of pleasurable suspense.
Finally, this third collection does not cohere as well as the first and second ones (Swords and Deviltry and Swords against Death), and, as with the other books in the series, female readers may be put off by Leiber's mid-twentieth century sexism, and readers who prefer violent action to stylish writing in fantasy may be bored. But if you enjoy lines like "Like an idler from a day of bowered rest, an Indian prince from the tedium of the court, a philosopher from quizzical discourse, a slim figure rose from the tomb," you might give Swords in the Mist a try.
On his thirtieth birthday, "though he had done nothing wrong," Josef K. wakes up to find two strange men in his apartment: they are there to arrest him. The men eat his breakfast and refuse to say why he's been arrested and which authority they are working for. When he is made to meet their "Overseer," who comes to K.'s apartment building to formalize his arrest, K. is again denied any explanation, but is also told that he is free to go to work and to carry on with his life as usual--if he wants to. And K., having a promising career as a senior clerk in a bank should be happy to go to work, shouldn't he? But why were three minor employees from his bank present during his interview with the Overseer? And how is he supposed to prepare to defend himself during his trial if he has no idea what crime he's been charged with or what organization is prosecuting him?
Thus begins Franz Kafka's short novel The Trial (1925), a ten-chapter nightmare in which K fluctuates between trying to survive his plight by staying calm and playing along (though his few apparent supporters interpret that as disturbing indifference) or by rebelliously learning everything he can about the secret court that has put him on trial so that he can successfully defend himself and possibly even reform the entire system. The more K. learns about the secret court (which has its chambers in the attics in decrepit low income housing buildings around the city) from the various people involved with it whom he encounters (a magistrate, a thrasher, a court painter, a chamber master, an usher, a prison chaplain, a fellow defendant, a defendant groupie, etc.), however, the more confusing his case becomes, because he cannot be certain whether the people offering him information, advice, and support are trying to help him or to make him look guilty, let alone whether they are expressing objective facts or subjective opinions. Moreover, all their explanations of the secret court and the prognoses of his trial and the possible courses of action to resolve it multiply contradictorily, rendering direct and confident action quite difficult.
Kafka seems to take a perverse pleasure in imagining and explicating every possible angle of this secret court and the effect it would have on a thoughtful and seemingly innocent person ensnared by it. Apparently, Kafka had not really finished The Trial when he died in 1924, which adds to its mysterious and disturbing dreamlike power, because new scenes and foci and figures suddenly replace old ones and time passes inconsistently. Be that as it may, the novel does work towards a savage, sublime, and religious climax and resolution.
The Trial is a surreal nightmare that suggests disturbing truths about justice, freedom, humanity, and modern metropolitan life. It explores how the machinery of the bureaucracies that regulate our lives degrade, dehumanise, and alienate us. As one character puts it, "the court is an organism," which implies that the myriad people who work for it are cogs in the system. The novel also explores the degree to which we are all both innocent and guilty. When K. says, "But I'm not guilty. It's a mistake. . . . How can a human being be guilty? After all, we're all human beings, every one of us!" The court prison chaplain replies, "That's the way all those who are guilty speak." Even if K. is innocent of any specific crime, he may be guilty of feeling superior to people of lower classes, and of neglecting people who care for him. Finally, when forced to assess our lives, how can we gauge the degree to which we are innocent or guilty? Aren't we all living in the prison of the modern world, complicit in our own imprisonment?
The translation by David Whiting seemed natural and strong. Rupert Degas gives an excellent reading of the novel, clear, intelligent, and appealing, subtly modifying his voice for different characters and moods without drawing attention to himself as reader. To compare Degas' reading of the novel with George Guidall's, perhaps Degas emphasizes K.'s thoughts and Guidall his emotions, so that Degas' version is more intellectual, Guidall's more expressive. And (I was told by a friend) Degas pronounces K. as in German, "kah," while Guidall pronounces it as in English "kay."
Fans of bleak, surreal, fantastic, comical, horrible, alienating, and humane literature by the likes of Camus, Beckett, and Murakami, and of course fans of Kafka's short fiction, should "enjoy" The Trial, but people who want competent, bold, active heroes like Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt, punishable head honcho villains, solved mysteries, and happy endings, as well as people who dislike dreams in which they find themselves late to an important appointment and then find themselves unable to find its room because they are lost in a labyrinthine and changeable conglomeration of halls and stairways and then realize that they are clad only in underwear, should probably steer clear.
The entertaining central conceit of Charles Dickens first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836), is that that "immortal gentleman," Mr. Pickwick, an "extraordinary," "colossally minded," "truly great" "man of genius," is in fact a chubby, balding, bespectacled, pleasure-loving, middle-aged man whose good nature and naivete land him in a series of comical scrapes from which not even his streetwise and philosophic servant Sam Weller is always able to extract him unharmed. As a wealthy retired businessman, Mr. Pickwick's only occupation is traveling around England eating and drinking and investigating human nature with his three absurd friends and followers (the ersatz sportsman Mr. Winkle, the so-called poet Mr. Snodgrass, and the aged, rotund wannabe ladies man Mr. Tupman), ostensibly reporting their doings to the Pickwick Club in London, of which Mr. Pickwick is founder and president.
As Mr. Pickwick indulges in his hobby of studying the drama of life in different (at first ideally comfortable) settings and guises, as he falls into embarrassing fixes, and as he hears stories from the people with whom he converses, Dickens satirizes sports, reform religion, the legal system, political parties, stock brokers, dismal debtor's prisons, contentious husbands and wives, pretentious literary circles, foolish scholarly associations, and grotesque social pretensions. He also celebrates liberal, big-hearted, good-natured people like Pickwick and his countryside gentleman friend Mr. Wardle, romantic marriages, rustic and hospitable coach inns and simple and solid coachmen, and pleasurable festivals like Christmas. He even at one point includes a Christmas story featuring a Scrooge-like sexton in need of a good supernatural scare.
The novel is a picaresque series of set pieces tied together by a few recurring strands, like the ways in which the paths of the adventurer-"stroller"-actor-con-man Mr. Jingle and his servant/friend Job Trotter and of Pickwick and co. repeatedly cross each other, in which the legal suit of Bardell vs. Pickwick increasingly plagues the affable man, and in which Pickwick's disciples inconveniently fall in love. The novel is not a bildungsroman, for the fully mature Mr. Pickwick passes through his experiences largely unchanged. Instead, he acts as a catalyst for other people's changes, and as the novel progresses, especially in the last third, Mr. Pickwick's aspect as (as his servant Sam Weller puts it) an angel in tights and gaiters and spectacles comes to the fore.
Sam Weller is a great character: cockney, loyal, brave, strong, wise, and possessed of funny mannerisms: pronunciation of w as v and v as w, comical nicknames for people ("Vere does the mince-pies go, young opium eater?") and hilarious comparisons of present situations to exaggeratedly apt and usually violent prior cases (Wellerisms), as when he says, "Business first, pleasure afterwards, as King Richard the Third said wen he stabbed t'other king in the Tower, afore he smothered the babbies." Or 'Vich I call addin' insult to injury, as the parrot said ven they not only took him from his native land, but made him talk the English langwidge arterwards.' Or "Wery sorry to 'casion any personal inconwenience, ma'am, as the house-breaker said to the old lady when he put her on the fire."
David Timson gives an inspired reading of the novel, particularly with supporting characters like Sam Weller, his father, and the sleepy "fat boy" servant Joe. Every word he reads sounds just as Dickens must have intended it to be read. Although he greatly increases the pleasure of the novel, I did think (especially in the early going) that he lays on Dickens' comical cheek a bit thickly as the third person narrator.
In The Pickwick Papers appear many flashes of Dickens' particular genius that he fully develops in his later books: inventive, vivid, and rich descriptions; great lines worthy of re-reading and savoring; singular characters marked by human foibles, funny mannerisms, and strange names; imaginative set-pieces that linger in the mind; self-reflexive statements about novel writing; tear-jerking sentimentality; angry social conscience; open-minded view of class and culture; keen vision of human folly, villainy, and kindness; and so on. But often I found myself wandering during Dickens' extended riffs or interpolated tales (some of which don't absolutely need to be in the novel), and the overall story is not as compelling as those in his future books. Thus, fans of Charles Dickens should surely read/listen to The Pickwick Papers, but people new to his work should probably start with more classic books like David Copperfield and Great Expectations.
Because I love the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz and had listened to Anna Fields' Blackstone Audio (2001) fine reading of the original book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), I was curious to try an audiobook version read by a popular and accomplished actress, and so listened to the Anne Hathaway "performs" The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (2011), for audible.com's "a-list" line of classic books read by popular actors.
First, about the original novel itself, the story is light-hearted, with plenty of fantastic and appealing characters (like Dorothy's companions), exciting flare-ups of ultra-violence (like the orders and fates of the Wicked Witch's forty wolves, forty crows, and forty bees) ironic insights into human nature (like the pure Tin Woodman's mistaken belief that if he had a heart he would not need to be so careful to avoid hurting living beings because people with hearts naturally avoid hurting others), humorous lines (like when the Scarecrow asks the Lion if he has brains he answers "I suppose so. I've never looked to see"), and good themes for children (like personal hygiene is important and we all have the potential to develop the qualities we think we lack and just need to find the confidence and opportunities to use them). If you've only seen the movie, and if you like it, you should read or listen to the original book, because it's interesting to compare the similar and different points between them. The movie, for instance, stops about three-fifths of the way through the book, downplays the violence, increases Dorothy's age, and adds songs and dances, as well as the wonderful feature of some fantasy world characters having real world alter-egos.
One feature of the Audible a-list audiobook that's convenient and nice is that the 24 chapters of the book are divided into 24 navigable chapters and Hathaway reads out the titles of the chapters after their numbers, while the Blackstone version has only five navigable super audiobook chapters, so that when you click the fast forward or rewind button you end up several chapters ahead or behind rather than just one, and Fields only reads out chapter numbers rather than titles and numbers together.
Like many of the reviews posted on Audible, I have mixed feelings about Hathaway's reading. She mostly does a fine, fun job with the different characters' different voices. The Scarecrow is funny and scratchy (sure, he does sound a bit like a hyper Marge Simpson, but Marge's voice is not a bad one to recall); the Tin Woodman is sensitive; the Cowardly Lion deep and blustery and a little New York or New Jersey-ish; the Mouse Queen cute and squeaky; the Wicked Witch old and wicked; Oz feckless; Dorothy sweet. . . I suppose you could complain about her Stork sounding like a storky-valley girl, the pseudo-British King of the Flying Monkeys rolling too many of his Rs, the Guard of the Gates of the Emerald City sounding oddly Daffy Duckish (especially when he says "spectacles"), and the Hammer-Heads sounding a bit too much like the Scarecrow, but, hey, Hathaway does her best to give each character a distinctive feel, and I enjoyed most of them.
The problem for me was her over-reading too many of the third person narrator's lines, becoming, for instance, too breathy, fast, and excited when reading exciting parts of the story. In Chapter 1 Dorothy and Toto have been carried up into the air in their house on the cyclone, and although at first the scene has been exciting and scary, with Hathaway (perhaps over-dramatically) inflecting her voice for greater urgency, one paragraph ends calmly with the cyclone carrying the house "miles and miles away as easily as you could carry a feather." When the next sentence begins, "It was very dark, and the wind howled horribly around her," Hathaway briefly resumes her hyper danger mode, even though that same sentence ends, "but Dorothy found she was riding quite easily," and its paragraph ends, "she felt as if she were being rocked gently, like a baby in a cradle," for which Hathaway uses an extra sweet calm mood. Her vocal mood shifts sound too much right next to each other, and a sentence that ends calmly should be read from the beginning calmly, even if the first phrase of the sentence indicates some horribly howling wind, because the context before and after that howling wind is not scary. In short, Hathaway over-reads much of the narration, which detracted from the listening experience, making me think at times, as some reviewers have said, of Anne Hathaway rather than of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Finally, it comes down to preference. If you like the reader of an audiobook to *perform* different voices and moods and so on like an actor (tellingly, the Audible title is "Anne Hathaway Performs The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"), you should listen to Hathaway. If you only want to hear a person with a pleasant voice, accurate pronunciation, and sensitive and smooth pace read a good book, you should listen to Anna Fields. Hathaway is strutting her actress stuff, mostly enjoyably (because she obviously enjoys the story), but although kids probably prefer her different character voices and high-tension narration, I prefer Anna Fields' more subtle differences between characters and more even-keeled and natural narrative voice.
The disturbing implication of H. P. Lovecraft's novella At the Mountains of Madness (1931/36) is, of course, that our world is abnormal. From its great opening line ("I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why") to its closing shrieks of "Tekeli-li!" Lovecraft's story powerfully explores existential horror marked by the following:
-monstrous forbidden books
-secrets beyond human penetration
-grotesque squawking penguins
-curious configurations of dots
-tentacles, wings, and obscene odors
-careful butchery and inexpert dissection
-an appalling account of the creation of life on earth
-a pre-human megalopolis
-cosmic beauty and cosmic horror
The novella is the attempt by Dyer, a professor of geology at Mistaktonic University, to dissuade future scientific expeditions to Antarctica by telling what really happened to the disastrous one he led there in 1930. Dyer begins with practical details about supplies, personnel, and goals, scientific facts about longitude, latitude, temperature, and geology, and generally benign poetic impressions: "Distant mountains floated in the sky as enchanted cities, and often the whole white world would dissolve into a gold, silver, and scarlet land of Dunsanian dreams and adventurous expectancy under the magic of the low midnight sun." However, after his party reaches "the great unknown continent, and its cryptic world of frozen death," things start getting creepy: "On the barren shore, and on the lofty ice barrier in the background, myriads of grotesque penguins squawked and flapped their fins." And when Lake, a Professor of biology, finds a fossil footprint of some advanced life form from a period of earth's history when no advanced life forms existed and becomes obsessed with finding more, things become horribly strange.
Lovecraft's writing may at times strike one as overwrought, with absurd names like Yog-Sothoth, over-used words like mad/ness (34 times in this novella), horror/s (31), strange/ness/ly (29), primal (24), and nameless (21), and plenty of excess verbiage. And those bas-reliefs are too conveniently comprehensible. Nevertheless, if you get into his rhythm, Lovecraft builds a disturbing intensity as Dyer provides more details, leading us through a series of gateways into the ineffable alien past of earth. I found myself writing down whole passages, amused by their outré quality and awed by their rhythm and imagery. At the Mountains of Madness is an excellent story because it builds terror through gradual revelation, so that, though we guess much of what's going on much earlier than Dyer tells us, the point is that he has to nerve himself up to be able to say what he has to say. It's difficult for him. He doesn't want to inflict spiritual torment on humanity and doesn't want to relive his own Rubicon crossing into the madness lurking in the inner reality of life and the world, which "marked my loss, at the age of fifty-four, of all that peace and balance which the normal mind possesses through its accustomed conception of external nature and nature's laws." If you stay patient and journey with him through his past expedition, you may experience, if not the same hair-graying terror that Lovecraft is trying to evoke, a compellingly beautiful, disturbing, and strange experience: science fiction horror sublime. (Only Lovecraft could make into figures of horror that comment on the human condition six-foot tall, albino, eyeless penguins living in tunnels leading to the abyss.)
If you become irritated when characters in horror movies enter places they should know better than to enter, Dyer and Danforth may drive you crazy, but they do what they do because of curiosity, and this novella is largely about that human trait: "Half paralyzed with terror though we were, there was nevertheless fanned within us a blazing flame of awe and curiosity which triumphed in the end." Ah, Dyer should know that the more he tries to convince scientists not to explore Antarctica by telling them of his experiences, the more they will flock there.
Edward Hermmann's clarity, restraint, gravitas, and deep, rich voice render Lovecraft's most outlandish names, exotic terms, frustrating delays, and pet words convincing. In a brilliant touch, his moment of greatest emotion comes when Dyer feels some cross-species sympathy: "Poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last--what had they done that we would not have done in their place? . . . Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn--whatever they had been, they were men!"
I'd only read a few H. P. Lovecraft stories, ignorantly scorning his work for its pulpy purple prose, nameless, eldritch obsessions, and phobias about size, age, and tentacles. I figured that the worst evil in this world is done by human beings, not by lurking protoplasmic blasphemous alien entities. I only bought the Blackstone audiobook version of At the Mountains of Madness (1931/36) because I could get it cheaply after buying a cheap kindle version. And the novella knocked off my soul-socks, and made me keen to read all of Lovecraft's stories.
Ever since their parents vanished a year and a half ago, eleven-year-old Sabrina Grimm and her seven-year old sister Daphne have been escaping from bad foster homes. And in the opening scene of Michael Buckley's The Fairy-Tale Detectives (2005), the first novel in his popular Sisters Grimm series, the girls are taken by their pinch-faced case worker Ms. Smirt to Ferryport Landing, NY, a quaint town without movie theaters, malls, or museums, to live with a dead woman. It develops that the woman, their grandmother Relda Grimm, is alive and well, and among the things the girls will soon discover is why their father lied to them that she was dead and what happened to the girls' mother and him.
They will also learn that nearly every fantastic being and artifact that ever appeared in any fairy tale, legend, or myth really existed and did the things that have been written about them, so that, for instance, a collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales is a history book and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow a true story. We don't encounter such things in real life today because when the age of fairy tales was ending around the start of the 19th century and fantasy beings--Everafters--were being persecuted, they moved to America, where with the help of Wilhelm Grimm they settled in the mostly unsettled woods and fields of Ferryport, thinking to find there an unmolested haven. As time passed and more normal Americans began moving to Ferryport, however, persecution loomed again, so some Everafters tried to wage a pre-emptive war on humanity, but were prevented by a Baba Yaga spell limiting all Everafters to the five square miles of the town for as long as at least one Grimm descendent remains alive. So for 200 years the Everafters have kept a low profile, mostly hiding their magical natures and items, and the Grimms have been playing detective troubleshooters to defuse any problems arising between fairy folk and humans.
That premise permits Buckley to use any fantasy character (including Snow White, Little Bo Peep, Glinda the Good Witch, the Three Little Pigs, the Queen of Hearts, Gepetto, Ichabod Crane, and Mowgli) or item (including Excalibur, Cinderella's fairy godmother's wand, magic beans, and "the" magic mirror) he chooses. It's part of the trend in movies like Shrek (2001), books like Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2001) and TV shows like Once Upon a Time (2011-) to combine figures from various fairy tales, myths, and legends (often in our own world, often revised so that, for example, traditional villains become heroes and vice versa) to revivify such stories and their characters and to make them more relevant to today's readers. And it's fun to meet fantasy characters from beloved childhood tales rubbing shoulders in a new story.
But such stories may turn into inconsistent anything goes affairs, as when Relda Grimm tells her granddaughters that not all fairy tales are true, saying "For instance, a dish never ran away with a spoon," but why or where Buckley draws the line is fuzzy. Similarly, if fantasy stories are true histories of real events, how could characters who got killed in them appear alive now, like the Hansel and Gretel witch and Grendel? Worse, a diminishing of magic, a numbing of wonder, and a mundaning of fantasy may kick in the more disparate familiar characters are tossed together in a story, especially when, instead of fantastic effect, an author pushes page-turning action (as when the sisters ride on Aladdin's flying carpet--complete with a "kamikaze" dive, a car chase, and a moment when the rug "screeched to a halt"), and gives fantasy characters banal personalities and relationships (as when Beauty and the Beast bicker over being late for a ball), all of which is too much the case in The Fairy-Tale Detectives. The mystery genre itself is about solving rather than evoking mystery, and if fantasy characters are real, what happens to fantasy?
Kvetching aside, The Fairy-Tale Detectives is enjoyable. Although Buckley's writing mostly lacks poetry, magic, and wonder, it is exciting, funny, and vivid, and has some heightened moments, like when the sisters walk through the mirror, and some great lines, like "You would hug the devil if he gave you cookies," or "Who could tell what a woman who had swords hanging over her bed was capable of?" The sisters are spunky (if a little too snappy), loyal, vulnerable, and strong, and their growing realization that they may finally have found family and home is moving. Other characters like Relda Grimm and Mr. Canis (her lupine border, bodyguard, and friend) and Elvis (her 200-pound, slobber-tongued Great Dane) are appealing. I liked Puck, the 4,000 year-old self-proclaimed Fairy Prince and Trickster King who has decided to stay in the form of a twelve-year-old boy till the sun burns out. And Prince Charming makes a fine mayor: arrogant, snide, and power-hungry.
The reader L. J. Ganser's appealing voice and energetic manner are fine (especially for Sabrina and Daphne), with one exception: he's unconvincing and inconsistent with foreign accents like Relda Grimm's slight German one and Prince Charming and Jack the Giant Killer's thick English ones (especially when Jack says things like, "You can't keep a bloke like me down, can you? Nosiree-bob!").
Finally, although Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland on a Ship of Her Own Making (2011) is more magical, being written with rich, poetic, and wonder-filled prose and peopled with characters of the author's own devising rather than with ones plucked from classic fantasy stories, kids must love The Fairy-Tale Detectives, and adults who like (sub)urban fantasy, everything-fairy-and-the-kitchen-sink stories, and exciting, funny, page-turning kids' books should like it too.
The Prince of Darkness, posing as Professor Woland, specialist in black magic, has come to USSR-era Moscow to people watch and to host his annual ball. And if the Satanic entourage--consisting of Behemoth, a snarky, black cat jester, Azazello, a red-haired buffoonish assassin, Koroviev, a tall, cracked pince-nez wearing interpreter con man, and Hella, a semi-nude succubus--raises a little hell in the city, most of the victims deserve their fates. The satiric mayhem in Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (1928-1940; 1967), smoothly translated by Michael Karpelson, targets the literary world, the mental health profession, the communal apartment system, the police, popular entertainment, greed and pride, and, perhaps, atheistic rationality.
Among those caught up in it all are Berlioz (an editor who believes that Jesus never existed), Ivan "Homeless" (a bad poet who becomes upset by the editor's fate), the managers of the Variety Theater, and, saving the novel, the Master and Margarita. The Master (who has renounced his real name along with the world) has written a novel about the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, and his brief but eternal relationship with Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus) in Yershalayim (Jerusalem). Through the main story of the devil's visit to modern Moscow, Bulgakov interweaves chapters from the Master's historical novel which feel more vivid, interesting, affecting, strange, and real than most of the surreal contemporary events. The writer's lover, Margarita, has encouraged him and called him the Master because of her esteem for his genius and work, but in a Moscow dominated by atheist literati, to try to publish a novel featuring a real Jesus is to invite public scorn and condemnation, which has driven the Master into an insane asylum.
Part One of Bulgakov's novel was difficult to enjoy, bearing too many too lengthy supposedly funny but actually boring burlesque satiric fantasy sequences, like the nightmare of the chairman of the tenant's association in which he appears on stage before an audience of bearded economists and is commanded by an actor to turn over all his hidden foreign currency. I found that I didn't care for or about most of the Moscow characters and was asking myself, "This is supposed to be one of the greatest novels in the twentieth century?" In fact, if it weren't for two chapters featuring Pilate and Yeshua and one introducing the Master, I might have lost the will to soldier on.
Fortunately, Part Two incorporates more of the Master's novel and begins with Margarita, and because I cared about her and the Master, I began enjoying the surreal fantasy sequences, which became so imaginative, scary, humorous, and moving that I ended up liking Satan and his buffoonish entourage and the novel as a whole. For example, Margarita's application of infernal ointment over her entire body and subsequent witchly joy ("invisible and free!") and flight and ball hostessing are all magically and darkly alive, the marksman contest between Behemoth and Azazello is great fun, Pilate's walk with his dog and Yeshua along a lunar staircase is beautiful, and the ride of the infernal band on black horses into moonlit storm clouds is sublime.
The reader Julian Rhind-Tutt gives a virtuoso performance fluidly switching between a variety of voices for the many different characters in their different moods and modes, among them Behemoth nasally sarcastic and mocking, the devil scary, urbane, and humane, and Yeshua calmly kind and reasonably insane (or unreasonably sane). Although during the first part of the novel's interminable surreal satiric sequences, Rhind-Tutt's frenetic and high-pitched voice got on my nerves, his Pilate, Aphrenius (Pilate's hooded chief of secret police), Yeshua, Devil, and Margarita are all full of wonderful gravitas, and I did enjoy his satanic minions' voices in Part Two of the book, and overall he brought the novel even more to life than only reading it would have done.
You gotta love good advice from the Devil like "Never ask anything of anyone, especially if they are more powerful than you," and "Everyone receives what they believe in," and when you add to them wisdom from Jesus by way of Pilate like "Cowardice is the greatest sin," and then think that Bulgakov was writing during the most oppressive era of the USSR and had his books and plays banned because he would not toe the party line, and that he devastatingly satirizes Moscow and Soviet Union life, and that he sympathetically portrays villains like the Devil and Pilate, when you keep all those things in mind, you sense that Bulgakov must have wished he could make a deal with the devil like the Master's.
Can you resist a novel by Robert Graves, the author of I, Claudius (1934), about Belisarius (500-565 AD), arguably the greatest general in history, a man who used his intelligence, courage, creativity, and leadership to preserve and expand the troubled Byzantine Empire in campaigns against the Persians in the East, the Vandals in North Africa, the Goths in Italy, and the Bulgarian Huns right around Constantinople, a man who (according to Edward Gibbon but not Graves) loved his wife too much, a man who reacted with either superhuman or sub-human patience to the increasingly hateful treatment of his Emperor Justinian?
The first person narrator of Count Belisarius (1938) is the eunuch Eugenius: "I, the author of this Greek work, am a person of little importance, a mere domestic; but I spent nearly my whole life in the service of Antonina, wife to this same Belisarius, and what I write you must credit." Eugenius is writing this biography "in extreme old age at Constantinople in the year of our Lord 571." He is a witty, sympathetic, and usually but not always reliable narrator.
Like I, Claudius, Count Belisarius is a vividly realized historical novel in which the past comes fully alive, for Graves expresses historically accurate world views of the people in the eras about which he writes, and he incorporates so many interesting and authentic seeming details of their past lives. We learn, for example, about the rival sects of early Christianity that fought over things like the mortal and or divine nature of Jesus. At the same time, the old pagan gods were still lurking behind the newly dominant Christian religion, and Eugenius is accepts some witchcraft and debunks ersatz "holy" relics. He also explains things like why there are so many Johns in the world and how it felt to be a eunuch and about the entertainment of the hippodrome, divided between green and blue charioteer factions whose rivalries spilled into every sphere of public and private life and threatened the very Empire. As Eugenius ranges from Belisarius' boyhood through his 65th year, each chapter has at least one great set piece, among them the clever rescue of a tax collector from a band of thugs, a feast hosted by a pompous and nostalgic Roman, and the comical hunt for a killer whale. And of course, pacifist though he is, Eugenius, who served his mistress as she accompanied Belisarius on most of his campaigns, recounts suspenseful ambushes, sieges, ruses, rescues, full-scale battles, and so on, each one set in a different martial, political, and social context, including practical information like training, discipline, morale, transport, supply, communication, and luck.
Belisarius seems to have been both a consummate general and a good man. His great innovation was in training up a new cavalry that combined the heavy shock lancers of the Goths with the light skirmishing archers of the Huns. Interestingly, the more military success he achieved, the more suspicious and jealous his Emperor Justinian became. Theirs was an intriguing relationship! Justinian would send Belisarius out to do something impossible without anywhere near enough troops or money, tell him to succeed, sabotage him with inferior and disobedient generals or with corrupt suppliers, hope for him to fail, refuse to appropriately acknowledge his unexpected success, suspect of him of disloyalty in proportion to that success, recall him to Constantinople to chastise him before he could solidify the Empire's hold on the newly re-acquired territory, blame him for any subsequent problems stemming from his premature withdrawal, and so on. Eugenius acknowledges the difficulty in understanding Belisarius' extraordinary patience and submission, conjecturing that he may have pitied Justinian for not knowing how to live like a Christian, and that he lived his life by a strict belief in obedience, a key to military success, while Justinian lived without knowing what to make of a truly good person, living as he did among sinful people. Despite Belisarius coming off as a virtuous hero, Eugenius admits that his amazing military successes led to destruction, poverty, suffering, and death in North Africa and Italy, partly because of his submission to the increasingly insecure, impractical, and greedy Justinian. Perhaps Belisarius' greatest flaw was not, as Gibbon puts it, uxoriousness, but rather his constant loyalty to a bad emperor.
Another great relationship in the novel is between Belisarius and his wife Antonina. They first met as teenagers when he was an innocent aristocrat, and she was a charioteer entertainer (i.e., a gymnast-dancer-prostitute). Years later she would join him on his campaigns, exchanging bawdy jests with the soldiers, managing catapults, and generally being a solid and yet often refreshingly independent support for the general. While Gibbon morbidly revels in Antonina's amoral, scheming, and manipulative nature, (eagerly relying on Procopius' Secret History, which, according to Eugenius, is a vindictive mix of twisted truths and lies), Graves follows his own inclination, though Eugenius does wax coy a few times when touching fraught matters like Antonina's relationship with Belisarius and their adopted son Theodisius.
The reader Laurence Kennedy is a perfect Eugenius, sounding like an educated, refined, and humane (British) man, with just the right slight hint of effeminacy without camping it up. And all of his other characters sound spot on, from his devious, eunuch chamberlain-general Narses (recalling a cross-dressing Elmer Fudd) to his increasingly snide and abhorrent Justinian. And he renders the Empress Theodora and her bosom buddy Antonina suitably shrewd, funny, and formidable.
Anyone interested in the Byzantine Empire, Robert Graves, military history, and literary historical fiction peopled with compelling, complex, and believable characters should find much pleasure in Count Belisarius.
The Constant Gardener (2001) by John le Carre begins as an appalling murder mystery, develops into a harrowing investigation of big pharmaceutical companies and their seemingly humanitarian but actually pernicious activities in third world countries like Africa (aided and abetted by similarly superficially altruistic but fundamentally greedy countries and people), and ends up a contemporary Heart of Darkness complete with its own Kurtz figure. Throughout all that, the novel explores marital and other kinds of love and the question of whether it's "Better to be inside the system fighting it than outside the system, howling at it." And this politically and socially engaged, literate mystery and espionage novel is set in a vividly realized Africa, "heat ripping off the city pavements."
The story begins when the British High Commission in Nairobi is informed of the death of Tessa Quayle, a beautiful twenty-five year old lawyer married to Justin Quayle, a gentlemanly, unambitious diplomat in the Foreign Service stationed there. Tessa and her African driver have been found brutally murdered near Lake Turkana, while the handsome black Belgian aid worker Dr. Arnold Bluhm, who'd been accompanying Tessa on some unknown mission (and with whom she'd shared a hotel room the night before), has gone missing. Soon enough the media is portraying Tessa as an unstable interracial nymphomaniac and Arnold as a vengeful lover, impressions that the powers that be in the Foreign Service are subtly fostering. Enter two young police agents sent from Scotland Yard to investigate the murders. As they question Sandy Woodrow (the Head of Chancery in the Nairobi High Commission) and Justin, we realize that there is more to Tessa's death than some love triangle gone bad. As the novel progresses, Justin researches Tessa's "mission" until it becomes his own and, questioning his pre-loss persona as detached gardening aficionado and constant spouse, he is retracing her steps like a thinking man's middle-aged, non-violent James Bond into the heart of darkness that lies in the pharmaceutical industry, Africa, and humanity, all the while coming to love his dead wife more and more.
The novel does not paint the western "pharmagiants" as completely evil entities and Africans as completely innocent victims. As one character puts it, the "pharmaceutical industry has achieved human and social miracles, but its collective conscience is not developed." le Carre doesn't ignore local corruption, brutality, ignorance, intolerance, and civil war. But indeed much of the responsibility for those evils does, in his depiction, stem from the profit driven interference of western companies, countries, and even organizations like the UN and WHO, that, despite the best efforts of some people who genuinely want to help the Third World, too often end up botching and exacerbating complex and problematic situations. Lest readers think le Carre is exaggerating for dramatic effect, he says in his Author's Note (not included in the audiobook), "As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard."
le Carre is quite good at getting in the heads of middle-aged men, like Justin, to be sure, but also like his foil, Sandy Woodrow, who is also a diplomat but one whose raison d'etre is to keep a steady boat so he can be promoted up through the Foreign Service until he can become a Sir. Sandy fantasizes divorcing his wife and marrying attractive female subordinates and can't understand why they treat like sexual harassment his "natural" comments and contacts. He is a conflicted man subject to waves of nausea at the glib, obedient lies he finds himself telling his staff, wondering self-pityingly, "Who did this to me?" "Who made me what I am? England? My father? My schools? My pathetic, terrified mother? Or seventeen years of lying for my country?"
The reader Michael Jayston reads clearly and passionately with his rich and warm voice, so that the feelings of le Carre's characters are perfectly pitched. He is adept at doing English spoken by Africans, British (upper crust and working class), Italians, Germans, and so on, and his women sound like real people rather than like a man trying to sound female.
Just one part of the novel disappointed me, and to explain it requires a SPOILER (so if you haven't read the novel, do not read this paragraph). I think that le Carre unfairly and nearly perversely raises the reader's hopes at a couple points towards the end when a complaining villain and a persuasive spy say things that seem to indicate that justice will be done.
There are no easy answers in The Constant Gardener. The "God profit" is seemingly almighty, with the few un-tainted people tending to be vulnerable and limited in the amount of change they can force in the multinational corporations and compliant governments running the world. The novel is not, however, a total downer. It is sometimes quite funny. It makes you want to make Tessa and Justin's mission your own. It is suspenseful, sad, angry, illuminating, beautiful, and terrible, with just enough hope.
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