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review of annihilation by jeff vandermeer

Annihilation - Jeff VanderMeer

cross-posted at the mo-centric universe and goodreads:


i wasn't quite sure what to make of this book at first. the opening pages moved slowly but as soon as the four female unnamed research explorers (our narrator, the biologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist, and the psychologist -- the leader of this party, the ostensible twelve expedition to area X, a place that they have been trained to explore, a place that wasn't always there, a place encroaching on their border) venture to the tower, i found myself riveted and really anxious about what was happening and where the hell they actually were (is this really our earth? an alternate one? has our earth breached an alternate dimension?), and by the end was substantially spooked, in the best of lovecraftian ways. the novel strongly evokes and expands on ideas from his "the colour out of space", lovecraft's own favourite, and the one i love most, alongside "the shadow over innsmouth". vandermeer's prose is wonderfully crafted and moves the reader slowly and insidiously closer to chaos, as he has the biologist flounder in the chaos that visits the expedition and the possible infection that is coating her insides until her final stand-off inside the tower. the horror vandermeer drenches this moment with, in pulse-pounding mind-splitting images also reminded me of one of my own negative personal experiences: drug-addled terror and anxiety that built within me at a rave one night many years ago, when the dancers and the lights seemed to combine into an unholy wall of pulsing flesh. i recognized this horror.


this is the first book of a three-part series that was released in quick succession over the quarters of 2014 -- i very much like this marketing concept -- it reminds me of when volumes of books were published separately before they were available as a whole. after reading annihilation, i immediately put holds on the two others because i am curious as to where vandermeer will go from here. i've looked over other reviews of this first book and found that readers are quite divided: many really enjoy the book, as i did, finding in it a remarkable addition to the canon of weird fiction, while others compare the book to the television program, lost, and complain that there is not enough pay-off and that the book alienates them through via the use of the unnamed and unreliable narrator. while obviously there are always different strokes for different folks, i can understand how the pace and the distance that using an unnamed narrator unfailingly creates, and was no doubt chosen by the author to underscore the biologist's alienated and isolating personality could have the same effect on his reader: "i don't like this character and i don't care what happens because you're not giving me any answers that make sense" -- certainly, i have reacted in the same way in regard to other stories, and the biologist admittedly keeps doing things she supposes she ought not to have done after the fact, that i would argue makes it more difficult to go along with her at times, but the notion that she is an unreliable narrator bothered me. while i appreciate she might fit the definition in broad terms because she believes that the psychologist has done something to her, 

using hypnosis not only to trigger certain behaviours but also to alter her memories  

(show spoiler)

and also withholds details of her story as she reveals her experience in area x, i do believe she holds nothing crucial back from the reader, and that she believes she is telling us the truth. this may be close the real world but it's still speculative fiction and i think these devices work in that realm only to enhance horror not to make you doubt your narrator. the book is actually a tremendous feat of authorial engineering, employing such devices to create a book seemingly simply told, writhing with reference and unfurls like its central nightmare, a terrifying crawler that invades our psyches and our world.


Creative Commons License This work by Maureen de Sousa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

review of frenchman's creek, by daphne du maurier

Frenchman's Creek - Daphne du Maurier, Julie Myerson

cross-posted at goodreads and the mo-centric universe.


a few months of staring blankly into space means that finishing this book was a major accomplishment for me. normally, it would have been a quick read but for this cursed lack of focus.. anyway, it is a simple little romance, and i do like enigmatic, artistic pirates very much, so i found some fun in frenchman's creek. i wasn't crazy about it, though, beyond the eponymous pirate.


the heroine, lady dona st. columb starts off very precious, driving the thirsty and exhausted horses of her carriage on despite the concerns of the servant she commands. there is nobody chasing her, except perhaps an image in her mind of herself, wearing boy's breeches. she had lately done so, alleviating the boredom she felt in life by scaring an old lady while sneaking around in the middle of the night with her husband's cousin and best friend, rockingham. as a result of the secret shame, she has commanded that her husband, sir harry, stay behind in london while she exiles herself to his country seat, navron in cornwall, with just the children for company.

lady dona, or lady lady, if you will (dona is used as the honorific "lady" in latin countries) has come to realize that she doesn't much like the woman she's become (she will repeatedly tell everyone within hearing that she is "near thirty" in the novel) and that she worries that the dignity her title affords is all she feels she has retained. she does not love her husband (she married him because she liked his eyes but apparently that is no longer enough) and she tries to love her children (she has two) but there's really only evidence of some small affection or perhaps more properly, a compulsive maternal connection to her son, james. her daughter henrietta is only casually mentioned and most often she doesn't distinguish between them, only saying how much she enjoys picking flowers with the children. of course, that's when she's not leaving them in care of their nurse, and sneaking off the estate for a few days to go fishing in the creek with our titular frenchman, the pirate. the pirate does has a name but in dialogue he is always the frenchman, so i'm not going to bother telling you his name (du maurier seems to have been allergic to them, anyway). sometimes he draws pictures of dona when he is not sketching birds or teaching her about fishing or the natural world. and of course he used to have a title and be fancy but he gave up all that for adventures on the high seas (and the high creeks, of course). so hurray for the frenchman (despite his taste in women)!


the thing that bugged me most about the novel was du maurier's handling of the period, the historical part of the romance. the book never feels planted in the seventeenth century even though the bulk of the action takes place then. she had already shown so much command in the previously-published rebecca and had already written this type of book, the bodice-ripper jamaica inn, so it's sort of surprising du maurier seems so unsure as a writer here. the first chapter is not set in the period she has committed to: instead she has a contemporary, unnamed yachtsman sail past the part of cornwall where dona's story unfolded two centuries before. she even provides a full precis of the action of the novel here, called forth by the land of cornwall as he floats by: it is as if the birds, the creek and the country are haunted by this lady and her lover. perhaps she meant this "foreshadowing" as an effect to heighten the power of her romance, that the love herein described still "echoes through the ages" but i did not find it effective.


and then there's lady dona herself. du maurier wants you to knows she is an inevitably devastatingly beautiful, ringletted, fiery and strong-willed woman who is used to getting her way, essentially born in the wrong era. the problem in terms of the novel is that everybody else, ostensibly supposed to be part of the norm in society, accepts her behaviour and conveniently accedes to it at every point and frankly, i didn't buy it.. really? lord godolphin would allow her to do *that*? du maurier doesn't make the remotest effort to have dona's movements or actions impeded by her time or position. the only check on her actions comes from the lady herself which seems incompatible with restoration-era england.


as other reviewers have noted, lady dona seems to be du maurier's tragic mary sue, a woman who can bend anyone to her will, whose portrait can make a man lose her heart but whose face is conveniently forgettable when it counts. she cannot have everything she wants because she is constrained by her sex. i do actually feel that if du maurier didn't think Society would judge her for it, she would've given this novel the ending that some romantics yearn for, and had she not had children herself, i don't imagine the novel would have unfolded the way it did at all.


all this i struggled to accept but the worst parts of the novel for me were two scenes where dona and her frenchman were together, at their first late-night supper, and later on when fishing. dona is at her most annoying here as she petulantly mewls about the limitations of being a woman, about how much less a woman is than a man. thankfully the pirate argues with her in defense of the sex she disparages but it seemed to me her limitations were of class not sex: she could not fish or cook was because she was wealthy, because she was a lady lady. and please stop saying women aren't creative, stupid dona, so that our hero, the frenchman can point out the obvious powers.

i did like the servant william and her dynamic with him, though i grew tired of dona's describing him as a man with a "button mouth". what does that even mean? (i keep imagining sylvester stallone's mouth.) also, i know i already mentioned it, but i thought i should end on a high note: the frenchman pirate is really attractive. come tell me about birds and share your cheese with me, monsieur. still, i couldn't help but think of how much more i had enjoyed sabatini's [book:Captain Blood|599573]. now there's a pirate romance!


probably closer to 2.5 stars but given that i am happy to have finished something, i'm shining up three.

Creative Commons License This work by Maureen de Sousa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Traveling Sprinkler - Nicholson Baker i truly love nicholson baker's voice and i really feel i can give no higher compliment than this. quite often it is how a writer's voice resonates with me that makes or breaks a novel for me; no matter what craft it might otherwise hold. i was first charmed by baker's voice when i read the dry observations of the mezzanine, and then alarmed, allured and amused by the two smuttier novels, the fermata and house of holes, and was pleased but not awed by the paul chowder novel previous to this, the anthologist. and then karen alerted me to the fact that this was on net galley so i downloaded it. but then she kindly put a print arc in my hands (the hardcover doesn't come out until september) and i was really excited because it stood to reason that i would enjoy it too -- because of the whole voice thing.

what i didn't realize was that i was about to read what has become my favourite nicholson baker book thus far. in true "i love this" fashion, i read it twice through. and while i know the book is about paul chowder, i couldn't help but feel when reading the travelling sprinkler, that i had really spent a few days visiting with him, but even more so with his author, in the same manner i would with an old and dear friend, who might ask "have you heard this one?" and pull up a video on youtube. there is, in fact, at least one url printed directly in the book, and i suspect that the enhanced ebook they're also publishing will have direct links to other content embedded within it, permissions clearance permitting.

despite this being a sequel of sorts to the anthologist, i don't think you have to have read that book to love this one; aside from a passing references to his flying spoon poems a new reader wouldn't get but doesn't really need to, the novel stands perfectly on its own.

so what happens here? paul chowder is a poet who decides he wants to write pop songs instead. or protest songs. or both. he's experimenting with tobacco and he's going to quaker meetings. he misses his old girlfriend roz and he tries to be a good neighbour. in the midst of this little slice of his life, he also writes a book about music: about the bassoon, and about debussy and his sunken cathedral; about victoria de los angeles and bachiana brasileira nº 5, and also about guitars, and electronic keyboards, and seven hundred dollar microphones ordered from the B&H catalogue. and you might somewhat impatiently wait, as i did, for him to finally finish explaining about the travelling sprinkler. i was tempted to look it up on the interweb to see what it looked like but i restrained myself. i actually considered pasting a photo of travelling sprinkler into this review as i read the book because i was so impatient, so flummoxed by the trail of hose on the cover, but in the end found i was happier that i waited for it, waited for him.

paul digresses to us about the minute details of his thoughts and memories, of aspects of his life in that typical, tangential, signature nicholson baker way. but what's more, he reveals a gentle heart, an emotional depth that hasn't been apparent in the other baker novels that i have read, including its predecessor. and that's what really made the book surpass my expectations. and it felt like paul chowder had opened up to me, in a way he never had before, and that it was okay for him to try to take those rare moments of happiness for himself. and i could hear the smile in nicholson baker's writing voice and for a while, i smiled too.

i guess i need to read it again. :)

update one:

it's also likely you'll want to check this out after reading the book: http://youtu.be/sPf5GZYzhJk

update two:

and now i'm crushing hard on nicholson baker. this is an amazing interview: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6097/the-art-of-fiction-no-212-nicholson-baker

and as it turns out, he wrote some protest songs and recorded them when he was working on this book. you can hear them at this new yorker link: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012/10/four-protest-songs.html


The Silver Stallion

The Silver Stallion - James Branch Cabell as my compulsive consumption of cabell continues (this has been in my purse a month now and this is my third re-read), i have been alerted to the fact that i am reading these books "out of order" though it hardly seems to matter. i will say that it seems the more you read cabell, the more intertextualities you recognize as you come upon them. i discovered the paternity of dame lisa, jurgen's wife in reading the silver stallion, which added a certain piquancy. my beloved jurgen also make appearances here: as a child, then a youth, then the jurgen that bewitched me but he is by no means a main character. this book is about heroes not poet/pawnbrokers. these include jurgen's father coth of the rocks, and the other eight heroes who made up the fellowship of the silver stallion under their tenth member and leader, the count dom manuel, redeemer of poictesme (cabell's fictionalized medieval french demesne) who saved it from the pagan north men.

the action of this pseudo-history novel occurs when, one fine day, dom manuel disappears and nobody knows where or how he left. the only two that claim to have seen him go are children, and each relate incredible stories of a supernatural departure. dom manuel's wife and her counselors (among them horvendile, the author's interlocutor) call the silver stallion together, only to disband the fellowship and set about fashioning a puritanical christian cult around the lost hero, to smooth out and reinvent his reputation, to make him now a spiritual redeemer that will return a la king arthur, in the hour of poictesme's need. cabell's interest in the autumn years rears its head again here, in choosing to tell the tales of the last adventures of these heroes' careers, these men who knew a different version of the man who disappeared, while he examines what makes a hero, and reminds us how easy it is to put pretty words around previously inappropriate deeds. everyone can be redeemed, in time. and so too, can they be forgotten with just a few more grains of sand.

the silver stallion is perhaps not quite as ribald as jurgen but there are romantical shenanigans aplenty. these heroes really know how to woo a dame. but seeing as there are so many of them and just one jurgen, the effect is rather less concentrated. the quotes i've selected to showcase here highlight cabell's interest in love. he embraces it while he denounces it and he seems to recognize it in all its incarnations. the first comes from the story ninzian, the most devoutly rigorous of all dom manuel's former allies after his wife founds out his terrible secret. and the other is one of the cantankerous coth of the rocks softer moments (i can think of only one other, actually, just after this) these are poignant moments but mostly cabell is fun and cabell is witty even if cabell is wise. i wish i could have taken a turn around the maypole with him. :)


"No, Ninzian, I simply cannot stand having a husband who walks like a bird and is liable to be detected the next time it rains. It would be on my mind day and night, and people would say all sorts of things. No, Ninzian, it is quite out of the question, and you must go back to hell. I will get your things together at once, and I leave it to your conscience if, after the way I have worked and slaved for you, you had the right to play this wrong and treachery upon me."

And Balthis said also: "For it is a great wrong and treachery which you have played upon me, Ninzian of Yair, getting from me such love as men will not find the equal of in any of the noble places of this world until the end of life and time. This is a deep wound that you have given me. Upon your lips were wisdom and pleasant talking; there was kindliness in the gray eyes of Ninzian of Yair; your hands were noble at sword-play. These things I delighted in, these things I regarded; I did not think of the low mire, I could not see what horrible markings your feet had left to this side and to that Bide. Let all women weep with me, for I now know that to every woman's loving is this end appointed. There is no woman that gives all to any man, but that woman is wasting her substance at bed and board with a greedy stranger, and there is no wife who escapes the bitter hour wherein that knowledge smites her. So now let us touch hands, and now let our lips, too, part friendlily, because our bodies have so long been friends, the while that we knew nothing of each other, Ninzian of Yair, on account of the great wrong and treachery which you have played upon me."

Thus speaking, Balthis kissed him. Then she went into the house that was no longer Ninzian's home.


And very often, too, Coth would look at his wife, Azra, and would remember the girl that she had been in the times when Coth had not yet given over loving anybody. He rather liked her now. It was a felt loss that she no longer had the spirit to quarrel with anything like the fervor of their happier days; not for two years or more had Azra flung a really rousing taunt or even a dinner plate in his direction: and Coth pitied the poor woman's folly in for an instant bothering about that young scoundrel of a Jurgen, who had set up as a poet, they said and--in the company, one heard, of a grand duchess,--was rampaging every-whither about Italy, with never a word for his parents. Coth, now, did not worry over such ingratitude at all: not less than twenty times a day he pointed out to his wife that he, for one, never wasted a thought upon the lecherous runagate.

His wife would smile at him, sadly: and after old Coth had been particularly abusive of Jurgen, she would, without speaking, stroke her husband's knotted, stubby, splotched hand, or his tense and just not withdrawing cheek, or she would tender one or another utterly uncalled-for caress, quite as though this illogical and broken-spirited creature thought Coth to be in some sort of trouble. The woman though, had never understood him...

Then Azra died. Coth was thus left alone. It seemed to him a strange thing that the Coth who had once been a fearless champion and a crowned emperor and a contender upon equal terms with the High Gods, should be locked up in this quiet room, weeping like a small, punished, frightened child.

Summer Lightning - P.G. Wodehouse goodreads tells me i've now read seventeen wodehouse books, with sixteen of those being novels and short stories -- the other is a wonderful collection i can only highly recommend, called [b:Wodehouse On Wodehouse|1232375|Wodehouse On Wodehouse|P.G. Wodehouse|/assets/nocover/60x80.png|1220976] that is part memoir of his time writing for musical theatre, and partly selected letters, and also part sort-of autobiography. so it should be obvious that i love a good wodehouse novel. but i'm coming to terms that i have certain favourites and that wodehouse has a cast of archetypes for his fiction, and depending on which set you read first, you might take on a preference. i definitely have: it's jeeves and wooster that i love best though there are individual stories with many of the characters, the drones, mr. mulliner, uncle fred in particular, that i also adore. i've thought about wodehouse characters, trying to slot them into the various archetypes he uses and trying to determine the overlap and traits, and from them, my own predilections.

wodehouse has a template and it's a mistake to focus on it: his comic archetypes and his classical structure serves its purpose as a springboard for wodehouse's pen, dripping with outrageously clever language, and dialogue, his remarkable facility with them might remind us again of that highly successful career in musical theatre, mostly writing the lyrics to guy bolton's book. they collaborated in a fruitful partnership of hits with composer jerome kern. above all, he has a truly genius comedic wit...and sometimes it hits one harder than others, in some books more so than others. wodehouse fans all have their favourites. and so, i must make it clear that while i'm invariably in wodehouse's corner, he's at a disadvantage here with me because i'm not with jeeves and wooster.

in this novel, summer lightning, we are at blandings castle, with clarence, lord emsworth who is a fine an old mad lord as one could ever wish for, pig-happy and free of all cares except those that are visited on him by his fussy family. his nephew, ronnie fish (son to his sister, julia) stirs up trouble by wanting to marry a showgirl. lord emsworth is largely unaware of this for the most part while they, and the rest of his satellites (his bossy sisters, his brother, a jeeves-like sage aptly named galahad who is writing infamous memoirs, his scheming secretaries (former and current), his butler, his daughter, the much maligned neighbour/slash pig competition competitor all conspire around him. shenanigans ensue, and they are funny but a little... long for me. and then to find the action continued in the follow-up summer lightning, which further extends the story of the romance of ronnie and his show girl sue, and also resolving the other major plotline revolving around the memoirs that galahad's been writing that -- dash it all -- might tarnish the reputations of several members of the british aristocracy who also serve as family friends and acquaintances. again. the same story in essentials. and in short, too long. i may have perhaps liked them better had i not read them back-to-back. but they do feel like one really, really long novel to me. and perhaps it's just not as absurd as i like my wodehouse. certainly, i know i seem contradictory: i *just* said one had to go with the structure but there's too much of it, and just not enough i find funny here or enough wodehouse flourish to make me forget.

and beyond that, i miss jeeve's ability to bring order to the chaos, and i miss bertie's ability to bungle it so jeeves has to do it all over again -- as they did in a similarly-themed (young lovers, scandalous memoirs) short story called "jeeves takes charge" that introduced the two characters, which i read, incidentally, on first delving into wodehouse books in earnest.. preference established. it's never out-and-out boring and a middling wodehouse is still better than many. this one just isn't a favourite.
Heavy Weather - P.G. Wodehouse, Anthony Lane the review i wrote for summer lightning, the effective prequel to this novel, sums up my feeling on heavy weather as well. they are interchangeable in my mind but for chronology at this point. to wit,

a link to that review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/edit/46761

and in the spirit of additional content, here's a different link, to an essay called, "the agonies of writing musical comedy" by the ineffable mr. wodehouse: http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/14936/

wodehouse major character rankings
jeeves and wooster but always together
uncle fred
the drones
mr. mulliner ties golf stories

(my order of preference, at this point)
Jurgen - James Branch Cabell i've got a new crush, and it's on jurgen. i read it four times in a row. i took a break after the fourth and read a few different things while staying with friends, but now i'm back to longing for jurgen. i'm having trouble thinking of anything or anyone else. the book works on so many levels: there's crude yet witty comedy, satirical allegory, romantical fiction, philosophical musings and kernels of wisdom that make up the.. archaic? anachronistic? fantasy laced with intertextuality unfolding in an amazing cosmology. what a package! how could a book nerd of my particular stripe even resist?

this is the story of jurgen, a poet turned pawnbroker, forty-and-something. he is possessed of a superior wisdom; he is willing to taste any drink once; and women never understand him. he tells us all this, repeatedly -- but oh so winningly. the author, james branch cabell was a gentleman of leisure, inclined toward research and genealogy and it shows in his layered style, entwining his own mythos with many other traditions: greek, roman, norse, but also medieval romances, russian folklore, persian and welsh, and too many others to name, all remarkably synthesized. (there are no annotations in my copy. but this is really the kind of book that demands endnotes, and i did find a wonderful site that covers the references in jurgen in depth i very much recommend, here: http://home.earthlink.net/~davidrolfe/jurgen.htm --i've had it open in my browser for three weeks! :)

jurgen is on a journey. he is seeking for someone he has lost because, to put it simply, he showed sympathy for the devil. his pursuit immediately becomes circuitous -- he ends up returned to his youth, or perhaps in an alternate reality, in another version of what could have been. he wanders from adventure to adventure, now at the peak of his prowess but with all the knowledge of his years, finding other people he had lost in sometimes poignant and sometimes hilarious circumstances. sometimes there is a little of both but always, always he is followed by the shadow of the aged leshy/goddess of wednesday who gave him the gift.

jurgen uses that gifts to score with the ladies, and he is blatant, and impulsive (he'll taste any drink once, remember?) as he seduces practically every pretty face that crosses his path. what charms! and what ladies! to wit:

Then the door closed, the bolt fell, and Jurgen went away, still in considerable excitement.

"This Dame Ana&#239s is an interesting personality," he reflected, "and it would be a pleasure, now, to demonstrate to her my grievance against the cock, did occasion serve. Well, things less likely than that have happened. Then, too, she came upon me when my sword was out, and in consequence knows I wield a respectable weapon. She may feel the need of a good swordsman some day, this handsome Lady of the Lake who has no husband."

he ends up shacking up with her in cocaigne for two months before he moves on. jurgen was published in 1919 and by modern reckoning, the double entendres and their symbolism are hardly risqué, they're casual conversation. but back in 1919, the novel came under fire for being lewd and obscene by a censorious group called the american society for the suppression of vice, and they took jurgen and cabell to court. cabell won, as did literature in this skirmish, with the support of many of the more famous names of his day, running a gamut that included mencken and walpole, scott fitzgerald and one of cabell's most admired writers, mark twain. jurgen is the most famous of fifty books by cabell. i have now in my possession the silver stallion. i hope that jurgen is not the only book i enjoy, and that its infamous trial only insured that i find cabell eventually ... even though he has once again faded into obscurity, after a brief resurgence in the sixties and seventies, a writer's writer for certain writers (later writers influenced by cabell include charles g. finney -- my researches on finney i thank for sending me in cabell's direction) and neil gaiman (though his approach is markedly different). i never thought i'd be thankful for a bunch of crazy old prudes but i am. for jurgen continues to give me something new every time i read it, this magical book in the elaborate world it belongs to, the land of poictesme, and its neighbouring provinces. it is the place of cabell's conjuring, and to me, jurgen is nothing less than a irrepressible spell in the shape of a scamp chased by a shadow, the soul of antic, all the while so self-aware and sometimes sad:

"Hah, madame," he replied, "but it amuses me to weep for a dead man with eyes that once were his. For he was a dear lad, before he went rampaging through the world, in the pride of his youth and in the armour of his hurt. And songs he made for the pleasure of kings, and sword-play he made for the pleasure of men, and a whispering he made for the pleasure of women, in places where renown was, and where he trod boldly, giving pleasure to everybody in those fine days. But for all his laughter, he could not understand his fellows..."

me too!
oh jurgen, i think you really understand me.
Sailor Twain: Or: The Mermaid in the Hudson - Mark  Siegel this is just a lovely book, an objet d'art beautifully packaged in a way that's increasingly rare these days. i liked the charcoal drawings in this hardbound graphic novel, particularly the scenic shots of the riverboat on the water very much. the protagonist, captain twain (not, not mark -- this one, elijah, reminds us that twain was not his real name and that he's some other writing riverboat captain) sort of looks like the count from sesame street but i eventually got over the resemblance.

the story is told in flashbacks and there are several narrative strands. siegel does a pretty great job with his visual storytelling and i was very engaged in the various romances, and friendships and nightmares presented. i do think that the ending was a little weak -- discussing it with patty, who let me read her copy, i agreed with her that he was attempting to leave it open, but to me, it just felt confused and unresolved, and honestly, a teensy bit like a cop out. but! overall a fun little read and i'd be curious to read more of his work.

rounding up to four stars. n.b. for those who like charcoal drawings of cartoon naked lady boobs, there are a LOT of cartoon naked lady boobs (sort of hard to avoid when one of your main characters is a mermaid. :)
Lightning Rods - Helen DeWitt do you want to eliminate pesky sexual harassment lawsuits in the workplace?

why, install "lightning rods" service in your office to sate the inevitable urges of your top sales performers by giving them the opportunity for anonymous release! plus! you'll get extra use out of the disabled bathrooms! not to mention adequate office skills from a fine pool of temporary employees!

the protagonist of lightning rods is joe, a salesman who hits upon this business venture after failing to succeed in the door-to-door encyclopedia and vacuum games. he is certain the scheme will be a sure-fire money maker, deciding he can adapt his own sexual fantasies ("wall sex") to an enterprise he is sure will make him a success and solve the heartbreak of sexual harassment.

the novel is an old-fashioned satirical romp: i smirked and nicknamed it "the immodest proposal" as i read it. rather than baby food and famine, dewitt audaciously sets her sights on marketing, sales and sexual commerce in corporate culture. while the subject matter is salacious in that there is frank discussion of sex acts and masturbation it's not really smutty, like those books of nicholson baker's that can be VERY smutty. it actually reminded me more of [b:The Mezzanine|247000|The Mezzanine|Nicholson Baker|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1307064718s/247000.jpg|2340174]'s dispassionate and detailed voice. the enduring love of language shared by both authors consistently betrayed in their writing is also much in evidence.

barring that interest in language, lightning rods has less in common with dewitt's other novel, the much-admired [b:The Last Samurai|190372|The Last Samurai|Helen DeWitt|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348618641s/190372.jpg|376680]. here it is more pointed, and less studied, throughout one hears echoes from annual reports and other such business communiques. i did grow tired of her repeated use of the term "aggro" to describe the top-selling (white, straight, and male of course, since this is corporate america's ruling elite) salesmen who apparently have only two settings: rut or shill. does this betray my age? when did "aggro" replace "macho"? but hey, i dislike the usage of "resto" and "recco" as well, so maybe it's just a "o" thing.

lightning successfully channels dewitt's concentrated thumbing of her nose at the machine that runs the world not only in satire and language but also by populating her book with the caricatures of people who either use the service or work within it, people that one might recognize from any office: we all know lucilles, and renees, and elaines, the ed wilsons, and of course, the roys from HR. joe's lofty side business providing all kinds of ingenious and hilarious flush flourishes was a highlight in this fun satirical slight over-long fantasy that aptly displays dewitt's sense of humour and versatility. please ma'am, could i have some more?
Scaramouche - Rafael Sabatini lots of shenanigans in a fun little novel that i certainly cannot fault for failing to provide adventure. these are the many exciting exploits that young lawyer turned revolutionary turned actor:the eponymous scaramouche and our hero, andré-louis moreau embarks upon, and the back drop -- the years of the french revolution -- make an interesting setting for sabatini's special brand of swashbuckling.

so entertaining, yes. but..

there are too many forgettable inconsistent supporting characters abruptly abandoned for yet another set replacing them with each career, and unfailingly, each career we find scaramouche remarkably proficient in, and his own convenient composure makes him feel a little trite. in contrast, captain blood is capable: he is doctor and soldier and pirate. but it doesn't always go his way. he has some serious setbacks, and moral quandaries, and bad luck, and he gets loaded and cries like a baby. scaramouche? if he gives a speech it will rival the greatest revolutionary leaders; if he decides to write a play, he will compete with molière. and when he has setbacks, he withdraws into himself and away from the reader and excels at something else, and it doesn't matter how many times (and he tells me many times) sabatini explains that scaramouche is really only protecting himself, that he is not as heartless as he seems, but he also seems infallible, and that is kind of boring. i want to feel like there is some peril for the hero -- that there is some sacrifice in his success.

i had to transcribe a paragraph which i think sabatini meant for laughs, but seemed like a really peculiar digression that came out of nowhere which makes me wonder if it was a question that the author had pitted himself during the course of his researches on the period:

"This is M. Danton, a brother-lawyer, President of the Cordeliers, of whom you will have heard."
Of course André-Louis had heard of him. Who had not, by then?
Looking at him now with interest, André-Louis wondered how it came hat all, or nearly all the leading innovators, were pock-marked. Mirabeau, the journalist Desmoulins, the philanthropist Marat, Robespierre the little lawyer from Arras, this formidable fellow Danton, and several others he could call to mind all bore upon them the scars of smallpox. Almost he began to wonder was there any connection between the two. Did an attack of smallpox produce certain moral results which found expression in this way?

sabatini's seemingly suggesting that revolutionaries only need to feel pretty to put aside the causes. it goes nowhere. it's just a little weird digression that made me shake my head. :)

so a likeable romp but not as complete, emotionally engaging or fluid as the book he published only a year later. i will be reading more sabatini. guess i'll see whether they hold a candle to the captain blood. :)
Haircut - Ring W. Lardner shazam! i'm reading ring lardner again and this time it really crystallizes for me why i like him so much. it's this voice that always puts me in that barber chair, or pulls up a stool beside me at the bar, this simple and persuasive voice of a master raconteur. i have a serious penchant for this anecdotal tone, this folksy style, reminiscent of o. henry, promoted by fitzgerald, admired and emulated by my favourite salinger. the subtle yet insistent vernacular sits me down every time and i am fully acclimatized. it's simple straight forward finely-tuned storytelling and i admire the hell out of it.

Just ten stories are found in these pages, including the often and justly anthologized well-known lardner stories like the eponymous "haircut", "i can't breathe", "a day with conrad green", "the love nest" and "the golden honeymoon". there is a mix of slice of life and the sporting life -- before fitzgerald championed his fiction, lardner was primarily known a sportswriter who loved baseball, and this passion is reflected in the inclusion of "alibi ike" and "horseshoes".

in revisiting these stories, i find "i can't breathe" still so knowing -- it is the blue print of the empty-headed love struck teen. reprint this puppy in a teen magazine today and i know they'd relate even if it was first published in 1925. along these lines, the notions of a perfect marriage, and love are challenged in "the love nest" in a way that would ring a bell for anyone familiar with those real plastic housewives of greedywood county.

that said, there are a few times where it's clear lardner's stories are relics of their time -- there are off-the-cuff racist remarks that reflect the age, and then there's this joke in alibi ike, about his family living in the post office which always makes me wish for an annotated edition, as i don't get the joke any more than ike does. for those that wonder how i can abide lardner given my usual aversion to satire, all i can say is that he writes the bathos and pathos of the lives he describes in a way that charms me, and they are married perfectly within his satirical world view. i love lardner; i only wish i had more of his stories on hand.

doing literary detective diligence on youtube, i found a clip here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3M5opTy7tco of groucho marx and truman capote on the dick cavett show where they briefly discuss lardner as a writer. groucho suggests that him as a great comic writer and capote disagrees saying what lardner writes is not humour at all. he also says that groucho is wrong when he relays the story that lardner wrote only when drunk -- capote argues one can't write drunk at all, only re-write. then more weird stuff happens, including groucho rambling about his accountant and eventually proposing marriage to capote.

i also found this article about the friendship of fitzgerald and lardner which really needed a proofread, but is nonetheless enlightening.

Journal of the Gun Years - Richard Matheson i'm sort of sad i can't give this a more enthusiastic yes. matheson has given me a lot over the years. his touch is all over film and television: he penned screenplays for the roger corman-poe cycle i loved so well growing up. he also famously wrote a significant portion of the classic twilight zone episodes and some of the most memorable: nightmare at twenty thousand feet, the doll, the invaders, and little girl lost among them. for that alone, i might have loved him. but then of course there is [b:I Am Legend|14064|I Am Legend|Richard Matheson|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348790367s/14064.jpg|19273256], justly regarded as a classic vampire novel, and then the remarkably disturbing [b:The Incredible Shrinking Man|754253|The Incredible Shrinking Man|Richard Matheson|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1312044191s/754253.jpg|936694], which bears but passing resemblance to the films that have shared and changed its name. those were fantastic novels that really made emotional impressions on me. and he also wrote the teleplays that brought my favourite newspaperman, carl kolchak to life.

so, you know, i want to love everything the guy ever did.

but i can't say that's true. in fact, if i look at his bibliography it seems to me that i'm not really a fan of his later work. he published hell house in 1971, and i thought it was good but lacked the tension and impact of his earlier stories and novels. and journal of the gun years is a much later work -- twenty years later. i guess i should give thanks it's not [b:Hunted Past Reason|219545|Hunted Past Reason|Richard Matheson|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1312023461s/219545.jpg|1413424].

all that to say there is still some substantial charm here. i like tales of the west, and he's adept at character. there are a bunch of wild escapades, and those are hard to resist. but the structure is clunky as all get out, and i was really surprised at some of the choices he made -- at times it strikes me more as a creative exercise, a working out of a character that will be the backbone of a substantial novel that it really isn't.

i always wonder how much of the output that beloved writers publish in their later years is new work, and how much is stuff that they put away for a rainy day because it wasn't quite right, and then forgetting there were problems they just submit it to their agents for publication when they start to run out of money. matheson also wrote constantly and steadily, repurposing as he went through tv and film and magazines and novels. it would have been a remarkable feat if all of it was as good as the shrinking man.
Voyage: A Novel Of 1896 - Sterling Hayden sterling hayden, the man who wrote this book, was a man of many stripes. a quick read of his wikipedia page informs us that he stood 6 feet 5 inches tall, and that among his many pursuits he was a film actor in such films as, "The Asphalt Jungle", "Johnny Guitar" and Robert Altman's version of "The Long Goodbye" co-starring opposite elliot gould-- and then a soldier and spy in WWII and foremost, a "sailor man", the calling he felt most strongly. he wrote an autobiography entitled [b:Wanderer|264204|Wanderer|Sterling Hayden|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347352292s/264204.jpg|256120] which i am more eager to read after reading this novel that so obviously followed hemingway's write-what-you-know dictum. three different characters in this novel are 6'5" bear-like men, as hayden was, who loved the sea. what makes the novel great is verite behind it -- the person who told this story clearly lived in the world he attempted to fictionalize.

the novel is sometimes charmingly, sometimes horrifying rambling. the first 150 pages are spent introducing characters, some of which never really impact the rest of the novel: the repressed clerk lemuel sponagle (also referenced as lem q. sponagle) who has his big moment in trying to focus on the ships instead of the hot bear-like man meat that is hayden avatar number one, captain irons saul pendleton (variously described and aged as the book wears on -- though the action of the novel takes place over a year) and al kautsky, the guy who lived underground with a mule only to escape that life to take refuge inside the statue of liberty is listed as one of the men shanghaied onto the neptune's car but he never figures in any subsequent action. i felt sure that these were characters that hayden had met at some point or another and could not resist cramming into his book. i weighed the idea that this already 700-page brick was still longer when submitted for publication and an editorial hand might have reduced the novel so that characters like this -- forgive me -- felt at sea, but the novel is still so uneven that i am inclined to believe it was never seen by an editorial eye. it is all over the place, telling a myriad of stories, among them a murder aboard ship, a nymphomaniac searching for something to do off shore, a bunch of rich people going on a scientific exploration, maritime labour unions and movements, accidents, and mutiny. for the most part these strands are not resolved to any great satisfaction at the end of the voyage though of course landfall makes a natural end.

i laughed a lot when reading this book. the comic book hero meets charles dickens naming convention was hilarious: banning butler blanchard, simon basil harwar, carl carmack of the carnarsee carmacks, and montague reid cutting to list a few. there were also some very off-colour descriptions i enjoyed very much. when it tried to be serious the intentions were good, and some passages were lovely. i'd recommend it for fans of sterling hayden, for people who like a sometimes scurrilous, sometimes shocking, always sprawling novel as expansive as the seas that the author loved so well.

The Man Who Fell to Earth - Walter Tevis no ray guns are fired or space battles waged in this poignant novel. there is a spaceship yes, but it is incapacitated after it deposits its passenger on earth. the passenger is an alien from a dying planet named anthea and he's looking for an escape - a place for the remnants of his people. his name on earth will be t.j. newton (sometimes called tommy) and this novel is his story, of how our world affects him, physically and emotionally, as he tries to achieve his mission.

there's not much more of a plot. this is a quiet novel, engaged with the dissolution of a human being not of earth by its influence, by his alienation. he is entirely outside and his loneliness and despair at the earth and the oblivion of its people is deeply felt. despite the fact that the novel is in some ways dated, it is also a wise indictment, a rumination on the world that we live in, how we choose to live in it, and the people that take it for granted. it seems only to get smaller and quieter toward the end... and then it winks out.

sad. it made me cry. and it was and made me really thoughtful. and apparently tevis said, it's fairly autobiographical.

i felt your pain, newton/tevis. i hope it made it easier to share the load.

* i have never seen the film. i can see why bowie was chosen to portray newton. i read that there's more sex in the film and it veers slightly away from the book in that regard. i can't imagine the film would be able to replicate the immersion in the disoriented and sad psyche of newton as he starts to realize he's not equipped to deal with being on earth; of being with him as he starts to crumble.

** i'd wanted to see the film before i realized there was a book because of its influence on the philip k. dick novel, VALIS. in fact there is a film based on the man who fell to earth in that book. i can perfectly understand how a film with such a premise would impress upon the mind of pkd -- its themes refract back from his own work. he was clearly taken by bowie in the role but a quick internet search doesn't show me any evidence that he actually ever picked up tevis' book in consequence of seeing the film but i can only think he would have approved of it.
Raffles - E.W. Hornung, Robert Giddings the idea of raffles, the gentleman thief, obverse of the legendary sherlock holmes, gentleman detective (the creation of hornung's esteemed brother-in-law arthur conan doyle), thrills me. and i can't say i don't normally adore the idea of working outside the law to balance the scales of justice -- i watch timothy hutton's modern-day robin hood crew on leverage as often as possible. there is no doubt that raffles is in some ways the progenitor of this type of character but in reading the book i realized the only redress was being made to "the cracksman"'s pocket. before reading this collection of stories, i had visions of hutton's character nate ford, and the great french character arsène lupin or baroness orczy's scarlett pimpernel but instead found raffles anticipating leopold and loeb:

"A matter of opinion, my dear Bunny; I don't mean it for rot. I've told you before that the biggest man alive is the man who's committed a murder, and not yet been found out; at least he ought to be, but he so very seldom has the soul to appreciate himself. Just think of it! Think of coming here and talking to the men, very likely about the murder itself; and knowing you've done it; and wondering how they'd look if they knew! Oh, it would be great, simply great!" - from "Wilful Murder"

much has been made of the fact that raffles has a code -- he does not murder; he only steals when he has need. as it turns out raffles doesn't actually subscribe to the code he lays out -- he seems to make excuses for lapses of conduct often, perhaps revealing how little it means -- see the story quoted above for a revision of his "no murder" rule, or "A Costume Piece" for how he decides to go ahead with a robbery which won't alleviate his financial constraints but simply for the challenge. it would seem that the victorians would identify with the idea that crime was understandable if it prevented one from quitting their "rightful" sphere, and for those who stood a high moral ground hornung introduced the misgivings of bunny (his sidekick and former fag at public school) as a balance to raffles' complete lack of ethics.

as members of the unmonied upper class, both raffles and bunny are part of Society and are terrified to lose their standing (though not so much so that they quit the gambling and the tailors that have brought them low) in the class system they so adore. but when i shake it out, all i can see is that raffles is a dated sociopath cricket player, who will not quit his sphere despite his inability to afford it and is a relic of the deep divide in classes as much as cricket and the public school system. i was woefully misapprehended regarding the character of raffles -- i expected that this much ballyhooed code was real, that raffles' choices might result from some reflection, be difficult to arrive at, or borne of something i could more easily identify with, instead i found him to be a character completely ingrained in the class system: entitled, selfish, and grasping. i don't say that this makes raffles less of an interesting character but he's no raskolnikov either. i don't feel any sense of conflict or even engagement when he embarks on a plan, or a concern for his well-being because his motivations don't mean a thing to me -- or to him, either, it seems. his friend bunny is the loyal dimwit who assists him in schemes which brings me to what i liked least about the raffles stories: the mode in which the action is delivered.

in the majority of these stories raffles conceives of a plan of action and does not share its details with bunny. we are then left to hear him relate to bunny the plan after the fact, an issue that bunny himself points out:

"Then you should have let me know when you did decide. You lay your plans, and never say a word, and expect me to tumble to them by light of nature. How was I to know you had anything on?"

i really didn't like this device at all and the revelation of the plan was never so exciting or elaborate in the recitation that i gave up my resentment. i found the structure of the stories boring -- a lot of exposition, and when they are actually engaged in action it's often of a boring sort: for example, in one tale, bunny is awakened to sounds of a struggle and tasked with holding a suspect while the scotland yard detective who has nabbed the competitor thief goes after the others. bunny stands there holding the suspect. there's a lot of talk. he holds him some more. hooey! hold me back from this gripping story!

i can say i found his prose very clean, and the dialogue charming -- just overused in exposition. i was going to give the book only two stars but seeing as it gave me lots to think about in terms of what not to do with structure and characterization, and really is the precursor to so many other gentleman thieves that i am in debt to hornung for his contribution to the archetype, and so the collection gets three stars on those merits though i don't know how long that shall stick.

N.B. before anybody takes my analysis of raffles and his lack of morals as evidence that i just don't like books with amoral characters, i'll say when reading this i thought of how much more i loved bertie woosters attempts at stealing a cow creamer, o. henry's pastiche of shamrock jolnes, not to mention his tales of burglars and thieves, and how engaged i was in [b:Perfume: The Story of a Murderer|343|Perfume The Story of a Murderer|Patrick Süskind|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1328815062s/343.jpg|2977727] despite the repugnance of the main character.

bonus review material for the literary detectives out there: the george orwell essay that is quoted liberally whenever raffles is discussed is actually a comparative book review he wrote in 1944. it is available online here: http://orwell.ru/library/reviews/chase/english/e_bland
i myself appreciated the opportunity to read orwell's commentary on raffles in context -- most of the time only a line or two is referenced, and usually makes it seem like orwell thought hornung a genius. on my own reading, i see that orwell did find interest in raffles relationship to english society especially in his relationship to cricket, and that he liked the book more than the one he was comparing it to. it seems to me that he thought the book good for its small lights, and was not quite as overpowered by it as critical essays and reviews who cite him would have one believe. :)

Captain Blood - Rafael Sabatini oh heavens. i dislike admitting that am not 100% cynical about things, that life will all its ignominy and disappointments, vacillations and cupidity has not yet extinguished my ability to dream of freedom and unfettered joy, that there might still be a heart under all this bravado... but there it is, that little squeak that i cannot suppress. oh, captain blood! how you have undone me!

captain peter blood is a little wild. he loves the poetry of horace. he's sharp-witted, and impudent; a cunning strategist. he cuts a fine figure in black clothes and flashing eyes. he has the misfortune to lose his liberty for doing the right thing, and his heart to the niece of the reprehensible man ostensibly made his owner, a woman never wooed because she was too companionable and frank with men. he stands by his word and turns himself inside out to protect the men who serve under him and the woman he loves. to satisfy his unattainable lady's ideas of honour, he tries to give up the pirate life that was the only option left him, only to find that men pursuing outwardly honourable professions are in fact privateers in sheep's clothing. he is surrounded by hot-heads, morons, and avaricious s.o.b.s who somehow have the world in the palms of their hands and try as he might, he sees no way to escape his sorry fate. he decides to give up and get really stinking drunk. but then it all changes on a dime, as fate is wont to do, and he gets a chance to turn it all around and he gets his happy ending, and for a moment i forget all the heartbreak and pain and loneliness because my heart is so full for him. and so i squeak.

and should you fear that i have become an utterly romantic fool, i proffer this, in quick strokes: this novel is a boisterous tale set in the 17th century concerned with pirates and adventures on the high seas. the book breaks down into three parts -- the creating of a pirate, his success, and then his end. it's dated and contains some vile racial descriptions i could have done without (not from captain blood, thank heavens!) but the book generally reflects the attitude of the time, and while there is prejudice and nationalism rampant on the spanish main, the book doesn't dwell on it, and it is easy enough to acknowledge, disparage, and move on from this into the spirit of the book, and the heart of its protagonist, whose charms it's clear that i for one, could not resist.