Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

August Book Post: Chock full of Book-y Goodness!

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree :
Jalun went silently back down into the shadows of the gangway, paused where he could just see the spacers lift their cups and drink. Hate and disgust choked him, though he had seen it often: Terrans eagerly drinking Stars Tears. It was the very symbol of their obvious cruelty, their fall from Jailasanatha. They could not be excused for ignorance; too many of them had told Jalun how Stars Tears were made. It was not tears precisely, but the body secretions of a race of beautiful, frail winged creatures on a very distant world. Under physical or mental pain their glands exuded this liquid which the Terrans found so deliciously intoxicating. To obtain it, a mated pair were captured and slowly tortured to death in each other’s sight. Jalun had been told atrocious details which he could not bear to recall.

The tales in this science fiction collection are wise and expertly told, but deeply depressing. The most compelling of them involve the destruction by war or plague of most or all of the human race, with the clear implication that humankind deserves its fate, know; broken rain forest; oil on the beaches. Higher powers that love the planet Earth, using a little People-Raid for pest control, because they care. Other tales emphasize kind, vulnerable beings being destroyed by nasty forces beyond their control, or innocents brought down along with the guilty in mass revenge dramas.

Either way, there are forces stronger than the protagonist, and they’re going to kick the protagonist’s ass. Even when the forces are not cruel and brutal, they have that look of preoccupied compassion. His mother and sister had looked just like that the time the diseased kitten had come in the yard. They had comforted and fed it and tenderly taken it to the vet to be gassed....which, when you read about it, can seem worse than cruel and brutal, even.

Very, very good when you’re in the mood to explore darkness and abandon all hope. The best part is coming out of it in the end, shuddering and rediscovering your gratitude for how good you have it in this life.

The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks :
By eight that night, when my sister Sally called, I was thoroughly drunk and was responding automatically, as if my mouth were an answering machine. You have reached the home of Billy Ansel, he has suffered an irretrievable loss, has discovered that he is inconsolable, and thus, to save you trouble and embarrassment, has removed himself from normal human contact. He will probably not return, but if you wish to leave a message anyhow, do so at the sound of the ice cubes tinkling in his glass, and if someday he does return, he will try to respond to your message.
But don’t count on it.
Before you lose your children, you can talk about it—as a possibility, I mean. You can imagine it, like I did that time in Jamaica, years ago, and then later you can describe that moment coherently to people and with ease. But when the thing that you only imagined actually happens, you quickly discover that you can barely speak of it. Your story is jumbled and mumbled, out of sync and unfocused. At least, that’s how it has been for me.

I found this one surprisingly gripping, hard to put down, and over too quickly, leaving me wanting to know more about the characters in an upstate NY town who gather after a tragic school bus accident kills several children (not much, compared to James Tiptree’s multiple extinctions of all human life, but tragic noetheless), and set about the all-important task of deciding whose fault it was.

The book consists of five thick continuous chapters, narrated by different characters: the bus driver; an teenager crippled by the accident; a personal injury attorney. All of them talk about the accident, but it’s their throwaway lines about *other* details in their lives that made me want to stop and say, “Wait, forget the damn bus crash; I want to hear more about THAT part!”

And then it climaxes prematurely, before you really begin to care about the lawsuit aspect and ends while you’re still waiting for that big dip in the roller coaster. So it’s hard to call it great, even though I was captured during most of what there was of it. The platitudes about how tort lawyers are money grabbing weasels because money just won’t compensate for the loss of a child, so it’s wrong to seek any kind of compensation didn’t help either. Recommended anyway.

Heat Wave, by “Richard Castle :
The sign said they were on the Cosmic Pathway, a 360-degree spiral walkway marking the timeline of the evolution of the universe in the length of a football field. Nikki Heat covered thirteen billion years at a personal best. At the top of the incline, quads protesting, she stopped to take another scan. No sign of either of them. Then she heard the screams of the crowd.
Heat rested a hand on her holster and orbited under the giant central sphere to see the guest lineup for the space show. The alarmed crowd was parting, backing away from Rook, who was on the ground taking a rib kick from her man.
The attacker drew back for another kick, and during the most vulnerable part of his balance shift, Heat came up behind him and used her leg to sweep his out from under him. All six feet of him dropped hard onto the marble. She cuffed him rodeo quick and the crowd broke into applause.
Rook sat himself up. “I’m fine, thanks for asking.”
“Nice work slowing him down like that. Is that how you rolled in Chechnya?”
“The guy jumped me after I tripped.” He pointed under his foot to a bag from the museum store. “On that.” Rook opened it up and pulled out an art glass paperweight of a planet. “Check it out. I tripped on Uranus.”

Cute! If you watch Castle (known in my house as Scarecrow and Mr. King)on TV, you’ve seen the cover of this book often, although it looks a lot thicker on television. I guess the screen adds pages.

It’s like a two-hour special episode, with the names changed to “Nikki Heat” and “Jameson Rook” (get it?) as a celebrity journalist, not a novelist, and you read it. It’s one of the few books where I actually turned to the acknowledgements page looking for gags. There weren’t any; a thank you to the show’s actors from the actual ghostwriter was the only recognizable part. Other than the smirking picture of Nathan Filion on the cover, there is nothing meta about it; it’s an episode of Castle, nothing more.

Castle produces some pretty clever mysteries as TV mysteries go, and the book does the same. I have a crush on Beckett and even a Sting factor for Castle, and reading an episode instead of watching it reminds me that my real crush ought to be on the writers who come up with their dialogue. You have what you need to know to solve it by the end of Chapter 14.

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, by Fernand Braudel :
Today, we have too little space; the world is shrinking around us. In the sixteenth century there was too much and it could be both an advantage and an obstacle. Of all the commonplaces about the Mediterranean in which literature abounds, that it is a “sea within the measure of man” is one of the most deceptive—as if the measure of man could be taken once and for all. The Mediterranean was certainly not within the measure of sixteenth-century man; it was only at the cost of much effort that he mastered its immense area, much as twentieth-century man has found it difficult to master the Pacific.

Here’s an epic look at a piece of the world that arguably reached its peak in the last half of the 16th Century, when sea travel was advanced enough for the entire Mediterranean to be a game board that nations played upon, but before the Atlantic and other oceans replaced it as a board entirely. The Spanish empire in the west and the Turkish empire in the east are at their zeniths, with several post-Renaissance Italian city-states caught in the middle, and celebrity guest appearances from the French, Berbers and Austrians.

One Spanish Ambassador has the unfortunate name of Martin de Acuna, referred to as “Don Martin” throughout the text. I kept expecting him to open a dispatch with a loud “FLOT!” sound effect, or for his ship to go “Floobbadaoobba” as it went down.

Braudel’s historical theory is that the geography and resulting trade routes had more to do with shaping history than the whims of the various Popes, Emperors and peasants, and so the first half of this very thick history is devoted to descriptions of the various bodies of water that make up the Mediterranean and how the mountains, plains, soil compositions, and temperatures of the prevailing winds influence the local and national characters and economies. Call me a geek, but I found that stuff fascinating. Only slightly less so are the accounts of the (as usual) mind-bogglingly stupid attempts of the various big people to manipulate the money supply. I’m just mature enough to understand the economics behind the history, and immature enough to titter at the name of that Teutonic financial dynasty, The Fuggers. If you are too, then The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II might be right for you.

Actual historical events like the Corsican revolt and the battles of Malta and Lepanto are delivered as almost apologetic footnotes, Braudel including them out of duty and hastening to point out that they illustrate his points about the Mediterranean as a self-contained near-organism. I’m not sure whether he was right, but I liked the process he used to get there.

South Wind, by Norman Douglas :
"No, I don't care about English peas. Too large and too lively for me."
"That's it. Lively. I shall never forget my first experience of them," he went on, laughing. "There were two or three of them in the dish; just two or three; filled it up nicely. Looked like cannon balls. What do they expect me to do with these things? I wondered. I didn't like to ask the waiter. One doesn't care to be taken for an ignorant stranger. Well, I landed one on my plate and began carving at it, to see if there was anything eatable inside the shell, when the durned thing slipped away from my knife and crashed onto the floor. Bounced up like a marble. I called for a nutcracker--"I shall want the largest you've got", I said. They couldn't find one. Now, I'm not the sort of man, Mr. Heard, to be beaten by a vegetable, if it really was a vegetable. Because, you see, it behaved more like a blamed mineral.

It was interesting to read this one at the same time as Braudel was explaining the influence of geography and climate on the “Mediterranean character.” It takes place among a group of English travelers on a fictional Italian island standing in for Capri, and the central theme is the effect of the sirocco, or hot prevailing winds, on the minds of the inhabitants.

There’s a volcanic eruption, a native riot, a prince who slaughters people like Caligula, a mad Russian religious cult, an uninhibited lady who scandalized polite society, a premeditated murder and corrupt legal proceedings against an innocent man, which makes it stunning how dull South Wind is to read. The overall impression is one of a bunch of interchangeable white people sitting around talking, all of whom have the same speech patterns and whose adventures and misadventures elicit more yawns than sympathy.

Persuasion, by Jane Austen :
Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did; nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.
His good looks, and his rank had one fair claim on his attachment; since to them he must have owed a wife of very superior character to anything deserved by his own. Lady Elliot had been an excellent woman, sensible and amiable, whose judgment and conduct, if they might be pardoned the youthful infatuation which made her Lady Elliot, had never required indulgence afterwards.

This is my fourth Jane Austen novel, and about what I expected. It has maybe half the plot of South Wind, but is many times more interesting because the characters are distinct and well developed. Poor Anne Elliott is the neglected middle daughter of a Baronet with an impressive title, whose fortunes are dwindling due to extravagance. Her decaying aristocratic relatives persuade her (get it?) to reject Wentworth her naval officer suitor, as someone who is socially beneath her. Seven years later, Wentworth is a self-made rich man and Anne is on the road to spinsterhood. And then, the friends and family have just the gentleman for her! Do you think they’ll be any more right about him than they were about Wentworth? Does a Duke shit at the banquet table? (And no fair citing Chamberlain MacStaggers, Duke of Tippleton; I meant in general!)

The other Austen heroines I’ve encountered so far (Emma, the Dashwoods, the Bennetts) all manage to learn subtle things about life and the way to happiness along the way. Anne Elliott, on the other hand seems to learn more about other people. Perhaps her lesson might be about the folly of relying on other peoples’ judgment instead of her own, but that much doesn’t seem fair to me. When you’re 19 and unsteady and the entire social circle you’ve known since birth, including the mentor crone figure and the ones with the power to cut you off without a penny, are all ringed against you, it’s harsh to call you a fool for giving in to them. Very high recommendations.

Brain Wave, by Poul Anderson :
You take a typical human, a worker in factory or office, his mind dulled to a collection of verbal reflexes, his future a day-to-day plodding which offered him no more than a chance to fill his belly or be anaesthetized by a movie or his television—more and bigger automobiles, more and brighter plastics, onward and upward with the American Way of Life. Even before the change, there had been an inward hollowness in Western civilization, an unconscious realization that there ought to be more in life than one’s own ephemeral self—and the ideal had not been forthcoming.
Then, suddenly, almost overnight, human intelligence had exploded toward fantastic heights. An entire new cosmos opened before this man, visions, realizations, thought boiling unbidden within him. He saw the miserable inadequacy of his life, the triviality of his work, the narrow and meaningless limits of his beliefs and conventions—and he resigned.
A naked woman walked down the street, carrying a market basket. She had set out to think for herself, Corinth imagined, and had decided that clothes in summer were ridiculous, and had taken advantage of the fact that the police had other worries to shed hers. No harm in that per se, but as a symptom it made him shiver. Any society was necessarily founded on certain more or less arbitrary rules and restrictions. Too many people had suddenly realized that the laws were arbitrary, without intrinsic significance, and had proceeded to violate whichever ones they didn’t like.

This short but brilliant book imagines what might happen if all mammals on earth suddenly doubled their IQs. Farm animals break loose from their pens. Morons become intelligent. Intelligent people reach levels of genius hitherto unknown. And, of course, everything goes to Hell because nobody is willing to be an office drone or collect the garbage, and governments keep developing more destructive weapons.

I found it hard to go in the direction Anderson took the story. Yes, intelligence is not the same as wisdom, but it seems to me that improved problem-solving ability among, you know, everybody,ought to have better results than this. Brave New World failed to convince me that we needed a population of Epsilons just because a world made entirely of Alphas would be ungovernable, and Stephen King’s Tommynockers had to have a local population’s minds slowly poisoned as a counterweight to the increased creativity that allowed them to build nifty gadgets. An intelligent population would find a way to divide the necessary mindless labor fairly, or automate it, or find a pay scale that would make it worthwhile.

To me, the best parts were those that described the evolution of animals into human thought, or of imbeciles into intelligence levels approaching Anderson’s own. When trying to describe even higher intelligences that don’t presently exist, believability seems to break down for lack of a reference point. Good reading anyway.

The Diary of Anne Frank :
The food is wretched, and so are we. As of tomorrow, we won’t have a scrap of fat, butter or margarine. We can’t eat fried potatoes for breakfast (which we’ve been doing to save on bread), so we’re having hot cereal instead, and because Mrs. Van D. thinks we’re starving, we bought some half and half. Lunch today consists of mashed potatoes and pickled kale. This explains the precautionary measure with the handkerchief. You wouldn’t believe how much kale can stink when it’s a few years old! The kitchen smells like a mixture of spoiled plums, rotten eggs and brine. Ugh, the thought of having to eat that muck makes me want to throw up! Besides that, our potatoes have contracted such strange diseases that one out of every two buckets of pommes de terre winds up in the garbage. We entertain ourselves trying to figure out which disease they’ve got, and we’ve reached the conclusion that they suffer from cancer, smallpox and measles. Honestly, being in hiding during the fourth year of the war is no picnic. If only the whole stinking mess were over!
To tell you the truth, the food wouldn’t matter so much to me if life here were more pleasant in other ways. But that’s just it: this tedious existence is starting to make us all disagreeable.

I somehow escaped being required to read in high school the diary of the young Jewish girl who lived in hiding in an attic in Amsterdam with seven others for two years in WWII, and who was discovered and sent to Auschwitz to die not too long before Amsterdam was liberated. I read it out of a sense of duty after reading that there were holocaust-deniers who claimed that Anne Frank either never existed or that the diary was written by someone else, and getting pissed off about it. What are peoples’ problems?

I’m probably too old for the book by now. Really, the moving part and all the lessons therein are found in the historical circumstances around the Frank family, not in Anne’s diary. When all is said and done, it’s the journal of an emo teenager, not a particularly gifted one, and she spends time writing about boys and the onset of puberty and her arguments with the people who have to share the attic with her than about the great and terrible moment of history she is part of. There’s no ironic foreshadowing of what is to come, no speculation about why there is so much evil. There’s just a lot of discomfort and safety precautions to put up with and lots and lots of petty arguing among people who have to spend a long time in a cramped space listening to and smelling each other and unable to safely leave. I would have liked to see certain episodes from the point of view of some of the others with her, especially the adults, and especially “Albert Dussel” (real name Fritz Pfeffer; Anne used pseudonyms for everyone who wasn’t a blood relative), who was allegedly a food-hoarding pig, a grouch and a bully, but then we’re only seeing the side of the one who hates him. If there’s an afterlife, Pfeffer might well look down and be almost grateful that he died quickly and did not spend his remaining decades being known internationally as the asshole who bullied Anne Frank in the attic.

If you want to understand the horrors and lessons and individual tragedies of the holocaust, read Elie Wiesel (starting with Night, bookpost March 2008). Wiesel actually wrote about what happened in the camps and what it meant about human nature and how he learned who he was and who other people were when pushed to the absolute limit of human endurance. Anne Frank was taken from her diary before she got there.

In the Night Garden, by Catherynne M. Valente :
When the wild milkwoods and chestnuts had bloomed twelve times and withered, my father married again, a woman of radiant face and hair like a river of fire, her body like the living sun entering our hall. Her name was Iolanthe. She was a youung widow with vast lands, and had two daughters of her own, Isaura and Imogen, somewhat older than I, each more proud and beautiful than the other.
I see you smile, witch. You think you know how these stories go.
But they were not like their exotic mother; they were exceedingly dull and stupid, their only worth lying in the golden shades of their practiced curls. They were little golden birds, chirping and empty headed, always together, clutching each other’s little pink hands. I quickly became my stepmother’s favorite, quick and clever as I was. She was an imperious woman, and my father obeyed her every whisper as eagerly as a colt its master.
I adored her.
Obviously, my new sisters hated me.

Imagine The Arabian Nights told in such a way that the stories interlocked and went meta. The barber telling tales of the same Old Man of the Sea that Sinbad encounters later, so that you know something of the old man by the time you meet him. The Old Man telling the tale of Alladin to Sinbad while imprisoning him, and revealing his own origin. The magician who steals Aladdin’s lamp turns out to be the same thief who, with 39 friends, later encounters Ali Baba. And the wicked vizier turns out to be the same person who is advising the very king who is told the stories by Scheherazade in the first place.

In the Night Garden is like that, with the added distinction that the tales have spoken and unspoken morals about the many facets of humanity and things being more and the opposite of first impressions, that relate to modern life. Ogres turn out to be the good guys. Damsels are warriors, and knights on quests commit deadly blunders and the king is as likely to rescue the cobbler from the princess and marry the monster as the other way around. When you think you know where the story is going, it goes somewhere else with reckless abandon. More than anything, I was impressed with the way the stories amplify and reflect each other. I had just read a book (Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, Bookpost July 2010) in which several tales within tales add little or nothing to the central plot. Valente breathes life and meaning into every tale.

My biggest problem was that Valente does not merely drop similes and metaphors; she backs up a truck and dumps them. Every lovely maiden’s face is like Springtime on a mountaintop (thank you, Iron Chef). Every bad father is a bag of pig snouts and onions. Every character and action is described as if it is something else, so many times that I found it impossible to read out loud without it becoming ridiculous. Read silently to oneself, however, it’s easy to gloss over the cliches and become wrapped in the magic. Very high recommendations.

An Artificial Night, by Seanan McGuire :
I turned in a slow circle, studying the landscape. A forest stretched off toward the mountains some distance behind me, made up of the sort of tall, gnarled trees that act as a natural barrier against the world. It managed to look even less welcoming than the plains, and that meant it was probably where I needed to go. Sometimes dealing with fairy-tale cliches is even more annoying than dealing with fae manners. If I ever meet any descendants of the Brothers Grimm, I'm going to break their noses and possibly a few other convenient body parts.
Maybe I had to play along with this stupid scenario, but that didn't mean I had to like it. "I am so tired of this gothic crap," I muttered. "Just once, I want to meet the villain in a cheerful, brightly lit room. Possibly one with kittens."
Blind Michael's lands seemed unlikely to supply me with anything resembling an airy sitting room, and any cats I encountered would probably be of the four hundred pound, man-eating variety. I was willing to bet that a cat the size of a Sherman tank would bother even Tybalt.

This is the third in McGuire’s series about the urban fae heroine October Daye, and to me it’s the best in the series so far. The first two, Rosemary and Rue, and A Local Habitation are pretty much detective stories, and decades of detective stories have pretty much desensitized me by now to any scary impact that is supposed to accompany a fictional murder. I’m too busy looking for clues to feel the pain of the victim or survivors.

An Artificial Night is different. It’s less about adventures in the San Francisco Bay, and more about being chased across endless plains in the dark by the things you used to be afraid were in the closet when you were very young. You learn early on exactly what’s happening, and who is responsible, and from then on the focus is on how Toby can possibly rescue the many child-victims and defeat the villain. And it won’t be easy. In Blind Michael, McGuire has created one of the great horror villains of the genre, the kind who eats Chucky for breakfast and gives noogies to Pennywise until it cries Uncle. By rights, Blind Michael should be coming back for revenge again and again in future volumes, like Blofeld. He and Toby were made to be epic adversaries.

It’s about child-terrors and evil toys and the sinister meaning behind nursery rhymes and the terrible things that are done in this world and in the world of the imagination, to take the most innocent among us and...change them.. It’s about what causes craziness. The movie soundtrack would consist in large part of the sound of a xylophone slowly playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in a dark minor key.

And it’s about true heroism, without medals and parades but with lots and lots of dirt and blood. It’s about the kind of soul who never asked for the challenge, but who meets it anyway, making the choice to give and hazard all she is in the face of certain defeat, her own personal angel of death figure at her shoulder to point out that her time is coming, going in debt to terrible, terrible creditors for the sake of others while staring at the likelihood that her ultimate sacrifice will probably be all for nothing. The person who will do what must be done or be damned for eternity trying.

That soul is October Daye, and the first two books only hint at the scope of her weary courage and her foolhardy, awe-inspiring tenacity to her moral compass. There is occasional snarky, hip bravado, but An Artificial Night is overwhelmingly serious. I loved this book.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers :
You remember the four people I told you about when I was there. I drew their pictures for you, the black man, the young girl, the one with the mustache, and the man who owns the New York Cafe. There are some things I should like to tell you about them but how to put them in words I am not sure.
They are all very busy people. In fact they are so busy that it will be hard for you to picture them. I do not mean that they work at their jobs all day and night but that they have much business in their minds always that does not let them res. They come up to my room and talk to me until I do not understand how a person can open and shut his or her mouth so much without being weary. (However, the New York Cafe owner is different—he is just not like the others. He has a very black beard so that he has to shave twice daily, and he owns one of these electric razors. He watches. The others all have something they hate. And they all have something they love more than eating or sleeping or wine or friendly company. That is why they are always so busy.)
Yah Freedom and Pirates. Yah Capital and Democrats, says the ugly one with the mustache. Then he contradicts himself and says, Freedom is the greatest of all ideals. I just got to get a chance to write this music in me and be a musician. I got to have a chance, says the girl. We are not allowed to serve, says the black doctor. That is the Godlike need for my people. Aha, says the owner of the New York Cafe. He is a thoughtful one.

This wonderful, wonderful story tells of five people who are seen as “People Different From Us” by the residents of their deep south mill town, population 40,000 mundanes, 1 mute, 1 awkward girl, 1 colored doctor, 1 vagrant and 1 cafe owner. The five people think more than their peers and are therefore misunderstood and alienated, and so naturally, as they spend their lives in what amounts to town-wide detention, they gravitate to each other for comfort, and gradually discover that each one of them is a mute, an awkward girl, a colored doctor, a vagrant, and a cafe owner. They even write essays about it.

The most amazing part of the story is the way the characters are presented as quirky misfits at the beginning, even down to their thoughts, but gradually are revealed to be representative of the human condition, no different deep down from the rest of us. I believe many of the things they think and perceive, that seem “different” at first, are things that most of us think and perceive, but do not ordinarily talk about with one another.

As with James Tiptree, I found it very wise and excellently crafted, but depressing. The characters, except for Singer the mute, each have a personal little obsession that prevents them from really connecting with the community, or with each other, and they all suffer for it. I wanted to herd them all into internet chatrooms. In a global community like the one that exists on line, it is possible to find people to share your little idiosyncrasies, and to get past some of the barriers that impede face to face communications between strangers. Kind of like we’re doing right now. Very high recommendations.

The Purple Land, by WH Hudson :
I could not endure the brute’s insults, and sprang up from my seat. I happened to have a large knife in my hand, for we were just preparing to make an assault on the roasted ribs of a cow, and my first impulse was to throw down the knife and give him a blow with my fist. Had I attempted it, I should most probably have paid dearly for my rashness. The instant I rose Barbudo was on me, knife in hand. He aimed a furious blow, which luckily missed me, and at the same moment I struck him, and he reeled back with a dreadful gash on his face. It was all done in a second of time, and before the others could interpose; in another moment they disarmed us, and set about bathing the barbarian’s wound. During the operation, which I dare say was very painful, for the old negress insisted on having the wound bathed with rum instead of water, the brute blasphemed outrageously, vowing that he would cut out my heart and eat it stewed with onions and seasoned with cumin seed and various other condiments.
I have often since thought of that sublime culinary conception of Blas the barbarian. There must have been a spark of wild oriental genius in his bovine brains.

If you’ve read any first person 19th Century adventure novel, you’ve met WH Hudson’s narrator. He’s Arthur Gordon Pym and “Ishmael” and the visitor to the Island of Doctor Moreau and any of a dozen bland everyman heroes whose personality is pretty much lost as he writes of his astonishment at all the strange people, places and things he encounters. The main distinction here is that Hudson says he’s writing nonfiction.

Hudson loved South America (see Green Mansions, bookpost January 2009). You will too, maybe, if you can get past Hudson’s colonialist regret that the English didn’t assert dominance over the place like they did with most of every other continent, and his insistence on referring to the population as “Oriental”. Many descriptions of scenery, wildlife and women make you wish for pictures.

The people and their culture...maybe not so much. I’d probably undergo culture shock in a land where deadly knife fights were considered fun sport, and where anyone who refuses to steal is considered untrustworthy. The discarding of limitations on violence, gluttony, constant drunkenness, starting revolutions you can’t finish, and wenching with anyone who’ll let you without regard for marital status is a lifestyle, the joys of which have, for me at least, long passed. There’s just enough adventure and romance to make the book read like a novel, without so much that it looks like Hudson is just making things up. The macho characters he encounters are larger than life, but then again, so are a lot of people you meet in a culture that prides itself on expansiveness in all things.

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