Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

December Bookpost

The Cruise of the Snark, by Jack London :
Cannibalism has often been regarded as a fairy story by ultracivilized men who dislike, perhaps, the notion that their own savage forebears have somewhere in the past been addicted to similar practices. Captain Cook was rather skeptical upon the subject, until one day, in a harbour of New Zealand, he deliberately tested the matter. A native happened to have brought on board, for sale, a nice sun-dried head. At Cook’s orders, strips of the flesh were cut away and handed to the native, who greedily devoured them. Tho say the least, Captain Cook was a rather thoroughgoing empiricist. At any rate, by that act he supplied one ascertained fact of which science had been badly in need. Little did he dream of the existence of a certain group of islands, thousands of miles away, where in subsequent days there would aris a curious suit at law, when an old chief of Maui would be charged with the defamation of character because he persisted in asserting that his body was the living repository of Cook’s great toe. It is said that the plaintiff failed to prove that the old chief was NOT the tomb of the navigator’s great toe and that the suit was dismissed.

Jack London's fascination with the savagery of nature, of the position of man once the trappings of civilization are stripped away, made books like The Sea Wolf, The Iron Heel and Call of the Wild intense reading. Here, he turns his hand to nonfiction and recounts a real life cruise in the Pacific on a boat he commissioned himself.

Their adventures take them among the surfers of Hawaii, the lepers of Molokai, the declining gods of Fiji and the savages of the Solomon Islands, among other places. London regales us with his challenges mastering the art and mystery of navigation, and of surgery at sea. As always, the telling is permeated with the constant awareness of natural forces meaner than himself, from sharks to storms to the microbes and diseases that reduce the strongest and most beautiful island populations known to man to a state of imminent extinction. Depressing at times, uplifting in others, and guaranteed to stir almost anyone's dormant or not-so-dormant urge to go to sea and flee the winter for the tropics.

Father and Son, by Sir Edmund Gosse :
In consequence of hearing so much about an Omniscient God, a being of supernatural wisdom and penetration who was always with us, who made, in fact, a fourth in our company, I had come to think of Him, not without awe, but with absolute confidence. My Father and Mother, in their serene discipline of me, never argued with one another, never even differed; their wills seemed absolutely one. My Mother always deferred to my Father, and in his absence spoke of him to me as if he were all-wise. I confused him in some sense with God; at all events I believed that my father knew everything and saw everything. One morning in my sixth year, my Mother and I were alone in the morning-room, when my Father came in and announced some fact to us. I was standing on the rug, gazing at him, and when he made this statement, I remember turning quickly, in embarrassment, and looking into the fire. The shock to me was as that of a thunderbolt, for what my father had said was not true. My mother and I, who had been present at the trifling incident, were aware that it had not happened exactly as it had been reported to him. My mother gently told him so, and he accepted the correction. Nothing could possibly have been more trifling to my parents, but to me it meant an epoch. Here was the appalling discovery, never suspected before, that my Father was not as God, and did not know everything. The shock was not caused by any suspicion that he was not telling the truth, as it appeared to him, but by the awful proof that he was not, as I had supposed, omniscient.

Gosse's childhood autobiography, which covers his earliest memories up until the point where he is forced to fully break from his father over religious fanaticism, is an intensely psychological work, full of intimate moments. Some, I can relate to very much, like the child's first discovery that his parents aren't perfect. Others, such as the agonies of going to church with Calvinists, are like studying a savage, primitive culture, utterly foreign to civilization.

Gosse's parents tell him to pray for what he most wants, and then when he (age six) prays for a toy he wants, they scold him for not wanting more the conversion of the heathens overseas. They tell him that, not only is his own soul in mortal danger with every wicked thought that enters his head, but that the whole town is watching to be guided by his example and will fall right along with him should he succumb to temptation. Mother dies early on, and then the task of wrestling the Devil out of the small boy falls on father alone, who rises to the challenge with pious duty, only rarely allowing those horrible, sinful impulses of tenderness and affection to show through.

In fact, as described in great detail by Gosse, the love for father and son toward one another is overwhelming, and would have made an outstanding example of the best of human nature, but for the disease of religious fanaticism once again. Dad's singleness of purpose would be admirable if the purpose wasn't so pathetic. I almost felt sympathy when his "great work" reconciling Darwin and the Bible with his brilliant insight that fossils had been created by God to tempt the geologists was met with universal laughter instead of the canonization he had expected; by the time he was finding and burning the books of poetry young Edmund secretly bought with his pocket money, I loathed the man.

By the time Edmund gets into a boarding school, he's pretty much had it with religion, and when dad sends him daily howlers demanding that he supplement his schoolwork with translations of the Greek New Testament, he is forced to politely decline, and father's over the top reaction to that leaves no room for compromise. Forced to choose between dad and his own self, he chooses to live life with integrity, and the book ends with his light coming out from under a bushel at last. I don't know whether they ever reconciled.

The Assistant, by Bernard Malamud :
One of the women customers called Frank a supersalesman, a word that brought a pleased smile to his lips. He was clever and worked hard. Ida's respect for him reluctantly grew; gradually, she became more relaxed in his presence. Morris was right in recognizing that he was not a bum but a boy who had gone through bad times. She pitied him for having lived in an orphan asylum. He did his work quickly, never complained, kept himself neat and clean now that he had soap and water around, and answered her politely. The one or two times, just lately, that he had briefly talked to Helen in her presence, he had spoken like a gentleman and didn't try to stretch a word into a mouthful. Ida discussed the situation with Morris and they raised his "spending money" from fifty cents a day to five dollars for the week. Despite her good will to him, this worried Ida, but after all, he was bringing more money into the store, the place looked spic and span--let him keep five dollars of their poor profit. Bad as things still were, he willingly did so much extra around the store--how could they not pay him a little something? Besides, she thought, he would soon be leaving.

The main character, who admires St. Francis of Assisi, is himself an Italian-American named Frank Alpine (get it?) and is struggling to redeem his flawed past, which ended at 2 a.m. on any given yesterday, by helping out at a deli owned by a struggling Jewish schlamazel couple in 50s-era Brooklyn. He assists them in the store, and they assist him in being a better person.

Once I got used to the jarring 60-year old economics in which rolls cost 3 cents each and five bucks is a living daily wage for a cashier, I found the tale wonderfully moving and more layered than it seemed at first glance. Squint one way, and you're reading about ordinary schmucks of no better than average intelligence and talent in a seedy urban neighborhood where everything smells like sour garbage. Squint another way, any you're looking at every larger-than-life epic conflict and character from Aeneas to Raskolnikov.

There's also a lot of that vague essence of Jewish thought that I know when I see it but can never specifically identify--the constant hypothetical questions, the phrasing of minor decisions as ethical dilemmas, and stoic bafflement as to why bad things keep happening. Morris the grocer has speech patterns that remind me of certain wise Jewish people I have known, and the book makes me feel grateful to have known those people. Finally, the endless passages showing a person with no formal training working a simple job like an expert and becoming steadily more valuable as an employee comes across as refreshing and inspirational in a way that makes me want many young Americans to read and learn from it, whereas Horatio Alger's ham-handed attempts to do the same thing have left me rolling my eyes and snorting derisively. The Assistant is a little jewel that took me a surprisingly long time to read for a book its size, because I had to keep pausing to think.

Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell :
At first he tried to dislodge it with his hand, but as it was now very tightly wedged he drew a stone pick out of his pocket, and very carefully and with some trouble got it out. Then holding it up he said, "There, that's the stone your horse had picked up. It is a wonder he did not fall down and break his knees into the bargain!"
"Well, to be sure!" said my driver; "that is a queer thing! I never knew that horses picked up stones before."
"Didn't you?" said the farmer rather contemptuously; "but they do, though, and the best of them will do it, and can't help it sometimes on such roads as these. And if you don't want to lame your horse, you must look sharp and get them out quickly. This foot is very much bruised," he said, setting it down gently and patting me. "If I might advise, sir, you had better drive him gently for awhile; the foot is a great deal hurt, and the lameness will not go off directly."

This is what happens when you set out to write a book with an agenda. At some point, Sewell got tired of seeing people thoughtlessly injure or neglect horses, and so she wrote a meandering and preachy story told from the horse's point of view, in which every chapter has a Goofus-and-Gallant point, in which the kind ostlers have to intervene and lecture naive stableboys and thoughtless adults on everything from cruelty to not bringing a lit pipe into the barn. When Black Beauty is lucky, he just passes by other horses who are suffering so that Sewell can teach readers a lesson; when he's less lucky, he changes owners and ends up with the 19th century animal-owning equivalent of human resource directors and people who ride under the influence. I found that the story suffered to the point where it was as much fun as watching a traffic school video in the form of a story, but somehow it’s managed to be a beloved classic for over a century, so what do I know? It was probably designed for people much younger than me, or at least that's how it reads today.

If On a Winter’s Night A Traveller, by Italo Calvino:
I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the Author Z. But it is a defective copy, he can’t go beyond the beginning...He returns to the bookshop to have the volume exchanged...
I could write it all in the second person: you, Reader...I could also introduce a young lady, the Other Reader, and a counterfeiter-translator, and an old writer who keeps a diary like this diary...
But I wouldn’t want the young lady reader, in escaping the Counterfeiter, to end up in the arms of the Reader. I will see to it that the Reader sets out on the trail of the Counterfeiter, hiding in some very distant country, so the writer can remain alone with the young lady, the Other Reader.
To be sure, without a female character, the Reader’s journey would lose liveliness: he must encounter some other woman on his way. Perhaps the Other Reader could have a sister...”

Yep, that’s pretty much what happens. A chapter addressed to you the reader, talking about what it’s like to sit down to read a new book; followed by an opening chapter of the book you’re supposed to be reading, followed by a chapter about your frustration when you find that the rest of the book is missing, and you go to the bookstore to get a replacement, and you meet a woman who just had the same experience, and you get a new copy, followed by the first chapter of the new book which is not the book you had before, but another one with the same title and author on the cover, followed by more literary mayhem as “you” and the woman set out to get at the truth, which involves a conspiracy to publish fake books...

It goes on like that. The chapters about “you” have a somewhat coherent, if absurd, plot, interspersed with excerpts from a dozen different kinds of books, all claiming to be If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler , that eventually parallel the plot about “you”. And the chapter titles, read in order, spell out a poem (Oops, SPOILER), and more eccentric characters show up, like the crazy writer who strives to write sentences just at the moment the woman he’s watching reads them, already in print, in the book she has. It gets weird.

A.S. Byatt (Bookpost October 2010) did it much better, creating a literary feast in which many types of literature and writing styles are used and mixed up to delight the connoisseur. Calvino just wrote a Metabook, the kind where any minute you expect some character to peer out through the wreckage and say “Oh, I get it now—we’re in a book!” You really have to not only love books but appreciate navel-gazing about the act of reading, to like this one.

Sinister Shorts, by Peri O'Shaughnessy :
According to their usual artrangement, Rosa knocked after twenty minutes had elapsed, and, without waiting for a reply, entered the room. "Emilio Lopez on line one," she said urgently.
"Ah, thanks." O'Shay turned to Colby. "I have to take this. Let's talk again tomorrow morning. I need a list of all the physicians you've consulted and all the treatments you've had. Rosa, get the usual permissions signed by Mr. Colby before he goes so we can access his records, okay?"
"That guy," Rosa said after getting the forms signed and seeing the man out. She handed O'Shay a file that needed attention. "Another gray morning."
She talked that way, poetically. What she meant was, Colby was a loser.
"Should I dump these papers now or is he one of the unstable ones who needs to be let down easy?"
"Keep the papers. We're taking the case."

I grew up reading Alfred Hitchcock anthologies featuring the likes of Robert Bloch, Michael Gilbert and Cornell Woolrich, so my expectations are high. Peri O'Shaughnessy writes novel-length legal thrillers that are pretty good, but utterly fails at an attempt at a book of short crime stories, only one of which features the lawyer from the novels. The whodunnits are either obvious or too convoluted to be believed, and the other stories tend to end with a "huh?" instead of a "Wow". Not one story surprised me with a sudden twist at the end.

Most of the characters are drawn too broadly, and the tale over too quickly, to be interesting or to promote identification, and the exceptions seem to evoke the opposite of the apparently intended emotions. Several "villains" struck me as sympathetic, and several protagonists, particularly women purporting to be oppressed by circumstance or people, struck me as whining, manipulative and more dangerous to themselves and others than endangered. Stick to the Nina Reilly books.

The Unfortunate Traveler, by Thomas Nashe :
Miserable is the mouse that lives in a physician's house; Tantalus lives not so hunger-starved in hell as she doth there. Not the very crumbs that fall from his table, but Zachary sweeps together, and of them molds up a manna. Of the ashy parings of his bread he would make a conserve of chippings. Out of bones, after the meat was eaten off, he would alchemize an oil that he sold for a shilling a dram. His snot and spittle a hundred times he hath put over to his apothecary for snow water. Any spider he would temper to perfect mithridate. His rheumatic eyes when he went in the wind, or rose early in a morning, dropt as cool alum water as you would request. He was Dame Niggardize's sole heir and executor. A number of old books had he, eaten with the moths and worms; now all day would he not study a dodkin, but pick those worms and moths out of his library, and of their mixture make a preservative against the plague. The liquor out of his shoes he would wring, to make a sacred balsamum against barrenness.

This one is a 17th Century satire by a contemporary of Jonathan Swift. People who like to argue about "what was the First Novel EVER" give it a fighting chance at the title, as long as they count only books in English and don't require over a hundred pages. It suffers in comparison to Swift.

The Unfortunate Traveler is the meandering, mercifully short tale of self-proclaimed jolly rogue Jack Willett, who thinks he's Benvenuto Cellini but is really someone you can't see at all if he stands in front of an ochre wall, unless something adventuresome is happening in the plot. Willett goes wenching in England and Italy, hobnobs with Martin Luther (blink and you'll miss it), and escapes execution for various crimes he didn't commit, including an episode in which he is nearly dissected as an anatomy lesson as punishment for falling into someone's cellar. Along the way are the usual polemics against the lords, the clergy, the doctors, the lawyers, the wicked Italians and especially, of course, the Jews. In fact, one particular antisemitic torture-murder comes near the end of the book, and, described as justice (of course), is described in such nasty detail as to pretty much overshadow everything else that is said. With the exception of this and a few other isolated vignettes, Willett's story is wordy and pretty much forgettable, nibbles where it intends to bite, and shocks where it intends to ingratiate.

A Tale of a Tub, by Jonathan Swift :
Wisdom is a fox, who, after long hunting, will at last cost you the pains to dig out. It is a cheese which, by how much the richer, has the thicker, the homelier, and the coarser coat, and whereof to a judicious palate the maggots are the best. It is a sack-posset, wherein the deeper you go you will find it the sweeter. Wisdom is a hen whose cackling we must value and consider, because it is attended with an egg. But then, lastly, it is a nut, which, unless you choose with judgment, may cost you a tooth, and pay you with nothing but a worm. In consequence of these momentous truths, the Grubaean sages have always chosen to convey their precepts and their arts shut up within the vehicles of types and fables; which having been perhaps more careful and curious in adorning than was altogether necessary, it has fared with these vehicles after the usual fate of coaches over-finely painted and gilt, that the transitory gazers have so dazzled their eyes and filled their imaginations with the outward lustre, as neither to regard nor consider the person or the parts of the owner within. A misfortune we undergo with somewhat less reluctancy, because it has been common to us with Pythagoras, Aesop, Socrates, and other of our Predecessors.

Not really a book so much as a satirical essay along the lines of “A Modest Proposal”, filled out to barely book length by including a long preface, a long postscript, and multiple digressions within the text that have nothing to do with the main theme, and which poke at the flaws of literary styles and personalities that were well known three centuries ago...including such practices as the inclusion of long prefaces and digressions in writings. Maybe Swift is trying to parody by exaggeration; it seemed to me more like attempted parody that is indistinguishable from a replica—like trying to make up some outlandish piece of political idiocy when actual politicians and pundits are saying the same thing in earnest.

The main theme is a decent bit of Swiftian satire, a parable in which three brothers (caricatures of St. Peter, Martin Luther and John Calvin) each inherit a coat (religious practice) from their father, along with a will containing clear instructions on how to wear and care for it (scripture). Naturally, the brothers go to great lengths to “interpret” the will so as to allow them to put on all of the latest fashionable trimmings on the coats in spite of clear instructions not to, and comic mayhem ensues, culminating in Peter having the gaudiest, unwieldliest garment imaginable and Calvin tearing his into shreds and Martin drinks beer. It would have been nice if there had been more of that and fewer of the nonsensical digressions. “A Modest Proposal” is a perfect jewel of a satire; “Tale of a Tub” is a diamond in the rough, embedded in a thick chunk of coal.

The Reapers are the Angels, by Alden Bell :
When he sees her, he comes to life again and begins squirming and shuddering and guggling his throat.
Anyway, she says to him, you’re the first one that got here. That counts, I guess. It makes you like Christopher Columbus or something. But this tide and all—you wanna bet there’s more of you coming? You wanna bet there’s all your slug friends on their way? That’s a pretty safe bet, I’d say.
She nods and looks over the shoal again.
Okay then, she says, lifting the rock up over her head and bringing it down on his face with a thick wet crunch.
The arms are still moving, but she knows that happens for a while afterward sometimes. She lifts the rock again and brings it down twice more just to make sure.
Then she leaves the rock where it is, like a headstone, and goes down to her fishing net and finds a medium-sized fish in it and takes the fish back up to the lighthouse, where she cooks it over a fire and eats it with salt and pepper.
Then she climbs the steps to the top of the tower and goes out on the catwalk and looks far off toward the mainland.
She kneels down and puts her chin against the cold metal railing and says:
I reckon it’s time to move along again.

Imagine a zombie book set in the deep south, told in that poetic-grisly style that Faulkner and McCullers used, featuring a heroine made up of equal parts Huckleberry Finn, Shane, Lauren (from The Parable of the Sower) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and you'll have a hint of what it's like to read The Reapers are the Angels.

Temple, the protagonist, is what makes the book, the way Lisbeth Salander makes the Stieg Larsson books. Like Lisbeth, Temple is young, put upon, and has a core of steel that enables her to do what it takes to survive in a savage world, up to and including berzerking against superior numbers. Bell has taken the strong, silent, completely self-reliant cowboy archetype out of the Western novel and put him in the body of a barely teenage girl who, somewhere between the steel core and the surface armor, is only barely able to cope with her feelings about being unable to save loved ones from the “slugs”, the necessity of mutilating said loved ones to pervent them from coming back, and her own defensive bloodlust weapon.

Unlike Matheson’s I Am Legend world, there are a lot of survivors banded together in various nomadic groups and barricaded communities, some of whom are more monstrous than the undead. Like any good cowboy archetype, Temple is given a special antagonist with his own equal and opposite code of conduct that enables the two of them to respect one another and join forces to get out of mutual jams while saying “Of course, as soon as we get out of this I’m going to kill you”.

I get mixed feelings about heroines like Temple. I feel a longing to have them on my side and a longing to provide some comfort to their inner turmoil, tempered by the realization that getting close enough to them to achieve that kind of mutual trust and symbiosis would be almost impossible. Then again, considering some of the friendships I’ve managed to establish with real life heroic role models like the asshat-slaying heroine who recommended this book to me, I know it’s not completely impossible. I’m glad.

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson :
Racing through the dark living room, he knocked up the bar across the door and sent it clattering to the floor. Outside, they howled as they heard him opening the door. I’m coming out, you bastards! His mind screamed out.
He jerked open the door and shot the first one in the face. The man went spinning back off the porch and two women came at him in muddy, torn dresses, their white arms spread to enfold him. He watched their bodies jerk as the bullets struck them, then he shoved them both aside and began firing his guns into their midst, a wild yell ripping back his bloodless lips.
He kept firing the pistols until they were both empty. Then he stood on the porch clubbing them with insane blows, losing his mind almost completely when the same ones he’d shot came rushing at him again. And when they tore the guns out of his hands he used his fists and elbows and he butted with his head and kicked them with his big shoes.
It wasn’t until the flaring pain of having his shoulder slashed open struck him that he realized what he was doing and how hopeless his attempt was. Knocking aside two women, he backed toward the door. A man’s arm locked around his neck. He lurched forward, bending at the waist, and toppled the man over his head into the others. He jumped back into the doorway, gripped both sides of the frame and kicked out his legs like pistons, sending the men crashing back into the shrubbery.
Then, before they could get at him again, he slammed the door in their faces, locked it, bolted it, and dropped the heavy bar into its slots.
Robert Neville stood in the cold blackness of his house, listening to the vampires scream.

Wow. Comparing this one with The Reapers are the Angels was a hoot. Where Temple is on the road, encountering various remnants of civilization, Robert Neville is completely alone against a city, maybe a whole planet, of undead, and he’s made his home into a fortress from which he can emerge safely only from dawn to dusk, and so his world is circumscribed by the distance he can travel in half a day at the height of summer. Where Temple is almost superhumanly efficient and practical but uneducated to the point of illiteracy, Robert regularly gets drunk off his ass to cope with it all, makes life-threatening stupid mistakes, and spends most of the middle of the book trying to research why and how a zombie plague could happen. Temple wouldn’t care about the why; she’s just focused on how to not get eaten. Different slugs for different bugs.

Fortunately for Robert, the undead of his world have the key weaknesses of both zombies and vampires. They have very low intelligence—only a couple of them can talk—can be killed with stakes or direct sunlight, are repelled by religious symbols, mirrors and garlic, and are helpless during daylight hours. By night, they scratch feebly at the outer walls of the house, the one vocal one calling Robert’s name, while the female undead (shudder) undress and strike provocative poses to try and lure him out. By day, Robert goes out and slays them by the hundred.

Both Matheson’s and Bell’s books are excellent examples of the genre. Matheson’s has been considered classic horror for decades, while Bell’s is an innovative twist. Both are recommended.

Winter Holiday, by Arthur Ransome :
Suddenly the smallest of the female Martians waved a white handkerchief she had fastgened to a stick.
"That's to show it's peace", said Dorothea. "We ought to have thought of it too. Can't you tie a handkerchief to your telescope?"
"Just wave yours," said Dick. "That'll show them we understand."
Dorothea pulled out her handkerchief and waved it.
The Martians came gravely on. This was much more difficult than Dorothea had expected. If only the Martians would say something, or even smile.
They met about a third of the way down the slope.
There was a moment's dreadful silence.
It was broken by the smallest of the Martian girls.
"I don't believe they're in distress at all," she said.
"Don't they want to be rescued from anything?" said the smaller of the boys in a very disappointed voice.

Number four in the Swallows and Amazons series adds Dick and Dorothea Callum to the group of children at the lake whose simple, plausible everyday adventures are readable because of the exuberance and imagination they put into it. This time they're on the lake in the wintertime, pretending to be eskimos and taking sledges in search of the North Pole.

I'm surprised The Dangerous Book for Boys didn't include Ransome's series on its recommended reading list. It's full of the sort of Useful Information they were big on teaching: This one has morse and semaphore codes, skating, knots, a bit of astronomy and how to rescue a cragfast sheep (everyone should at least know how), among other things. Could be that it isn’t just for boys--the story makes these things equally useful and fun for the girls, and even has the girls sharing in leadership of the group (unusual for the 1930s; Ransome may have been among the first children's authors to make the male and female characters equals in adventuring). Highly recommended, as always.

The Queen of Air and Darkness, by TH White:
"Now what I have thought", said Arthur, "is this. Why can't you harness Might so that it works for Right? I know it sounds nonsense, but, I mean, you can't just say there is no such thing. The Might is there, in the bad half of people, and you can't neglect it. You can't cut it out, but you might be able to direct it, if you see what I mean, so that it was useful instead of bad."
The audience was interested. They leaned forward to listen, except Merlyn.
"My idea is that if we can win this battle in front of us, and get a firm hold of the country, then I will institute a sort of order of chivalry. I will not punish the bad knights, or hang Lot, but I will try to get them into our Order. We shall have to make it a great honour, you see, and make it fashionable and all that. Everybody must want to be in. And then I shall make the oath of the Order that Might is only to be used for Right. Do you follow? The knights in my Order will ride all over the world, still dressed in steel and whacking away with their swords--that will give an outlet for wanting to whack, you understand, an outlet for what Merlyn calls the foxhunting spirit--but they will be bound to strike only on behalf of what is good, to defend virgins against Sir Bruce and to restore what has been done wrong in the past and to help the oppressed and so forth. Do you see the idea? It will be using Might instead of fighting against it, and turning a bad thing into a good. There, Merlyn, that's all I can think of. I have thought as hard as I could, and I suppose I am wrong, as usual. But I did think. I can't do any better. Please say something!"
The magician stood up as straight as a pillar, stretched out his arms in both directions, looked at the ceiling and said the first few words of the Nunc Dimittis.

The second book of The Once and Future King is about half the length of The Sword in the Stone (see last month's bookpost), and reads a lot like a modern English version of a Shakespearean history, with Falstaff hijinks across the stage from the epic battles.

Here, the action jumps across various parts of Britain. In one corner, young King Arthur is beginning to form the Round Table, and facing his first major test as King, as he attempts to subdue the Gaelic tribes making war on him without causing undue peasant death on either side, and introducing chivalry to the knights. Elsewhere, King Pellinore is moody, and his stupid assistants resolve to cheer him up by disguising themselves as the Questing Beast and rousing him to hunt them. And in yet another corner, two boys named Gareth and Gawain think it might be fun to catch a unicorn. They've heard that a maid makes the best bait, so they ask a maid from the scullery to help them...

Queen Morgause of the Orkneys is the queen of air and darkness of the title, one of three sorceresses whose father the Earl of Cornwall was slain by Uther Pendragon (Morgan le Fay is one of her sisters). You may be tempted to skip the history of their feud, which gets more boggy than the rest of the story, but pay attention. You'll need to know this stuff for the other books.

The Stupidest Angel, by Christopher Moore :
"Fruitcake?" Mavis said, offering a suspicious slice on a dessert plate to Gabe Fenton, who was drunkenly trying to convince Theo Crowe that he had a genetic predisposition toward the blues, using some impressively large words that no one but he understood, and periodically asking if he could get an 'amen' and 'five up high', which, as it turned out, he could not.
What he could get was fruitcake.
"Mercy, mercy, my momma done made a fruitcake look just like that," Gabe howled. "Lawd rest her soul."
Gabe reached for the plate, but Theo intercepted it and held it out of the biologist's reach.
"First", Theo said, "your mother was an anthro professor and never baked a thing in her life, and second, she is not dead, and third, you are an atheist."
"Can I get an amen?!" Gabe countered.
Theo raised an eyebrow of accusation toward Mavis.
"I thought we talked about no fruitcake this year."
The prior Christmas, Mavis's fruitcake had put two people into detox. She'd sworn that it would be the last year.
Mavis shrugged. "This cake's nearly a virgin. There's only a quart of rum and barely a handful of Vicodin."
"Let's not," Theo said, handing the plate back.
"Fine," Mavis said. "But get your buddy off his blues jag. He's embarrassing me. And I once blew a burro in a nightclub and wasn't embarrassed, so that's saying something."
"Jeez, Mavis," Theo said, trying to shake the picture from his mind.
"What? I didn't have my glasses on. I thought he was a hirsute insurance salesman with talent."

Dortmunder may be a holiday tradition, but Christopher Moore is a special, special treat, and The Stupidest Angel is his Christmas story--a magnificent romp involving Zombie Santa Claus, Roberto the Fruit Bat, Kendra the Warrior Babe of the Outland, and of course, the angel Raziel, the original dumb blonde joke, whose attempt to grant a child's Christmas miracle results in more comic mayhem than you can imagine. Not to mention the weirdest twist on the Gift of the Magi story I’ve ever seen.

Moore's book Lamb, the Gospel According to Biff, also featuring Raziel, was my favorite read of the year, as I knew it would be when I read it halfway through the year (see Bookpost June 2010). As with Lamb, I read The Stupidest Angel out loud to The Redhead, causing her (and her sister, when she was around for various chapters, and the toddler, who didn't understand it but the rest of us were just contagious) to laugh so loud and hard that tears were running down their cheeks. Really. Moore's mixture of old venerated stories with modern pop culture imagery and psychological and sexual hangups that most of us identify with to at least some degree but rarely talk about, with just enough actual wisdom to make you sit up and notice that he has a point after all--that mixture is just about the funniest, most wonderful thing I've come across in years, and I love to share it with my loved ones. Do yourself a favor and mark it on your December 2011 calendar to read. Out loud. To your family. During the Christmas season.

(I know, I know...I had you at "Zombie Santa Claus", didn't I?)

The Road to Ruin, by Donald E. Westlake:
WHY were that priest, that rabbi and that minister walking down the street? Where were they headed? How had they happened to come together? What odd chance had put ex-presidents Bush, Clinton and Carter on that same plane? Why do so many talking animals have nowhere to go except some bar?
The worst part of every day's driving was immediately after Mellon's return from an appointment. A salesman among office lugs, he would have sprayed his jokes on them like a male lion, and they would have sprayed a bunch of
their jokes back at him. And when Mellon returned to the car, springs in his feet, sales in his salesbook, guess who'd get the jokes next?
Chester wasn't sure how much more of this he was going to be able to stand. He was dreaming some of those joke, the stewardesses in the elevator, the astronaut in the men's room. When would Dortmunder and his friends make their move against Monroe Hall? They were still going to do it, weren't they? But when? How much longer would they leave poor Chester all alone out here, at the mercy of Hal Mellon?
And here he came. Sample case into back seat, Mellon into the front seat, pointing: "We keep on now the same direction, maybe twenty miles."
"A Muslim, a Christian and a Jew are on Mount Everest..."

I have a perverse holiday tradition of reading a Dortmunder book on Christmas. They have nothing to do with Christmas--they're funny crime caper books in which everything must go wrong at the worst possible moment but the gang can't get caught and go to prison--but they're fun, and I want Christmas to be fun, and so I curl up for the afternoon with a Dortmunder and a rum and coke (I suppose if I was really hardcore, I'd have to drink beer and salt, or vodka and red wine, but if I wanted authenticity, I'd be reading Dickens instead of Donald Westlake to begin with).

At the point I'm at in the series, the Dortmunder gang is making a practice of getting entangled with Evil Rich People and making them miserable. God sends them (see the previous books Don't Ask, What's the Worst that Could Happen and Bad News, from previous bookposts). Here they take on Monroe Hall, loosely modeled on Ken Lay mixed with Leona Helmsley, who has looted his own giant corporation to the point of bankruptcy and hidden godzillions in assets while his shareholders and employees have lost their shirts, and who, as the tale begins, sits around in his fortified mansion, unable to hire servants who will put up with his Grade-A douchebaggery, and whining to his wife about how nobody likes him. Enter Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch the driver and man-mountain Tiny Bulcher (He didn't come stomping in like he was there to move the furniture. He came stomping in like he was the furniture) to be Jeeves, personal secretary, chauffeur and security goon as they look for a way to smuggle Hall's collection of classic cars out of the compound. The thing is, Hall has more enemies than he knows about...

This isn't the best in the series, and I found the ending a little disappointing, but even the worst of the Dortmunder tales is pretty gorram good.

Vendetta, by Michael Dibdin :
It was a foggy night in February. At one of the intermediate stations, a man joined Zen in the pre-arranged compartment. Pale, balding, slight and diffident, he might have been a filing clerk or a University professor. Vasco Spadola, he said, was hiding out in a farmhouse to the east of the city.
“I was there on the night Tondelli got killed,” the informer went on. “Spadola stabbed him with his own hand. ‘This’ll teach the whole litter of them a lesson’, he said.”
“A lot of use that is to us if you won’t testify,” Zen retorted irritably.
The man gave him an arch look.
“Who said I wouldn’t testify?”
And testify he truly did. Not only that, but when the police raided the farm house near the village of Melzo, they found not only Vasco Spadola but also a knife which proved to have traces of blood of the same group that had once flowed in Tondelli’s veins.
Spadola was sentenced to life imprisonment and Aurelio Zen spent three days basking in glory. Then he learned from an envious colleague that the knife had been smeared with a sample of Tondelli’s blood and planted at the scene by the police themselves, and that the reason why “The Nightingale” had been prepared to come into court and testify that he had seen Spadola commit murder was that the Tondellis had paid him handsomely to do so.

If Lamb was my favorite book of the year, Vendetta was my second favorite, for completely different reasons. I didn’t want it to end.

Most detective stories featuring a police officer as the main crime solver do not put the officer in the kind of danger that private eyes often get into. They’re police! Even if the story culminates with a big shootout with a gang of baddies, the cop has the resources of at least one police station to work with, and district attorneys and governors on his side after the fact if he does his job well.

None of that for Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen. His Italy is a sewer of corruption beyond the wildest scenarios of loud left wing and right wing American political cynics. Here, the various Mafia factions have at least as much firepower as the police, and are frequently assisted by the police and the government in their crimes. Police officers in Zen’s division are suspects in the crimes, as are the superintendents and other higher up officials who can make or break Zen’s career, and his instructions from the higher ups are as likely to involve failure to solve the cases or framing a convenient suspect as actually solving them. Consequences of following the wrong set of conflicting instructions can be deadly.

Zen reminds me of Casablanca’s Chief Renault with less humor, more nerve and similar diplomacy. He remains outwardly unflappable even while panicking inside and can finesse his way from a formal meeting with political kingpins to barhopping with low thugs on a dime. In Vendetta, Zen is given an ingenious locked room murder set in a wealthy man’s impregnable luxury compound outside a village of vicious Sardinian peasants with bad tempers and long memories, and he’s given instructions not to bother with solutions, but to find dirt to throw at one suspect so that a different suspect is not tried. And then the death threats come to Zen’s private residence.

Vendetta is harsh. It’s literary. It’s a clever whodunnit. The atmosphere is thick enough to slice up and slather with anchovy paste and olive oil. Very highest recommendations.

Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak :
"So what will happen to your consciousness? Your consciousness, yours, not anyone else's. Well, what are you? There's the point. Let's try to find out. What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself? Your kidneys? Your liver? Your blood vessels? No. However far back you go in your memory, it is always in some external, active manifestation of yourself that you come across your identity--in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people. And now listen carefully. You in others--this is your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life. Your soul, your immortality, your life in others. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory? This will be you--the you that enters the future and becomes part of it.
"And now one last point. There is nothing to fear. There is no such thing as death. Death has nothing to do with us. But you said something about being talented--that it makes one different. Now, that has something to do with us. And talent in the highest and broadest sense means talent for life.
"There will be no death, says St. John. His reasoning is quite simple. There will be no death because the past is over; that's almost like saying there will be no death because it's already done with, it's old and we are bored with it. What we need is something new, and that new thing is life eternal."
He was pacing up and down the room as he was talking. Now he walked up to Anna Ivanovna's bed and putting his hand on her forehead said, "Go to sleep". After a few moments she began to fall asleep.
Yura quietly left the room and told Egorovna to send in the nurse. "What's come over me?" he thought. "I'm becoming a regular quack--muttering incantations, laying on the hands..."
Next day Anna Ivanovna was better.

I wrote a song claiming to have read Pasternak, and so I figured I'd better read Doctor Zhivago, the central theme of which is that, in case Tolstoi and Dostoevski didn't make it clear, life in Russia is miserable.

Pasternak pretty much did War and Peace all over again, a century later, set a century later and during a different epic war, right down to the two epilogues, but without making Lenin or Stalin into major characters, and letting the characters do the preaching instead of the omniscient narrator. Characters from all strata of society get thrown together, torn apart, and made to march through miles and miles of snow, all the while shaking their fists at each other, philosophizing about the meaning of life, and drinking vodka. The central character, Yuri Zhivago, plays by the rules fashionable in Tsarist Russia and goes from down and out to middle class, and then to down and out again as war and revolution change all the rules. Along the way, he has a private and a military medical career, makes friends and enemies who later benefit and harm him from the higher or lower positions they reach over time, and has no less than three wives. He also turns to poetry, and a collection of poems attributed to Zhivago is included as an appendix to the book. Epic, not fun, but good for you.

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