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Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

September 30, 2010 1 comment

I’m not sure if I mis-remember what classic books I read up through high school or if I just don’t remember the plots.  I am 100% sure that I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; in fact I can remember buying the book when my parents took us on a summer trip that included Hannibal, Missouri.  (I wonder what ever happened to that edition?)  I thought I had read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I now suspect that I had read selections from the novel, or perhaps an abridged version for children.

I selected this novel from the Essential Man’s Library on the artofmanliness.com, which is part of my 101 goals in 1001 days list.  I found an audiobook and Janet and I started to listen to it when we drove to Minnesota in early September.  We only listened to approximately 2 minutes before we had to shut it off; the narrator attempted to read the book in a similar dialect in which the book was written.  It was almost unbearable.

Several weeks later, I tried it again.  After about 30 minutes or so, the dialects started to disappear into the text.

My favorite parts of the novel:

  • The articles to which each member had to sign in blood to belong to Tom Sawyer’s gang.  I laughed at how Tom used half-remembered stories and histories to create his blood-thirsty gang, how his imagination could fill in details of Arabic caravans and ransoms, and how many of the gang members had trouble getting free to rob and pillage because their parents wouldn’t let them out.
  • The episode with the snakes and rats.  Tom Sawyer wanted to recreate those same adventure stories (like The Count of Monte Cristo) where prisoners had to use, for example, spoons to dig out of castles.  To make Jim’s captivity and eventual escape more real, the two boys decided to capture snakes and rats for the cell.  Unfortunately, the trap of rats was stored safely under his aunt’s bed and Tom’s cousin opened it, just to see if the rats would exit the cage.  The snakes were captured in a bag, but it wasn’t tied tightly enough, while the two went to supper.  Huck couldn’t understand why rats would disturb the aunt so much and why snakes dropping from the rafters down her back would make her scream.  And, then Huck’s wistful comment that even though they captured some more, the original group was better.

The episode of the feud between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons and the antics of the King and the Duke were completely unfamiliar to me.

When I mentioned the book to Janet, she vividly remembered Huck’s attempt to dress as a girl and what tests were used to discover that he was really a boy.

For me, the major theme seemed to be deception:

  • Tom’s self deception via his imagination
  • Huck faking his brutal death
  • Huck attempting to disguise himself (1) as a girl to get local information — he’s caught; (2) as an orphaned boy in the home of the Grangerfords — with tragic results; (3) as a valet — somewhat better results after he tells the truth
  • The King and the Duke

I found it to be an enjoyable read, very witty at times, with a strange mix of naivete and self-reliance.

4 out of 5 stars (Sept 20, 2010)

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The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs

September 26, 2010 Leave a comment

The Face in the Frost is purported to be one of the fantasy classics.  My wife was reading Bellairs’s young adult Barnavelt series which begins with The House With A Clock in Its Walls.  In that volume, there is a blurb from Lin Carter where he states that The Face in the Frost is one of the three best fantasy novels since The Lord of the Rings.  This intrigued me since I had never heard the title before.

The plot revolves around a mystery:  what is causing all of the mysterious and disturbing events around Prospero, a quirky wizard living in the South Kingdom.  His fellow wizard, Roger Bacon, joins him on a quest to discover the source of these dark deeds.

Strangely, this fantasy isn’t the typical sword and sorcery of its time.  The fantasy world falls somewhere between a purely invented one and our own.  A magic mirror projects views of the future (or perhaps another world) with cars, major league sports teams, and real-world places.  It reminded me a bit of the musings of T.H. White’s Merlin in The Once and Future King who lived backwards in time.

There are a few droll one-liners and turns of phrase, but I found the book difficult to read because of the longer-than-I’m-used-to paragraphs and descriptions.  There were also a number of visions and dreams interspersed into the plot.

The book was also a bit more supernatural horror, or perhaps psychological suspense, than fantasy.  In this respect it reminded me of the tone in Joseph Delaney’s The Last Apprentice Series (The Revenge of the Witch is the first book).

One issue I had with the text itself was due to its conversion to an e-book.  In the Kindle edition, the em dash used to separate parenthetical phrases is displayed in the text as a hyphen.  Unfortunately, Bellairs uses this construction extensively through the novel, so this was a major distraction.  As an example, the phrase

the British man-of-war Actaeon, which ran — will run — aground on a sand bar during the siege of Charleston in 1776

was encoded like

the British man-of-war Actaeon, which ran-will run-aground on a sand bar during the siege of Charleston in 1776

Because Bellairs uses a lot of very specific language to create his scenes, eerie and otherwise, the inline dictionary was invaluable.

I am very interested to find out what Lin Carter’s other two best fantasy novels were…..

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

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In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales by Lord Dunsany

September 24, 2010 1 comment

I had, of course, heard of the author Lord Dunsany before, largely having seen The King of Elfland’s Daughter on the library shelves in the science fiction / fantasy section, but had never read anything by him.  On a whim, I picked up In the Land of Time and Other Fantasy Tales at a used bookstore and was instantly captivated.

The breadth of the stories collected in this volume is extremely broad, including cosmological myths, fairy tales, Agatha Christie-style mysteries, psychological horror, and prose tone poems.  There are almost too many genres to list (and there are probably a few that should be invented just for the author).

Some of my favorites:

The “Gods of Pegana” and its related stories reminds me very strongly of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, particularly the first two parts, the Ainulindale and the Valaquenta, which describe the creation of the world and the characteristics of the Powers of Middle-Earth.  I found the repeated epithets of the gods and the almost prayerful blessings to be perfect, almost as an in-world catechism.

“The Kith of the Elf-Folk” is a cautionary tale.  Because the little Wild Thing, like all fairy folk, has no soul, she yearns to gain one in order to

…worship God, and to know the meaning of music, and to see the inner beauty of the marshlands and to imagine Paradise

The Elf-folk fashion a soul for her knowing, however, that she will ultimately be unhappy.  This section includes one of the most moving descriptions I have read in a long time:

Then the Wild Things went with their dew-bespangled gossamer down to the edge of their home. And there they gathered a piece of the grey mist that lies by night over the marshlands. And into it they put the melody of the waste that is borne up and down the marshes in the evening on the wings of the golden plover. And they put into it, too, the mournful song that the reeds are compelled to sing before the presence of the arrogant North Wind. Then each of the Wild Things gave some treasured memory of the old marshes, ‘For we can spare it,’ they said. And to all this they added a few images of the stars that they gathered out of the water. Still the soul that the kith of the Elf-folk were making had no life.

Then they put into it the low voices of two lovers that went walking in the night, wandering late alone. And after that they waited for the dawn. And the queenly dawn appeared, and the marsh-lights of the Wild Things paled in the glare, and their bodies faded from view; and still they waited by the marsh’s edge. And to them waiting came over field and marsh, from the ground and out of the sky, the myriad song of the birds.

This, too, the Wild Things put into the piece of haze that they had gathered in the marshlands, and wrapped it all up in their dew-bespangled gossamer. Then the soul lived.

I found “The Wonderful Window” to be wonderfully imagined.  A lonely man purchases a window that allows him to see a small medieval fortress from the heights above.  No sound, however, emanates from the vision.  He watches the tiny people moving through the streets until one day he finds an invading army besieging the city.  He watches with horror, helpless, as his tiny kingdom is brought to ruin in total silence.

I wish I could find the complete Jorkens tales in print.  Dunsany wrote a large number of short stories featuring Jorkens, a man who has had all sorts of adventures, all of which have an air of lies, but cannot actually be disproved.  All of the tales are told in a sort of gentleman’s club at the turn of the century. This volume includes about a half dozen stories including one where a man claims to have visited Mars and has proof (sort of)!

“The Two Bottles of Relish” is a whodunit with ominous overtones, “The Cut” tells the tale of a dog who learns the value of money and who exhibits the airs to support it, and I can never forget the irony of “The Pirate of the Round Pond”.

What makes these stories so special is the prose, the imagery, and the ability to look back at oneself.  Themes include the results of loss and how humankind is an interloper on the earth.

5 out of 5 stars, unreservedly

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Birthright: The Book of Man by Mike Resnick

September 17, 2010 Leave a comment

There are a number of books which I have a need to reread periodically:  The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Dune by Frank Herbert, and Birthright: The Book of Man by Mike Resnick.

Why this book?  Well, I think the conceit is extremely clever and the stories remind me of the best short stories of Isaac Asimov.  In fact, the only novels that I have read that remotely resemble the scope of this book those in Asimov’s Foundation series (which starts with Foundation).

This book is a history of the race of humankind as it maneuvers in the galaxy.  Each chapter describes a separate episode over thousands of years as man expands his empire economically and administratively, attempts to recover from setbacks, and eventually falls.  But what is fascinating is that each story highlights one of humankind’s drives, motives, and inherent character both in its highest ideals and in its basest hubris.  Resnick is able to both celebrate and denigrate each characteristic.

The book creates a framework for many of Resnick’s short stories and novels; a fact which Resnick says was not originally intended but suggested by his editor(s) because of their love for this work.   This works so well because there is such a variety of eras, locations, and aliens to play with.  For example, the stories cross multiple government types (empire, monarchy, oligarchy, warlord incursions, various democracies), varying levels of human control (exploration, ascendancy, setbacks, fall), and genres (puzzles, political machinations, mysteries).  Each chapter begins with short excerpts from histories written far into the future which attempts to place the episode into a larger context; interestingly, these histories are written by the winners and thus have subtle biases which adds to the tone of the story.  Try this website to see how each story and novel fits into the main structure.

I’ve only read Birthright novels in the Starship series (beginning with Starship: Mutiny), which is a more traditional space opera series but has all of the clever elements from this book.  I hope to read others.

It’s not a hopeful history, but yet defiant to the end.

5 stars out of 5

(updated 10/14/2010)

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The Age of Ra by James Lovegrove

September 14, 2010 Leave a comment

James Lovegrove conceived of a fascinating alternate timeline in his The Age of Ra:  a world where the ancient gods of Egypt gaze back at Earth, conquer the other religions’ pantheon of gods, and then each adopts one of the continents to sponsor and protect.

Lovegrove obscures the point in time in which the Egyptian gods return, but it appears that it was sometime in the past:  1700s or 1800s perhaps?  Although frustrating a bit to never really find out, it was fun to catch a quick glimpse from time to time.

The novel focuses on a British paramilitary soldier, furthering the interests and designs of Osiris.  Each of the gods influence their adherents through signs and dreams via their priests.  Certain advanced weapons are powered by ba, a sort of divine essence generated from the worship, praise, or perhaps just recognition of the gods by men.

Each group of citizens begins to take on the characteristics and loyalties of their patron god or goddess.  For example, the Europeans and Americans are generally in alliance because of Osiris’s and Isis’s love for their son Horus.  Anubis, a god of the underworld, influences the Japanese and other Southeast Asian nations to adopt kamikaze methods and a whole-hearted acceptance of death.  Only Freegypt has no patron, because the gods could not agree who should rule their original land.

The plot revolves around an insurgency forming in Freegypt to free mankind from the whims of the gods, to deny those gods any worship so as to give mankind free will again.  Can mankind revolt against the gods?

Some of the most interesting passages of the book, however, occur as little interludes from the main action.  Some chapters focus on the machinations of the gods themselves, particularly those of the Ennead, the nine major gods of the Egyptian pantheon.  Ra’s voyage in the Solar Barque, the apathy of the older generation of gods, and the secret infidelity of Nephthys all show creativity on Lovegrove’s part.  I quite enjoyed having to use wikipedia to reacquaint myself with the ancient myths.

The biggest problem I had with the writing was the needless use of prurient obscenities and gratuitous sexual situations, none of which were relevant to the plot.

3 1/2 stars out of 5

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Stuff of Legends by Ian Gibson

September 7, 2010 Leave a comment

Stuff of Legends by Ian Gibson was a unique fantasy.  I’ve been attempting to determine how to classify it; possibly a cross between some of the topical Discworld novels by Pratchett and perhaps John Moore’s Heroics for Beginners.

In this fantasy world, dragons, barbarian hordes, and elves are real.  The epic tales told by wandering bards, however, have been orchestrated by the world’s version of Hollywood, Central Casting of Palace Hills.  Wardrobe, extras, props, and creatures all all requisitioned by Central Casting as needed to create the right adventure for one of its freelance heroes.

Jordan the Red, who stars in hundreds of such episodes has retired to a small out-of-the-way dairy village called Cheese, trying to live in obscurity until a young man uses a an elvish birthday present to wish himself part of a new Jordan the Red adventure.  The casting agent is thrilled to create a sort of Jordan: The Next Generation and hires”red-shirt” villains to put in his path.

Jordan, a reluctant participant, journeys along with the eager lad, a bard assigned to write everything down, and a nanny elf.  Soon, however, everything takes a turn for the worse when a second wish brings back every villain and henchman that Jordan ever defeated, including a dragon.

Obviously very tongue-in-cheek, the book is entertaining, but perhaps not the best novel ever written.  Clever one-liners and subtle references to the entertainment industry, fantasy novels, and campy television are sprinkled throughout its pages.

Dawn came without metaphor.  (p. 95)

Dawn came to Palace Hills in colors of pearl and crystal, another perfect day in the closest thing to paradise money could buy.  There were laws against bad weather within the city limits and because the city housed the largest body of wizards in the world, those laws were obeyed as rigidly as the laws of gravity.  Some cities never sleep; Palace Hills was a city worth sleeping in, for the pleasure of having it be the first thing you saw when you woke up.  It was a city for morning people.

Not surprisingly, it also had the best coffee in the world.  (p. 231)

Also not surprisingly, the book ends with a setup for a sequel.

3 out of 5 stars (for its sheer entertainment value)

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A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

September 5, 2010 Leave a comment

On the way to Minnesota this weekend, we listened to a reading of A Christmas Carol performed by Tim Curry.  This unabridged version was a free selection on Audible several years ago and doesn’t appear to be available any longer.

A Christmas Carol is one of those books which has been performed hundreds of times:  in movies, TV specials, cartoons, and has been interpreted by the Muppets, Rich Little, and even updated by Bill Murray in Scrooged.  I’ve read the story itself a number of times and won’t waste any time giving an outline of the plot.  Instead, I’ll remark on my reactions this time.

  • I do feel that this is a book to be read aloud, preferably by a good narrator.  The lines are so rich with traditional character that one can almost quote them by heart.  Tim Curry did an excellent job with Scrooge’s character:  not taking the lonely, miserly character over the top and bringing believability to his night of repentance.
  • This reading, I noticed how the Ghost of Christmas Present not only showed Scrooge the households of the Cratchits and Scrooge’s own nephew, but also guided him through the streets of London, giving him a taste of good Christmas cheer even to those downtrodden (the miners, for example) who might be perceived to have little to be thankful for.
  • Janet and I both remarked that the prize turkey delivered to the Crachits had no hope of being Christmas dinner, not at that late date!
  • The story still has power today, despite the specifics of the mid-Nineteeenth Century.

4 out of 5 stars

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