Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Combination Plate 11

Pamela Dean
The Dubious Hills
A fantasy novel

This is a fantasy novel, one that really is based on fantasy and one that has an original idea, something that doesn't happen too often. It is not just another medieval romance with men in tin suits hewing away at each other in the name of the Emperor, King, Duke, Prince, Baron, or whatever, defending the realm against the invading armies of another Emperor, King, Duke, or whatever. Nor is it another Tolkien ripoff with various simple folk setting off on yet another quest for the magic sword, chalice, shield, or cummerbund in order to forestall the Necromancer or Dark Lord's attempt to rule or destroy the universe.

In fact, the country where this story takes place has been at peace for many centuries. Long ago, wizards, tiring of the constant warfare, cast a spell on the country which effectively makes the inhabitants completely dependent upon each other for survival. The people cannot learn from mundane experience the way we do. However, each has one type of inborn knowledge that few, if any others, possess. For example, one person was given the ability to know whether something is beautiful or ugly. Those who wish to know whether an object is beautiful or ugly, must bring it to this person. Another possesses geographical knowledge. Those who wish to know where someplace is located must visit this person.
One unsettling aspect of conversation among these people is their practice of attributing statements that do not fit in with their particular knowledge to the one whom they heard it from.

All skills which we take for granted are parcelled out among the people. One person knows how to fix things, including people who have something wrong with them. However, his abilities are natural, not magical. He fixes a broken bone with a splint or a rude cast, along with, perhaps, some healing herbs. Only a few people know how to grow food, and they are limited as what they can grow. For example, to prepare a meal, one must go to the person who grows vegetables, to another who bakes bread, to a sheepherder for meat, to a dairy farmer for milk, or to a brewer or vintner for beer or wine.

One of the most unusual skills belongs to Arry, who is a Physici. She alone can sense pain, not only in herself but in others also. No one else in the village can feel pain. If they cut themselves, they will notice that they are bleeding, but they feel nothing. They will come to Arry to ask if this is a problem. Arry then will send for the fixer, to take care of the wound. Curiously, Arry has problems at times with distinguishing between physical pain and psychological pain in others. They seem to same to her.

In this way, each is dependent upon the others for survival. If one doesn't share one's own expertise, then others are unlike to share theirs, which would include food, various forms of knowledge, and even a diagnosis and cure for physical ailments. They have paid a price for peace, and this price is the focus of the novel.

Halver is the teacher and in some sense the villain of the work. On a trip outside the country he was bitten by a werewolf, which of course means that he too is a werewolf. What is more important is that the spell cast many centuries ago no longer affects him now. He can learn from daily experience and other sources just as we do. He has decided that the spell was an obstacle to becoming a complete human being and is determined to spread his new-found abilities to others, whether they wish it or not.

This, then, is the conflict. Do people have the right to force others to follow their ways--even if in good faith--for their own good? Is what Halver is doing, or attempting to do, any different from what the wizards did centuries ago? Both Halver and the wizards are acting for the people's "own good." Does that justify their actions?

Arry and her brother and sister take it upon themselves to fight Halver. In their battle, they learn the same lesson that Tolkien brought out in his tales: in every battle against evil, something is lost, regardless of who wins the battle. Even those completely innocent are changed in some way by this conflict. Part of the cost of evil is the loss of innocence. And, one can't go back.

Overall rating: very good. Recommended for those looking for something different in fantasy.


Ivy Compton-Burnett
A House and Its Head
A novel

I had heard her name mentioned occasionally in grad school, but she was never on the reading lists of any of the courses I had taken. Consequently, I didn't get around to reading anything by her until this past year. So far, I've read two of her novels: Pastors and Masters and A House and Its Head. They are unlike any other novel I've ever read, and what little I've read about her suggests that all her novels are very similar in style. There are nineteen of them, beginning in 1925 with Pastors and Masters.

Some comments from an entry about her on Wikipedia:

"Of Pastors and Masters, the New Statesman wrote: "It is astonishing, amazing. It is like nothing else in the world. It is a work of genius."

In her essay collection L'Ère du soupçon (1956), an early manifesto for the French nouveau roman, Nathalie Sarraute hails Compton-Burnett as an "one of the greatest novelists England has ever had".

And today, as far as I can tell, she has been largely forgotten, at least among those I'm familiar with.

Two characteristics of her works are
probably responsible for her early acceptance, and perhaps the later disregard of her works. First, her novels are at least 95% dialogue, with minimal description of either the characters or the setting. Second, the tone of the dialogue is invariably acerbic, biting, sarcastic, and nasty, and always with an air of supercilious politeness.

She uses dialogue to allow the characters to reveal themselves. Here is a sample of a relatively benign (for her anyway) conversation that begins A House and Its Head. The dialogue is between Duncan and Ellen Edgeworth, the head of the house and his wife. It is Christmas morning.

"So the children are not down yet?' said Ellen Edgeworth.
Her husband gave her a glance, and turned his eyes towards the window.
'So the children are not down yet?' she said on a note of question.
Mr Edgeworth put his finger down his collar, and settled his neck.
'So you are down first, Duncan?' said his wife, as though putting her observation in a more acceptable form.
Duncan returned his hand to his collar with a frown."

(what follows is a brief description--two short paragraphs--of Duncan and Ellen and the setting.)

'So you are down first of all, Duncan,' said Ellen, employing a note of propitiation, as if it would serve its purpose.
Her husband implied by lifting his shoulders that he could hardly deny it.
'The children are late, are they not?' said Ellen, to whom speech clearly ranked above silence.
Duncan indicated by the same movement that his attitude was the same.
'I think there are more presents than usual. Oh, I wish they would all come down.'
'Why do you wish it?'
'Well, it is not a day when we want them to be late, is it?'
'Do we want them to be late on any day? Oh, of course, it is Christmas Day. I saw the things on the table."

Conversation in Compton-Burnett's works is actually open warfare, with characters attempting to dominate others, to retaliate for real or imagined insults, or to establish their freedom from a verbal tyrant. Many of her novels begin as this one does--at the breakfast table where the struggle for survival begins at the earliest possible moment. It is quite appropriate that Duncan, still at breakfast, takes a book from his nephew and throws it in the fire. It is "a scientific work, inimical to the faith of the day." While the title is never revealed, it could be Darwin's Origin of Species, which ironically would be most useful in describing the behavior of the characters in Compton-Burnett's novels.

In the sample conversation above, Duncan barely acknowledges his wife's existence at first. She is forced to revise her question several times and is almost reduced to begging for a response before he condescends to answer. He clearly dominates her, barely deigning to notice her until he is ready. Duncan doesn't have it completely his way though, for when Nance and Sibyl, his daughters, and Grant, his nephew and heir apparent, finally appear, we see several differing ways of dealing with Duncan--submission, defiance, and a subtle challenge to his dominance.

A House and Its Head is not just filled with talk though, for embedded within its pages are adultery, abuse, extortion, and murder. As the English novelist
Angus Wilson remarks: "No writer did more to illuminate the springs of human cruelty, suffering, and bravery."

I will read more by her, but I must admit I will wait until later in 2010. It's strong stuff.

Overall rating: Read at least one of her novels. It's a experience.


Jo Nesbo
The Devil's Star
Mystery: police procedural
A Detective Harry Hole mystery
Oslo, Norway

This is the second novel I've read in Nesbo's series featuring Detective Harry Hole of the Oslo Police Department. My first encounter was his highly acclaimed Redbreast (see August 2007, Combination Plate 7). This novel also follows the pattern I noticed in Redbreast: Nesbo uses the first part of the novel to leisurely provide background for the second part, which then becomes a tension-filled and taut race to identify and capture the killer before there are more deaths.

In Redbreast, Nesbo spends considerable time depicting the Norwegian soldiers who fought with Germany against the Russians, and this provides the backdrop for the deaths which occurred decades later.

In The Devil's Star, the focus of the first part is on Detective Harry Hole himself. He is on a downward spiral, headed for termination from the police department because of alcoholism, absenteeism, and general insubordination. All this takes place during a series of murders which suggests a serial killer is loose in Oslo. Moreover, he is assigned to work with his old enemy, Tom Waaler, whom he considers responsible for the murder of his partner (see Redbreast) but has been unable so far to prove it.

Hole's superior is on vacation but will return in three weeks, at which time he will, no doubt, sign Hole's termination notice, which is now sitting on his desk. At this point, Hole decides to go out in a blaze of glory and solve the case. He sobers up and goes to work. Once the alcoholic fumes diminish, he takes another look at the series of killings. They follow the classic serial killer pattern: murders in which the victims are presumably unrelated to each other, similar MO in all cases, lack of usual motivating factors of revenge, hate, greed, sex. However, something is wrong, and Hole alone senses it, but he's unable to figure it out, yet. This, then, is the story of the second half of the novel.

Overall Rating: recommended--Nesbo can write action-oriented stuff with the best of them, once he gets the backdrop out of the way.


Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Last Rituals
Mystery: talented amateur
A Thora Gudmundsdottir mystery
Reykjavik, Iceland

This is the first in a series of novels featuring Thora Gudmundsdottir, an attorney in private practice. A young German student at the university has been murdered, his body mutilated, and strange symbols carved on his chest. The police quickly make an arrest, but the victim's family isn't satisfied that the police have the right man. They hire Thora to investigate and also include a partner for her, Matthew Reich, who is in charge of security for the family-owned bank. Thora's not happy with the situation, but she, a single mother of two, does need the work.

The symbols soon are identified as being associated with witchcraft, and the victim's intense interest in Iceland's own history of witchcraft, torture, execution, and witch hunts provides the setting for this tale. Also adding to the fun are ancient books, missing? or stolen? letters, and perhaps a revival of Satanic worship.

Overall Rating: recommended. This is the first mystery I've read that is set in Iceland. Yrsa is a skilled writer: she is the award-winning author of a number of children's novels. She is on my list of authors for further reading.


Plan 9 from Outer Space
An SF film

To refer to Plan 9 from Outer Space simply as an SF film really doesn't do justice to this work. Perhaps I should add that this is one of the most famous SF films ever produced. Some consider it the No. 1 cult film of all time. Others have called it the worst film ever made, regardless of genre. One critic said that it is so bad that it is sublime. It is the "two-time winner of the Golden Turkey Award for Worst Film and Worst Director of all time." Surely, these are accolades not to be despised.

I hadn't seen it in a number of years, but I did remember its laughable dialogue ("Idiot Earthmen. . .Stupid, stupid, stupid. . .") , its unbelievably incomprehensible plot, and its disjointed continuity for there were scenes that just seemed to be dropped in from nowhere with characters wandering around aimlessly.

This version, however, is restored and remastered and provides some surprises. First, the continuity is much tighter and consistent than I remember, leading me to wonder if the problems were really caused by poor and incomplete copies of the film. Unfortunately, the remastering did not improve the dialogue and the acting skills of a considerable part of the cast.

The director is Ed Wood, whose directing career is so unique that a film was made of his life. The most famous member of the cast is Bela Lugosi. Others are Vampira, sometimes hostess of late night horror shows or creature features, and Tor Johnson, frequently cast as a monster, a torturer, a brutal guard, and any number of unpleasant characters. And, of course, one can't forget the inexplicably wobbly flying saucers.

The Special Features section corrects several myths that have grown up around the film. In one case the truth is stranger than the myth. One myth is that Bela Lugosi died during the making of the film. This is not true. One day Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi went out with a camera. Wood then had Lugosi act out several scenes. Wood had nothing in mind at that time. Shortly afterwards, Lugosi died. Wood then decided to make a film which would incorporate those scenes, thus Plan 9 from Outer Space. In the film, the scenes that supposedly show Lugosi with his face covered by his cloak were shot after Lugosi's death, and his part is played by Wood's chiropractor, not Wood's dentist as is frequently claimed.

Another myth is that Ed Wood was a cross-dresser and directed his films in women's garb. This is not true and probably stems from another of Wood's films--Glen or Glenda? Wood was a cross-dresser and played that role in that film. Therefore, there were times when Wood was dressed as a woman while directing a scene. This apparently was the only time Wood directed in women's clothing and it was required by the situation, not Wood's preference.

The plot? Oh yes, I forgot. Well, aliens in flying saucers have been unsuccessfully trying to contact governments on Earth. They fear humans will develop the ultimate weapon and destroy the entire universe. The aliens then decide to resurrect the dead in countries all over the world and march them to the various capitols in order to get the governments' attention. This is Plan 9 we are told. Unfortunately we never find out what the first eight plans were.

Overall Rating: highly recommended for those who enjoy watching extremely bad films and best viewed in the company of other like-minded individuals.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Winter Solstice: December 21, 2009

While this poem was dated by Hardy, on December 31, 1900, I think it serves equally well for a poem set on the Winter's Solstice, the shortest day of the year, when Night has achieved its greatest victory over Day and it seems as though the days of the sun and warmth shall never return.

Yet, as the Taoists tell us, when any particular condition (day/night, wet/dry, cold/hot) has gained its greatest extent, its eventual defeat is embedded within that victory. For while December 21, 2009, may be the shortest day of the year, December 22 shows us that all is not lost, for we are now moving towards the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
…..When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
…..The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
…..Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
…..Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
…..The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
…..The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
…..Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
…..Seemed fervorless as I.

At once a voice arose among
…..The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
…..Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small
…..In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
…..Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
…..Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
…..Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
…..His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
…..And I was unaware.

-- Thomas Hardy --

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ford Madox Ford: December 17, 1873--June 26, 1939

As I've mentioned before, Ford's The Good Soldier is one of my top ten favorite novels. I find it absorbing each time I read it, for something new always emerges. It's been awhile since I last read it, and I believe I'm due for another read. I wonder what I'll discover this time.

I really enjoy the way Ford slowly introduces information throughout the novel, very quietly and so unobtrusively that I keep missing it. This is one work that must be read slowly and alertly. Something is always going on.

One example from my last reread is the f
irst sentence of the novel: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard."

This is the fourth? fifth? time that I have read this novel, and up to now I have always focused on the words "the saddest story" as being the most important. Now, I'm not so sure. The last word in the sentence, "heard," seems also to be very significant, if not even more so.

"Heard" suggests to me that this is not something that Dowell has been a part of, but a story that someone told him and now he is going to tell us what he heard. Yet, immediately afterwards, he tells us that it is the story of him, his wife Florence, and their English friends, the Ashburnhams. In fact he tells us that they had known these people with "extreme intimacy." This would seem to contradict the implication of his opening statement--that this is something he heard rather than personally experienced. Why does he say "heard" rather than "lived through" or "experienced"?

I think this poses the basic question of the novel: What kind of relationship did Dowell really have with the Ashburnhams?

Dowell is probably one of the most unique narrators I've ever encountered. He is at the same time both a reliable and an unreliable, or really a naive narrator, and this is what creates the tension in the story. The novel is a flashback in which Dowell tells us not only what he thought his life was like, but also what it really was. In doing this he poses the problem: Is what was once thought true, now no longer true?

Looking back on the past ten years, he cries out: "No, by God it is false! It wasn't a minuet that we stepped; it was a prison--a prison full of screaming hysterics, tied down so that they might not outsound the rolling of our carriage wheels as we went along the shaded avenues of the Taunus Wald.

And yet, I swear by the sacred name of my creator that it was true. It was true sunshine; the true music; the true plash of the fountains from the mouths of stone dolphins. For, if for me we were four people with the same tastes, with the same desires, acting--or no not acting--sitting here and there unanimously, isn't that the truth? If for nine years I possessed a goodly apple that is rotten at the core and discover its rottenness only in nine years and six months less four days, isn't it true to say that for nine years I possessed a goodly apple?"

Can one change the past?

It's definitely time to dust off The Good Soldier and move it into my queue.

Monday, December 14, 2009

IKIRU: a film by Kurosawa (1952)

Ikiru (to live) may not be the first foreign film I ever saw, but it's certainly the first one I remember seeing. I watched it over 40 years ago in a small movie theatre on the far north side of Chicago and now have viewed it twice since retiring several years ago. It was also several decades later that I discovered that it was directed by Kurosawa. Ikiru is just one of those films that I rent again and again. I'm now thinking about getting my own copy for my very small DVD collection. Christmas is coming....hmmm. Perhaps a subtle or not so subtle hint?

Watanabe learns that he has stomach cancer and might have six months to live. The shock of his impending death forces him to take a long clear look at himself. His son and daughter-in-law, who live with him, see him as someone to be used. They have decided to get their own apartment and have no qualms about asking Watanabe to deplete his retirement annuity to finance it. At work, his greatest accomplishment is having worked for almost 30 years without a taking single day of sick leave. That doesn't say much about his presence in an organization for three decades if the best one can say is that he was there every day.

Watanabe looks back and decides he hasn't lived and is going to make up for it now. He samples the night life of Tokyo and discovers this is not for him. He then tries to recapture his youth by associating with a young woman who had worked in his section, for he sees that she has youth and life. Perhaps she may influence him. This doesn't work either.

His third idea is to do something that would make a difference, one that would say he really had existed. It was then that he decided that he could make a difference--not by trying to become what he wasn't but by becoming what he was to the fullest extent possible. He was a public servant, but he had never really served the public. He had been a time-server, one who spent his days, like so many of his colleagues, doing his best to avoid doing anything but the minimum required to keep his position.

He remembered a problem brought to his section by a neighborhood group. There was an empty lot that was being used as a trash dump. It was unhealthy and dangerous for the children who played there for they had nowhere else to go. All that the people wanted was to have the place cleaned up and kept safe for the children. They had been getting the usual runaround--it was a problem for the parks dept--see engineering--see the health dept--see their local city council representative. Watanabe now decides to do something about it.

Warning: I will bring up important plot elements and the endings for both the film and Tolstoy's novella.

The second part of the film takes us forward to shortly after Watanabe's death. It takes place at the memorial for Watanabe, at which we see the deputy mayor, various members of the city government, the employees in Watanabe's section, and his son and daughter-in-law. We learn that, in spite of all opposition and with no help from any others, Watanabe not only succeeded in getting the empty lot cleaned up but also in having it turned into a park with playground equipment for the children.

The park has been so successful and popular with the people that everybody is now busy scurrying about, claiming credit for it, and dismissing Watanabe's own role. At the opening ceremony for the park, Watanabe had sat in the back row of the section for city employees and wasn't even mentioned by any of the speakers. All, including the deputy mayor, have forgotten their own initial rejection of Watanabe's plans and now insist that only the parks dept., the engineering dept., the health dept., or the deputy mayor's office could have been responsible for the park.

Kurosawa, in a stroke of genius, then brings in the people of the neighborhood, and their honest grief and respect for Watanabe provides the great possible contrast between them and the hypocrisy of the self-serving city officials and politicians. When I first watched the film, I focused, of course, on Watanabe and his struggles and accomplishments. It was only while watching it several days ago that I realized that Kurosawa had also strongly and effectively indicted the wastefulness and the indifference of the city government employees and officials.

Kurosawa had commented in an interview that Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Ilych" was the inspiration for the film. "Inspiration" is probably the best term for it certainly is not an attempt to transfer Tolstoy's novella to film. There are similarities: both Ivan Ilych and Watanabe Kanji are government employees--Ilych in the Russian judicial system and Watanabe in city government in Japan. Both learn that they have a short time to live, even though both are lied to by their physicians. Moreover, both are perceived by their respective families as obstacles to their families' happiness. And, both are forced to face the truth about themselves: they have wasted their lives in trivialities and the deadening routine of work.

However, there is a most significant difference between the two, one that may reflect differences between the East and the West.

Ilych's struggles after he realizes that he is dying are singular and solitary. He must accept that his life has not been a good life. His salvation comes at the end when he finally admits to himself that his life has essentially been a failure. Once he accepts this, he is able to die at peace with himself. His insight is singular, known only to himself, and affects no one else. On the other hand, Watanabe's salvation comes through helping others, by standing up for the people and getting the park built. His salvation benefits not only him but also the neighborhood residents and their children.

Does this difference suggest the more individualistic aspect of Western society and the group oriented Eastern society?

I'm not certain about this, for I sometimes wonder if Kurosawa had been "inspired" by two of Tolstoy's works--"The Death of Ivan Ilych" and Resurrection.

If one puts together the two stories, one then gets a much closer approximation of Ikiru. In Resurrection, Nekhlyudov, a nobleman, decides to help a woman whom he had, years ago, seduced and abandoned. She is in prison awaiting transportation to Siberia. He visits her, and, while there, is asked for help by another prisoner. He agrees and visits various government agencies where he is shocked to learn of the cruelty and indifference of the officials. On each subsequent visit to the prison, another prisoner asks for help, and much of the novel is spent following Nekhlyudov as he visits various government officials and discovers the extent of corruption and cruelty and indifference that exists. This is similar to the way Kurosawa portrays Watanabe as he goes from office to office and encounters, and therefore exposes, the same attitudes among various city officials.

I wonder if Kurosawa combined the death sentence and struggle for salvation found in Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych" and the attempt to right a wrong which results in exposing the indifference and corruption of high officials in various governmental agencies in Tolstoy's novel, Resurrection.

One last comment about the film: the most striking scene in the film is Watanabe, sitting on a swing in the park, with the snow falling about him, quietly singing his favorite song. While one character said that it was terrible that he should die there alone like that, freezing in the snow, it seems obvious that Watanabe himself chose this death, with his monument about him.

Overall Rating: One of the best.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XIX

From the roses and hyacinths of the last quatrain, we move to another and more prosaic plant, or so it would seem, in Quatrain XIX--grass.

First Edition: Quatrain XIX

And this delightful Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River's Lip on which we lean--
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!

Second Edition: Quatrain XXV

And this delightful Herb whose living Green
Fledges the River's Lip on which we lean--
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XX

And this reviving Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River-Lip on which we lean--
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!

The changes, though minimal in number, all occur in the first two lines of the quatrain.

"Delightful" in the first two editions now becomes "reviving" in the final edition. The change from "delightful" to "reviving" makes grass more important in that it no longer is merely "delightful," or something pleasant to the senses, but it now has a healing role: grass is a "reviving" herb, an herb that could restore energy or even bring something back to life.

The second modification is the substitution of "living" for "tender" as a modifier of "Green" in the second edition. However, FitzGerald reverts back to "tender" by the fifth edition. "Living," to me, suggests a colder, more factual perspective whereas "tender" conveys a more positive and sensual response to this "Herb."

The third and last change is that from "River's Lip" in the first two editions to "River-Lip" by the last edition. The difference is very subtle, so subtle that I can sense something but am unable to spell it out precisely. One difference that I do note is that "River-Lip" is shorter and more abrupt than "River's Lip." Perhaps you may be able to comment on the subtle nuances of "River's Lip" and "River-Lip."

According to my dictionary, "fledges" means "to cover with or as if with feathers." This definition supports "tender" far more than "living," I should think.

The quatrain flows from the previous one which suggested flowers above the bodies of those who went before us. The first two lines bring in the idea, if I'm not mistaken, of the Islamic concept of Heaven, which is frequently portrayed as a Garden laid out along a flowing river with abundant grass and flowers, a Great Oasis in fact. The last two lines carry on the theme of a covering for those who are buried beneath.

After the flowers of the last quatrain, I was surprised to find something as common or prosaic as grass. However, after thinking about it, I realized that this wasn't the only reference to grass as a burial shroud.

Grass appears in an haiku by Basho with exactly the same connotation:

Here, where a thousand
Captains swore grand conquest...tall
Grass their monument.

This also suggests the glory and dreams of past heroes, much as did earlier quatrains (see VI, VIII, IX, and XIV example). And what remains? In the haiku, grass is the only monument to their grand ambitions.

Carl Sandburg gives us the same imagery, perhaps more brutally expressed than the others--grass that covers all.


Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work--
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg.
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor;
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

Perhaps to end this post a bit more gently, I will quote a short stanza from Walt Whitman's most aptly named work--Leaves of Grass. It is from "Song of Myself," Stanza 6, which begins:

"A child said What is the Grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more
than he.

. . .

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breast of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out
of their mothers' laps.
And here you are the mothers' laps.

. . .

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end
to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses"

I guess I've wandered a bit from where I began, but I think that is an attribute of great poetry or great fiction or great prose--to begin at one point and end somewhere else, someplace unexpected, if one is lucky.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is his wild book. I have this theory that writers have one wild book inside them, one in which they let go and break all the rules. Frequently they aren't received well by critics and scholars, and the general reading public doesn't appreciate them to any great degree either. Melville wrote one called Mardi which only critics and scholars are aware of and generally ignore. On the other hand, Brunner's wild one seems to have been accepted to a much greater degree by critics and the reading public. While I haven't read everything by Brunner, I don't remember any of his other works resembling this one to any extent at all. If someone knows of another by him that resembles this book, please let me know. I will definitely go look for it.

To begin with, its structure is unlike anything I've seen in Brunner so far. It is closest to John Dos Passos' USA trilogy (1930-36) and Fred Pohl's Gateway (1977). Brunner, like Dos Passos and Pohl, avoids providing the setting in long narrative prose sections. Instead they use headlines, advertisements, and brief short news items to convey the significant cultural and social issues prevalent in the USA at that time. While this doesn't provide the in-depth coverage that some writers and readers feel is necessary, it does give the flavor of those times and perhaps does it in a more interesting way for those readers impatient to get on with the plot and care little if anything for the background. It's not immediately evident, but Brunner first introduces and then provides significant information about his characters, especially the secondary characters, in the inter-narrative portions of the novel.

While Pohl, in Gateway, restricts his narrative to one major character, Dos Passos has at least 3 or 4 major character lines, and Brunner has two, with several important secondary characters.
Dos Passos' structure is more traditional in that, by the end of the first novel, The 42nd Parallel, his major plot lines have converged.

Brunner attempts something different. His two major characters, Norman Niblock House and Donald Hogan, are roommates at the beginning of the novel and events conspire to force them along separate paths to very different destinies. But, in order to keep readers happy, Brunner has several significant secondary characters--Chad Mulligan and Elihu Masters--whose separate paths eventually converge. Mulligan is a best-selling, rogue sociologist who has dropped out, while Masters had been a highly respected member of the US diplomatic corps who requested a post in the small impoverished African country of Beninia. He is thought to have ended a potentially brilliant career in the State Department by his action.

In addition, Brunner also provides several sub-sub plots that involve two families who are victimized by the major problem of the day--overpopulation; another minor plot focuses on a gang of young toughs on their way down into the underworld, and yet another on a young man who has just been drafted into the US military, and even one that gives a picture of the lives of the rich and powerful, and those striving to reach that level.

Norman House is an Afram who works for General Technics (GT), one of the largest, if not the largest, corporations in the world. It is large enough and rich enough to buy up small countries if it so desires. That's the major plot line which House becomes unwittingly enmeshed in. The problem is the small African country of Beninia, which has been ruled for decades by Zadkiel F. Obomi, its only president, since it emerged from its colonial status. Obomi knew he hadn't long to live and feared what would happen when he died.

Beninia, although one of the poorest countries in Africa, has a magnificent natural harbor which his neighbors coveted. He could hear the official statements that would emerge after his death. Each of his neighbors was not invading Beninia for conquest but to "protect" it from those other greedy neighbors.

Obomi and Masters work up a scheme in which General Technics would invest heavily in Beninia to realize certain commercial objectives. The Beninian government would rely on various advisers provided by GT. The US State Department would monitor the situation to ensure that GT lived up to its promises of building the educational, medical, governmental, and transportation infrastructure that would vastly improve the lives of the citizenry of Beninia. The only real problem is Shalmaneser, the super computer that comes close to running GT and, therefore, a powerful influence in the US.

Shalmaneser can't accept that such a country as Beninia exists and rejects the plan. Beninia hasn't had a murder in over 15 years and doesn't even have a word in its vocabulary for "angry." "Insane" is the closest word it has to "angry." Beninia has barely a million inhabitants, yet it was able t0 absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees several decades ago without any conflict between the refugees and the inhabitants. Without Shalmaneser's estimate of the possibilities of success, GT will not act.

In the other plot, Donald Hogan appears to be unemployed and apparently possesses a small independent income that allows him to survive without having to work. However, he actually is an employee of an agency for the US Government. His task is to spend his time reading and absorbing information and presenting reports on what he's learned. Those familiar with van Vogt's readings might consider him a sort of a Nexialist, a generalist rather than a specialist.

Much to his dismay he gets activated and has to report for field duty. He is trained in the art of combat--martial arts and various weaponry. He is to travel to Yatakang, a country made up of numerous Pacific islands. Indonesia? Donald's two specialties are the Yatakanga language and genetics. He's called up because the Yatakanganese government has announced incredible breakthroughs in genetic engineering, both in the ability to correct genetic defects and to create "improved" humans--a superman, if you will. Hogan's task is to find out whether this is at all possible, since it is far in advance of anything anybody else on the planet can achieve.

Since my copy of the novel has approximately 650 pages, it must be obvious that I've only briefly and inadequately covered a few of the major elements and almost none of those secondary elements that create the background.

In spite of its diversity and richness and complexity and Brunner's skill in telling a story, I do not include it in my top ten SF novels. The problem is the ending. If you are the reader who wants a neat and tidy ending that wraps up the major conflict and perhaps eventually turns Earth into a peaceful paradise some time in the future, then you will love this novel. If not, then you might be disappointed, as I was. A great novel. such as this is for 99% of its length, deserves a better ending, one that fits, even if it is an ambiguous or inconclusive ending.

Overall Rating: a great novel, but one with what I consider a serious flaw. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Joseph Wood Krutch: November 25, 1893--May 22, 1970

Joseph Wood Krutch, along with Loren Eiseley and Konrad Lorenz, had a profound effect on my way of thinking. Through them, I learned to appreciate the benefits of reading essays. Up to that time, I had focused primarily on fiction, but they taught me the value of reading directly the thoughts of others. I guess credit should also go to the old and now sadly defunct Time Reading Program, for it was through it that I first encountered Eiseley, Krutch, and Lorenz.

Moreover, they taught me that humans were not alone here and were not the sole owners of Earth. There were and are others here, many of whom also have a claim upon this planet and their own right to be able to live out their lives .

I moved out to Tucson in 1968 and found that Krutch had written several of works about the southwestern desert country. In one of them, I discovered that Krutch had left the east coast and was now living in Tucson. I grabbed a telephone book and found a listing for him. I drove by the house which was set far back off the road in one of the few undeveloped areas near the Tucson Medical Center. It was a huge plot, acres maybe, and except for a dirt road, still much as it had been before "civilization" arrived. I wondered if he owned it all and had kept it undeveloped.

I decided to write him and let him know how much I had enjoyed reading his books. Unfortunately, before I had a chance to write, I read a newspaper account of his death. I felt that I had missed an opportunity, but not exactly sure for what.

The undeveloped area surrounding his house is now built up, and to be honest, I no longer am exactly sure of its exact location any more. It now looks just like any other urbanized area on that street.

Joseph Wood Krutch's works are numerous and range from scholarly works on Samuel Richardson, Miguel de Cervantes, and Boccaccio to Proust. He also has a number of essays on a variety of subjects: Darwinism, behavioral psychology, determinism, Freudian psychology, contemporary views of humanity, any topic in fact which impinges upon what he sees as the human condition today. He has a number of works about the desert southwest and his various experiences there, some laughable, some serious, but all interesting. A good place to start would be a fine collection titled The Best Nature Writing of Joseph Wood Krutch, which includes a selection of essays from his other works.

Some excerpts from the above mentioned collection:

On Autumn

Krutch, prior to moving to Tucson, lived on the East Coast, and some of his finest writings about nature relate to that period. The excerpt below is from that period.

"One day the first prematurely senile leaf will quietly detach itself in a faint breeze and flutter silently to the ground. All through the summer an occasional unnoticed, unregretted leaf has fallen from time to time. But not as this one falls. There is something quietly ominous about the way in which it gives up the ghost, without a struggle, almost with an air of relief. Others will follow, faster, and faster. Soon the ground will be covered, though many of the stubborner trees are still clothed. Then one night a wind, a little harder than usual, and carrying perhaps the drops of a cold rain, will come. We shall awake in the morning to see that the show is over. The trees are naked; bare, ruined choirs, stark against the sky."

What follows is an expression of Krutch's attitude towards those who admire autumn. I must admit I'm one of those whom Krutch considers a bit perverse in my thinking.

"To me there always seems to be something perverse about those country dwellers who like the autumn best. Their hearts, I feel, are not in the right place. They must be among those who see Nature merely as a spectacle or a picture, not among those who share her own own moods. Spring is the time for exuberance, autumn for melancholy and regret. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness? Yes, of course, it is that too. But promise, not fulfillment, is what lifts the heart. Autumn is no less fulfillment than it is also the beginning of the inevitable end.

No doubt the colors of autumn are as gorgeous in their own way as any of spring. Looked at merely as color, looked with the eye of that kind of painter to whom only color and design are important, I suppose they are beautiful and nothing more. But looked at as outward and visible signs, as an expression of what is going on in the world of living things, they produce another effect.

'No spring, nor summer beauty hath such grace, as I have seen in one autumnal face'--so wrote John Donne in compliment to an old lady. But Donne was enamored of death. Send not to know for whom the leaf falls, it falls for thee."

Along with the above cited work, I recommend the following.

The Twelve Seasons: A Perpetual Calendar for the Country--twelve essays which begin with Spring, of course.

The Desert Year--essays on the yearly cycle of living in the desert.

The Grand Canyon--essays

If You Don't Mind My Saying So--a quote from The Saturday Review-- these essays "add up to an irreverent commentary on muddied thinking in our time." It is a book "not to please mankind, but to vex it."

And to tell the truth, Krutch has vexed me at various times.

Overall Rating: sitting down and opening up one of Joseph Wood Krutch's works is an adventure. Try it some time.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XVIII

This quatrain continues the theme of the departed glories of the past, but also incorporates a belief about the effects that some special buried human bodies have on their environment.

First Edition, Quatrain XVIII

I sometimes think that never blows so red
The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;
That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Dropt in its Lap from some once lovely Head.

Second Edition, Quatrain XXIV

I sometimes think that never blows so red
The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;
That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Dropt in her Lap from some once lovely Head.

Fifth Edition, Quatrain XIX

same as Second Edition

FitzGerald made only one change. In the first edition, the Hyacinth "dropt in its Lap" whereas in the second through the fifth, we read that the Hyacinth "dropt in her Lap," thus changing the garden from a neuter to a feminine place.

The significant image in this quatrain is death, for both the Rose and the Hyacinth have been influenced by their proximity to a human body, one buried beneath them. Both also hint at a violent death, which may account for their ability to exert an influence even after death--almost a ghost here.

The Rose is never so red except above where some "buried Caesar bled," which I see as a reference to his assassination by his enemies, one of whom was supposedly a friend of his. I wonder if the effect of the blood is stronger because Caesar was murdered.

The hyacinth is a flower which is native to Iran (Persia), and it is sometimes associated with rebirth. However, there is a another story, a Greek legend, which tells the origin of the hyacinth, which also involves a murder.

A handsome young prince of Sparta named Hyakinthos was loved by two Greek gods. One was Apollo, the sun god, and the other was Zephyr, the god of the west wind. One day, when Hyacinth was being taught the art of discus-throwing by Apollo, Zephyr became jealous and caused the west wind to blow the discus back and strike Hyakinthos on the head, killing him. A flower grew where the blood dropped on the ground, and Apollo named the flower after him--the hyacinth. The last line of the stanza clearly seems to refer to this legend when it states it "Dropt in her Lap from some once lovely Head." Both the Rose and the Hyacinth, therefore, suggest the blood of a murdered man.

Was jealousy the cause of both deaths? Hyakinthos died because of Zephyr's jealousy. Was Caesar killed by those who were jealous of his power?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Friedrich Durrenmatt: The Pledge, novel and film

Friedrich Durrenmatt
The Pledge
Mystery, police procedural?

The description for the film, The Pledge, sounded interesting, so I rented it. It is a mystery story, but the focus is more on the detective than on the killer. A detective, played by Jack Nicholson, takes on the case of the murder of a child the day before he had intended to retire. The cast is also one of the inducements for viewing it: Jack Nicholson, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Sam Shepard, Aaron Eckhart, and Robin Wright Penn.

While researching the film on, I learned that the film is based on a novel by the same name by Friedrich Durrenmatt, whom I had never heard of. Some of the comments about Durrenmatt included statements that he was one of the most significant European writers and dramatists of the second half of the 20th century. It was then that I discovered that I had encountered Durrenmatt once before, some 45+ years ago in fact. I had seen his play, The Visit, on stage with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontane.

I have never forgotten the play. A small town is dying. The company that was responsible for its economic life had closed down. A visitor comes to town. She had left this town many years ago, driven out, in fact, in disgrace when her lover denied being the father of her child. She has returned, one of the richest women in the country, and offers financial inducements in return for revenge. Her offer is refused, at first...

The Pledge is a subtly constructed novel about a promise made by Matthai, the police officer. Even though he supposed to leave the next day to take a job as police chief in Jordan, Matthai promises the mother of the murdered girl that he will catch the killer. The story is of that pledge and its effects upon the officer who has no life outside of his police work.

Suspicion falls upon an individual seen in the vicinity of the body. This individual, unfortunately for him, has a past record and is taken into custody. However, Matthai does not believe this man is the killer, so he starts his own investigation. Apparently two other young girls, both resembling the recent victim, have been killed within the past several years. While each was from a different small town in the mountains, there is an intersection in which the roads to each of the small towns meet and, moreover, one must come to this same intersection if one comes from outside the area. At this intersection is a gas station with a few rooms for travelers. Matthai buys the station and waits.

While this does seem to be an example of an excessive commitment on his part, especially since the police and citizenry are satisfied that the killer has been caught, I didn't think it actually had reached the stage of being an obsession. It wasn't until later in the film that I began to feel uneasy about his behavior, for everything he did made sense. His behavior made sense, but at a certain point he crossed the line beyond which no rational person would go.

There are some significant differences between the novel and the film but none that affect the overall theme of the novel. The differences are more about timing, about the presentation of information, and the focus of the theme--just how far should one go, even in attempting to prevent more murders in this case--remains the same.

Warning: What follows is information about significant events.

In The Pledge, like his play which I mentioned earlier, Durrenmatt gives us a situation in which an individual is placed at risk in order to benefit the group. One of the significant differences between the novel and the film is the way the officer sets up his trap for the killer.

In the novel, Matthai, now on inactive duty, goes to an orphanage and attempts to adopt a young girl, but he is refused. He then hires a local woman to clean the place and help him with customers. She has a young child, a girl about the same age and description, even to having blond hair, as did the previous victims. This might be a coincidence, except that now he has the girl always with him out in front, by the side of the road where drivers can't miss seeing her.

In the film, this is handled somewhat differently. One night, a young woman whom Nicholson had befriended in the past, comes to the station, seeking protection from an abusive ex-spouse. Nicholson lets her stay the night and then offers to let her stay if she will help out with the place.
Her appearance here with her young daughter then is a matter of chance. In the film then, there is always the possibility that her unexpected and unplanned appearance gave him the idea, whereas in the novel, he clearly plans to use the young girl as bait.

In the film version, Nicholson buys her a swing and puts it up in front of the station, in full view of drivers. When asked, he explains that it's safer out front where he can see her, whereas if he installs it in back, where there are no windows, anybody could come up out of the woods and he wouldn't be able to see him.

I don't want to reveal the rest of the story, so I'll stop here. That there is a killer who preys upon young children is horrifying enough, but that the detective is willing to use a young girl as bait to lure the killer into a trap is just as horrifying. What is most chilling is that when confronted with what he was doing, the officer is confused, for he doesn't see the problem. The killer is a threat and must be stopped. Nothing could happen to the young girl for she was well protected.

Perhaps I'm being overly sensitive here, but I don't think there's any justification that could justify putting a young child at risk. An adult could weigh the risks and decide whether to allow this to happen, but not a young child.

I wonder--am I being overly sensitive here?

Overall Rating: Nicholson and a great cast give us an excellent film version of a very chilling novel.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Nov 11. 1821--Feb. 9, 1881

It was about an handful of decades ago that I sat down, took up a book, and began to read--

"Towards the end of a sultry afternoon early in July a young man came out of his little room in Stolyarny Lane and turned slowly and somewhat irresolutely in the direction of Kamenny Bridge."

A friend had cleaned out his locker on the last day of final exam week and offered to sell me a copy of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. It was the Modern Library edition, translated by Constance Garnett, and he wanted fifty cents for it. I had heard of Dostoevsky but had never read anything by him. I took the book. I finished it in a day or so and immediately went out, searching for more Dostoyevsky.

It was the depiction of a potential murderer, and a murderer of an old lady, that grabbed me. Raskolnikov was not a raving, drooling monster. He seemed to be a relatively normal individual, even if highly distraught, and possessed some strange philosophical ideas, that really weren't that strange, if one considers the range of ideas that humans have come up with over the centuries. He just didn't seem like a murderer, or at least what I considered to be a murderer at that time.

Dostoyevsky showed parts of Raskolnikov's character that I recognized but had never before seen in a literary work, or at least showed it to a depth that I had never seen before. He was of two minds about his plan to murder the old pawnbroker. One part of him doesn't think he could ever commit a murder, but he goes about as if he actually intends to do it. Which is the real Raskolnikov--the thinking Raskolnikov or the acting Raskonikov?

Throughout the days leading up to this day, he acts as though it were only an experiment, "no more than a test and a far from serious one." It was only "an idle fancy" that caused him to visit the old pawnbroker and note the layout of the apartment, the room where the painters are working, and the traffic around the doors to the building. He can't believe he will go through with it as he sews a loop inside his coat where he will hang the hatchet.

But, when the day he had decided upon arrived, he found himself almost as a prisoner in his own body which now seemingly acted on his own.

"His reactions during this last day, which had come upon him so unexpectedly and settled everything at one stroke, were almost completely mechanical, as though someone had taken his hand and pulled him along irresistibly, blindly, with supernatural strength and without objection. it was as if a part of his clothing had been caught in the wheel of a machine and he was being dragged into it."

While I have never murdered anyone, I have done some dumb things, which I knew were dumb, but I still went ahead and did them anyway, even while part of me insisted that I couldn't do such a dumb thing. Nor was I unusual in this respect, for I knew of others who had acted the same. No other writer that I had encountered up to this time had ever portrayed a person so completely, so thoroughly, and so convincingly in that state of mind.

As numerous critics have pointed out, Dostoyevsky has his flaws, but he shows us the depths of the human being as few writers have ever done before him, or after him. Dostoyevsky's characters are alive and breathing, and he cares for them, good or bad, virtuous or evil, or, which is most common in his characters, a mixture of both.

Perhaps there may be others who can do as well, but I don't think there are any who do it better.

Overall Rating--Very highly recommended.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Combination Plate 10

This will be a slightly different opening for this Combination Plate: I am beginning with a negative review.

Deathtrap, a film, 1982
Michael Caine
Christopher Reeves
Dyan Cannon

The premise is intriguing. Michael Caine is despondent for his last four plays have bombed. Suicide is becoming a viable option. Then, hope arrives in a brown envelope. It's a marvelous unpublished play written by an aspiring playwright who had taken Caine's workshop the previous year. Caine invites him up to his isolated house and plans to do away with him.

Caine is excellent in his role as the desperate dramatist who turns from potential suicide to murder before our eyes as he carefully makes his plans (his plays are murder mysteries, what else?) Christopher Reeve is convincing as the young, eager, naive, and innocent author who is grateful for Caine's offer to work with him on preparing it for presentation.

What is so wrong with this play that I could only watch less than 30 minutes of it? Dyan Cannon is what's wrong. She comes across as a shrieking, twitching, arm-waving, scenery-chewing neurotic. Every time she appeared I shrank back in my chair; I turned the volume down so I wouldn't hear her, but then I couldn't hear Caine or Reeve either. If they had been planning on murdering her, that would have been understandable, enjoyable to be precise, and I would then have been able to put up with her histrionics, knowing there would be justice done. Unfortunately, nobody asked my opinion, so the victim remained Reeve's character.

Overall Rating: I found it unwatchable. This is one time that I'm hoping for a remake.


The Bridge on the River Kwai, film, 1957
Director: David Lean
Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle

Prisoners of the Japanese Army, US and British soldiers are forced to build a bridge over the River Kwai, as the title suggests. Holden comes across very well in his portrayal of Shears, a conniving American GI who had escaped from the work camp and is forced tol reluctantly lead them back to the work camp. Alec Guinness, as always, does a superb job as the British officer who becomes confused between his duties as a officer and his desire to leave something behind him that wasn't just more evidence of death and destruction. Jack Hawkins is equally convincing in his role as the "typical" British officer who takes everything in stride and suggests while they could do the difficult today, they won't be able to accomplish the impossible until tomorrow.

Side note: a commenter on regarding this movie insists that they got it all wrong. The film is based on a real incident during WWII, and the British officer who was in charge of the British troops who worked on the bridge over the Kwai did everything he could to sabotage the

Overall Rating: considered only as a film depicting fictional events, this is a good one. I recommend it.


Karin Fossum
When the Devil Holds the Candle
Mystery: Police procedural
Setting: Norway
Fourth in the Series detailing the cases of Inspector Konrad Sejer

I have read three of the first four books in this series which now numbers eight volumes and with luck will continue on for awhile. The one of the first four that I haven't read is the first one, Eve's Eye, which is a literal translation from the Norwegian and may not be the title if the book is ever translated into English. And, that's why I haven't read it yet; I can't read Norwegian.

When the Devil Holds the Candle continues the themes that Fossum developed in the two earlier works that I have read. She focuses on the psychology of the individuals involved, especially the criminals, and spends less time on action-oriented activities. The work opens on several characters, two young males, and an older female. It's confusing at times, so careful reading is required.

The two young men, Andreas and Zipp, are poised on the edge of the divide between relatively harmless thievery and more serious crimes. We follow along as the two decide on a bit of purse-snatching from a young woman who is pushing a baby carriage. They decide this would be relatively safe for the mother certainly wouldn't leave the baby behind and chase after her purse. Unfortunately they guess wrong, and a minor criminal offense turns tragic, for neither the mother nor the two purse snatchers planned for what did happen. This is a theme that has run through at least all three of her novels that I've read.

The older woman seems a bit peculiar. Her husband left her one day without saying a word. He just disappeared, and no trace of him has ever been found. Since the police could not find any evidence of foul play, they decided that he simply left and that's not a crime.

A second theme is the interaction of various characters in the novels. I won't go into all the details but because of this incident and another that happened between Andreas and Zipp, they decide to do something a bit unusual, so that they will be able to look back on this "triumph" rather than on the very depressing events that have happened so far.

It too goes wrong, very wrong. Andreas and Zipp follow an older woman home, and Andreas decides to go after her in her own home--something new for them--a home invasion. Andreas goes in. Zipp waits and waits and waits. Andreas never comes out. Zipp leaves, for he has a job and he needs to get some sleep.

The police, led by Inspector Sejer, now have two unrelated cases going. One involves the purse- snatching, and the second arises when Andreas' mother reports him missing. The police do investigate Andreas' disappearance because they have met with him before, and he has become a "person of interest."

Fossum's universe seems almost to be a contingent one, especially where her characters are concerned. Causality doesn't seem to play a role here: her characters all have their plans and have worked out a course of action. When they put their plans into action, they keep bumping unexpectedly into other people and what happens is something nobody, and this also includes the reader, can foresee.

The downside, a minor one at that, is that Inspector Sejer really doesn't get an excessive amount of attention. I find him an interesting character and would like to see more of him. Well, I guess the only way to do that now is to read the next novel, which I will do shortly. It's title is The Indian Bride (aka Calling Out For You).

Overall Rating: very highly recommended


Leo Tolstoy
Resurrection, a novel

Prince Nekhlyudov is young, wealthy, handsome, and popular. He is quite satisfied with his status. One day, he is called for jury duty. One of the accused is a young woman, a prostitute, who is charged with the murder of a customer and the theft of thousands of rubles. Also charged are two others who have insisted that the young woman, Katerina Maslova, was the instigator of the crime. It becomes clear to the jury that Maslova at most might be involved with the theft, but there was no evidence that she planned the murder. Unfortunately, the judge does not clearly instruct the jury as to the proper way to find her guilty of the lesser crime and not guilty of the murder. She, therefore, is found guilty of murder and sentenced to exile in Siberia.

Prince Nekhlyudov is stunned to recognize Maslova as a former servant on his aunt's estate. Years ago, on a visit to his aunt, he had seduced Katerina and then left for the military. She became pregnant and was forced to leave. He now blames himself for her situation and works to get the verdict overturned. While all recognize the injustice of her verdict, no one with authority is willing to rectify the situation. The Prince then elects to follow her into exile, much as Sonya had decided to follow Raskolnikov into exile in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.

The novel does not compare favorably with Tolstoy's great works: War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilych. While the reader does get a tour of the aristocracy and the judicial system, it is formulaic and designed to point out the corruption and degeneration of the aristocracy, the government and judicial system.

Nekhlyudov visits Katerina Maslova in prison. He also meets some of the other prisoners, all of whom have been mistreated and most of whom are unjustly imprisoned. He agrees to help some of them. He then makes the rounds of various government and judicial officials and is shocked by their behavior and their attitude, for many of the officials are corrupt, many more seeming uncaring, and only a few willing to help. That he is a prince helps considerably, for it's clear that some one with a lower status would be ignored.

He then returns to the prison and meets some more prisoners who also ask his aid. He agrees and now must visit some new government and judicial offices and finds a repeat of his earlier visit. This pattern continues through most of the novel.

Tolstoy hasn't lost his skill in putting words to paper, and the translation by Rosemary Edmonds is excellent. The problem, for me anyway, is that Tolstoy has a point to make in the novel and constructs the novel to demonstrate that point. This makes for a weak novel for it forces the author to create situations to exemplify the point and not because those situations arise naturally from the interaction among the various characters and settings.

Overall Rating: a good word painting of the Russian government and judicial system under the Czars, but not one of Tolstoy's best.


G. M. Malliet
Death of a Cozy Writer
Mystery, Police procedural
Setting: Cambridgeshire, England
First in the series featuring the cases of Detective Chief Inspector St. Just

Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk is worth millions. He made it writing a series of mysteries featuring the exploits of Miss Rampling, probably well over 90 by now, who lives in the small village of Saint Edmund-Under-Stowe. This village exhibits a murder rate that should have wiped out the entire population many years ago. Sir Adrian is a nasty person, and his four children are awaiting his so-far unfortunately delayed demise. Every month or so, Sir Adrian contacts his solicitor and makes a new will. At present, his children don't know for sure what share of his millions they might inherit or even if they will inherit anything at all.

At the beginning of the novel, the four possible heirs receive a thick envelop from him in the mail. It is a wedding invitation; he is getting married to someone they have only heard of but have never met. If she is anything like his past girlfriends, she is probably young enough to be his granddaughter. But, this is a first, for never before has there ever been a hint that he might remarry. Now, there are five who may or may not be mentioned in the will. In addition, she's probably young enough to have children. Like nothing else, this invitation guarantees their presence for the weekend of the wedding. Now, all will be together, once again.

The novel, of course, is a tribute to the great mysteries of the Golden Age, the 1920s and 1930s. His character, Miss Rampling, can't help but remind readers familiar with that era of Agatha Christie's own Miss Marple. And, I'll bet there are hundreds of novels featuring a wealthy old man or woman, hated by their heirs who sit like vultures, awaiting that last breath.

Malliet has something else going for her also. She is an excellent writer who imbues her story with humor, mostly of the sly variety. Following is a quote from her novel in which she describes Sarah, one of Sir Adrian's four children:

"Everything in the place reflected darkly back on Sarah's personality: the carelessly chosen second-hand furniture included two overstuffed chairs covered in faded roses that clashed with the faded wallpaper that might once have been green but was now an indecipherable muddish gray. While bookshelves lining the walls might have offset the gloom with brightly covered novels, instead the dozens of worn books on the shelves blended into the mud like rocks, their covers, mostly black or gray, announcing obscure religious tracts of long-dead martyrs and other assorted lunatics."

Sarah is also a writer. She has been quite successful with her first effort, a cookbook titled What Jesus Ate. Flushed with success, she is now working on her second cookbook--Cooking with the Magdalene.

G. M. Malliet has a second novel out which also features DCI St. Just: Death and a Lit Chick. Her third novel, Death at the Alma Mater, is due in January 2010.

Overall Rating: her novels are a welcome change from the recent obsessive dwelling on serial killers and their twisted childhoods in which they suffered from various forms of child abuse which caused them to become the monsters they are. Her novels are fun to read.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


A strange film that I just recently viewed is After Life--perhaps puzzling would be a better term. It's a quiet film, a Japanese production, with no car chases or shootouts or violence of any kind. I'm still not sure what to make of it, but it definitely is staying with me. The Japanese title is Wandafuru raifu, which, translated, means "wonderful life." Perhaps the one who selected the English title didn't want viewers to confuse it with It's A Wonderful Life, the Christmas standby with Jimmy Stewart. Hirokazu Koreeda both wrote and directed the film which came out in 1998.

The premise is simple: after death, people go to a way station where they will spend a week. During the first three days, they go over their memories and decide which one memory they will keep to remember for all eternity. They will forget everything else, except for that one chosen memory. The following day or so is spent with the stage crew creating the scenery for the filming of the re-enactment of that memory. On the last day, they will view the film made of that re-enactment and leave immediately for wherever it is they will go, sans all memories except for that one.

The film opens with a bright white light-filled archway, which reminded me of many accounts given by people who had experienced a "near death experience" (NDE). The people emerge from the archway and report in at a desk. They are directed to a large room, and there are told what the schedule will be for the coming week. The new arrivals are assigned to a counselor who will help them decide on the memory they will choose and also work on getting as many of the details of that particular memory.

The style suggests a documentary about this particular way station and a group of people who just happen to be there at that time. The counselors are young men, in their twenties with perhaps one in his early thirties. That this is an all male staff of counselors appears to be an accident, for the counselor trainee is a young woman who is promoted to counselor at the end. The Boss is an older man.

The film follows the group of new arrivals as they attempt to decide which one memory they will choose. We see interactions among them as well as their sessions with their counselors. There are also flashbacks in some cases. In fact one man doesn't believe he has any happy memories, so, to aid him, he is given tapes of his life, one tape for every year of his life.

We also see the counselors "off duty" as they interact among themselves, for these are not angels or spirits but human beings, with all the faults of human beings. The counselors are those who have died and either could not or would not choose one memory. As a result, they must stay on as counselors until they themselves are ready to choose.

The way station appears to be a dilapidated school building, and all are wearing street clothing. It appears to be simply a group of people engaged in normal everyday activities. The only deviation from the mundane ordinariness of life is the light-filled archway they all come through.

One point I found puzzling was the ages of the counselors and the new arrivals. The ages of the new arrivals ranged from around 15 or 16 to at least 70 and possibly older. There were no children. Perhaps it was just coincidence that this group had no children in it. As I mentioned before, the counselors all seemed to be in their 20s. Was this also a coincidence or is the director suggesting that people in this age bracket have more difficulties choosing than those younger or older than them? One of the new arrivals simply refused to make a choice, saying he wanted to accept responsibility for his whole life, not just one small part of it. And, his counselor then told him that that's why he was a counselor, for he also refused to choose one memory.

Overall Rating: It's back in my queue, for I want to see it again, sometime in the near future, after I've thought about it for awhile.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Time for ghosts and things that go bump in the night.

It's the night when all sorts of things go walking about, so I thought this would be the perfect time to post an excerpt or two from my favorite ghost story, even though it really isn't about ghosts. Just what it is about, well, I'm not sure. I hope you do go and read the story. The author is Algernon Blackwood and the story is "The Willows."

The narrator and his friend are on an extended boating trip down the Danube River. This was not by far their first trip, but it developed into a very different one from all of the others they had taken.

Night is coming on, so they elected to camp out overnight on an island in the middle of the river and set out the next morning. However, it didn't quite turn out that way.

"With this multitude of willows, however, it was something far different, I felt. Some essence emanated from them that besieged the heart. A sense of awe awakened, true, but of awe touched somewhere by a vague terror. Their serried ranks, growing everywhere darker about me as the shadows deepened, moving furiously yet softly in the wind, woke in me the curious and unwelcome suggestion that we had trespassed here upon the borders of an alien world, a world where we were intruders, a world where we were not wanted or invited to remain--where we ran grave risks perhaps!"

During the night, he was awakened by something:

"I gazed across the waste of wild waters; I watched the whispering willows; I heard the ceaseless beating of the tireless wind; and, one and all, each in its own way, stirred in me this sensation of a strange distress. But the willows especially; for ever they went on chattering and talking among themselves, laughing a little, shrilly crying out, sometimes sighing--but what it was they made so much to-do about belonged to the secret life of the great plain they inhabited. And it was utterly alien to the world I knew, or to that of the wild yet kindly elements. They made me think of a host of beings from another plane of life, another evolution altogether, perhaps, all discussing a mystery known only to themselves. I watched them moving busily together, oddly shaking their big bushy heads, twirling their myriad leaves even where there was no wind. They moved of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable method, my own keen sense of the horrible.

There they stood in the moonlight, like a vast army surrounding our camp, shaking their innumerable silver spears defiantly, formed all ready for an attack."


Strange thoughts like these, bizarre fancies, borne I know not whence, found lodgment in my mind as I stood listening. What, I thought, if, after all, these crouching willows proved to be alive; if suddenly they should rise up, like a swarm of living creatures, marshaled by the gods whose territory we had invaded, sweep towards us off the vast swamps, booming overhead in the night--and then settle down! As I looked it was so easy to imagine they actually moved, crept nearer, retreated a little, huddled together in masses, hostile, waiting for the great wind that should finally start them a-running. I could have sworn their aspect changed a little, and their ranks deepened and pressed more closely together."
For a change, I thought, had somehow come about in the arrangement of the landscape. It was not that my point of vantage gave me a different view, but that an alteration had apparently been effected in the relation of the tent to the willows, and of the willows to the tent. Surely the bushes now crowded much closer--unnecessarily, unpleasantly close. They had moved nearer."

And later...

"Creeping with silent feet over the shifting sands, drawing imperceptibly nearer by soft, unhurried movements, the willows had come closer during the night. But had the wind moved them, or had they moved of themselves? I recalled the sound of infinite small patterings and the pressure upon the tent and upon my own heart that caused me to wake in terror. I swayed for a moment in the wind like a tree, finding it hard to keep my upright position on the sandy hillock. There was a suggestion here of personal agency, of deliberate intention, of aggressive hostility, and it terrified me into a sort of rigidity."

It's a great tale for reading by campfire or in the safety of one's home with only a candle burning and a cat purring in one's lap. It can be found online at the following link:


Friday, October 30, 2009

Vanda Symon: The Ringmaster

Sometimes cloning sounds like a good idea. This past week I could have used a clone or two. It's been a week since my last entry here because I've been reading and watching films. If I read or watch films, then I can't put an entry here at the same time. Of course the opposite is also true.

Following are a few comments about one of the books I've read.

Vanda Symon
The Ringmaster
police procedural
Dunedin, New Zealand

I think Vanda Symon is the first crime writer from New Zealand that I've read, or at least the first one who has set her novels in New Zealand. I read many of Ngaio Marsh's mysteries years ago, but most were set in England. I think a few were set in New Zealand, but I don't remember anything about them. By the way, a number of Marsh's "Inspector Alleyn" stories have appeared on BBC and are now available on DVD.

Symon's novels feature Sam Shepherd, a young and inexperienced police officer, who has several handicaps, of which one of the most serious ones is her mouth.

The Ringmaster is the second novel in the series. The first was Overkill and the third is Containment, which is expected to come out in December 2009. In the first novel, Shepherd was the constable for a small town and actually was the only police presence there. Therefore, she was on her own most of the time. Now, she has gotten her promotion to Detective Constable and has been transferred to Dunedin for training--her dream come true. Except, that as in the real world, it hasn't quite turned out that way. There are a few downsides to her "idyllic" situation, some of which she brings with her and some belong to her new situation.

One is the usual problem of being the new kid on the block, which is usually a problem for anybody, but even more so for Shepherd. She is a detective constable, so she's no longer a constable, and it also means she's not exactly a detective either. So, neither group really sees her as one of their own. Secondly, she got her promotion ahead of others who had seniority over her, which leads to the usual gossip about a female who gets promoted quickly--"Who's she sleeping with?"

Another work problem is her senior officer Detective Inspector Greg Johns. I haven't read the first novel in the series, but Symon does provide us with a few clues, especially about Shepherd's previous encounter with Johns. It seems that Shepherd told Johns a few months ago that "he could go rot in hell" and that "he was a hack with a paper degree who couldn't solve a mystery if it was tattooed across his forehead." The clincher was probably when she "insulted his favourite poncy briefcase." I've never been a police officer, but I don't think this is a good way for the lowest ranking officer to address a senior officer.

Along with her work related problems are a few personal issues. One is her mother from hell, who wields guilt as skillfully as any brain surgeon, or perhaps even more skillfully. Then add in a member of her family with a serious medical problem. She also has a suitor, an unwelcome one, she insists. He's the Don Juan of the police force, and he's been pursuing her since they first met. Shepherd's best friend has a solution to the problem: give him what he wants--go to bed with him and he'll disappear the next morning and never bother her again. Will she or won't she?

The novel opens with Shepherd assigned to a job normally given to a constable--that of dealing with animal rights activists demonstrating at a circus. One has donned a gorilla suit and has locked himself in a cage. Shepherd comes up with a funny solution to the problem.

However, a more serious crime is the focus of the novel--a young woman is murdered. Johns, her boss, is stuck with her on his team and decides to make her life as miserable as possible. She gets all the tedious jobs he can find. What he finds most irritating is that she does the work and discovers some important clues along the way. One seems to be some sort of connection with that circus. As to be expected, there are a number of twists and turns and false leads along the way and a most unusual series of murders.

Overall Rating: Detective Constable Sam Shepherd makes the novel work, and I definitely intend to read the first one in the series, and the third when it appears in December.

For those interested in crime fiction from New Zealand, I can highly recommend the following blog--Crimewatch. Simply go to my blog list and click on the name on the list on the right side of the screen.

Vanda Symon's website

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XVII

This is another quatrain to which FitzGerald made only minor changes over the five editions.

First Edition: Quatrain XVII

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep;
And Bahram, that great Hunter--the Wild Ass
Stamps o'er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.

Second Edition: Quatrain XIX

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, that great Hunter--the Wild Ass
Stamps o'er his Head, but cannot break his sleep.

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XVIII

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, that great Hunter--the Wild Ass
Stamps o'er his Head, but cannot break his sleep.

Aside from a minor punctuation change, the only significant variance occurs in the Second Edition and is carried through to the Fifth. In the First Edition, the last line reads

"Stamps o'er his Head, and he lies fast asleep."

while the last line in the Second and Fifth has been changed to

"Stamps o'er his Head, but cannot break his sleep."

There seems to be no conscious intention to the Wild Ass's actions in the First edition--the Wild Ass stamps and Bahram remains "fast asleep." However, in the Second Edition, which remains the same through the Fifth, FitzGerald changes it to sound almost as if the Wild Ass tries but fails to awaken him.

The theme of this quatrain is one that FitzGerald has given us earlier: the glories of the human past, Jamshyd's Courtyard, now belongs to the Lion, a mighty beast whom perhaps Jamshyd had hunted, and the Lizard, one of Nature's more humble creatures. There's a touch of irony here. Jamshyd was a legendary king of Persia who ruled for over seven hundred years and now only ruins remain of that reign, and those are occupied by Nature's creations, both large and small. In addition, Bahram was known as a hunter of the wild onager or ass during his life time, and now the Wild Ass stamps on his grave, as if to waken him for one more hunt, "but cannot break his sleep."

The Bahram referred to here is probably King Bahram V who ruled Persia from 421-438 AD. He persecuted Christians and this resulted in an invasion by the Romans. After a failed attempt at negotiation, Bahram led the Persians to decisively defeat the Roman army, after which a peace treaty was signed.

Like snow in the desert, we come, we stay a short while, and we go, never to return.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Kim Newman: Anno Dracula

I must admit that I'm one of those old fogies who believes that the best vampire story ever written was by Bram Stoker and the ones that came after really don't match up to it. However, I belong to a SF/F book group and am occasionally forced, therefore, to read vampire tales, more or less under duress. Generally, the stories have reinforced my opinion. Occasionally, though, a story does come close to capturing the flavor of Stoker's novel. Kim Newman's Anno Dracula is one of those rare exceptions.

The story has a rather unusual premise. It, of course, answers one of the two basic questions that SF/Fantasy/Horror asks--"What if?" Actually it answers the question twice: What if vampires exist and what if Van Helsing had failed to kill Count Dracula. Usually alternative history tales turn on events in the real world: What would it be like if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? If Hitler had invaded and conquered England? If the US had been conquered by Japan and Germany in WWII?

This alternative universe story turns not on a real event but on a fictional event--Count Dracula's defeat by Van Helsing in Stoker's novel. The premise is Count Dracula's actions after surviving the attack. As a member of the aristocracy, he would have access to the royal court and to the widowed Queen Victoria. Newman postulates that Count Dracula would have persuaded (hypnotized?) Queen Victoria to marry him. Once he has succeeded, Dracula then becomes the ruler of the British Empire.

Newman does a very credible job of presenting the reactions of the British public to this situation. There are those who are opposed to the union and also to the growing power of the vampires in the Empire. The problem is that being a vampire has certain advantages--an extremely long life, if not actual immortality, and an ability to survive wounds and physical damage that would have killed ordinary humans.

Under these circumstances, many of the English are now opting to become vampires--the "newly born." Opposed to them are the "warms," those who choose to remain human. The "newly borns" are close to gaining almost complete control of the government, such that promotions and position upgrades are almost out of reach for the "warms." In England, everybody fears a civil war between the vampires and the warms. In addition, growing resentment throughout the Empire against the vampires is beginning to fracture it.

Set against this background are a series of horrific murders. Three, or perhaps four, vampire prostitutes have been murdered in Whitechapel, perhaps butchered would be a better term. The murderer, aware of the physical capabilities of the vampires, goes to great lengths to ensure the impossibility of the body to heal itself. Scotland Yard has no clues. The killer comes, kills, and disappears.

One might almost consider this a mystery story, but one that is so deeply steeped in the turn-of-the century fictional London that the setting almost overshadows the attempts to identify and stop the killer.

Charles Beauregard--adventurer, spy, investigator--is a member of the mysterious Diogenes Club. He is summoned one night to a meeting. The Inner Circle of the club assigns him the task of ferreting out the killer. Shortly afterwards, Beauregard takes a cab, a hansom cab of course, and is taken, unwillingly, to a meeting of the Criminal Elite, the rulers of the underworld. They also are concerned about the killings because the police have suddenly become very active-- arresting people, searching various establishments, and thereby disturbing the normal comfortable relationship between the police and the underworld. Beauregard is informed that the killings are bad for business and that he is expected to do something about them--quickly.

My first clue to the nature of Newman's novel arrived early. Beauregard, at home shortly afterwards, has a visitor. It is Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard--yes, the same Lestrade who didn't think much of Sherlock Holmes' newfangled methods, but, being in the neighborhood, dropped by every once in awhile to discuss a particularly puzzling case with him. Unfortunately he can't drop by Baker Street now because Holmes is in Sussex, not on a bee farm but in a concentration camp for those deemed dangerous to the regime. Holmes, it seems, disagreed with the present government about certain policies.

There are other familiar names in Newman's novel. One of the members of the Inner Circle of the Diogenes Club is Mycroft, Holmes' brother. Some of the members of the Criminal Elite are also well-known to readers of Doyle--Professor Moriarty and Colonel Moran. A third member is Chinese, a member of the Si-Fan, the Evil Doctor. Those who have read stories by Sax Rohmer will no doubt recognize Dr. Fu Manchu.

Those who have read Stoker's novel will also find some familiar names. Bram Stoker himself is in the same concentration camp as Holmes. Van Helsing has been executed. Mina Harkness is doing well as a vampire. Florence Stoker (Bram's real wife) is popular among the upper classes as a hostess but is losing her clout because many of the upper classes are turning vampire and her husband's opposition to the vampires is an embarrassment. Jack Seward, the head of the mental institution in Stoker's novel, is now the medical director of a clinic for the poor.

Seward is not the only medical man on the scene, for both Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Moreau make a brief appearance. In fact, Beauregard goes to Dr. Jekyll's laboratory at one point and meets Dr. Moreau there. They also are interested in the Whitechapel killer.

Anno Dracula is not a true "whodunit" for the reader learns early on the identity of the Whitechapel murderer. The interest really is in the depiction of a society that learns that vampires exist and that it must deal with them. One particularly memorable scene occurs at a party when a toast is given. The vampire there does not drink and so is left out. The hostess recognizes the problem and motions a servant over to the vampire. The servant calmly unbuttons the sleeve of her dress and allows the vampire to take some blood from her wrist.

In addition, wondering about the identity of the next fictional character I would meet also kept me turning pages.

Overall Rating: highly recommended for those who enjoy vampire stories. Newman does a superb job of capturing the feel of Stoker's tale and also that of the late 19th century London, both real and fictional.