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.

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