The Rose and the Key (Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu , 1871)

The name Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is one that, today, hardly produces even a twinkling of recognition in the most word-worn eye. The author was, however, quite popular at the time he was most actively writing – the 3rd quarter of the 19th century – and he was, in particular, well known for his gothic romances. The genre was summed up fairly adequately by a friend of Vonnegut’s: “a girl takes a job in an old house and gets the pants scared off her” – but within that general framework there is much room for variation, as The Rose and the Key shows.

Uncle Silas is the most lauded of his books along these lines (though Carmilla gets love too) , and perhaps rightly so: of his novels I’ve read, Wylder’s Hand is entertaining but let down by unsatisfying villainy, and The Rose and the Key is, while similar to Uncle Silas in some ways, very different in tone. It is, however, a very entertaining frog-in-the-pot experience, effectively hiding the machinations and malice that mark the antagonists of gothic romances from the eye of both the reader and the main character.

In Uncle Silas, the rather clueless protagonist is almost immediately put in a strange and unnerving position, and while she takes some time to comprehend this, the reader immediately knows that so-and-so is bad news, and there is certainly this or that plot happening. This is very much not the case in The Rose and the Key, which is really, for the most part, quite pleasant both for the reader and the girl leading the story – both heiresses in these stories are called Maud, by the way; Le Fanu had a weakness for the name, it seems.

Maud (that of the book now being reviewed) is outspoken and eccentric, and her whims and soliloquies reflect more an intelligent young woman in the usual perplexities of relationships and familial strife, rather than a scared girl faced with barely hidden plots to destroy her. Yet the reader is provided ample reason to believe her the subject of such plots, not least of which being the fact that the book is a gothic romance by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. But there are red herrings enough, and the prime movers of the story are concealed well enough, that many will only spy the trap as it is sprung, then look backwards and curse themselves for not detecting it earlier. Genre fans will likely have suspicions, as I did, but Le Fanu plays successfully on these as well.

The negative consequence of this is that for hundreds of pages it reads not as the story of a gradual, sinister entrapment of a rich young girl, as you are nevertheless sure it must be, but is instead simply a rich young girl coping with a reclusive and unusual lifestyle. Not everyone is willing to take that ride all the way to the end of the line, needless to say, for which reason it’s hard to recommend The Rose and the Key to anyone new to the genre. Uncle Silas is a better introduction to this, or even a novella like Carmilla or Poe’s Ligeia.

As usual, Le Fanu is on point when it comes to prose: dialogue is sharp and interesting, while descriptions of place are generously provided with imagery and allusions – like this passage, for instance, which seems itself to toll like a bell with its depiction of a churchyard at dusk, and begs to be spoken aloud in its languorous rhythm:

“The sun is drawing towards the horizon ; it is six o’clock. The tombstones cast shadows eastward on the grass, and the people, as they troop upward toward the porch, throw their moving shadows likewise along the green mantle of the dead, and the grey churchyard wall catches them perpendicularly, by the heads and shoulders, and exhibits in that yellow light the silhouettes of worthy townsmen and their wives, and sharp outlines of hats and bonnets, gliding onward, to the music of the holy bell, to hear the good old bishop preach.”

The Rose and the Key was a pleasant diversion, surprisingly well executed and with more depth of character than Le Fanu’s other books. Anyone who has enjoyed other works in this particular, and unfortunately somewhat limited, genre will appreciate it »

Selected entries from Ambrose Bierce’s “Write It Right”

Ambrose Bierce was a good writer, but perhaps more important to him than the ultimate perceived quality of his writing was the pride he took in what he would call its precision. This quality he attempted to promote with a short usage volume entitled “Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults.”

Precision, he writes in the introduction, “is attained by choice of the word that accurately and adequately expresses what the writer has in mind, and by exclusion of that which either denotes or connotes something else. As Quintilian puts it, the writer should write so that his reader not only may, but must, understand.”

Thus, “capacity” should not be used when “ability” is meant, nor “continual” for “continuous,” and so on. The goal is not just successful communication, for which purpose even nonsense words will serve (and often do), but removing any possibility of misconstrual. It is worth noting that it is strictly for “serious discourse” such as news writing and letters that he advises, not poetry or high-flying prose, in which creative or ambiguous usage is not discouraged (here, at least).

The “blacklist” he assembled is, admittedly, as often frusty and out of date as it is interesting and helpful, but a few examples that showcase Bierce’s wit or intelligently elucidate an error may convince those who enjoy them to seek out the rest (of which below). So here follow several of the most entertaining or insightful entries. (NB: The first item listed is the one to which Bierce objects. Also, “Everything in quotation marks is to be understood as disapproved.”)

Adopt. “He adopted a disguise.” One may adopt a child, or an opinion, but a disguise is assumed.

Avocation for Vocation. A vocation is, literally, a calling; that is, a trade or profession. An avocation is something that calls one away from it. If I say that farming is some one’s avocation I mean that he practises it, not regularly, but at odd times.

Banquet. A good enough word in its place, but its place is the dictionary. Say, dinner.

Both alike. “They are both alike.” Say, they are alike. One of them could not be alike.

Build for Make. “Build a fire.” “Build a canal.” Even “build a tunnel” is not unknown, and probably if the wood-chuck is skilled in the American tongue he speaks of building a hole.

Capacity for Ability. “A great capacity for work.” Capacity is receptive; ability, potential. A sponge has capacity for water; the hand, ability to squeeze it out.

Custom for Habit. Communities have customs; individuals, habits — commonly bad ones.

Doubtlessly. A doubly adverbial form, like “illy.”

Fail. “He failed to note the hour.” That implies that he tried to note it, but did not succeed. Failure carries always the sense of endeavor; when there has been no endeavor there is no failure. A falling stone cannot fail to strike you, for it does not try; but a marksman firing at you may fail to hit you; and I hope he always will.

Forecasted. For this abominable word we are indebted to the weather bureau — at least it was not sent upon us until that affliction was with us. Let us hope that it may some day be losted from the language.

Gentleman. It is not possible to teach the correct use of this overworked word: one must be bred to it. To use the word gentleman correctly, be one.

Head over Heels. A transposition of words hardly less surprising than (to the person most concerned) the mischance that it fails to describe. What is meant is heels over head.

Insignificant for Trivial, or Small. Insignificant means not signifying anything and should be used only in contrast, expressed or implied, with something that is important for what it implies. The bear’s tail may be insignificant to a naturalist tracing the animal’s descent from an earlier species, but to the rest of us, not concerned with the matter, it is merely small.

Just Exactly. Nothing is gained in strength nor precision by this kind of pleonasm. Omit just.

Kind of a for Kind of. “He was that kind of a man.” Say that kind of man. Man here is generic, and a genus comprises many kinds. But there cannot be more than one kind of one thing. Kind of followed by an adjective, as, “kind of good,” is almost too gross for censure.

Landed Estate for Property in Land. Dreadful!

Lengthy. Usually said in disparagement of some wearisome discourse. It is no better than breadthy, or thicknessy.

Leniency for Lenity. The words are synonymous, but the latter is the better.

Limited for Small, Inadequate, etc. “The army’s operations were confined to a limited area.” “We had a limited supply of food.” A large area and an adequate supply would also be limited. Everything that we know about is limited.

Literally for Figuratively. “The stream was literally alive with fish.” “His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet.” It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.

Militate. “Negligence militates against success.” If “militate” meant anything it would mean fight, but there is no such word.

Mistaken for Mistake. “You are mistaken.” For whom? Say, You mistake.

Only. “He only had one.” Say, He had only one, or, better, one only. The other sentence might be taken to mean that only he had one; that, indeed, is what it distinctly says. The correct placing of only in a sentence requires attention and skill.

Opine for Think. The word is not very respectably connected.

Pants for Trousers. Abbreviated from pantaloons, which are no longer worn. Vulgar exceedingly.

Phenomenal for Extraordinary, or Surprising. Everything that occurs is phenomenal, for all that we know about is phenomena, appearances. Of realities, noumena, we are ignorant.

Poetry for Verse. Not all verse is poetry; not all poetry is verse. Few persons can know, or hope to know, the one from the other, but he who has the humility to doubt (if such a one there be) should say verse if the composition is metrical.

Raise for Bring up, Grow, Breed etc. In this country a word-of-all-work: “raise children,” “raise wheat,” “raise cattle.” Children are brought up, grain, hay and vegetables are grown, animals and poultry are bred.

Ruination for Ruin. Questionably derived and problematically needful.

Squirt for Spurt. Absurd.

Substantiate for Prove. Why?

Such Another for Another Such. There is illustrious authority for this — in poetry. Poets are a lawless folk, and may do as they please so long as they do please.

To. As part of an infinitive it should not be separated from the other part by an adverb, as, “to hastily think,” for hastily to think, or, to think hastily. Condemnation of the split infinitive is now pretty general, but it is only recently that any one seems to have thought of it. Our forefathers and we elder writers of this generation used it freely and without shame — perhaps because it had not a name, and our crime could not be pointed out without too much explanation.

Ways for Way. “A squirrel ran a little ways along the road.” “The ship looked a long ways off.” This surprising word calls loudly for depluralization.

Whip for Chastise, or Defeat. To whip is to beat with a whip. It means nothing else.

One last note: if you are interested in reading the rest, do not buy the common edition “annotated” by the patronizing and ignorant Jan Freeman. It is available for free on Project Gutenberg and can be found elsewhere without Freeman’s insulting commentary. »

Worm (Wildbow, 2013)

If you’d told me a year or two ago that I would in 2014 be deeply engrossed in a web-published superhero serial longer than the entire Game of Thrones series to date — I probably would have admitted that it was a possibility, and asked where I might find such a work before that distant, fated date.

To be clear, Worm isn’t exactly a book. It’s a complete “web serial,” published a chapter at a time over a period of about two and a half years by a man writing as Wildbow (alias John McCrae). It’s free to read, but was created under a donation system. You can start here, but you may want to wait until the author rereleases it in a more portable form. Personally, I put a complete epub version on my ereader, though the length (just south of 10,000 pages) caused it to seize up more than once.

The story, and bear with me for a moment here, concerns a teenaged girl, Taylor, who has received superpowers in a world roughly analogous to our own, except that people started spontaneously getting powers about 30 years ago. Meanwhile she is being brutally bullied at school and cities are routinely being attacked and demolished by mysterious and unstoppable monsters that also appeared recently, and her power — allowing her to sense and control bugs in her general area — doesn’t seem to be much of a help in either case. The next 1.65 million words follow her as she navigates a carefully-woven world of heroes, villains, conspiracies, friends, and all the rest.

It may sound something like a cross between Harry Potter and a rather grim comic book universe, but Worm is more than that, not least of which because it outdoes both magical-youth novels and cape comics by a pretty good margin while retaining their core appeal.

The story is episodic in nature — she falls in with a group of young powers and is caught between various factions and relationships, while facing down threats of escalating scale. And like the best shows, comics, and books, the greater story is always in sight, though critical details are often kept, tantalizingly, just out of reach. And so you keep turning pages for hours on end, not just wanting to advance the larger story, but wondering how the protagonist is going to be able to extricate herself from each harrowing situation, which are initially merely life-threatening and advance quickly to apocalyptic. It helps that it isn’t just a series of fights, a freak of the week being vanquished — there are personal betrayals, bureaucracy, minion management — and a number of other looming threats.

The world and characters that make up the story are similarly well-executed; Wildbow ticks familiar boxes without being limited by them. The expected powers of flight and super strength are there, but largely backgrounded in favor of far more creative ones, with creative consequences. One guy gives off a dark fog that blinds and disorientates those around him but leaves him free to act. Another imbues dogs with temporary power and durability, riding and directing them. Another is a young, nearly autistic girl who causes her surroundings to conform to those of her imagination. Then there are reality-breaking ones, monstrous mutant ones, ones whose powers lie in probability or manipulation.

They’re incredibly varied, with new ones appearing constantly, and consequently fights rarely if ever devolve to a slugfest, the way they so often do in comics. A fight is more likely to be ended when someone bleeds out or has their family threatened, rather than the bloodless KOs that seem to end every DC fight. And further, unlike comics and young adult fiction, the threats are real and the consequences horrifying. Everyone in the vast menagerie of heroes, villains, and others you’ll be introduced to are, Game of Thrones-style, always at risk of a sudden and violent death or permanent mutilation. There’s no pulling of punches here. Fights have body counts, sometimes numbering in the— well, it wouldn’t do to give away the stakes. Suffice it to say that no one is safe, on this Earth or the next.

And no matter how grave the threat, the perspective is always the same. The world-ending threats and accompanying histrionics in comics, as much as I like them in classic arcs like “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” have the camera zoomed out too far. Worlds collide in a colorful explosion as you watch from space. Not in Worm, where every threat, be it a local gang member or a monster leveling city blocks, is viewed through the eyes of a terrified, often helpless, and usually injured teenaged girl trying to protect her friends and family; “Interlude” chapters take other views, showing heroes or side characters at work, but the plot is advanced almost second by second in Taylor’s first person narration.

Which brings us to the prose. I hope that it is a compliment to Wildbow to say that nearly the entire book is written at what one might call an advanced young adult reading level. It’s matter-of-fact writing that doesn’t bother with nested clauses or long paragraphs, but focuses on getting concrete details of what’s happening into the reader’s head — meticulous enough that nothing is left unsaid, but fast-paced enough that you don’t feel held captive by a rambling description of a room or costume. It makes reading an absolute breeze, even if you’re not going to be remembering any of it for the words used, the way anything was said. It also means that even when there are missteps, it doesn’t lapse into that worst of both worlds: bad good writing.

For there are certainly missteps, though most are easily forgiven. Despite the ingenuity with which the author crafts the situations and people in the stories, there’s always a sense of deus ex machina in the way things play out. It’s nothing on the same level as a wildcat mauling a terrorist about to pull the trigger on the protagonist, which is actually how Neal Stephenson saw his way out of a narrative tangle in Reamde (twice), but let’s just say you’ll have to be a little charitable about the physical properties of spider silk in a few chapters, and accept that Taylor has an abnormally high threshold of pain for a skinny teenager with no combat experience.

It’s also a little hard to swallow the pace of events and the changes wrought; the few times dates and durations are really referred to, I squinted a bit. Really, that whole situation there played itself out over four days, not a month? Perhaps it’s nitpicking, but it did jar.

Lastly, Wildbow could use an editor — I enjoyed the precision with which scenes were drawn and evolved during tense situations, but dialogue often drags on as characters engage in unnecessary psychological warfare and drawn-out discussions. A few nips and tucks here and there could have probably eliminated a few hundred pages at least.

But my word count grows overlong as well. Worm is so huge that it’s hard to give a sense of the plot without ruining it, and it’s so refreshing that it’s hard to write about without gushing a bit. I had a blast reading it over the last month and a half because it takes the ideas that make comics interesting to me and takes them seriously, while jettisoning the parts that so often make them juvenile or pandering. I’ve been disappointed again and again recently at a lack of ambition in sci-fi and comics, so this is as pleasant a surprise as I could expect. It’s an incredibly creative story that I couldn’t stop reading, which would be enough on its own, but beyond that, it managed to keep me enthralled for more words than any other single written work or even series I’ve yet encountered. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.

image: scarfgirl »

The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton, 2013)

Upon its release, The Luminaries was the subject of praise so effusive and hyperbolic that I wondered at first whether it would be the kind of book so impenetrable, conceptual, or self-serious that only a critic could recommend it. That is not, thankfully, the case, but I think that in their rush to congratulate an incredibly talented young author on a serious literary accomplishment, these critics decided to kindly play down the book’s weaknesses while expanding upon its (considerable) strengths. Ultimately the contrivance that lends the book such grandeur causes the narrative to implode – but it sure looks good doing it.

The book follows a loosely-associated group of men who, during the New Zealand gold rush of the mid-19th century, have decided that something decidedly rotten is going on in the camp town of Hokitika, and that they must put their heads together to get to the bottom of it.

It begins, then, as a compelling and circuitous whodunit: someone has disappeared, another is suddenly rich, another is acting strangely, and so on. From the first few pages, as the ostensible protagonist Walter Moody detects something not quite right about a secret convocation he has blundered into, the reader must be curious: what chain of events, what duplicity, what machinations could account for the series of events?

Catton’s engaging writing helps keep the reader turning pages. It’s very much in the Victorian style, complete with pre-chapter summaries of the Dickensian sort, and even blanks where the “amn” in “damn” should appear. Yet it’s still lively and inventive, Catton evidently having learned lessons that Dickens and Collins could have applied to the more slack of their chapters. Certainly a few anachronisms from a later age appear to have snuck past the author and her editors, but the very fact that they jar so is a credit to the completeness of the illusion of antiquity.

The structure of the book, on the other hand, is decidedly un-antiquated. It is here that The Luminaries truly sets itself apart – though eventually the weight of the conceit is more than a little detrimental to the book you thought you were reading.

Each character is associated with zodiacal symbols (planets, houses, etc), and charts have been cast (correctly, one assumes, though the fact checker likely did not second-guess these) that show, at the beginning of each of the book’s 12 parts, Mars in the house of Taurus, the moon entering Sagittarius, and so on. The characters, it seems, wax and wane and seek one another in accordance with these charts, which when you think about it is a staggeringly complex latticework from which to suspend a novel.

Unfortunately, the zodiac method ends up failing the book in three serious ways.

First, it fails as a rigorous structure because it is an easy one to manipulate. Imagine if you were told to write a story that took place over a day, but you could only write about events that were happening on the hour. All you have to do is contrive it so that all the important events happen to occur on the hour (sound familiar? 24 does this). And this, on a looser scale, is how I perceived the predestination (for it is as such we would be asked to understand it) mechanism in action. The moon in the house of Libra, for instance, may be interpreted so that Anna must be present in the courthouse. But it also may mean that the court’s clerk, Mr. Frost, influences one of her decisions at that time. The idea is enforced, it seems, if not arbitrarily, then at least capriciously – when it is needful that a certain conjunction be in place, it is in place, but when there is a similar conjunction elsetimes, it is not regarded.

Second, it fails as a narrative structure because the desire to accord the story to the sky and vice versa end up disturbing the natural pace of that narrative. The twelve parts are in descending length: the first consists of several hundred pages, the last of only a few sentences. Whether it was this that caused Catton to frontload so very much exposition or if that is just her style I can’t say, but what is clear is that the tyranny of her structure robs most of the characters of any permanence.

And on that topic a word must be said. Catton has a wen for delving deep into the motivations and histories of each character, and when when I entered on the third or fourth multi-page description of a man’s style of upbringing, his father’s personality, his early career, his vices, his accomplishments, his secret vanities, his person, his dress, and his style of speech, I was excited to see how these richly illustrated back stories would overlap, how their wildly different personalties would clash, how that seemingly insignificant detail comes back around to secretly reward the attentive reader at a critical moment. Alas, it was not to be.

The characters in The Luminaries are like finely carved chess pieces. Regardless of the realism with which their surface is executed, their actions are proscribed and unremarkable (though occasionally effective). The chemist, possessed of a tragic and unrequite love, provides chemicals. The banker, dandyish and hasty, settles accounts and checks the books. The shipping agent, a shrewd and newly-made man, frets about his cargo. The newspaper man, authoritarian and religious, takes orders for advertisements and prints them. The lawyer, a vain gentleman fleeing a disgraced family, dispatches the opposing lawyer. And so on. These complex inner workings produce very little other than normal functioning. Of course they have their affinities and make their mistakes, but so little they actually do is informed by their characters that the early descriptions don’t seem relevant – if you can even remember them, for they come in a rush at the beginning, and a couple hundred pages later you will find yourself struggling to recall which is which — because few of them act the part that was given with such flourish. It’s very much a literary example of why people give the advice “show, don’t tell.” Which is strange, because Catton is immensely good at showing everything else!

Only the characters who don’t receive extensive biographies seem to be players rather than pieces. One is always wondering why these interesting, active people are not given more space, or when their storied pasts will be illuminated by the selectively omniscient narrator. It would, of course, spoil the ending somewhat if we were allowed to peer inside the antagonist’s head from the beginning – but that leads us to the third failing.

The end of a book is, naturally, where it makes its final impression. And in the case of The Luminaries, the impression is one of compromise: a decision was made that the structure of the book was more important than the story (mild spoilers ahead). As the durations of the of the sections contract, the reader is accelerated and excited, as though hurtling towards a great revelation that promises to draw a line through the many stars with which Catton has spangled the page – but like most constellations, the final result is only a crude approximation of what it is supposed to be. The plot is discarded rather than concluded, and then the contrivance wheels faster and faster until at last, in an anticlimactic sort of aufhebung, it renders itself moot.

Imagine a Sherlock Holmes type story with, say, a locked-room puzzle. How did the villain escape with the murder weapon if the guard was right outside, or the like. Imagine hundreds of pages of speculation, red herrings, hints, and detective work by Holmes and a dozen more – and then imagine the solution proffered by the author is that the perpetrator is a ghost, and can walk through walls, and the narrator challenges you to question the relevance of all that work the characters just did. That’s the level of resolution The Luminaries provides for its plot, and at the same time asking whether there was ever a plot at all, or just a series of events roughly determined by these star charts you’ve been skipping half the time. If some took this for revelation, I found it cheapening: essentially copping out of very real expectations engendered by the rest of the book.

In a case like this, where a grand structure meets a grand story, the best possible outcome is that they both survive. In other words, you get the horse and the cart. In compromising the story, I feel that the cart has been put before the horse – not because the final product was bad, but because it should have been possible for Catton to pull this off, to make the story as satisfying as the way it was told. In a way, it’s only that the book doesn’t live up to the high expectations it creates in the reader — it falls short of its own standard. But the final impression is the strongest, and far from making me question whether the story is the most important thing in a book like this, it made me question the ability of the author to accomplish her implicitly stated storytelling goal.

So in performing the final sleight of hand, she drops the ball. Fortunately for Catton, The Luminaries has enough going for it that even with the serious issues I have with it, it towers over other contemporary literature I’ve encountered in both its prose and the complexity of its construction. »

Wylder’s Hand (J. Sheridan Le Fanu, 1864)

This pastoral mystery is one of the less-read works of the prolific and (then) popular Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. In the true Le Fanu style, there is an abundance of natural beauty, a pervasive sense of foreboding, and a deep mystery with an air of the supernatural.

Charles de Cresseron, our narrator, is visiting the town in which he grew up to advise on the estate issues of an old acquaintance, and shortly becomes peripherally involved with mysterious happenings surrounding the intertwined and feuding families of the Lakes, the Wylders, and the Brandons. It’s a fun and interesting book, yet with much to criticize. (Non-specific spoilers ahead, for those who care)

The characters and central drama of the book are introduced fairly early on and the halcyon environs soon take a turn for the dire and dramatic. There is also a rather frightening encounter early on that offers a potential ghostly twist. But that, as well as the near-hysterical level of dread experienced by those closest to the mystery, turn out to be rather exaggerated.

It has, overall, largely the same strengths and weaknesses of “The Room at the Dragon Volant,” a novella by Le Fanu, with similar hints at a horrible truth, a touch of melodrama, and a rather prosaic wrap-up. That you are in suspense is unquestionable – but once you know all, the spell is broken, and you feel a bit cheated.

There is also a focus on narrative side shows that are generally unrewarding. The depredations of the lawyer Jos Larkin on the honest and conveniently un-worldly Vicar, and the family problems of that man, amount to little in the long run, and don’t do much work in illustrating their characters. Same for the election towards the conclusion; I felt shades of “Ten Thousand A-Year” as the throwaway names and positions bubbled up meaninglessly.

Ultimately the book’s parts are greater than the sum; well before the end I was beginning to wonder if an unimpressive solution was even possible for the problems posed by the story, so highly was the tension raised. But Le Fanu managed it. In my disappointment, I was not disappointed.

I was not, however, disappointed in the prose; the man’s writing is, for the most part, extremely good, which accounts for some of the fun of the book. Here are a couple short nuggets to show you of what he is capable:

“This general liking for children and instinct of smiling on them is one source of the delightful illusions which make the remembrance of early days so like a dream of Paradise, and give us, at starting, such false notions of our value.”

“And he sighed; and his long palms were raised, and waved, or rather paddled slowly to the rhythm of the sentiment.”

“You can’t be too frank when you have wronged your neighbour; but keep your offenses against God to yourself, and let your battle with your own heart be waged under the eye of Him alone. A miserable sinner have I been, my friend, but details profit neither thee nor me.”

“It is the same earth for all; the same earth for the dead, great and small; dust to dust. The same earth for the living. "Thorns, also, and thistles shall it bring forth,” and God provides the flowers too.“

Also, Uncle Lorne’s "prophecies,” though too long to repeat here, are uncanny, and his every appearance is genuinely chilling.

Le Fanu has a remarkable vocabulary; I learned a score or more of words reading the book, and not one felt out of place. How strange it is, then, that this same vocabulary seems to fail him utterly in a few specific situations. Captain Lake, for instance, “glides” nearly everywhere. Chapter after chapter, line after line, he glides, glided, was gliding. I think he must have glid upwards of 30 times in the book, when a tenth of that would have been adequate to illustrate his smooth style of locomotion. And Larkin “smiles sadly” at a similar frequency. Strange that a man with such a wealth of phrases in him should reach so readily for the same one so regularly!

There is also a consistent use of French (“Perhaps his personnel prejudiced me”; “There was something naive and spirituel”), though whether the habit was de rigeur in 1864 or a consequence of the narrator’s Frenchness is unclear. It’s probably a little of both, and at all events isn’t detrimental, but seems worth mentioning.

Readers looking for crimes and characters of a gothic character and magnitude should probably look elsewhere; “Wylder’s Hand,” while enjoyable, is rather a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

A note to would-be buyers: I have the Atlantic Books “Classic Crime” imprint, a handsome trade paperback with a great custom cover and nice type. It is riddled with typos. The first paragraph has one. They are present throughout. In one case two words are actually completely transposed – something was “gnignah morf” a hook. Don’t support their shoddy, disrespectful resurrection of this book; buy another edition. »

The Twelve Caesars (Suetonius, 121 AD)

Creasy wrote in his Battles that the obscure machinations of warring east Asia “appear before us through the twilight of primaeval history, dim and indistinct, but massive and majestic, like mountains in the early dawn.” So one would expect the lives of such rulers as the Caesars to exhibit likewise such mythical prominence. But the stories provided by Suetonius, while they must be read with a skeptical eye now and then, feel too minutely detailed, too personal and arbitrary, to be anything but truth. It’s a mountain of anecdote and hearsay, so as history it is somewhat unreliable, but it’s as vivid a collection of character portraits as has ever been assembled.

Writing from a perspective close to the topic (he was born in the tumultuous year 69, in which Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian all assumed the purple) yet distant enough not to be unduly affected (as imperial secretary under the relatively pacific rule of Hadrian, he had ample time and authority to be objective, at least until he was dismissed in 122 AD), Suetonius was not concerned with writing a chronological account of recent history. Many still lived who could tell stories of the Neronian conflagration, or whose families had yet to recover from the ravages of Tiberius.

The aim, then, was to establish as completely and honestly as possible the personalities and characters of the clan of Caesars, if only for the reason that one could finally do so without risk of being executed for praising one, or failing to praise another.

Each man, then, and they are very much acknowledged to be men despite posthumous deification, is given an origin story, a catalogue of works and services rendered to the empire, a candid acknowledgement of vices, weaknesses, and even sexual habits, and, more often than not, the circumstances of their assassination.

The literally cutthroat tactics employed by nearly every future emperor as early as their teenage years establish them all as ambitious, audacious, cunning, and usually cruel men, and Suetonius spares none of them. Even Augustus, universally adored, gets his licks: as a youth he was ruthless in effecting retribution on the enemies of Julius Caesar, callously massacring prisoners to the disgust of those around him. That he led Rome to decades of prosperity may justify the means of his accession, but even he must answer to posterity for all his acts. (Echoes of Creasy, again, who takes to task cherry-picking historians who care only for the flaws of Alexander.)

On the other side of the coin, even the emperors whose names are now synonymous with violent excess and infamy, and who received no posthumous consideration except to be butchered on the street, do not have their good points neglected. Tiberius, for example, is described as being modest, courteous to a fault in political discussions, while assiduously attending to the matters of Rome. His witticisms are likewise added to the account. This is the same man who, a few pages later, circumvents a traditional ban on executing virgins by having these innocents raped before they are killed!

The aspect of the book that is least amenable to its serious consideration as factual reporting is Suetonius’s clear acceptance of omens and auspices – not that this was uncommon at the time. But it does his questionable but realistic passages no credit when they are followed by paragraphs of lightning bolts striking the sceptres from the hands of statues, doubtful interpretations of sacrificial intestines, and frequent comets (“long-haired stars”) presaging each emperor’s birth, ascension, downfall, and death.

Suetonius does insert himself into the narrative in more interesting ways, however. He happily disputes in his own voice episodes about which he has discovered conflicting information, and soundly discounts stories his researches found to be without merit. Once he even brings in a bit of family history when the motivations of Otho’s suicide are considered. Some, apparently, thought it was out of desperation and a desire not to be taken prisoner (and likely suffer a more horrible death) – but Suetonius recalls the story of his own father, who served under Otho during his final campaign, and swears that the emperor in fact was so tortured by his conscience at seeing so many men die for his sake that he chose to die rather than continue. It’s not exactly something anyone can confirm, except that it would be a rather brazen and easily disputed lie for Suetonius to attempt, and for no other reason than to spare the memory of a man about whom he seems to care very little.

The Twelve Caesars was a fun, informative, and fairly easy read. Robert Graves’s now-classic translation has a few highly isolated rough spots (his reimagining of Gaius/Caligula’s nickname as “Bootikin,” for instance) but is otherwise wonderfully readable. Either Suetonius or Graves (likely both) has a wonderfully dry sense of humor, and everything is very restrained; hyperbole is not employed as a rule, nor is it warranted, considering the excesses to which these men got up to. The ruling families had a vexing habit of naming their children the same thing for generations, however, and though a family tree at the end helps make things clear, I often found myself wondering which “edition” of a Nero, Drusus, or Livia was being poisoned. But whether that flaw is to be laid at the feet of Graves, Suetonius, or imperial Roman aristocratic tradition is open for debate.

Now it’s on to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, which I suspect will not be such a breeze to get through. But I have it on the authority of several centuries that it is worth the effort. »

Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens, 1838)

This classic, while it is by far the poorest book by Dickens I have read, nevertheless somehow endures as one of the author’s most visible and popular works. Perhaps if it were not the first Dickens people were often tasked with reading, they would not develop a dislike towards the man. All its qualities are inferior, and all its flaws deeper, than every other work of his I’ve encountered.

Oliver, to begin with, is a cypher. His only qualities seem to be politeness and naiveté, neither of which seems likely to have emerged naturally in a child raised in the orphanage described. He fails to make any meaningful decision the entire book, acting only as a plot device and nullifying him as something anyone reading should care about — since as a plot device he is more or less immune to harm or influence. The idea of inherent honesty and goodness, always strained in Dickens (and allied to class), reaches the level of nonsensical here.

The other characters towards which we are supposed to by sympathetic also lack any qualities whatsoever. Rose Maylie we must be told we like (sentiment is drummed up in a bafflingly arbitrary near-death scare chapter), but like many a Dickens girl she is merely modesty incarnate. Her suitor is little but generosity incarnate — but neither actually does anything but complete the equation required for them. Mr. Brownlow, a cog. Nancy, a “noble savage,” increasingly grotesque. Only the doctor has independent motivations of conscience, really, or does anything at all original.

The villains are a bit more interesting — Sikes, of course, is excellent. Fagin, “the Jew,” while an infamous stereotype (and rightly so), is truly calculating and adorned with mannerisms befitting a Dickens character. The Artful Dodger, Mr. Bumble, worthy sideshows. Et cetera.

Lastly, the setting and plot are largely without merit. Dickens deserves all due credit for depicting the squalor and injustice of the workhouse system, as well as the seedy underbelly of crime at the time largely ignored by novelists and readers. But the actual events of the book are contrived almost to the point of parody. The Dickens microsystem is in fine show here, with a couple dozen characters somehow routinely finding each other among the millions around London, and those characters already tightly bound too by completely improbable narrative threads. The revelations are such fiats (more like Improbable Twist, am I right?) that they produce no satisfaction whatsoever, and the final act, except for Sikes’s part, falls completely flat.

Even the usual memorable scenes and passages that make Dickens such a pleasure to read are almost entirely absent. The settings and people in Great Expectations impressed upon the memory forever; the day-by-day journey of Bleak House that becomes so personal; the drama of A Tale of Two Cities that rises irreversibly, like a tidal wave — nothing like this is in Oliver Twist except a few minor scenes that only stand out because of the flatness of the rest.

Of course, a bad Dickens is still in many ways a good book, but that only goes so far. At any rate, if you are trying to decide between Oliver Twist and another book by him, choose the other. »

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan, 2012)

It’s easy enough to recommend the light, literate Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore without diving too far into the story (the book is still new and people will be wanting to avoid spoilers for some time, unlike, say, Les Miserables), though it will be read with more interest by savvy folks for whom the references need not be explained in footnotes (or marginalia).

The premise is simple but rich in potential: A young out-of-work tech guy in San Francisco takes a job working at a strange old bookstore and tumbles into a mystery of sorts. It’s a breezy trip with a few nods to history and more than a few nods to present tech culture. While that makes it a fun read for the tech-savvy of 2012, I think it might end up causing the book to age poorly, achieving anachronism status for the tech-savvy of 2022. At any rate, the trade-off works for now.

There is an achievement in striking a balance, with the secret society introduced not far into the book, between the lore-hugging, over-the-top species (a la Foucault’s Pendulum) and a more prosaic illuminati type (adherents to Nostradamus or such like). And the narrative is fun enough page by page to carry the reader along even though they know there’s no incoming apocalypse.

The intellectual rigor of the book, however, I have to question (easy for me to do, of course, as a mere reader, but I must be honest). The idea that the protagonist was the first to try certain things stretches one’s disbelief uncomfortably. Sloan is a deft hand at creating problems to which he has no intention of providing the answer. And the solution to a certain cryptographic puzzle is far from satisfying for a number of reasons (in fact, fans of code-breaking will be appalled).

But despite the hasty conclusion and victory lap, which sweeps the narrative’s puzzles under the rug rather than addressing them, it’s an enjoyable read. I’m far less disappointed with Mr Penumbra than most contemporary fiction (Reamde and The City & The City, for instance) I’ve read in the last few years — which sounds like, but isn’t, faint praise. »

Les Misérables (Victor Hugo, 1862)

“To write the poem of the human conscience, were it only of a single man, were it only of the most infamous of men, would be to swallow up all epics in a superior and final epic,” writes Hugo. And, although he perhaps did not aim to eclipse all previous literature with Les Misérables, the book is nevertheless a novel of the human conscience (if not the poem). But between the reader and this final epic is Hugo himself, and the book is equally an odyssey within the author as within humanity.

Hugo was called in his time L’Homme Ocean, and it is easy to see why. His depths are unsounded, and his volume immense. Les Misérables is, roughly speaking, equally divided between narrative proper, internal narrative, history, and digressive essay. Every action, every topic, every piece of dialogue in the book is potentially a platform off of which Hugo may launch into rarefied airs, extemporizing on the nature of chastity, or the implications of criminal jargon, or the failings of society as regards orphans, women, civic duty, fashion, honor, or whatever strikes him.

It is easy to tell when this is happening. For one thing, it happens for a few dozen pages (or more, in the case of Waterloo) at the beginning of every sub-book. But the reader cannot help but develop a sense of when Hugo is about to diverge from the narrative, since it happens so frequently. The tone changes from one who is telling a story to one who has been asked to give a toast on the topic at hand. It is never unwelcome, exactly, as the man is brilliant and his stray thoughts on an overgrown garden are more compelling than the entire plots of some books I have read, but the reader may occasionally become frustrated at the gleefully desultory advancement of the central narrative.

I pity the high school student who is forced to read the unabridged version, although I am happy to have done it. Unlike other 19th-century classics, for instance Moby Dick, Frankenstein, or The Moonstone, Les Misérables provides little in the way of page-by-page thrills. I picture a student carefully noting down the defining characteristics of the revolutionists of the Corinthe, tragically unaware that these young men, with their histories, preferences, and philosophies, are essentially Hugo constructing deep, nuanced characters just for the hell of it. Spoiler warning: most of them die without warning over the course of a single sentence. Thus does Hugo value his creations! That said, he also makes so many references that taking notes is in fact advised. An index of the books, speeches, historical figures, and so on that he casually includes would be impressive (and edifying).

At all events, the novel is interesting all the way through if one is willing to take it for what it is: a sentimental genius telling you a story during some imaginary, endless idle period as you both sip brandy and smoke. You know the history of Napoleon; you have your opinions on human nature; you are familiar with Paris; no matter, to hear Hugo speak of these things is a different thing altogether — his words are valuable for their own sake, like a friend’s. On the other hand, if you are unable to bear his rather didactic tone, you will not make it through the first hundred pages.

To come at last to conscience, however, the core fact of the book is that it is driven by the consciences of its characters. The main characters never have a choice in what they do: they are constantly compelled by their guiding light. For Jean Valjean, that is love; for Marius, honor; for Javert, the law; for Enjolras (in his brief stint as protagonist), philosophy. The only characters who choose their actions freely have either no conscience (Thenardier, Gavroche) or are not truly characters (Cosette). Apropos of that, it is worth mentioning that the women in this book are not very well-realized. In fact, they are little more than furniture. Dickens, often criticized for failing to characterize his women as well as his men, was a feminist by comparison.

Les Misérables is long and varied, but it is all contained within L’Homme Ocean, and it is easy to dip into the book as one dips into the curated content of today’s personal websites; the personality of Hugo suffuses every word, and to submerge oneself in it is a pleasure, although his expansiveness does not lend itself to storytelling qua storytelling. The point of Les Misérables, in the end, is not to hear an extraordinary story or learn interesting facts about 19th-century France. Those things also occur, but the value of the book is not in its content, but in its presence. »

Fact check: Dracula

Midway through Dracula, Stoker makes the following references in regards to extraordinary vigor and longevity:

There are always mysteries in life. Why was it that Methuselah lived nine hundred years, and ‘Old Parr’ one hundred and sixty-nine, and yet that poor Lucy, with four men’s blood in her poor veins, could not live even one day? For, had she lived one more day, we could save her. Do you know all the mystery of life and death? Do you know the altogether of comparative anatomy and can say wherefore the qualities of brutes are in some men, and not in others? Can you tell me why, when other spiders die small and soon, that one great spider lived for centuries in the tower of the old Spanish church and grew and grew, till, on descending, he could drink the oil of all the church lamps?“

The biblical story doesn’t really warrant investigation, and Thomas Parr is established cryptoanthropology, but I was curious about the spider anecdote. A little research turned up the following in the "Literary and Scientific Intelligence” section of an 1821 number of the Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany:

Spiders.—The sexton of the church of St Eustace, at Paris, amazed to find frequently a particular lamp extinct early, and yet the oil consumed only, sat up several nights to perceive the cause. At length he discovered that a spider of surprising size came down the cord to drink the oil. A still more extraordinary instance of the same kind occurred during the year 1751, in the Cathedral of Milan. A vast spider was observed there, which fed on the oil of the lamps. M. Morland, of the Academy of Sciences, has described this spider, and furnished a drawing of it. It weighed four pounds, and was sent to the Emperor of Austria, and is now in the Imperial Museum at Vienna.“

It appears Dr. Van Helsing was exaggerating the length of the spider’s life somewhat, but the anecdote is at least based on what appear to be real events.

The drawing appears to be lost, unfortunately, though here is an image (Prout, 1839) of the cathedral in question, which appears capable of housing such an animal: »

Reamde (Neal Stephenson, 2011)

Like most Neal Stephenson books, Reamde is unsatisfying. But unlike Anathem, which was unsatisfying because it just barely missed following through on a powerful and fascinating premise, Reamde is unsatisfying because it aims so low. It is a surprisingly unambitious and overstuffed series of procedurals that has you waiting for a payoff that never comes. Page by page it is enjoyable, but around 900 of the 1040 pages are enjoyable in more or less the same way, and you reach saturation long before they run out; the remaining 140 pages are essentially irrelevant navel-gazing.

The story is basically this: a computer virus causes an unstable mob boss to kidnap two young techies and bring them to China in order to find the virus’s author. Once there, they accidentally kick a hornet’s nest of terrorists and ride an endless wave of repercussions.

The funny thing about the book is that it’s called Reamde, and Reamde, the virus that sets off the series of events, is almost totally inconsequential. Yet in order to manufacture relevance, Stephenson spends page after page explaining how it works, which means establishing not only an entire massively multiplayer online RPG (through which the virus propagates) but a history of that RPG, employees and characters within that RPG, and so on — none of whom have any real effect on the story. The game is admittedly a potentially interesting game, but this isn’t a pitch deck being sent to Blizzard, it’s a novel, and the entire subplot is a flight of fancy that performs no real work. A reader will naturally take interest in the details because they think they will matter later. They don’t.

The book is full of smaller pieces of foreshadowing that fail to pan out. Early on, a character laboriously explains the behavioral principle of “tasking.” This reappears later in the book, but in such a contrived way that one feels Stephenson realized at some point that he had established it early on and decided to write it in poorly rather than take the time to write it out well.

Once you take Reamde out of Reamde, it’s a cut-and-dry kidnapping/adventure/terrorism story set in modern day. I don’t have to tell you that there is no shortage of perfectly fine books of that type, many of which are written by people for whom that is their forte, and consumed regularly by fans of the genre.

That wouldn’t be a problem if the book was excellent on those merits (I’ve enjoyed many a caper novel), but the Reamde misstep means that people are waiting for the wrong payoff, and meanwhile must forgive Stephenson’s shortcomings as an action writer. It feels after a while that you’re basically along for the ride as Stephenson plays cops and robbers, but his style turns every scene into an interminable list of micro-actions spelled out in excruciatingly drawn-out fashion. No one ever shoots at anyone in this book. They pull the gun out from the holster, chamber a round, flip the safety off, line up the sights, direct the sights at a particular part of the target, and then fire a specific number of rounds — after which the casings dutifully travel through the air (“arcing,” probably) and strike something nearby. Every shootout — and there are a lot of shootouts — plays out in slow motion.

Donald Westlake’s Parker novels take the opposite approach: characters shoot or hit one another in the same way they would pick up a plate or turn their head. This normalization of violence with any other everyday act paradoxically makes it more shocking and more realistic, and it saves paper.

It seems likely that the author of Reamde recently took a few classes in firearm discipline and learned a few facts while he was there, and we are now receiving that lesson second-hand. Inconsequential bits of gun lore are peppered throughout, as Stephenson feels we are not properly educated unless we know that Makarov pistols have a special holster that chambers a round as you remove the gun from it — a fact that is never material in the story, naturally.

The second-by-second style also jars with Stephenson’s colloquial tone, in which “friggin’” is used both in the narration and in the mouth of a Chinese hacker who somehow knows this corruption of a foreign curse but not other common English words. As for higher-level pacing, he has a habit of breaking off from narration of a scene in order to narrate another — a normal enough thing with multiple characters — but it is done haphazardly and sometimes arbitrarily in order to build tension, like a commercial break in 24 or Lost.

Sentence by sentence it is obvious that Stephenson is not being edited well. He overuses and misuses “bemused” and other words, and, as with gunplay, is overwrought in his descriptions. At one point a character wrote on a map. Stephenson renders this as “added hand-drawn notations.” Concise he isn’t (to be fair, his readers know this).

The main plot, meanwhile, is advanced by absolutely outrageous deus ex machina. Spoiler warning. An actual wild animal intervenes on our heroes’ behalf not once, but twice, both times during firefights. Does Stephenson think so little of his readers? For a writer of such imagination it is not to be thought that he had no other way to resolve these situations. Yet here before my eyes, a mountain lion is mauling a terrorist who is about to pull the trigger on one of the main characters.

I read the first third because it promised interesting things to come. I read the middle third because it was a sort of Rube Goldberg machine, toppling inexorably from one event to the next. But as I progressed through the final third, I became more and more aware that this was not going to become the book I wanted it to be. As I feared, it descended into a melee of round-chambering and ducks and rolls, none of which had anything to do with the personalities, motivations, or capabilities of the characters or the themes of the book we were led to believe were important. And just when you’re hoping for, at the very least, a tidy conclusion, you get a cougar instead.

Do I regret the thousand pages I read? I’m afraid I rather do. Part of the reason I enjoyed it was because I assumed it was all tying together somehow and I just couldn’t see how it would work. But it never did, and that makes my enjoyment hollow — fraudulent, in a way. I enjoyed Reamde on false pretenses, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone else do the same. »

The Food of the Gods (H.G. Wells, 1904)

One of Wells’ lesser-read (not to say obscure) works, The Food of the Gods is an enjoyable but perplexing book. The premise is simple enough: a pair of scientists invent a substance that causes life to grow much larger than normal, the explanation being that growth is naturally punctuated because of the sporadic presence of this substance, which if supplied artificially causes continual expansion. A neat and adaptable concept, and he explores its implications in several directions, yet the theme and overarching idea of the book is elusive. Is it a parable? Is it a lark? Is it a warning? And if so, to whom?

The most off-putting aspect of the book is its varying tone. It’s like a Hollywood blockbuster that tries to be both tragic and comic. This doesn’t always work out. At least with The Food of the Gods the tone changes more or less continually from jaunty and light to serious and subversive. And in the end you get the feeling that the story had become something it was never meant to be – but which Wells probably found unavoidable given its trajectory.

That is to say, the early parts of the book are light at heart, exuding a sort of youth-fiction vibe as the Food (alternately called the Food of the Gods, Herakleophorbia, and Boomfood) is first tested (producing a hilarious episode in which giant hens invade a small town – “You know that swinging stride of the emancipated athletic latter—day pullet!”), first goes out of control (giant and lethal rats and bees, which must be exterminated, and home-crushing vines and grass), and enters the mainstream (where it is clucked by the public and taken advantage of by politicians). You get the feeling this is a sort of “what if” scenario with some strange adventures and a bit of commentary on unintended consequences. The characters are deliberately ridiculous, the writing is funny and improvisational.

But later, things become serious. It follows the careers of a few children who are raised on the Food, the result being that they are not only enormous, but kept isolated and marginalized by society. It becomes an affecting study of an exaggerated generation gap, and the gap that occurs when someone chooses to ignore progress.

By the end, when it comes to bloodshed, things have gotten quite serious indeed. The politicians are cynically rendered as “votes incarnate,” the public and police as ignorant units, and the Food has come to represent Progress, and all that comes with it. Young Redwood, son of the Food’s creator and the first to be raised on it, becomes a mouthpiece for the idea of progress as an ideal:

Will this little world of theirs be as it was before? They may fight against greatness in us who are the children of men, but can they conquer? Even if they should destroy us every one, what then? Would it save them? No! For greatness is abroad, not only in us, not only in the Food, but in the purpose of all things! It is in the nature of all things; it is part of space and time. To grow and still to grow: from the first to last that is Being – that is the law of life. What other law can there be?

It is not as though the little and great could live together in any perfection of compromise. It is one thing or the other. What right have parents to say, My child shall have no light but the light I have had, shall grow no greater than the greatness to which I have grown?“

It is the question of Pandora’s box. Once opened, never to be closed again. And the consequence, though the book ends before this takes place, must eventually be the eradication of life as it exists on the world. It’s a hell of a way for a book to end, which started out seemingly as a mere indulgence in a creative conceit — an excuse to write, to have a plague of giant bees, to use the phrase "flappish and whangable.”

The whole thing takes place not as a unified narrative, but rather in a series of vignettes, breaking up the story by location and skipping back and forth by years. It feels to me as if Wells only realized the vastness of the story he was telling after he started, and was not able to (or not in a mood to) follow through on that potential. With The War of the Worlds, it seems he had everything in mind beforehand, as a means to knock Britain off its perch and warn of the dangers of complacency. With The Food of the Gods, he seems to have accidentally stumbled over a Great Book, and declined to write it. It is still very enjoyable, but the book simply is not itself. »

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (James Hogg, 1824)

This interesting book was put in my hands by a good friend whose literary suggestions are sound without exception. It is not, as the title may suggest, a tell-all like Pepys’ diaries, or even, really, a private memoir at all. It’s a striking early example of nontraditional narrative structure, predating many other adventurous novels and reportedly inspiring Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde.

It’s remarkable for the transparency of its misdirection, which leaves the reader constantly unsure exactly what is true, and rarely pins anything down with certainty. So the reader, like the protagonist in fact ends up at one point in the novel, is suspended between several points of view and unable to make any definite conclusions. It begins with an “Editor’s narrative,” which describes a series of events at the turn of the 17th century involving two sons of a Scottish Laird, one of whom is disowned and becomes a religious zealot who torments and eventually kills the other for, apparently, no reason. Then follow the actual confessions, which are written by the religious brother, Robert, and seem to describe a descent into depravity and madness, accompanied and prompted by someone who may or may not be the devil. Last, there is a continuation of the editor’s narrative, which describes how the text was found.

As others have pointed out, this means the story is in a way told backwards; it would be far more logical to describe how the text was come across and its context, then present the text itself, then produce some criticism or notes to aid in its interpretation. Yet the point of the novel isn’t just to tell a story, though the story of how absolute certainty in an idea can, and in a way must, lead to the worst atrocities, is certainly interesting enough.

Yet it is not to be taken as an anti-religious book, exactly. It is certainly critical of the Calvinist doctrines to which Robert adheres, and acts as a warning of religious irrationality, but it has no issue with faith or worship. In this it is a very interesting document, though not having lived in the period in which it was written, I can’t speak to how rare this idea of moderatism was. The way Robert himself justifies his acts through scripture and the like (though the “Justified” in the title refers to a specific doctrine, elected infallibility) is certainly cutting, however, and any religious reader would perhaps sense a latent tone of reproval.

The deconstruction of knowledge and identity throughout the book is complete. The reader is sure he is coming into the confessions with the “truth” in hand via the editor, but that starts to prove inadequate, especially after the second editor’s narrative. And in the confessions themselves, it becomes bafflingly unclear just what is real, what is not, and how much Robert’s account can even be trusted. He admits to large periods of memory loss, and notes of some accounts he gives that he has altered them on his companion’s suggestion.

Some might suggest it to be a purely psychological narrative, but one of the few things that is made clear in the book is that Robert’s subversive friend, Gil-Martin, is not a figure of his imagination. Many of Robert’s acts could be chalked up to insanity or belligerent zealotry, but the story doesn’t make sense unless Gil-Martin is real to everyone, not just Robert. But their identities are blurred time and again, and it is maddening but compelling to try to unravel the knot. It is in vain, though: the book offers no complete solutions, and much is deliberately left unsaid, or incomplete.

It’s not for everyone, and not really an easy read (some history of the area and religious conflicts are necessary, and long periods of Scots dialogue may cause even the most devoted dialect-writing fans to blink), but it is an excellent reminder of how interesting and original ideas are often found earlier than you expect. The dual-identity problem in this book is more subtle and more complex than the rather crude one in Stevenson, though of course they have different objects. And the subversion of truth and narrative style are masterfully done. A very unique book and one well worth the time of the interested reader. »

The City & The City (China Mieville, 2009)

This book has been recommended by many a shelf tag in book stores, and won a number of prizes last year, or maybe the year before. At any rate, like The Wind-Up Girl, it was showered with praise and I looked forward to being pleasantly surprised by one of the more critically-acclaimed sci-fi books out there. Alas, I have been deceived again, and while the book is certainly not bad, it’s rather disappointing and any reader must immediately acknowledge that the setting’s potential was squandered on a ho-hum story and an abrupt, unsatisfying ending.

The concept of the two cities is by far the best thing about the book, but Mieville approaches it from a boring direction right off the bat. The idea is that there are two cities intertwined with each other, sharing streets, sidewalks, blocks, buildings even, but for many years contact has been prohibited between the cities, and people are brought up learning only to see their cities, to the point of not even perceiving the people, cars, and buildings in the other city, though they’re physically right there.

It’s a fascinating concept for a lot of reasons, and could make for very interesting storytelling, but Mieville immediately pedestrianizes it by making this selective perception totally superficial: citizens of one city do see the other, but then consciously “unsee” or “unhear” that particular information. It robs the scenario of any weight, and it seems clear to me that this was the easy way out.

To have followed through on the concept, it would be necessary to put the reader in the place of the narrator, truly not seeing the other city, omitting it from the text in such a way that the reader is aware something is missing – and later, the other city can be revealed and the information that they are physically superimposed can be produced in a more organic fashion. But this would be extremely difficult. Yet it is really the only way to do justice to this very compelling idea.

Mieville’s writing is spotty and I find his disdain for punctuation distracting. It’s one thing to barely use it at all, like McCarthy, or to create labyrinths of your sentences, like Sterne, but Mieville doesn’t establish any real style rules, and dialogue especially can be difficult to decode. Sometimes words are rendered as they might fall out of a person’s mouth, with uninterrupted repeats of phrases in a stutter or a question spoken as a statement. Yet sometimes people talk as if they’re reading a prepared statement. Sentence fragments pepper the chapters, as well, but without the consistency or punchiness necessary to give them the kind of atmospheric weight they are capable of carrying.

Another example of inconsistency is the use of English as, ostensibly, the language being narrated. Early on we are introduced to, if I remember, mechanical technicians, which the narrator says they shorten to “mectec.” So it’s an abbreviation based on the phrase as rendered in English? Yet elsewhere he uses made-up words in the other language to refer to jargony items, militsya for the military police in Ul Qoma, for instance. Which is it, mine author?

And sometimes the writing is just plain bad. Consider this paragraph, describing an archaeological dig central to the story:

“At the edges of the big marquee was a wild-looking scrubland, thistled and weedy between a litter of broken-off architecture. The dig was almost the size of a soccer pitch, subdivided by its matrix of string. Its base was variously depthed, flat-bottomed. Its floor of compacted earth was broken by inorganic shapes, strange breaching fish: shattered jars, crude and uncrude statuettes, verdigris-clogged machines. The students looked up from the section they were in, each at various careful depths, through various cord borders, clutching pointed trowels and soft brushes.”

He appears to have no sense of the singular and plural, the unwieldiness and ugliness of a word like “depthed,” or the smirking pretension of “crude and uncrude.” At the edges was? Between a litter of architecture? Where is the narrator standing that he can describe the bottoms and inhabitants of pits on the far side of a soccer pitch? Granted you get the picture of the dig, more or less. But utility writing this is not. As an example of style it’s atrocious in several ways.

The most interesting bits of the story – Orciny, Breach, the history of the cities – end up more or less minimized or revealed in disappointing ways, sometimes in a hurry, as if the last tenth of the book were written on a deadline and the loose threads needed to be either tied up or snipped off stat.

All that said, once I got over my disappointment at the missed opportunities, the book was pleasant enough to read and short enough to finish in just a few days. Like The Wind-Up Girl, it was a meal I wanted to finish, even if I wouldn’t order it again. »

An Instance of the Fingerpost (Iain Pears, 1997)

The full-immersion historical novel isn’t an easy one to get right. It’s easy to get bogged down in irrelevant contemporary details, info-dumps in the form of history lessons, or archaic speech. Or it can be a failure of overarching style, as novels written in the 18th and 19th centuries in particular (popular periods for period books) are for the most part extremely well-structured, a feat not every novelist can achieve. An Instance of the Fingerpost manages to avoid most of these pitfalls, presenting a vibrant and highly compelling 17th century England, but outside the traditional bustle and filth of London. The structure of the book is also compelling, and as soon as you detect it, the depth and your own interest increases.

Spoiler warning. As soon as you find the book is broken into several shorter narratives concerning the same event, you start willing the author to succeed. After all, many such attempts at nonstandard storytelling fail, often because the structure is only there as a spice, rather than as the meat of the book. This book’s four-part story and unreliable narrators are foundational.

In An Instance of the Fingerpost, the structure is very important, and it does not fail except perhaps in subjective ways. The plot is centered around the death of an Oxford professor in Restoration-period England, when the Enlightenment is around the corner but in the meantime all is ruled by religious conformity and a desire to settle down after decades of war and turmoil. Many of the characters are in fact taken from that period of history: real scientists, politicians, religious figures. The narrative is fictional but lies lightly on top of the true history – a “what if” situation that unravels farther in each successive narrative and increases the scope of the plot.

Pears’ writing is faultless and enjoyable, and the voices of the different characters noticeably different. His research and care in making Oxford and its inhabitants period-accurate, yet relatable and realistic, are admirable. In my opinion the last period stumbles the most, as it is necessarily the “straight” narrative and you are unoccupied in attempting to suss out the inaccuracies and outright lies being woven in.

It is a long book, nearly 700 pages in my paperback edition, and while I wouldn’t call the pace slow, it’s not fast, either. It is at least steady. As far as modern historical fiction goes, An Instance of the Fingerpost is a delightful and compelling read, though readers for whom political intrigue and playful scholarly allusions are tiring will want to pass it by. »

The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells, 1898)

The War Of The Worlds is, most importantly, a book about the dangers of complacency. While Wells’ imagination and knack for a rolling narrative are worth applauding any day, the book is not at its heart a heroic adventure. Like The Time Machine, it is a warning. In that book he caricatured the erosion of humanity’s most important qualities; in this one, his message is more direct: the road of complacency leads to destruction – destruction of the literal and immediate variety.

Wells’ message was directed at the self-satisfaction that defined Victorian culture and the Pax Anglica that followed scores of years of warfare with France and Austria. While Europe rebuilt after Napoleon and the newly-formed United States consumed itself in partisan violence, Britannia lorded over the globe, carving up continents with the vanity of empire and despoiling the still-rich reaches of Africa and the “Indies.”

The smugness and swagger of this period must have thoroughly disgusted Wells. Perceiving the hubris of this apical imperium, he began to imagine what it would take to shock his country into seeing the transience of their glory. And his disgust with his countrymen is evident on every page, as the residents of this secure and superior world fail to comprehend that there may be such a thing as a threat. His encounter with a shaken churchman after escaping the site of a massacre allows him to wax dialectical and speak directly to the idiot culture he saw taking root:

He spoke abruptly, looking vacantly away from me.

‘What does it mean?’ he said. ‘What do these things mean?’

I stared at him and made no answer.

He extended a thin white hand and spoke in almost a complaining tone.

‘Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done? The morning service was over, I was walking through the roads to clear my brain for the afternoon, and then–fire, earthquake, death! As if it were Sodom and Gomorrah! All our work undone, all the work—- What are these Martians?’

‘What are we?’ I answered, clearing my throat.

And shortly afterwards:

‘But how can we escape?’ he asked, suddenly. ‘They are invulnerable, they are pitiless.’

‘Neither the one nor, perhaps, the other,’ I answered. ‘And the mightier they are the more sane and wary should we be.’

What is safety but a chance to forget danger? But if you forget it forever, you have only succeeded in creating a new danger.

My own country follows this path more and more. People are fools for their comforts, and the slightest misfortune produces livid entitlement. And while pet politics and cotton-candy news occupy the totality of their attention, conflicts and tragedies of a planetary scale fail even to register. What will it take for an American, charged with nimbyism and petty hatreds, to recognize that they have been neglecting not only the lives of the billions with which they share this world, but also the keystones of their own humanity?

Clearly that direct assault we all know, and the tenth anniversary of which we just marked, had the makings of such an event. But it failed to galvanize and only served as a springboard for division and infighting. When the death of thousands furnishes only insulation for our own bigotry and willful ignorance, what will humble us?

The story is a feat of invention, and is told in a vérité style that makes it more compelling than many a science fiction book I’ve read. But the message is the part that lingers in my mind: When the Martians landed in The War of the Worlds, their job was already done. A culture (or species) that believes itself exempt from catastrophe has already destroyed itself. »

The Secret Agent (Joseph Conrad, 1907)

When you really come down to it, there really isn’t much to The Secret Agent, Conrad’s schizophrenic ensemble piece describing several “anarchists” in a sort of imagined historical account of the real Greenwich Observatory bombing of 1894. Yet its pages are rich and meticulously crafted, full of detail which could only be supplied by someone completely involved with his work. The framework of the novel, though, its “skeleton,” as Conrad refers to it in a conciliatory 1920 preface, is only the barest suggestion of a story. The title might lead you to think it’s a tale of espionage and high drama, but in fact it’s more of a progression of baroque character studies.

Conrad’s justification (for following reviews savaging the book for its supposed depravity and lack of any sort of real edification, he felt the need to append one) was simply that, having been told a few details of the bombing, he felt a set of characters and actions evolve in his head surrounding that “blood-stained inanity,” and simply set pen to paper. It was written quickly and fairly continuously, a fact that shows in the unvarying tone and inspired feel of the writing.

The perspective is one of omniscience, and Conrad puts his characters under the glass so minutely that pages and pages of description, narration, and thoughts will separate two lines of dialogue. It’s almost as if Conrad is narrating a film, and feels the need to stop it constantly in order to explain what you’ve missed. This applies to inconsequential events as well as serious ones: the detail with which the grotesque cab driver is rendered (a perfectly Dickensian caricature) is equal to that of the difference between the moral imperatives driving Chief Inspector Heat and the Assistant Commissioner. And while the former is certainly of a lesser fundamental weight than the latter, both are treated with the same slightly removed tone of levity that pervades the whole book. Conrad is a funny guy, it turns out, and though the events described might be of the most terrible import, they are all the same to our amused narrator.

It’s not a quick read, though it isn’t a particularly long book: my cheap Dover edition is around two hundred pages, and more normally-printed ones probably will reach three hundred or more. The subtitle for the book is “A Simple Tale,” and indeed the tale is simple, but the writing is dense and each sentence seems absolutely necessary. While in other books I can get away with accidentally skipping a sentence or two after looking away to pick up my coffee or what have you, in The Secret Agent I would immediately get lost. And yet so much of the book is completely irrelevant to every other part! Don’t ask me why it is this way, it just is.

The espionage and action in the book is so minimal that anyone looking for a thrill will be disappointed. The plot never takes off, but on the other hand, the plot is more of a red herring, a nail from which to hang the rest of the book. There’s a lot to like about The Secret Agent, but the independence of each enjoyable element robs it of profundity. That said, if you like the way Conrad writes in general — well, he wrote this. »

The Inverted World (Christopher Priest, 1974)

The progenitors of science fiction had more right to call it “speculative” than the technobabblers of today who flinch at the apparently derogatory term sci-fi. Novels like Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea showed how man and the world would naturally react given the novel stimulus of an impossibility turned possible. Change one thing and watch events play out naturally with normal people, with the narrative usually some distance past the actual change. Now it seems that authors change everything but the stories; switch up everything in the universe and watch the old familiar thriller play out as it has for hundreds of years. Having learned nothing about The Inverted World before reading it, I wasn’t sure which to expect. As it turns out, it’s among the best examples of the old sci-fi I’ve ever read.

It won’t do to discuss the plot, though it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the main character is a denizen of “the city,” a large complex that must be slowly moved along rails northward, to escape a mysterious danger seemingly approaching from the south.

The world building is by the numbers at first, and the writing is unremarkable (and occasionally imprecise), but competent, and dialogue is good. Slowly, the secrets of The Inverted World are revealed to both the protagonist and the reader, and the process is so incredibly compelling that I read some 200 pages in a day, then finished it off just a few minutes ago.

To describe the book further would be to spoil the fun, though there’s no twist exactly, as one finds in movies these days, but rather a logical exposition of the nature of things, and it is both fun to read and interesting to unravel. Most importantly, the problems of this book, and of the world described, are problems that can only occur within the compass of this book and world. There is very little contemporary allusion, or borrowing, or padding with long descriptions of fights and events which, while exciting, are not strictly speaking consequential to the story. This flaw hobbled The Gone-Away World, which has a cloak of grandness but loses itself in minutiae (and for the record, seems to have taken several ideas from Priest’s book).

I’ve only read a few books this quickly in my life, which is certainly a compliment, yet at the same time I never felt it was fluff (as much modern sci-fi is) or overly taxing (as Last and First Men, and Book of the New Sun are). I’ll be recommending this to all of my friends who like an occasional break from contemporary and traditionally-set literature. »

The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi, 2009)

The Wind-Up Girl came highly recommended by my family, and of course the usual breathless praise from within the sci-fi community made it out to be nothing less than a Neuromancer for this modern age. Biopunk, a dystopian future made from only the freshest fears of the present. It partially delivers on this promise, but also fails in the ways modern books I’ve read recently tend to fail.

The premise is certainly the best part of the book. Some distance into the future, perhaps a hundred years or so, bioengineered crops and organisms have supplanted natural ones, giving rise to new plagues and food shortages — not to mention a rising sea due (I assume) to global warming. The result is the “Contraction,” a reversal of the “Expansion” era of our day. Fuel and power are precious and the universally acknowledged currency is calories. The story takes place in Krung Thep, AKA Bangkok, in Thailand, where the Thai have maintained independence by ingenuity, independence, and grit. And, as a new and disease-resistant fruit introduced at the outset suggests, a seedbank and skilled bioengineers.

Unfortunately, the book never really delivers on its promises. The landscape is foreign in a way, but also filled with the lazy analogues endemic to modern sci-fi. The “kink-springs,” for instance, are nothing more than batteries, no matter how named. The privations of the Contraction are no barrier to most of the characters, poverty and heat seeming to be the main difficulties — whenever a “rule” of the new world is inconvenient, it is discarded, and guns, cars, and other things that should be impossible in this new world regularly appear; one is not convinced of their rarity simply by the characters gasping at their appearance. And the story itself is easily abstractable from the world; the Environment Ministry (the “White Shirts”) and Trade Ministry could just as easily be Pepsico and Coca-Cola, or Boeing and Northrup Grumman, since the conflict is more or less political. That’s where the book fails: despite the well-conceived backdrop, very seldom in The Wind-Up Girl (an almost peripheral character, incidentally) does anything happen that couldn’t happen in any other book or world. In the end, the meat and potatoes are generic thriller, and the bioengineering and global cataclysm are simply sauce.

The writing is also spotty. Like so many modern books, whatever isn’t a labor of love (often the premise and a couple inspired characters or situations) is filler, and you can tell when Bacigalupi is writing something he doesn’t particularly care about. There are a few nice turns of phrase here and there, and the beginning hints at a fragmented timeline that is abandoned shortly. He lacks variety in his phraseology as well (towards the end of the book, during a firefight, I read the word “chatters” at least six or seven times in the space of a few pages), and the dialogue is totally undifferentiated. Every character speaks in the same voice, though their internal narration is better.

Bacigalupi has written several other stories that take place in this world, and it seems to me that his great accomplishment was painting the background, but he has yet to actually produce anything but sketches in the foreground. For world-building, he gets a gold star, but for storytelling, no credit. Other modern sci-fi I’ve read has the same prose shortcomings, but in the Virga trilogy (and even in Mainspring, an inferior book by far) the story was unique to the situation. Not so here. »

Acquired: Audubon’s Birds Of America watercolors (New York Historical Society folio, 1966) », ,