The Big Time

The Big Time – Fritz Leiber; ACE, 1982; cover art: Vincent Di Fate

I finished The Big Time by Fritz Leiber in a day and a half.  I just sped through this book!  Well, I am going to say right now at the beginning of this review:  this is not a book everyone can appreciate.  I wholeheartedly believe to get the five-star rating (that I am bestowing on this novel), you have to be partially insane.  You have to be able to see the absurdity in things, you have to have a big and strong imagination, and you have to have wit in spades.  Now, I do not make any claims regarding whether the converse is true, i.e. if you do not like it, it is because you have no wit/imagination, etc.  However, I do think if you take everything seriously and have little or no sense of humor, you will really have a ranting raving “review” to write if you read this book!

The Big Time was first published in 1958.  I read the ACE 1982 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover.  Whole volumes have been written on the author – he was an interesting fellow with ups and downs and excitements galore.  Nevertheless, this is the first work I have read by him.  He was a preacher, an actor, an alcoholic, and a chessman.  He was supposedly influenced by the famous authors of the early 1900s, including H. P. Lovecraft (well, who wasn’t?).   The Big Time reads a lot like how one might expect an author with this resume to write.  And for a whole mess of readers out there – it is uncomfortable and disappointing.

There is a very short introduction to this novel written by the author and a bit of a longer afterword (previously the 1976 introduction to this story) by Robert Thurston.  Without these two guideposts, I am not sure I would have made it through the book.  If your edition does not have these bits, good luck!

I started reading this novel and I was confused; the thing is jumbled and silly.  Everything – every word – seems completely random.  It seem to start in media res, but who can tell?  And the narrator – how I hated the narrator with an immense and fiery wrath!  It seemed the narrator was unfocused, dumb as a brick, and personified the worst elements of certain stereotypes.  Now, do not get me wrong – I have read plenty of “in media res” novels.  Also, I am relatively okay with things that are zany and oblique.  But this!!! This was atrocious and I very nearly put the book into the “Going to Thrift Store Pile.”  If it weren’t for the guideposts of the introduction and the afterword, I swear I would not have made it through.

The characters number twelve.  Each one is relatively significant/important to the plot of the book.  Greta is the main character and narrator.  She is the one that immediately induced violent repulsed reactions in me.  By the end of the novel, I am cheering for her and I think she is a hoot-and-a-half. Complete turnarounds for characters, like this, are remarkably rare.

The back of the book (and the description found in many places online) reads:  This is war:  The biggest, longest war that anyone could imagine.  The soldiers are recruited at the moment of death to fight through all of time.  The goal is to change the past, and insure victory in the future.  The Change Winds are blowing.  Welcome to the Big Time.  And from this – I think the reader may expect a war story? Or a commentary on warfare?  Or even a unique (and fun) concept which puts a variety of soldiers from a variety of eras onto the battlefield at once. . .  But this is a key problem; the reader should not believe the hype! Sure, that is the overall framework of this novel, but only as a vague “background.”

As I read along, I kept wondering about the Snakes and the Spiders (the two alleged sides of the war).  When are we going to learn about them? What are they like? Why are they doing this? What strategies do they use?  What side do we wish we were on?  All of these questions and more I found myself asking and never coming upon the answers.  So, there is this really aggravated curiosity that was being developed and though I was hating the book, I kept reading (thankfully!).  I suspect most readers stop at this point because they get too frustrated.

Then suddenly, I found pieces falling into place (and after reading this novel, I do want to always capitalize “Place”).  And I started to care about the characters and the storyline.  Not everything was roses and smiles, but I was doing a lot better and somehow Greta had wormed her way into my heart and I was appreciating her random and silly exclamations, outbursts, and sarcasm.

Except Bruce and Lili, who were still holding hands and beaming gently.  I decided they were the kind of love that makes brave, which it doesn’t do to me.  It just gives me two people to worry about. – pg. 64, Chapter 6

Greta’s narration is really a stream of consciousness.  For better or worse, though, she isn’t one of the great minds of the kosmos.  She’s an Entertainer, which in this novel is something like a therapist, nurse, call-girl, and waitress.  So, she interrupts herself, uses slang, makes silly exclamations, and loses her train of thought.

Somehow (or by the sheer magic of insanity + genius) the storyline moves along.  Bruce Marchant, on page 72, jumps up onto the bartop and begins a rousing speech that both questions the premise of the whole novel, and also causes turmoil among each and every character.  Leiber makes the character do this by a simple prop from earlier in the book:  a black glove from Chapter Two.  So what seemed extremely random earlier, is now connecting characters and plotline and I became a fully-engaged reader.

The rousing speech causes the characters to choose sides.  Presumably, all the characters are on the army of the Spiders…. now they have to “willingly” choose to be on Bruce’s side or the militant’s side.  And each side has its own motives to consider.  There is tension and fighting and surprises.  Finally, the story actually turns into a sort of mystery.  The characters and I are all trying to solve a mystery.  The tension is eased here and there by the now-amusing Greta.  She has a helluva role to play in the novel, besides just narrate away.

“Here it comes,” I thought, wishing I could faint. On top of everything, on top of death even, they had to drag in the nightmare personally stylized for me, the horror with my name on it.  I wasn’t going to be allowed to blow up peacefully.  They weren’t satisfied with an A-bomb.  They had to write my private hell into the script.  – pg. 142, Chapter 14

The resolution is interesting and fun.  It also seems to work out alright for each character.  The last chapter allows a brief return to a deeper speculation as to what The Big Time is and what is going on with this Change War and whatnot with the Spiders vs. Snakes.  I feel it works for those readers who simply cannot let go of the idea that that is what the novel is about.  But for me, it was inconsequential. Not bad, just not needed.

This novel is weird and has weird elements – things that made me truly think that only an insane person could come up with them.  And then the idea of squashing all of this in an outside-of-time/space war?  With a spare number of distinct characters? Genius. And insane.  This novel, over many I have read, walks the perfect line between genius and insanity.  It also presents a slew of concepts to toy around with as far as space/time/zombies.  If you like time travel stories or novels wherein “time is out of joint,” this is for you. So fans of PKD and Douglas Adams will love this. As in PKD (Cp. UBIK) not every artefact is explained – if you need it explained, you might as well read a different book.  I loved this because I was both amused and impressed.  Be advised, not all readers will stomach this – but if you make the attempt, just keep reading!

5 stars

Station in Space

Station in Space – James E. Gunn; Bantam; 1958

Station in Space by James E. Gunn (b. 1923) is the second book that I have read by the author.  Station in Space was published in 1958, but its contents were all previously published.  I don’t know if I would call this a novel or even a “fix-up” novel.  It is not a collection of short stories, either – because all five pieces in this book actually tell a linear, if broad, story.

The first piece in this book is The Cave of Night.  It was originally published in 1955 in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine.  It was also adapted into an episode of the NBC radio show X-Minus-One.  It aired on February 1, 1956 and was adapted by Ernest Kinoy.  I started reading and did not really like any of it, but somehow it hooked me.  It was more emotionally drawing than I expected it to be.  And I did not expect any of the last two pages.  Other savvy readers will, but for me it was a surprise.  So, the author gives a good grippy setup and then WHAM! he turns the tables on us.  Very cool. A story from the perspective of an American observing the space program.

The next section is Hoax.  This was originally from 1955 If magazine.  This introduces the character Amos Danton, a young man who is leaving for the orbital space station for the first time. He meets grizzled space veterans and is faced with the authentic dangers and miseries of life not “Inside” (on Earth).  We learn a lot about Cadet Amos in this story that will play a role in the rest of the book.  At this point, I had read the first two pieces in this book and was surprised by how good they were and also impressed with Gunn’s writing skill.  A story from the perspective of a young man going to the station, leaving behind his mother, his childhood, and the Academy.

I had read an earlier novel by Gunn and though it had plenty of good ideas, it was a little “out-in-left-field” and the writing itself was a bit awkward.  In these shorter works, Gunn’s writing skill shows through.  His characters have depth because Gunn lets the reader consider the situations and come to their own opinion of the character.  Spacemen, we learn, have some similar standout characteristics:  stubbornness, dreams and drive, ambition, and resilience.

The third piece is The Big Wheel, originally found in Fantastic Universe, 1956.  This is the longest of the three so far and it starts with a rather unique scenario.  In fact, Gunn is at his most profound in this story.  He gives us quick thoughts on clothes, economics, and the plight of the worker.  Bruce Patterson is the main character in this story, but as I reader I was really pulling for all the guys to succeed and survive. Kendrix is one of characters in this mix – he’s an ex-professor and he is the mouthpiece for a lot of criticism toward society and the government/economy.  He makes some salient points in his brief rants, but I swear some of these quotes were lifted from Gunn’s earlier work, This Fortress World.

“There speaks humanity!” Kendrix cried, pointing.  “Listen to it snore! Don’t disturb it with truths. Like an angry bear, it will smash the man who wakes it.  Sleep, my friend. Sleep on. When the world collapses around you, sleep, sleep. . . “

In any case, this is a story about the men who are struggling for jobs to support themselves/their family.  They have been selected for this “investment” project – to build the Big Wheel – a big orbital in space. The training is grueling.  The reason behind the entire project calls into question a number of opinions and beliefs. And it is also a realistic look at the demands of a space program.

The next section is Powder Keg, originally found in If, April 1958.  I did not love this one as much as I liked the others – but there can be no doubt that it is a solid, well-written entry.  In this piece, we meet Air Force psychologist Lloyd Phillips as he blasts off to the orbital under orders to discover if the men there are sane and can be counted on.  Of course, the orders come from a General who has motives and psychological issues which impinge on the situation heavily.  Phillips is forced into the miserable nerve-racking station. He meets insubordination, rudeness, challenge.  He also undergoes the strain of an emergency which threatens the lives of all the crew.  And he is forced to realize the situation on the station is not understood by those “Inside” (back on Earth.)  This story is tough on humans. It portrays them as heroic and honest, but also stubborn, difficult, and intractable.

Venture Science Fiction – May 1957

The final story, Space is a Lonely Place is my favorite of the bunch.  It is a really good piece to end this collection.  Here is a story about men making the strained trip to Mars. And of all the harrowing, ship-bound, “out of food/water/O2 stories that fill out the science fiction genre, I really like this one the best.  It is kind of what Gateway (F. Pohl) should have gotten right.  This is one creepy, disturbing, morally-challenging, gripping story. Shepherd! (You will understand after reading it!) Holy cow, Shepherd!  And the last line in the story is a statement by Lloyd Phillips and it is so creepy and eerie it seems straight out of The Twilight Zone and Hitchcock.  I actually own the magazine wherein it first appeared:  Venture Science Fiction, May 1957.

Anyway, I loved this collection – more so as it was put together, than anything separately. It reads really well.  And this is science fiction without ray guns and aliens.  It is science fiction from the mid-1950s that deals directly with the space program – and the dreams and demands of mankind regarding it.  I appreciated the psychological elements the most, I think. The economic scenario was not lost on me, and I could grant that some good marks.  But overall, Gunn captures the concept of mankind’s indefatigable “dreams” and what mankind will sacrifice for dreams – how dreams are this driving force, shoving man across frontiers and boundaries, having him take risks over and over again.

5 stars

The Glass Bees

The Glass Bees – Ernst Junger

The Glass Bees is the first and only work I have read, so far, by Ernst Jünger (1895 – 1998).  Did you just skip over those dates?  Yes, E.J. lived for 102 years.  And no matter what else is said about this author, it must be admitted his long life was full of all sorts of adventures and interesting things.  In 1916, he was awarded the Iron Cross II and I. Class.  In 1959 he was given:  Grand Merit Cross.  In 1982, he was awarded the Goethe Prize of Frankfurt.  A year before his death Jünger converted to Catholicism. He was the last living bearer of the military version of the order of the Pour le Mérite.  Jünger was a friend of Martin Heidegger.  He met several times with LSD inventor Albert Hofmann and they took LSD together.  Like I said:  Ernst is definitely not boring!

The Glass Bees is a short novel; in this edition it is only 24 chapters in 209 pages.  It was published in 1957. I enjoyed reading it in the evenings and there are plenty of “good stopping points” where you can leave and pick up again the next evening.  Some literary folk have dubbed this work “science fiction,” but that really would be a misnomer.  The narrator is Captain Richard.  He is an ex-soldier and former tank inspector.  As a soldier he was trained and served as a cavalryman.  This is significant throughout the novel and reminded me a lot of some of the Isaac Babel short stories that I have read.

The skeleton for this story is that Richard is an unemployed and rather impoverished ex-soldier who turns to a fellow ex-soldier with whom he trained for assistance.  In many ways, the man he turns to, Twinnings, operates as a sort of fixer.  He has sufficient means of his own and generally maintains a sort of “network” of former associates.  In many ways, Twinnings is like the original one-man Linked In.  Richard seeks Twinnings help mainly because Richard’s wife, Teresa, has become saddened about their current struggles.  She sees Richard through rose-colored glasses, so to speak, and therefore blames herself for Richard’s unemployment and financial miseries.  Twinnings, partly through old friendship and mainly because it is his “job,” sends Richard out to meet one of the most famous entrepreneurs in the country:  Giacomo Zapparoni.

Zapparoni is exceedingly wealthy.  He is also a Tony Stark-like character.  He’s definitely a forward-thinker; deeply involved with innovation, technology, and industry.  Even his hobbies are expensive.  However, Zapparoni is also an enigma, preferring to seem cryptic and elusive.  In many ways, he is seen as a technocrat and a representation of an economy driven by military technology.

However, the reader does not actually learn much about Zapparoni.  In fact, every line in this book is precisely from the blatant viewpoint of the narrator.  There are no impartial statements here.  Each page is from the perspective of Richard and every word is colored by his opinion, viewpoint, worldview, and personality.  So when Zapparoni is mentioned, we are not presented with Zapparoni qua Zapparoni, but Zapparoni filtered through the view of Richard.  This novel is how Richard views things.   Now, in most cases, I would find this sort of style of novel to be arrogant and tedious beyond tolerability.   Jünger somehow pulls off this style, though, without annoying the reader.  He is able to write this narrator so that the reader is really listening to Richard’s thoughts, as opposed to just blowing through them page after page.

Are Richard’s thoughts really fascinating?  Well, not really.  He uses his “job interview” with Zapparoni in order to “mentally process” the events of his life.  From small events, to bigger ones.  He reflects on the people who have most influenced him.  He examines what events he has experienced and what lessons he has learned from them.  But this is not to say that Richard is a passive receptacle for events that happen around him.  He is not a puppet.  Richard is probably an expert in his fields (cavalry, tank inspector).  He also has strong and stubborn views regarding the military, modernism, chivalry, technology, and morality.  Described in a word, Richard is “old school.”  And he is unemployed partially because he cannot figure out how to meld and adapt in the rapidly-changing, technologically-advancing modern world.

The intellectual Elliot Yale Neaman suggests that this novel is not really about anything:  “it has nothing to say.”  I both wholeheartedly agree and disagree with this comment.  This is not a novel with a standard novel-paradigm.  There is no heavy-handed message that the reader is to take away from it.  And, more than anything, this semi-autobiographical work is filled with memories and opinions and insights, but very little plot, suspense, or action.  So is this really a novel? Of course.  It just isn’t one the contemporary reader may be comfortable with.

It’s interesting that Jünger writes this as, basically, Richard’s job interview.  Because this is really what is presented. Rather than a list of a job candidate’s qualities (e.g. multi-tasking, diligent, hard-working, etc.), we learn who Richard is by all of the anecdotes and memories he shares with us.  Thus, we actually get a more complete understanding of the person than we would if he had simply rattled off his resume.  This is an interesting and rather classy style for a novel.  And while some of the memories are interesting but not impressive, every so often Jünger gives us an insightful commentary and it just makes this whole enterprise totally worth a five star rating.

Early on, we get a feel for Richard’s nostalgia and fondness for honor and chivalry, in short “the good old days.”

Today, naturally, there are still people one is afraid of; but his kind of authority no longer exists.  Today one is simply afraid; in those days one had, in addition, a guilty conscience. – pg. 17, chap. 2

However, while Richard seems old-fashioned to a fault, he also seems to have very sensible and deep understandings:

A work of art wastes away and becomes lusterless in surroundings where it has a price but not a value.  It radiates only when surrounded by love.  It is bound to wilt in a world where the rich have no time and the cultivated no money.  But it never harmonizes with borrowed greatness. pg. 50, chap. 3

I really like that quote because it carries this insight of distinction between the cultured and facade.  The difference between the wealthy and the nouveau-riche.  The genuine/authentic and the facsimile/fake.  That Jünger applies this to art is really great and I want to immediately sit down and discuss this with him.  You know he’s been reading Heidegger (all the technology stuff) and he’s been influenced by Adorno (crazy, wild, un-understandable Adorno).  This is good stuff and intelligent readers should appreciate the insights throughout this novel.

Finally, in a masterful analysis:

Considered as organization, this activity could be interpreted in several ways.  One could hardly assume the existence of a central control panel:  such a device would not be in the Zapparoni style because for him the quality of an automaton depended on its independent action.  His international success rested on the fact that he had made possible in a small area – his house, his garden – a closed economic project, he had declared war on wires, circuits, pipes, rails, connections.  It was a far cry from the hideous aspects of nineteenth-century industrial style. pg. 144, chap. 14

Well, I could probably write a long thesis just on this quote and the philosophical/historical ideas contained within.  Needless to say, this is good stuff and the intelligent reader will appreciate it.  Thus, readers of Calvino, Nabokov, and Pushkin should appreciate this novel.  Particularly if they do not mind the first-person, semi-autobiographical narrator-style.  Richard (Jünger) is a thinker.  He ponders history, military, technology, art, networks, etc.  He has staunch opinions sometimes.  At other times, he is extremely self-aware.  Still, at other times, he projects his views and understanding onto other subjects.  Regardless, I really enjoyed this novel and am thrilled to have read it.

5 stars

The Languages of Pao

The Languages of Pao – Jack Vance; ACE; 1958

The Languages of Pao is one of Jack Vance’s earlier works, published in 1958.  It is the third Vance novel that I have read, and probably the best so far.  I really enjoyed this novel and am going to give it a high rating.  However, I can see where some readers may not fancy this sort of novel.

This is science fiction for smart people.  In other words, it takes a bit of aptitude to read this and enjoy it for what it is.  If a reader comes to this novel thinking it is something else, they will be aggravated.  The Languages of Pao is not an action novel.  There are, really, only three characters in the novel.  Reader who are used to “growing up with” characters who reside in 10-tome epic fantasies, may find these characters underdeveloped.  I would disagree; they are just not rendered with tedious detail.  Finally, this novel only has the smallest amount of scientific detail.  So, readers who are used to high-tech, mecha stuff might be disappointed.

There is a concept that Vance utilizes in this novel that provides the overarching theme.  Wikipedia proudly proclaims this the linguistic Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.  This particular “hypothesis” was developed by Wilhelm von Humboldt, Franz Boas, and Edward Sapir.  I cannot speak for how familiar our author was regarding these linguistic theories.  I, frankly, am not too familiar with them, although I’ve run across the names of these fellows plenty; particularly in philosophy of language and anthropology.  Humboldt generally comes up in reference to political philosophy.

Anyway, you may be chomping at the bit for me to explain what this Sapir-Whorf concept is.  Well, I’m not going to.  Because that’s what Vance’s book does.  On the planet Pao with main character Beran Panasper.  Let me then, simply, boil this whole thing down to one question:   “What role does language (organic or artificial) play in a social group’s understanding of reality? In other words, how does it shape their lives, nation, and outlook?”

It is okay to admit that the above paragraphs bored you to tears and you have already decided this novel is not for you.  However, understand that Vance is dealing with that linguistic question by working in the science fiction genre.  So, Vance selects three main facets of society (represented by the Paonese, the Breakness, and the Brumbos) to cause havoc on the planet Pao.  All of this gets situated within the political scheming/intrigue of the ambitious characters.  It is like Dune – without all of the sandworms, blue-eyes, and crazy witches.  But nevertheless, I see a lot of parallels between the two novels.  And the “villain” is not really a bad guy from all perspectives.  Plus, he’s the one that comes with the neat “modifications” – (surgical enhancements to his person).

I love Vance’s use of vocabulary.  I appreciate how he works with a linguistic concept without making his novel overlong or bludgeoning the reader (Mieville, looking at you, son).  I neither loved nor hated the characters, but I was interested to see what happened.  And maybe this is not the most exciting read in science fiction, but it surely is one of the more intelligent and well-written.  The only complaint is that it seems set up too artificially, almost as a too-carefully controlled experiment.  But on the other hand, what author doesn’t do this?

5 stars

Blue Beetle #1 (1986)

Blue Beetle #1 (1986) – DC Comics;

Blue Beetle is a character that has hung around comics history for a long time.  He has an early history in the late 1930s and 1940s with Fox Comics and Charlton Comics.  In 1983, along with most of Charlton Comics properties, the character rights were sold to DC Comics.  The character has had a pretty interesting history that practically parallels the history of American comics. But this is not a history blog. I finally got my hands on a nice copy of DC Comics’ 1986 #1 issue of Blue Beetle.  I got it for .50¢ and am totally thrilled with the purchase.

This iteration of Blue Beetle is the scientist Ted Kord.  In this issue, we are introduced to the character as he leaves retirement to once again enter public service.  Fires are being set in buildings all over downtown Chicago – and the Blue Beetle appears to deal with this problem. The writer for this issue is Len Wein; Paris Cullins and Bruce D. Patterson are the artists.

I love the way this issue begins.  In fact, lately, I have been loving all pre-1990s comics.  They have this depth in the writing that I feel is a little missing in current-day comics. I am not talking about the level of writing, really. I feel like these older (vintage?) comics have this wordsmithing knack to them.  Sometimes it seems a little hokey, but sometimes, it’s almost poetic.  That’s one of the main things that is really drawing my interest into these pre-1990s issues again and again.

Blue Beetle #1 (1986) – frame one, page one; DC Comics

Last night, as the household was lulling into sleep, I carefully pulled the issue from its plastic sleeve.  I opened to the first page and fell in love with the first frame.  How about that?  I harp on the importance of the first issue, first book, etc. of all the things I read.  Because I am a big believer of the first impression concept with these things.  Authors/artists have to hook the reader.  They have to make the reader care, be engaged, and show us competence.  Lots of work for first issues.  So look at the copy in the first frame – its poetic, I tell you.

Okay, maybe not great poetry, but nowadays the copy would read:  “Lots of big fires are burning in Chicago.”  I particularly like the “fugitive sparks” part. Awesome. Thank you, Len Wein.

The story is actually really good.  Kord is a scientist entrepreneur who moonlights as Blue Beetle.  He discovers that the arsonist isn’t just a criminal with a dim view of city planning, but an armored villain named Firefist. (Okay, maybe not the least goofy of names…)  Anyway, in their first fight, Firefist gets away, but Blue Beetle makes plans to take Firefist on.

We get a little history of the previous Blue Beetle series, which is good. We meet a villain that seems really intense.  We learn about Ted Kord’s double-life.  And the banter between characters is witty and cute.  Finally, you have to read the next issue – you want to and need to. This is an excellent comic. It really makes me love the character a lot.  If you really want to dig into comics beyond the usual adoration for Batman and Superman, I think Blue Beetle might be for you.

5 stars

The Curse of the Blue Figurine

The Curse of the Blue Figurine – John Bellairs

The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs is the first in the Johnny Dixon series.  I have never read it before – but finally, in 2013, now that I am old and haggard, I finally got a copy.  I actually am working my way through as many John Bellairs novels as I can.  Overall, these are excellent.  I recently re-read The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt, which was as awesome as I remember it being when I was a small person.

But this novel is even better.  I was thoroughly impressed. I thought for sure that I was going to be somewhat disappointed – how could Bellairs do better than the other book I read?  And yet! And YET! This one is excellent.

As I mentioned, this is the first book in the Johnny Dixon series.  So here, I finally got a lot more background on Johnny’s grandparents and Professor Childermass. I learned more about how Johnny came to live in this town and about the school he attends. And the church that he attends.

First of all:  yeah, parents in 2013 who are all stuffy and politically-correct and shelter their munchkins are never going to let them read these books.  These books are all kinds of “inappropriate” – but not because of the usual reasons you might think.  There’s alcohol and Church and the adults are realistic.  Nothing sanitized, really, in here.  But it isn’t bawdy, rowdy, or uncouth, don’t get me wrong. Secondly:  Johnny is so full of guilt and low self-esteem that he probably isn’t the type of character one finds in current-day novels.  But he’s really a great kid! In fact, he’s the best! I love Johnny!

I love all of the characters.   And this story is creepy and eerie and has a lot of supernatural elements in it. And the supernatural elements are kept real and true – no one attempts to erase, explain, or devolve them. Awesome! I love the language and constructions that Bellairs uses.  He’s really a charming author and he writes with such a fun style.  I am subtly pressurizing my entire household to read this novel.

5 stars

Bend Sinister

Bend Sinister – Vladimir Nabokov; Vintage International; 1990

I finished Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister tonight. It was first published, in English, in 1947.  It falls in chronology almost a decade prior to the publishing of the infamous Lolita.  This is the fifth Nabokov novel that I have read.  My favorite Nabokov novel is The Defense, but this is a close second.  In fact, I would say that they both tie for first place in awesomeness.

This is a rather challenging and difficult novel.  By this I mean, only intelligent people are going to read this and understand it.  It is not a novel that is junk or for the weak-minded.  I mention this to be fair.  I am going to give this novel high marks, but unless you are an intelligent reader, you will not enjoy this novel.  This is meaningful because it is one of those novels that you will get out of it what you put into it.  This requires focus and imagination and appreciation of language, symbols, wordplay, etc.  Also, you should have a dose of academia and have already read some real dystopian novels.

In this novel, one finds expert, masterful wordsmithing.  This is on the level of the greatest of the greats – in terms of wordsmithing.  And I do not say this lightly.  I am actually really amazed by the level of this book.  I saw good ideas/concepts in Nabokov’s other novels.  I love The Defense.  But when I speak of actual usage of language – I am completely impressed by the work here.  I know readers hear about Nabokov’s skill – but, I’ll be honest, this is the first novel wherein I can say the awesome skill was proven and sustained throughout the entire work.

I’m a bit of a sucker for the classic dystopain scary-government reads.  Bring on 1984 etc.  But compared to this, 1984 seems juvenile.  We seems sketchy.  THIS was eerie, disturbing, creepy (at least the elements dealing with the sinister government).  In fact, the writing is so great in so many respects that I have difficulty describing it adequately and just want to pass you the book.

Get this:  the main character is Adam Krug – a philosopher. A real one – like in University and everything!  And Nabokov did not make him a whining, sniveling wimp; Krug is a beast.  He is a large man; strong, bullish, and stolid. It feels like everyone in the fictional country of the novel has capitulated to the new tyrannical government except Krug himself.  His non-emotive, but unwavering protection and concern for his son is rather comforting to read.  Krug’s acceptance of his wife death is written perfectly.  Instead of outward emotive theatrics, Krug is clearly deeply sorrowed and upset – but internally, and more meaningfully than any external blubbering would demonstrate.  Olga’s family comes to the house and Krug (more or less) heads out the backdoor to avoid them.

Krug also has this unflagging duty to his friends – even though they may not be extremely close to him.  Krug tires of tedious people, absurdity, and subterfuge.  He sighs magnanimously and suffers. He drinks – some accuse him of being a drunkard, but I did not see that. Krug is truly a great character.

Settings are also awesome.  The early scenes on the bridge are excellent – so much vivid imaginative work.  The scenes in the rural country are also amazing.  Finally, the scenes in the University and government buildings are done so well, I felt like I could close my eyes and actually be in the room.  Chapeau, Nabokov!

Nevertheless, Nabokov’s arrogance shows through. I have just learned to tolerate it – particularly in novels where he deserves to be a bit cocky and self-satisfied.  I feel Nabokov knew how good this work is and reveled in it. Arrogant jerk.  Let’s face it, there’s a narrator to this. (Possible paper for enterprising college student:  decide who is the narrator and argue for your position). Sometimes it seems like Krug, but only rarely. Usually, it seems like some chronicler.  At other points, it’s obviously the Divine.  So yes, Nabokov’s arrogance is in full force here. And it’s really meaty and exquisite.

Are not these problems so hard to solve because my own mind is not made up yet in regard to your death?  My intelligence does not accept the transformation of physical discontinuity into the permanent continuity of a nonphysical element escaping the obvious law, nor can it accept the inanity of accumulating incalcuable treasures of thought and sensation, and thought-behind-thought and sensation-behind-sensation, to lose them all at once and forever in a fit of black nausea followed by infinite nothingness.  (Chapter 6)

Krug discussing his wife.  Or the narrator discussing Krug.  Etc.  But there you have it. Wordsmithing and intelligent pondering.  The thing is, Nabokov actually bothered to make his philosopher-character be actually philosophical.  And not merely floofy or what passes for philosophy.  Nabokov, unlike so many people in the universe, does not treat philosophers as if they are lepers.  Nevertheless, he still tortures the hell out of Krug. (People love to torment philosophers.)  And someone on Goodreads used a word in their review that really describes this novel in just a word:  grueling.  And it is grueling – you’d better have some gravel in your gut to get through this one.  Also, it manhandles readers because it is intense and challenges the brainpower of the reader.  And the end?  I feel every reader will synthesize, extrapolate, and contextualize the ending in their own way – which would give us clues to that particular reader’s worldview and psychological make-up. Wow.  An author accomplishing that is stunning…. be impressed.

And then, thought Krug, on top of everything, I am a slave of images.  We speak of one thing being like some other thing when what we are really craving to do is to describe something that is like nothing on earth.  Certain mind pictures have become so adulterated by the concept of “time” that we have come to believe in the actual existence of a permanently moving bright fissure between our retrospective eternity which we cannot recall and the prospective one which we cannot know.  We are not really able to measure time because no gold second is kept in a case in Paris but, quite frankly, do you not imagine a length of several hours more exactly than a length of several miles? (Chapter 14)

In any case, the characters are great. David – presented through Krug’s thoughts and speech – is loveable.  Quick characters like Phokus appear and reappear and contain little twists and turns of the storyline – but subtly without the reader really noticing until it surprises!  Olga – who we never meet – is also a powerful character, one we know and miss even though we never knew her.

This is not a “nice” book.  So, do not give it to your mom or your grandmother.  Or to your small child.  But it is an intense “grueling” and masterful work.  I recommend it to all the best readers of the world.  While there is a lot of stamina required here – the ending, for me (as I hinted at earlier, I take away what I bring to it), was divinely joyous amidst a lot of dark tragedy.  If this was all I knew of Nabokov, I would be completely surprised by everything about him.  How did he manage to do this?

Throughout the novel Nabokov gives you hints of what will happen.  He warns you and drops hints. He moves from narrative to first-person seamlessly.  He shoves characters right at you.  He handles whole chapters with philosophical finesse.  As each storypoint event occurs, you feel it in your gut – and then you slap yourself because you totally should have seen this coming.

As a fun sidenote, I am not sure if you know the old TV series The Prisoner? I watched it back in 2002.  I think it’s been in different venues and has recently gained a re-interest.  But the “I’ll be seeing you” stuff?  It is from this book. The line is in this book. And it’s done perfectly; I almost fell off of my chair with the way this tickled and thrilled me.

5 stars

The Flash Vol. 1: Move Forward

The Flash vol. 1: Move Forward – DC Comics; Francis Manapul & Brian Buccellato

I have been working my way through a number of the first volumes of DC’s New 52 comics series – the ones that I do not have on my pull list.  So far, I read Animal Man, which I thought was a bust, and Demon Knights, which was really good, but as of issue 23 or 24, it’s been canceled.   The next volume I read through was The Flash.  This volume is really good and I do wish I had gotten on board and put it on my pull list with issue #1.   The first volume, entitled Move Forward, collects the first 8 issues of the series.  This is a neat thing because frequently these hardback/tradeback volumes only collect five or six issues.

This series, so far, has had creators Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato and I think they have done a fantastic job.  Everything works well in these first eight issues.  The DC New 52 was supposed to be able to introduce and draw in new readership who have not been involved in comics or who are unfamiliar with DC’s universe.  Not all of the New 52 series have accomplished this goal with a seamless and non-confusing presentation.  The Flash, however, definitely succeeds – and probably the best of all that I have read.  Excellent work on that point.  Secondly, I love all of the art.  I love the covers – and the variant covers.  I love the interior art.  I also am really impressed by each individual issue’s splash page – the title pages are actually “artistic.”  Go figure! Real design in a comic book!

The Flash #3 variant cover – Jim Lee; DC Comics

The storyline is decent.  The first five issues (in terms of the story) were not absolutely awesome and amazing (or whatever words are used today to describe really cool things), but the story was solid and readable.  Not every story is a rock ‘em shock ‘em big deal and a huge universe-spanning event.  The storylines here are good and solid and accessible – so precisely what one should demand from a comic series. Therefore, I have no complaints.

The characterizations are also good.  It struck me while reading through this volume that of all the superheroes that DC has, I think working on The Flash has to be the most fun.  I cannot imagine the creators not having fun with this.  He’s fun to draw, fun to write.  And I think that fun shows through in this volume.  It is not goofy or silly (sometimes Spider-man is intolerably goofy), but Flash is fun.  And if comics do not, at the end of the day, contain any fun – what’s the whole point?  The supporting characters are also developed nicely; Patty Spivot and Iris West are interesting and do not seem to be there just as filler characters.  In this series, Barry Allen has a lot of good qualities and can definitely sustain a long-term ongoing comic.  And that, too, is precisely what readers should be looking for.

I think this title got over-looked and treated poorly by readers who got all caught up in Scott Snyder’s Batman title and with the Grant Morrison working on Action Comics thing.  However, while Batman has been excellent, the Action Comics title has suffered a lot.  Meanwhile, The Flash has been solid – at least through the first eight issues – and I think readers ought to give it a chance – or even a second chance, if that is the case.  I really enjoyed the art and design and the character is fun and good.  This is a five-star volume.

5 stars

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie; Pocket 1973

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is Agatha Christie’s fourth Hercule Poirot book, third novel.  It was published in 1926 and it is the third Agatha Christie book I have read.  It is actually one of Christie’s most well-known books, particularly because of the twist in the method of telling the story – which, if you have not read the book, do not read about it – but go ahead and read the actual novel.  I would tell you – but it would wreck it.  So, this review will have to seem a bit ambiguous.

I kept myself innocent of knowledge about the novel and therefore, I was duly surprised and impressed by the famous “twist.”  Also, I give it five stars because of the twist and the continuous wit throughout the novel.  I really enjoyed the novel.  It’s almost a “locked room murder.” Hastings is alluded to, but we learn he has gone off to the Argentine.  Taking his place is the narrator of the story, Dr. Sheppard.

Poirot is really well-developed in this novel.  Much more so than in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder on the Links.  Christie gives a more complete picture of Poirot – and he is slightly less frustrating than in the previous two novels.  He is witty, amusing, and solves the mystery with panache.  How can you not love Poirot?

This novel has so much wit in it. Dry humor. Sarcastic humor.  Amusing characters.  I absolutely love the characters of Dr. Sheppard and his sister.  Their interactions are wonderful.  Also, I really think Christie describes Dr. Sheppard’s sister, Caroline, with such insight and perfection that Christie must have known a person in real life such as Caroline.  And don’t we all?  After all, one thing that I do like about these characters in this novel is that I feel I know someone like each of them.  To include the tedious Mrs. Ackroyd.

One of the many amusing lines, from chapter 14:

“The English people, they have a mania for the fresh air,” declared Poirot. “The big air, it is all very well outside, where it belongs.  Why admit it to the house?”

I really chuckled at this because Poirot is such a stubborn and enigmatic character – plus, Christie loves using him to represent stereotypes of the French (Belgian) and English.  She’s poking fun at all of us and it is a real hoot.

I recommend this novel for everyone .  Sure, even if you are more shrewd than I and figure out the twist long before the ending, I think you will still enjoy the wit and setup in the novel.  The characters, for sure, are worthy.  If you are like me, and enjoying being surprised by the twists and turns of detective novels, you’ll like this one – it is a classic one that influenced the detective novel henceforth.

5 stars

If on a winter’s night a traveler

If on a winter’s night a traveler – Italo Calvino; Harcourt

If on a winter’s night a traveler was published in 1979 in Italian by Italo Calvino.  Many consider this to be his major work.  It is the first item I have read by Calvino, though I think I have owned two other novels by him for over a decade.  I felt like reading something heady and in tradeback and not over 300 pages.  So this novel fit the bill. I bought my copy used in Charleston, SC for $3.

This is a brilliant piece of metafiction structured like an ouroboros and a matryoshka doll.  In many ways, the author presents the classic One Thousand and One Nights – Arabian Nights as a similar work.  I do see the comparison as valid, but I honestly prefer the matryoshka doll and the ouroboros as more accurate.  Not that it matters – sometimes with metafiction, there is no one, true conclusion.  I do not read a lot of metafiction because I feel that authors who set out to purposely write metafiction force the matter.  They bludgeon the reader with the fact that they are writing metafiction and desperately attempt to get the literary critics to call it metafiction.  And furthermore, I actually think the word “metafiction” is itself overused and ill-applied in many cases.

Calvino had me at the first chapter, though.  I mean, it was so witty and engaging and interesting, I knew I would finish the novel, no matter what. Generally, the whole work is about books, reading, and writing.  Wikipedia provides a decent general summation of the novel:  “The narrative is about a reader trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler. Every odd-numbered chapter is in the second person, and tells the reader what he is doing in preparation for reading the next chapter. The even-numbered chapters are all single chapters from whichever book the reader is trying to read.”   I suppose this summary is true, but it does not really give the full depth or essence to this work.  And it gets confusing trying to talk about or explain this work to someone who has not read it or is not familiar with it.

The first chapter is marvelous because it describes the Reader in a bookstore.  I love books and bookstores and well, this was a fun chapter. I thoroughly love the “list” of categories of books that the Reader encounters while moving through the bookstore. I actually returned to these pages and re-read them twice because I was so tickled by this list.  Even if you do not intend to read this novel, if you love books and buying books – you should read this first chapter.

Now, I was not too keen on the concept of the book. I am no fan of metafiction and I am not really wild about non-linear storytelling which uses chapters as breaking points between points of view, narratives, etc.  But I figured, what the heck, let’s read this thing. I mention this to point out that I sympathize with those readers who do not like the author addressing them directly.  The second chapter is actually the “novel” that I really do want to read. I really do – and it is so fitting that that is the novel that starts off the entire ouroboros of this work.  I totally understand the main character’s desire to find this novel. I want to read it, too.

I marked a number of pages/quotations down in this work.  The first was on page 93 where Reader meets Other Reader and she encourages him to go to the publisher to sort the matter out. She won’t go and explains it this way:

There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other those who read them. . . . Of course, readers are also growing more numerous, but it would seem that those who use books to produce other books are increasing more than those who just like to read books and nothing else.  I know that if I cross that boundary, even as an exception, by change, I risk being mixed up in this advancing tide; that’s why I refuse to set foot inside a publishing house, even for a few minutes.

There are lots of things in this quote to pull out and babble about. Briefly, I love the concept of the boundary. I totally agree with the assessment of there being an increase in making books to make more books. And I am interested in the concept of the pure reader – reading as its own telos.

Further on in the novel is a marvelous chapter. As happened several times in my reading of this book, I would start a chapter and feel it was not very good and then Calvino would do something brilliant and I would be wow-ed by what he did with what seemed to be a mundane and distracted chapter. One such chapter is “Chapter 8″ wherein we hang out with Silas Flannery.  I could not help but adore the distinctions being made between tormented writer and productive writer.

The greatest desire of the tormented writer is to be read the way that young woman is reading.  He starts writing a novel as he thinks the productive writer would write it.  Meanwhile the greatest desire of the productive writer is to be read the way that young woman is reading; he starts writing a novel as he thinks the tormented writer would write it.

This is a fantastic concept and distinction Calvino is playing with here. I feel like I encounter this a lot – with would-be writers and people trying to get published, et al.   To some readers, this chapter will seem repetitive and tedious – but astute readers will “get it” and love it, I think.  Also, this chapter really exemplifies what reading this book is like.  It can be hard work.  Calvino drags you up a metaphorical mountain of concepts and ideas and narrative, and it is really tiring at points and it seems to be boring and uninteresting and then the whole thing explodes atmospherically.  At least, this is what I experienced reading this novel.  That sounds a bit strange, I am sure.  I guess, in more stoic terms:  Calvino explores the concepts of reading and writing in a relentless and almost over-complexifying way. And he does not cease until the reader is actually ruminating on the same concepts as well.  Brilliant tactician? Or maybe obnoxious intellectual. I think the former.

Therefore on page 181, is Calvino writing of himself through Silas Flannery’s thoughts?

Why not admit that my dissatisfaction reveals an excessive ambition, perhaps a megalomaniac delirium? For the writer who wants to annul himself in order to give voice to what is outside him, two paths open:  either write a book that could be the unique book, that exhausts the whole in its pages; or write all books, to pursue the whole through its partial images.  The unique book, which contains the whole, could only be the sacred text, the total word revealed.  But I do not believe totality can be contained in language; my problem is what remains outside, the unwritten, the unwritable. The only way left me is that of writing all books, writing the books of all possible authors.

Finally, in the last chapter, the Reader is at the library where at least five other “readers” are sharing their thoughts on reading.  The one that I liked is the first.  Maybe because I most identify with them – though not universally at all times with all books, of course.  It just resonated with me:

“Don’t be amazed if you see my eyes always wandering. In fact, this is my way of reading, and it is only in this way that reading proves fruitful for me.  If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue ot the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it.  The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me, and of meaty reading, even if, of every book, I manage to read no more than a few pages.  But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust.”

Mainly, I feel like this reader does only when I am reading a good book. A great book. An excellent book. In my case, Oblomov and The Violent Bear it Away. And a few other novels affect me in this manner. And I consider them massive and important and excellent. And I only need to read a few pages to know that I will be sent off on musings and contemplations. And maybe, most days, this Calvino book, too.

As a final aside, I did not like the chapter “On the Carpet of leaves illuminated by the Moon” or “Around an Empty Grave.”  These two chapters are slightly less vital and really somewhat unappealing.  However, the rest of the book is quite worthy of reading.

5 stars

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