Pilgrimage to Earth

Pilgrimage to EarthPilgrimage to Earth is a collection of short stories written in the 1950s by Robert Sheckley.  The collection of fifteen stories was first published in October of 1957.  This is the second Sheckley collection I have read; I can comfortably recommend both collections to readers.

The back of the book has a blurb by New York Herald Tribune stating: “No one in recent years has vaulted so promptly into the first rank.”   I keep imagining Sheckley vaulting promptly… with no lagging or sluggishness.  For a bit of trivia, the book is dedicated to Harry Altschuler.  Altschuler (1913 – 1990) was Sheckley’s literary agent. In fact, he was a fairly significant player in publishing during the 40s, 50s, 60s.

Pilgrimage to Earth • 4 stars
All the Things You Are • 4 stars
Trap • 3 stars
The Body • 3 stars
Early Model • 3 stars
Disposal Service • 3 stars
Human Man’s Burden • 4 stars
Fear in the Night • 4 stars
Bad Medicine • 2 stars
Protection • 2 stars
Earth, Air, Fire and Water • 2 stars
Deadhead • 2 star
The Academy • 2 stars
Milk Run • 4 stars
The Lifeboat Mutiny • 3 stars

Well, I started this collection in June, but only finished it now, in November. I made it halfway through and then my cat drooled on the front cover – an entire house for him to destroy and he purposely seeks out something valuable like a book. I was disheartened, though I cleaned the cover (and it did not suffer much damage, really), so I read other things. Finally, I decided I’d better finish this collection.

I mention this rather stupid story to sort of explain why I do not remember all of my thoughts that I had in June regarding this collection.  Luckily, I’m trained well-enough to write down one or two words as I go along for each story, but that does not mean a thorough review of the works.

One of the things that I remember from Citizen in Space and also is apparent in this collection is Sheckley’s wry sense of humor.  There are keen senses of humor, off-color senses of humor, dry/deadpan senses of humor – but rarely do I really find someone with a truly wry sense of humor.  Just like the dictionary says, his stories contain clever and often ironic tidbits.  For the most part, this keeps the stories fresh and interesting.  After having read two of his collections, I am slightly, very slightly, less impressed with this wryness. I mean, maybe he’s overusing it a bit? Well, even if he is, it surely is not any amount that would dissuade me from reading his work.

Sheckley combines that wry sense of humor with his studies of humans. I think he was only about twenty-nine years old when this collection was published.  But throughout, it contains a feeling that he is poking fun at humanity just a little. He seems to have some degree of  the “understanding people” skill that was so massively developed in great authors like H. L. Mencken and G. K. Chesterton. The combination of this skill with his wry wit makes his short stories readable – and then, re-readable.

The stories Pilgrimage to Earth, Disposal Service, and Human Man’s Burden are very much worthwhile; containing the wry little twist to make them amusing and a little surprising.  They also seem to demonstrate humans at their core.  Pilgrimage to Earth and Disposal Service are actually somewhat disturbing stories if you really consider the heart of the story [pun intended].  The former involves Alfred Simon returning to Earth whereat anything he wants can be bought – including love. But is it really love, like the poets of old would name it?  Disposal Service centers on the 17-year marriage of the Ferguson’s and a unique service that the couple uses. Both stories hinge upon the freedoms and scientific advancements of mankind, but show that mankind is still governed and tossed about by emotions and whim.

That is probably a theme for the majority of the stories in this collection. I recognize that theme in Deadhead and Earth, Air, Fire, Water – both stories that I did not consider to be more than average works.  Nevertheless, there is that theme that no matter how “advanced” mankind seems, he is still the animal, from Earth, that can be whimsical, irrational, over-confident, and foolish.  Maybe the lesson, if there is one, that Sheckley wants to show us is that the key characteristic of humans is that they are both scientific and silly.

Based on my ratings for the individual stories, I clearly like the first half of the book more than the second. I think the stories that I rated below 3 stars all seem to suffer from the same problem:  just a little too much is left unsaid, unsolved, and/or unexplained.  This lack makes the stories seem a bit underdeveloped and not fully written.  Bad Medicine is one example, The Academy is the other. The story has potential, but just doesn’t completely work.

Finally, the last two stories in the collection are part of a “series.” By this I mean, a common element is found in these stories and then in other stories (not part of this collection) by Sheckley.  Here we meet the proprietors of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service.  Basically, some fellows trying to make some money in a universe of highly competitive businesses, corporations, and smugglers.  This “series” is definitely interesting and I really got a kick out of Milk Run.  Both of these AAA Ace stories are fun adventures for all those readers who want some amusing space pulp fiction.

3 stars

The Locked Room (The New York Trilogy part III)

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The third installment of this book is The Locked Room. I do not think this third “part” is on par with the previous two works. I can appreciate the twists of the storylines, the exploration of various themes, and the deconstruction of characters in the previous two pieces in this book, but this last was tedious.  Beyond that, the self-referential circling back with little hints or names seemed forced and pointless.

Like the other two pieces, The Locked Room is postmodern metafiction wearing the costume of a noir detective story.  Overall, the story explores the psychological control that a memory/character has over another character. Both characters are, in some way, authors. So, just like the previous pieces, the novel attempts to look at facets of the act of writing and of being an author. Again, we see that an author is comparable to a detective.

In this novel, the meta parts of the metafiction play with concepts of identity, transference, and despair.  The main character is again isolated.  Through this isolation, we see how the effects of searching for the identity of the other causes the loss of identity of self. The narrator instantiates himself in the character Fanshawe’s life at the behest of Fanshawe.  This definitely improves the narrator’s life in several ways (a ready-made family, significant monetary income, a modicum of fame).  However, this also causes the narrator to slip further away from himself as the hero-worship he had for Fanshawe develops into resentment.

I didn’t like much of this novel. It definitely goes on too long. About one hundred pages could be chopped from this thing without any damage really being done. Furthermore, the little inclusions of “Henry Dark” and “Quinn” and the “red notebook” are interesting because authors do tend to fixate on certain concepts/names.  They work them and rewrite them and wrestle with them until they finally get to the story intended for them.  However, until the story is “great,” authors use and re-use little things like this. So if Auster has thrown in these tidbits to portray another aspect of the art of writing and of authorship, it seems acceptable. If he has thrown them into the novel just to reference the previous segments and to make the novel seem edgy and circular, then it is a complete failure.  The tactic is too obvious and stupid.

The novel drags on.  Noir detective fiction should be very suspenseful, mysterious, and psychological.  But by that last term I mean that there ought to be building tension from the unknowns.  The unknown parts of the story are the parts that make such stories noir. Instead, most of this novel is hero-worship and drooling slobber over the flat, uninteresting female character. The “psychological factor” in this novel is, then, the obsession that develops between the two authors. To me, this only made the narrator insufferable and ridiculous.

At the end of the novel, we do not really have any clue why any of this happened. If this was an attempt to explore the identity/transference between authors and characters, it was no big thing. There was no huge exploration, only a few steps taken in that direction. I feel this could have been done a lot better with a lot more potency. But instead, honestly, it just came out wimpy and morose.

As in the previous parts, the main character is isolated and he deconstucts. He loses everything, seemingly even his mind. He turns to a less clean-cut lifestyle for a month as he roams France like a vagabond. He spends his time in seedy places with people of ill-repute. We are led to believe this is because his efforts in author-detecting about Fanshawe have come to naught.  However, throughout the novel, we are given hints and glimpses that this darkness and wretchedness already lies inside the narrator and Fanshawe and Paris are what finally cause these characteristics to appear. The key point for me was that I did not care. It felt like a setup and a forced shift in the novel. And at the end, it changes nothing, the outcome is as bland and mundane as could be.

Honestly, this part heavily reminded me of things that Nabokov was doing in his novel Despair.  And at some points, I felt like Auster was basically ripping off Nabokov.  Now, Despair is not my favorite novel, but it certainly does all of this stuff better and stronger than Auster’s third segment here.  Definitely recommend to readers who are interested in this to compare these two works.

So, this final part can only be given two stars.  But, averaged with the previous parts, that still gives this whole “trilogy” a 3 star rating.  Totally acceptable reading.  I would probably tell folks the first two parts are recommended while the third is entirely optional. I do not feel it added anything to what Auster was trying to accomplish or added any new ideas to the themes he was exploring.

2 stars

Ghosts (The New York Trilogy part II)

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

Ghosts is the second part of The New York Trilogy.  It was published in 1986.  It runs to a mere seventy pages in length, so I feel we would be better off calling it a novella. To be clear, when it is referred to as the “second part” of the trilogy, the reader must not think that these are interconnected storylines or continuations of plots/characters.

Its been said that these novels are detective story metafiction. That description is even more accurate of this second part than the first. However, calling it detective fiction conjures up examples of all kinds of gumshoes and private investigators. Literary thinking folks might immediately associate “detective fiction” with Poirot, Holmes, Sam Spade, and Henry Merrivale. None of those associations are incorrect, but the pulp/noir style novel wherein the detective traces the clues and catches a criminal are absent in Auster’s novels.

Again, like in City of Glass, the setting and location is very important to the story.  Auster seems to enjoy locating his characters in rooms. A lot of the scenery and storyline are guided by the presence of the four-walled room(s) that the characters inhabit. There is a sense of being enclosed, imprisoned, isolated, and contained.

In this story, Blue is the main character – he is the one that will face the existential crisis and the identity struggles as the story moves along.  Without being told why or being given any background, we are told that Blue is hired by White to watch Black. (The characters have colors for surnames.  And yes, there is plenty of symbolism and playing with words, too.) Black is staying in Brooklyn Heights on Orange Street. White has rented an apartment for Blue to stay in that is directly across from Black’s location. Blue collects his “detective gear” and goes directly to that location.

The story begins on February 3, 1947. Blue is excited about his job – he settles in to do it to the best of his ability. However, after some time, Blue becomes bored, restless, and then frustrated.  The man he has been hired to watch does nothing of interest.  Nothing really happens. In fact, most days, it seems that Black is mirroring what Blue does.  At one point, Black is found reading a book. Naturally, Blue buys a copy as well.  However, it is not until he is thoroughly bored and at wit’s end that Blue decides to read the book.

Blue ends up reading the book twice.  Mainly because the first time he felt ripped off and annoyed by it so he decided to re-read it in an effort to see what he had missed.  Frankly, I hate the book, so I totally understand Blue’s reaction.  The book is Walden by Henry David Thoreau.  Most folk have read the book and therefore know it is about a hermit-like existence. Thoreau wrote about his attempt to return to a simple life wherein he could contemplate society, ethics, and the nature of man.  It is full of introspection and reverence for nature.

Some vague parallels can be drawn from all of this.  As time progresses, Blue loses most of his “life,” thereby returning to a simple existence – contained within the apartment.  He loses contact with his girlfriend, his former employer, his personal aspirations, etc.  He turns into a brooding, empty shell of his former self.

Now, suddenly, with the world as it were removed from him, with nothing much to see but a vague shadow by the name of Black, he finds himself thinking about things that have never occurred to him before, and this, too, has begun to trouble him.  If thinking is perhaps too strong a word at this point, a slightly more modest term – speculation, for example – would not be far from the mark. To speculate, from the Latin speculatus, meaning to spy out, to observe, and linked to the word speculum, meaning mirror or looking glass.  For looking out at Black across the street, it is as though Blue were looking into a mirror, and instead of merely watching another, he finds that he is also watching himself. – pg. 171

This is really quite insightful and skillful of Auster.  The subtle layering and connections between Walden and mirrors and spying and speculating are well done.  An excellent example of metafiction’s capacity to layer reality and characters.

Obviously, there are questions of identity here.  Auster really lays these on heavily for the entire piece.  Along with Blue, the reader is questioning just WHO IS Black, White, etc.  Is this a wild goose chase? WHO IS the one who started this whole circle of identity confusion?  These questions are particularly poignant when Blue uses disguises to interact with Black.

Secondly, but quieter, is the process of transference that also runs through the work. Blue kills time by creating possible backstories to the case. Blue also finds that eventually he does not need to constantly watch Black because they have gotten so “close” that he knows (instinctively? internally?) what Black is feeling, doing, thinking.

Well, like most metafiction, the reader is not given detailed and specific answers. The case falls apart (as do the characters) a la PKD.  In fact, since PKD, I doubt I have read anything besides Ghosts in which the characters have such an existential crisis which so disassembles them. The lack of information is frustrating because one does want closure and resolution.  However, because there are so many questions and layers, the interpretations are endless. For example, I feel like if one were to write a Reader’s Guide to this piece, it would be one possible interpretation after another after another….  After finishing it, one ought to ask:  and then what? what was the point?

This novelette can be boring. I mean, ultimately, nothing really happens. We sit alongside the main character in a small apartment for about a year and a half, during which he reads Walden, sometimes paces Black around the city, and otherwise lives a droll and dull routine. In order to appreciate this work, the reader must have some care and interest in the concepts of identity/transference/isolation.

In many ways, Auster took the section of City of Glass wherein Quinn becomes an alley-dwelling ascetic outside of the apartment he was originally hired to conduct surveillance upon, and magnified those elements.  It seems as if Auster really wanted to explore just that particular chunk of the first story.  And so, in a much shorter fashion, we have this layered noir tale that deconstructs another couple of characters.

Not to say that there are not moments of suspense and eerie weirdness.  Nevertheless, those are not breath-taking enough or sustained for this to engender being anything thrilling or exciting.  And maybe those feelings of suspense/eeriness are just more transference from reader to character/scene?

4 stars

City of Glass (The New York Trilogy Part I)

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

I was uncertain if it would be best for me to write a review on each individual part of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy or if I should just write one big glopping whole. I decided to write individual reviews because a single review would probably be too long for a blog post and it remains true to the manner in which Auster originally published these works. City of Glass was originally published in 1985 and there has been a great deal of critical work regarding it proliferated. Everyone from Derrida-fans to Lacan-fans to Raymond Chandler-fans has felt the need to dig into the text. Deconstruct the text. Analyze the text. Etc. You know what I mean. I do not know that I have much in the way of original theory to add to all that has been said, but I can still share my thoughts.

This work is metafiction, I guess. Or postmodern. Or post-postmodern. It has been interpreted a hundred different ways. There are Freudian interpretations and ones that rely on Maurice Blanchot, etc. What is this book about? Is it a metafictional account exploring identity? Literature? Intertextual relationships? Cityscape architecture? Can one remain thoroughly neutral regarding this work and just comment on it – without, that is, seeming simple?  Well, sure, I guess it is all of the aforementioned. One of my biggest complaints about works that are so-called metafiction is that they always seem forced. Always, these works seem exaggeratedly wrangled to fit into a category dubbed “edgy” or “counter-cultural” by the intellectual debutantes or the created media industry.  If you force a work to match some presupposed concept, how can you then tell me that it escapes the boundaries that are supposedly “artificial” and imposed by the Establishment? Etc. Anyway, this story, while slightly forced into being metafiction, isn’t terrible. It is obvious and rather experimental-feeling, but I have read worse examples of the pseudo-genre.

First point:  I believe that this novel being situated in NYC is significant. Readers who are familiar with NYC (I am from NY) will have a better relationship with the context than readers who live in Iowa and have never left Iowa.  If I am asked why I believe this, I know I ought to be able to support my claim, but like many things in NYC, I can only say that “it is simply an understanding that is earned through experience.” Auster’s writing is spare and even. The fact that he spends several paragraphs just describing routes through the City, naming streets, pinpointing directions, is a fact that should not be dismissed.

Second point:  The plot, as in most metafiction, is secondary to all of the other elements of the story.  So, readers who are enthused to read this novel need to understand that this is not a plot-driven story like most traditional fiction.  The plot is vague and unimportant. There isn’t a set up, climax, resolution. There isn’t, really, an “ah-hah!” moment. Any details given are not about the plot. Therefore, there are a whole heap of readers out there who will dislike this novel and/or misunderstand it.

Those points being stated, I want to assure readers that if you like metafiction, you will probably enjoy this novel. Just like the best examples of the pseudo-genre, it has that noticeable ouroboros structure. Or, if you like, it feels like it is devolving and evolving – being deconstructed and then reconstructed throughout. This is what turns off most of the general readership; the layered, self-referential style that the novel uses.

In the first paragraph we read:  “In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences.”  And this is largely how this novel will operate.  Backstory and careful development of the background are absent – because they are not the important part of this style of writing. We meet the main character (and even calling him that is arguable, I realize) in the second paragraph:

As for Quinn, there is little that need detain us. Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance. We know, for example, that he was thirty-five years old. We know that he had once been married, had once been a father, and that both his wife and son were now dead.  We also know that he wrote books.  To be precise, we know that he wrote mystery novels.” – pg. 12

Basically, this is information will remain the extent of our knowledge of Quinn. Quinn writes mystery novels (think serial/house name style detective novels) under the pseudonym William Wilson. By page 12, Quinn adopts another persona (but mainly the name), viz. Paul Auster [sic].  To keep it clear at the start:  Daniel Quinn is a mystery novelist. He writes under the name William Wilson. In the first chapter of Paul Auster’s work City of Glass, the main character, Quinn, assumes the name Paul Auster.   There are several other name-changes and references that occur, but I do not want to spoil the book for readers. Needless to say, this is partially why it is so often said that this book’s theme is one of identity.

Auster [real author] wants to shake the reader’s reality up. So, like PKD and Italo Calvino, the linear and the standard are tossed out. Auster wants you on unsteady ground and wants the reader to question WHO is the character, WHO is the author, WHO is real, WHO is just a nickname?  The everlasting job of postmodernism:  to deconstruct, shatter, and disturb conceptions of reality/identity.

It was a woman who opened the apartment door.  For some reason, Quinn had not been expecting this, and it threw him off track.  Already, things were happening too fast.  Before he had a chance to absorb the woman’s presence, to describe her to himself and form his impressions, she was talking to him, forcing him to respond.  Therefore, even in those first moments, he had lost ground, was starting to fall behind himself.  Later, when he had time to reflect on these events, he would manage to piece together his encounter with the woman.  But that was the work of memory, and remembered things, he knew, had a tendency to subvert the things remembered. As a consequence, he could never be sure of any of it. – pg. 15

This paragraph, early in the book, is my favorite paragraph.  It is magnificent, really. I could talk about it for a long time. It is totally packed with concepts and ideas, feelings and memories, etc. If the writing of the whole novel was on this level, I would have unreservedly given it five-stars. This paragraph resonated with me on a personal level as-well-as on an intellectual, conceptual level. I love the phrases: “he had lost ground” and “was starting to fall behind himself.”  I really like the comments on memory versus things remembered. And above all, I appreciate “Already, things were happening too fast” – because this refers to both the plot and the actual structure of Auster’s novel.

This novel is also, heavily, about language/linguistics.  The whole “detective story” revolves around the theory of a pure, pre-Tower of Babel language. A divine language, so to speak. The chapters that elucidate this part of the story are interesting and creepy, and definitely show us another layer of this wrap-around novel.  For those who like word play (who doesn’t?), I particularly enjoyed a quote on page 90 wherein another character is speaking to Quinn:

“Hmmm. Very interesting. I see many possibilities for this word, this Quinn, this . . . quintessence. . .  of quiddity. Quick, for example. And quill. And quack. And quirk. Hmmm. Rhymes with grin. Not to speak of kin. Hmmm. Very interesting. And win. And fin. And din. And gin. And pin. And tin. And bin. Hmmmm. Even rhymes with djinn.  Hmmm. And if you say it right, with been.  Hmmm. Yes, very interesting. I like your name enormously, Mr. Quinn.  It flies off in so many little directions at once.” – pg. 90

There is also a very famous deconstruction/re-construction involving the classic novel (and character) Don Quixote. It is worthwhile and interesting reading, but it is also one of the more frequently commented on parts of Auster’s novel. I was able to appreciate it, but I am not sure I was thoroughly impressed. Interested readers, though, should probably pay it more mind than I did.

Well, there is a lot more to this novel and not, all at once. I mean to say, there are usages/re-usages of names and elements and so forth. Found objects, red notebooks, baseball. Subtle twists and turns and even quite a dose of existential angst (Cp. chapter 12).  A lot more could be extrapolated from the text and commented on.  However, I find the work lacking the heart and soul needed to make this sort of entry fully established. Done correctly (Nabokov and Calvino) these works are unbelievably masterful.  Done poorly, they end up like parlor tricks (e.g. S. King’s The Colorado Kid).  Luckily, Auster does not kill the work, so I would rank it between the two groups I just mentioned. And then, in his defense, we haven’t quite finished the story – it is The New York Trilogy, so there may be a re-evaluation needed. But fragmentary deconstruction is not illicit in this case, I think.

4 stars

The Old Man in the Corner

The Old Man in the Corner - Baroness Orczy

The Old Man in the Corner – Baroness Orczy

I’ve had an exceedingly busy October. It started on the first with epic “1,000 year rain/floods” and then this past weekend I took part in the 30th Anniversary of my kung fu school.  In between the 1st and the 24th, there was mainly chaos, pandemonium, and a definite lack of sleep. Nevertheless, I was able to read this book, which I think is actually one that has slipped the memory of many contemporary readers.  I am glad I read it and I am giving it a generally favorable review here.

Having mentioned that I have been a wee bit busy, let me be honest and say I do not know the publishing history of this book. I suppose I could have bothered to do better with researching that, but I just did not. So, I am not sure if this is the first bunch of stories featuring the title character or the second. Also, there is something on the internet about the author reworking these stories – I have no idea about the extent of said reworkings.  None of that, however, truly matters when reading this book.

The author, Baroness Emma Orczy is certainly better known as the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Now, I can tell you that this work was originally a play (1903) that the author also rewrote into a novel (1905).  I feel like “back in the day” (so, think 1950s – 1970s) this story was read a lot more and a lot more readers were familiar with it. I feel its popularity has waned quite a bit. I say all of this, but then must be obnoxious and admit that I have not read it, either.

  • The Fenchurch Street Mystery – 3 stars
  • The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace – 4 stars
  • The York Mystery – 4 stars
  • The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway – 2 stars
  • The Liverpool Mystery – 3 stars
  • The Edinburgh Mystery – 2 stars
  • The Theft at the English Provident Bank – 4 stars
  • The Dublin Mystery – 4 stars
  • An Unparalleled Outrage (The Brighton Mystery) – 4 stars
  • The Regent’s Park Murder – 4 stars
  • The De Genneville Peerage (The Birmingham Mystery) – 3 stars
  • The Mysterious Death in Percy Street – 3 stars

Now, I hesitate to consider this a “collection” of short stories because the author has written them to be somewhat seamless. As if the structure of the collection is presenting a fluid timeline. I suppose one could read these stories in any order, but I don’t see any reason for doing that.

The entire work starts with a few sentences that basically explain and contextualize the rest of the book. Straightaway we meet the title character, known to us as “The Man in the Corner” and his interlocutor, Polly Burton.

The man in the corner pushed aside his glass, and leant across the table.

“Mysteries!” he commented.  “There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation.”

Very much astonished Polly Burton looked over the top of her newspaper, and fixed a pair of very severe, coldly inquiring brown eyes upon him.

That is how, more or less, every story begins.  The man in the corner comes across as cantankerous and slightly overbearing. Polly comes across as shrewd, strong-willed, and keen. Together, they make for an interesting scene, if you imagine it.

The structure of each story is the same:  the man randomly blurts out an assertion/comment regarding a relatively famous crime that has been committed.  His statements pique the interest of Polly Burton, who is a young journalist.  The man then retells the story of the crime and the investigation/court case associated with the crime.  Polly is a journalist for the Evening Observer, but the newspaper she is reading (in quote above) is the Daily Telegraph. Polly is decidedly proud of her status as a member of the British Press.

After Polly affixes the man with a icy glare, she authoritatively states that: “And yet, this article will tell you that, even within the last year, no fewer than six crimes have completely baffled the police, and the perpetrators of them are still at large.”

“Pardon me,” he said gently, “I never for a moment ventured to suggest that there were no mysteries to the police; I merely remarked that there were none where intelligence was brought to bear upon the investigation of crime.”

So, of course, Polly attempts to test this arrogant old man’s assertions.  She suggests the Fenchurch Street Mystery, and thus begins the push and pull nature of their conversations.  One of them puts forth a particular “mystery,” and the old man relates the details of the case. By the middle of the book, Polly is less hostile toward the old man, and eagerly anticipates his arrival and his discussion.

All of the mysteries are roughly the same in presentation. A case baffles the police because something does not quite add up. The crimes are Edwardian (circa. 1900 – 1915) and generally involve the middle and upper class. Some are more interesting than others, of course, but overall they are decent reads.  The old man leads Polly to a conclusion wherein it seems like the perpetrator of the crime is revealed, although not all the time does he actually name the criminal. And his “evidence” or proof is not always tangible.  His deductions are generally logical and reasonable, but not to the extent that it is watertight and defensible.

Still, before hard-core mystery lovers attack the author, let me just say that these are entertaining reads.  The context and characters are unique and she deserves praise for her setting and presentation of the stories. Also, Polly (though we do not get to learn enough of her) is not a pushover and deserves her own spin-off series, I think.  If you want to play with logic, go get Asimov and Lewis Carroll and Spinoza and wedge, tilde, instantiate yourself giddy.  Orczy does just fine providing us a fun read with interesting little story twists and points of view. The quirky nervous habit that the old man has of tying knots in string is fantastic for its symbolism and psychology. Well done, Orczy.

The setting of these stories kept interesting me. They take place in a branch of the Aerated Bread Company (often simply referred to as an ABC – which, yes, has different connotations here in USA South.)  I was curious, so I did research this part of the book.  The Aerated Bread Co. was founded in 1862 by Dr. John Dauglish and hinged on a new process of bread-making.  Two years later, the company opened teashops, starting with a location in the Fenchurch Street Railway Station (Cp. the first mystery story in the book).  Dauglish was a graduate of Edinburgh university and passed away in 1866.  His efforts and experiments in bread-making are interesting, though outside the scope of this review. Similarly, the relevance of teashops is also a good study. Sadly, the company was bought out in 1955 and that gobbler corporation closed the business in the 1980s.

Overall, I really like the presentation and setting of these stories. I really want spinoff series for both Polly and the old man. I am tickled by many of the details throughout and I had fun reading these. Recommended for people who have busy Octobers and anyone seeking Edwardian-era things.

3 stars
average: 3.25

Southern Bastards #1

Southern Bastards #1 - Image Comics; Aaron & Latour

Southern Bastards #1 – Image Comics; Aaron & Latour (2014)

I used to read comic books as a wee one. I had a bunch of 1970s issues that I read and then re-read until they burned into my skull. If I concentrate I can still picture the frames and stories in my mind. I feverishly collected G.I. Joe and Ghost Rider comics through the 80s and early 90s. I let comics fall out of my life for awhile for a variety of reasons. But in 2005 I picked up a copy of Ghost Rider. Thus started the avalanche… again.  Well, this is good and bad. And I like different comics for different reasons. Mostly, its pure entertainment and fun, which is good. But the best thing about picking up comics again is comic book creator Jason Aaron.

I think this guy has loads of talent and I have tried to buy the titles/volumes that he has been associated with. He’s become a lot more popular and recognized in the last few years and he is well-deserving of this. But even in his earlier works, he was a great creator. One of the reasons that I know Aaron is good at this stuff is that a number of his titles are in settings I actually dislike. He has characters that I hate. And he also has storylines that I would normally avoid. But time after time I am drawn to his stuff and I enjoy the heck out of it.

I have thoroughly enjoyed Aaron’s work:  Ghost Rider, Scalped, Wolverine, etc. All of these titles are infused with a deep Alabama understanding. Setting is a major component to what Aaron writes. And he consistently authentically portrays that “Southern” (for lack of a better word) culture, counter-culture, stereotype, and worldview. I’ve been meaning to read his newest title, Southern Bastards, for some time. Finally, I picked up a copy of issue #1. And it was entirely as expected:  settings and characters and storylines that I grimace and cringe at – meanwhile seeing the depth and awesomeness to the whole thing. And now I am craving issue #2.

This title has artwork by Jason Latour, who is also a born Southerner. I think the two creators work very well together – the art and the story are presented really well. Sometimes I feel there is a disconnect between writer and artist. Whenever that happens, I know because I find myself focusing solely on the art or the words. In this issue, I think the two parts are basically seamless.

This “sequentially-published graphic novel” is not for everyone. Definitely R-rated. Definitely not for the squeamish or for the superhero fan. Like many of Aaron’s stories, this title seems to pierce the heart of a deeply-southern small town. This isn’t pseud-refined antebellum English colonial stuff. This is backwoods, BBQ-loving, isolated country. The kind of place that has more churches than commercial businesses and focuses on high school football. The opening page artwork has a dog relieving itself on the outskirts of town.

But if you can get past the gritty and grisly stuff, the story seems very realistic.  And there is a depth and substance to the story beyond the frames of violence. Aaron always produces stories about people who are conflicted, stubborn, and while sometimes simple, are never simpletons. After you read the first issue you do not know where Aaron will go with the story, but you suspect it will involve baseball bats, pick-up trucks, town corruption, and characters taking a good hard look at their inner man.

Earl Tubb (Image Comics)

Earl Tubb (Image Comics)

We meet Earl Tubb in the cab of a U-Haul style truck as he drives into what seems to be his hometown – where he grew up. Immediately, we are given to understand he has not been there in a long, long time. Earl has conflicts right after eating his BBQ lunch. He runs into an old “acquaintance” who recognizes him. He stops that scraggly character from being beaten to death. Throughout, we are shown that Earl has issues with his deceased father, who’s grave he visits.  Earl has a USMC tattoo and he is a big, towering sort of chap. After finishing this issue, yeah, I want to know more about Earl – Aaron has made me care about Earl. Even if I hate his putrid little southern town…

4 stars

The Universe Maker

The Universe Maker - A. E. Van Vogt; ACE, 1974

The Universe Maker – A. E. Van Vogt; ACE, 1974

The Universe Maker by A. E. Van Vogt was first published 1953. I read the 1974 ACE novel with 127 pages. The cover was created by Bart Forbes – and looks exactly like one would think it should for a 1970s cover art piece. A. E. Van Vogt is one of those “classic” science fiction authors who seems to have nothing really good said about him. He wrote a lot of things, but he seems to usually be held up as the standard for a low-water mark. I read this novel because I am certainly not afraid of reading terrible novels and because it is another 1950s sci-fi novel I can tick off the non-list.

Well, there is not a whole lot to say about this novel. It is bad. Really bad. In fact, of all the novels I have reviewed on this blog it is only the second to achieve the 1 star rating. So, if you’ve heard bad things about Van Vogt or his novels, you may not be too surprised. I cannot say that I was surprised – I was well aware that this had a high potential for being awful. Honestly, it was worse than I expected.

Most of this novel is incoherent at best. I do not mean in some…… Finnegans Wake sort of way. I mean in a “this author wrote this in one sitting and didn’t stop to re-read a single sentence” sort of way. I feel like the first two chapters are good enough. They set up a fairly interesting scenario and the characters are passable. Chapters three through seven seem like they belong to a slightly different novel. Sure, they have a tenuous relationship to the previous chapters, but it really seems a little forced. They are still not part of a “bad story” yet, but they are not what I expected.

Then, Chapters eight and nine happen. Again, the story seems really off. What is strange? Maybe the trajectory of the storyline, maybe the characters seem very removed. At this point, it has become very difficult to really isolate a plot. In fact, even the main character, Morton Cargill, does not seem to be a consistent character. He’s all over the place in his mannerisms, thinking, skills, psychology.

Finally in chapter ten it feels somewhat like we might be getting back to the early chapters of the book, circling back to pick up storyline threads. But sadly, that is not the case. Scenes are repeated, but this is a different path down the possible trajectory. So, if Van Vogt wanted this to seem like an alternative, cyclic time-travel story – he has very vaguely and minimally presented us with one.

But the interspersed communities/civilizations/tribes – there are three to keep track of, but we really learn very little about them – are mushy and thick. Was the author attempting to include some political/social seriousness as a plot? The first two chapters present a mystery, but by chapter eight, the novel has a very heavy-handed social dimension – that is also poorly written.

Things get worse because our main character, Cargill, has visions and dreams and things get really…. abstract. Let’s say abstract, but let us understand “distorted and random.” Throughout the book there is this obnoxious, never-ever developed superficiality regarding religion/faith. As if the author felt that religion (like politics) should be included to give a novel depth. Oh, bad mistake in this novel. It is just another nail in the coffin of a wretched little novel that should never have been written.

Maybe this is about time-travel? Or… something? I don’t know. Its really not good. By that I mean: it is quite awful, do not read this. I am not kidding. This is not just a novel “not near my tastes.” This is plainly a poorly written jumble of junk. Only read it if you are purposely trying to read really badly written things.

1 star


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