Monday, June 29, 2015

Mount TBR Checkpoint #2

I read these books for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Click on the date posted to go to my review.

11/ The Big Bow Mystery - Israel Zangwill

12/ Angry White Pajamas – Robert Twigger

13/ Houdini – William Lindsay Gresham

14/ Jazz in American Culture – Burton W. Peretti

15/ Charles Dickens – G. K. Chesterton

16/ The Warden – Anthony Trollope

17/ Barchester Towers – Anthony Trollope

18/ The Adventures of Gerard – Arthur Conan Doyle

19/ Best Ghost & Horror Stories – Bram Stoker

20/ The Poison Belt – Arthur Conan Doyle

A. Choose two titles from the books you've read so far that have a common link.
·         The Warden and Barchester Towers are also linked because they are #1 and #2 of the six-book Barsetshire Chronicles.
·         The Adventures of Gerard (historical fiction) and The Poison Belt (science fiction) are both adventure stories that the author wrote when he was tired of Sherlock Holmes.
·         Houdini and Jazz in American Culture are linked because I am interested in the history of popular entertainment.

 B. Tell us about a book on the list that was new to you in some way--new author, about a place you've never been, a genre you don't usually read...etc.
I don’t usually read horror stories because I’m squeamish. So Stoker’s story “The Duellists” –cold-blooded thrill murder, told in a jaunty tone – got to me, rather.

 C. Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait?
I think Angry White Pajamas was on my shelf for four or five years. It was worth the wait. Twigger is a smart English guy and they often write pretty well.

Mount TBR #20

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Poison Belt – Arthur Conan Doyle, 1913

The world might run into a belt of poisonous ether from outer space. Professor G. E. Challenger summons his partners in adventures from the novel TheLost World. They are tactless Professor Summerlee, relaxed but ready Lord John Roxton, and journalist Edward Malone. Malone is a cub reporter, the perfect wide-eyed character that an adolescent male reader can simultaneously identify with and deride as a greenhorn.

Nothing if not a realist, Challenger envisions no methodology with which to ameliorate impending doom for the entire world population. He encourages his colleagues to bring oxygen tanks to his country residence so they can wait for the end in a clean room sealed by varnished paper.

And therein lies the major problem of the book. Our brave band first spends time in the sealed room. Then they drive their motor to London. They only observe the terrible effects of the poison belt. They don’t really do anything. I suppose the teenage audience would get off on fires burning down New York, Orelans, and Brighton. Not to mention, the nihilism of:

You are to picture the loveliness of nature upon that August day, the freshness of the morning air, the golden glare of the summer sunshine, the cloudless sky, the luxuriant green of the Sussex woods, and the deep purple of heather-clad downs. As you looked round upon the many-coloured beauty of the scene all thought of a vast catastrophe would have passed from your mind had it not been for one sinister sign—the solemn, all-embracing silence. There is a gentle hum of life which pervades a closely-settled country, so deep and constant that one ceases to observe it, as the dweller by the sea loses all sense of the constant murmur of the waves. The twitter of birds, the buzz of insects, the far-off echo of voices, the lowing of cattle, the distant barking of dogs, roar of trains, and rattle of carts—all these form one low, unremitting note, striking unheeded upon the ear. We missed it now. This deadly silence was appalling. So solemn was it, so impressive, that the buzz and rattle of our motor-car seemed an unwarrantable intrusion, an indecent disregard of this reverent stillness which lay like a pall over and round the ruins of humanity. It was this grim hush, and the tall clouds of smoke which rose here and there over the country-side from smoldering buildings, which cast a chill into our hearts as we gazed round at the glorious panorama of the Weald.

There is a minimum of philosophical talk about the large questions that inevitably get asked by the last people in the world. The high point is stoical Challenger’s “cheerful acquiescence in whatever fate may send.” He says, "Without being a fatalist to the point of nonresistance, I have always found that the highest wisdom lies in an acquiescence with the actual." There are worse messages thirteen-year-olds could take in, as prone as they are to shoulding themselves, shoulding others, and shoulding the world.

Anyway, because of the lack of action, I can only recommend this easy to read but disappointing sequel to the action-packed The Lost World only to the most enthusiastic of Conan Doyle completists or grad students with a professional interest in comparing early SF writers.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Mount TBR #19

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Best Ghost and Horror Stories – Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula, also wrote short stories for newspapers and magazines. Many were collected by his widow in Dracula’s Guest in 1912. In the late 1990s. Dover Publications added a couple of previously uncollected stories to Dracula’s Guest to create the volume on review here. I was expecting unrestrained gothic sensationalism and was happily impressed at the variety of the stories.

As an indicator of my scant interest in fantasy, I was one of the few college students in the 1970s that never read The Hobbit. In this collection, however, I found the fantasy stories "The Crystal Cup" and the "The Castle of the King" to be interesting. "The Crystal Cup" features a kingdom and the transference of a soul into an object. "The Castle of the King" is a quest set in the extramundane plane.

The reader can hear Stoker rubbing his hands together while getting down to business with curses and chickens coming home to roost. "The Chain of Destiny" starts with an effective bad-dream sequence but the revenge theme is undermined by mawkish love story. The longest in the collection, it is the only story that approaches execrable. 

In “The Coming of Abel Behenna” two guys quarrel over a weak-minded girl who can’t decide which she wants for a husband. The lesson of "The Secret of the Growing Gold" is think it through before offing your blonde wife. "A Dream of Red Hand" is quite strong though the redemption finds Stoker uncharacteristically feeling the need to explain everything at the end. The best revenge story, "The Squaw," has a mama cat giving the stink eye to a stage American, who says,

Darned if the squaw hain't got on all her war paint! Jest give  her a shove off if she comes any of her tricks on me, for I'm so  fixed everlastingly by the boss, that durn my skin if I can keep my  eyes from her if she wants them! Easy there. Judge! don't you slack  that ar rope or I'm euchered!

The ghost and horror tales nailed it in the spine-tingling department. In "The Judge's House" a hanging judge reincarnates as our culture’s least favorite rodent. "Dracula's Guest" and "The Burial of the Rats" feature chases. "Dracula's Guest" was cut from the novel because the publisher thought it made the book too long.

Stoker knew Paris deeply so the chase through its streets at night works effectively in "The Burial of the Rats." The horrors of cruelty of which man is capable are featured in the crime stories “A Gipsey Prophecy” and “The Star Trap.” Stoker’s day-job was business manager of theater so the back-stage drama of “The Star Trap” as well as its cockney narrator were persuasive.

The two best stories exhibit Irish exuberance and humor.  In "Crooken Sands" a rich London cockney decides to summer to Scotland so he goes to a tailor to purchase “an entire rig-out as a Highland chieftain, as manifested in chromolithographs and on the music-hall stage.” His family and the locals mock him for his vain costume but Stoker the Irishman also twits the English and the Scots for their intolerance of people who are really different. The Cockney is weirded out when he spots his Doppelganger on the beach. This drives him to research, often a dangerous thing to people too loosely educated to defend themselves against irrational fringe beliefs: 

Secondly he began to read books professing to bear upon the mysteries of dreaming and of mental phenomena generally, with the result that every wild imagination of every crank or half-crazy philosopher became a living germ of unrest in the fertilising soil of his disordered brain.
Finally the most horrifying story "The Dualists" will bring to mind the tragedy of tw0-year-old James Bulger who was abducted, tortured and murdered by two ten-year-old boys in 1993. This story of sadistic depravity, however, is told with a gleeful zest and nonchalant cynicism that, thank heaven, I’ve not often met. That an editor in 1887 thought it reasonable to print this disturbing story in an annual Christmas number tells me that the Victorians were really spooky sometimes.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Mount TBR #18

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Adventures of Gerard – Arthur Conan Doyle

After he knocked off Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle wrote historical novels and short stories. The short stories would be printed in magazines and then bundled in hardcover. The stories featuring the infamous Brigadier Gerard were collected first in The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896) with a second collection appearing as The Adventures of Gerard (1903).

Numerous of Conan Doyle’s ancestors served in the Napoleonic Wars, so he read widely about that conflict in both French and English. So the historical background is trustworthy. But the emphasis is the comic sides of the main character and his often swashbuckling though absurd adventures. Etienne Gerard, a colonel of the Hussars of Conflans, is a classic clueless guy that doesn’t know how clueless he is.

You would think his self-satisfaction, his boasting, and his narcissistic blindness, would get old but joke never gets tired.

You will sympathise with me. Up there I had been the model for every officer of my years in the army. I was the first swordsman, the most dashing rider, the hero of a hundred adventures. Here I found myself not only unknown, but even disliked. Was it not natural that I should wish to tell these brave comrades what sort of man it was that had come among them? Was it not natural that I should wish to say, "Rejoice, my friends, rejoice! It is no ordinary man who has joined you to-night, but it is I, THE Gerard, the hero of Ratisbon, the victor of Jena, the man who broke the square at Austerlitz"? I could not say all this. But I could at least tell them some incidents which would enable them to say it for themselves. I did so. They listened unmoved. I told them more. At last, after my tale of how I had guided the army across the Danube, one universal shout of laughter broke from them all. I sprang to my feet, flushed with shame and anger. They had drawn me on. They were making game of me. They were convinced that they had to do with a braggart and a liar. Was this my reception in the Hussars of Conflans?

With bravado, confidence, and joie de vivre, Gerard is amusing, to be sure. Conan Doyle, however, never makes heroism silly. Near the end, Gerard says, “[T]he memory of a great age is the most precious treasure that a nation can possess.” A romantic  reader can’t help think about that, though the source is Gerard.