Feb 1 2010

The Three Musketeers

Today, I finally finished Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 classic “The Three Musketeers” (in English). I bought a copy of this book about 18 years ago and made a number of failed forays into the first chapter or two. Recently, I picked-up a better copy (I’m partial to hardcovers) and committed myself to seeing what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t hard. In fact, I’m not sure why I had so much trouble starting the book in the first place. Like all good adventure books, the story soon is pulling you along and before you know it, it’s over. Well, not completely over… There are two follow-up books to the d’Artagnan Romances (e.g., Twenty Years After, The Vicomte de Bragelonne) and three further stories (e.g., Ten Years Later, Louise de la Valliere, The Man in the Iron Mask) but I have too much else on my list before I even think about embarking on those.

The book itself was a strange blend of familiar characters involved in unfamiliar circumstances. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising having seen innumerable adaptations in cartoons, television, movies, abridged children’s books, etc. Anyone who has read a version of the story in elementary school should revisit the book again. I was expecting it to end with a huge mêlée between the King’s Musketeers and the Cardinal’s Guards, but nothing like that ever manifested. Maybe in a later book? Instead, the story tacks back and forth between a number of villainous characters before settling on one and pursuing that storyline to the finish. As I was coming to the end I began to seriously doubt how the story-lines could ever be wrapped-up in the number of pages left. There is a large and confusing cast of characters, all addressed as M. or Mme., Count this, Countess that… It wasn’t as bad as “Crime and Punishment” where everyone has three names that could be used interchangeably as the narrator saw fit, but it still took some reprogramming every time I put the book down for more than a day at a time. Whining aside, the book was a good deal of fun.

For those unfamiliar with the story (how is that even possible?!), the book revolves around three mysterious Musketeers (who have changed their names to escape their respective pasts) and a young Gascon swordsman who travels to Paris wishing to  join the Musketeer ranks. The story mostly follows d’Artagnan’s adventures, friendships, and romances. In the process he crosses swords and wits with a number of villains ranging from the the Countess de Winter, Cardinal Richelieu, and the Man from Meung while professing his love, honor, and service to every lady he meets (married or not… such is the French way?). Despite a wide network of characters, plots, intrigues, and twists the story wraps-up satisfactorily (which is amazing). I will read it again should I ever find the time.

“You are young,” replied Athos; “and your bitter recollections have time to change themselves into sweet remembrances.”

4.5 out of 5


Jan 27 2010

All My Sins Remembered

Whenever I was sick enough to stay home from school, my mom would make me stay in bed all day. I used to take that opportunity to read through a pile of torn-up old 60s era comic books my uncle had left for us. Since that time, sick days (when I haven’t been delirious with fever) have been perfect for reading. Today was no different. After three days of fever, cold sweats, sleeplessness, coughing, sneezing, congestion, and chest aches, I started and finished Joe Haldeman‘s 1977 book “All My Sins Remembered“. This happens to be the second Haldeman book I’ve read within the last year, the first being “The Forever War”. Both books struck the same chord in that having finished them, I had no clear idea how I feel about them. I liked them both, and yet…

“All My Sins Remembered” is about a self-avowed “Anglo-Buddhist” named Otto McGavin who is programmed to be a secret agent and undergoes a lifetime of multiple personality overlays and physical alterations for a secret organization known only as TBII (the initials are never explained). The book covers three of his life’s 35 missions and the terrible things his programming has enabled him to do. We’ve read (or more likely “seen”) plenty of stories about implanted memories and talents: 1969’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” (Dick), 1987’s “When Gravity Fails” (Effinger), 1999’s “The Matrix” (Wachowski(s)), etc. All told, this one doesn’t stand out too far from the crowd. The story explores how the main character deals with the suppression of his own personality at the expense of his repeated missions, but you seldom get a sense of the underlying struggle (until the end). This is probably because parts of the book first appeared separately in Sci-Fi magazines in 1971, 1974, and 1977. While the alien worlds, cultures, and antagonists are interesting throughout, I wanted to care more about the main character. Upon finishing, I was left with an interesting story filled with interesting ideas tied together with a good ending and wondering why it wasn’t enough.

“Cold-blooded murderer of children, for hire. Well, maybe he had a good side. Kind to snakes or something.”

3.5 out of 5


Jan 23 2010

In Cold Blood

While waiting for a call from the garage on the status of my Jeep, I finished the last pages of Truman Capote’s 1966 novel, “In Cold Blood“. The story was published the year before in the New Yorker, a magazine for people that can make it through 1000s of words of literary self-masturbation without falling dead asleep. I need purpose in the poems and stories that I read. I can’t stand wading through a traffic-jam of words only to find that the words themselves were the only purpose for the piece. Capote wrote for the New Yorker long before I ever picked-up a copy (and fell asleep on the toilet) and delivers from the very beginning. Four shotgun blasts ring out on page three. The rest of the book tries to explain why.

“In Cold Blood” is a collection of many stories woven together, each stemming from the interviews of those affected by the 1959 quadruple murder. Truman Capote and Harper Lee (of “To Kill a Mockingbird” fame) traveled to west Kansas to write an article on the Clutter family murders prior to the identification and capture of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. The book outlines their subsequent incarcerations, trials, and sentencing. What sets this book apart is that Capote interviewed the murderers and was able to reconstruct their lives leading up to the night of November 15th and give insight into the minds of the condemned.

An interesting addendum to “In Cold Blood” are the criticisms of it. While the book has been lauded as a pioneer of True Crime stories, many have questioned the book’s veracity. Capote did not take notes or recordings during his interviews in Kansas, preferring instead to write quotes and summaries afterward (he claimed “over 90%” retention). There is also the question of whether Perry and Dick were in a homosexual relationship (some have suggested that Dick’s intentions to rape Nancy Clutter may have angered Perry and sparked the murders). Capote, a liberated homosexual himself, never addressed this in the book. His sympathetic handling of Perry’s character however has led some to believe that he developed a “fondness” for the young man awaiting the gallows. While these criticisms might pitch the balance from non-fiction to fiction, they do nothing to detract from the storytelling itself. A compelling book from start to finish.

“Then it was real quiet again. Except that dog. Old Andy, he danced a long time. They must have had a real mess to clean up…” “…The fact is, his heart kept beating for nineteen minutes.”

4 out of 5


Dec 27 2009

A Christmas Carol

Jacob Marley's GhostToday, I finished Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol“. I was familiar with the story before picking up the book (you’d be hard-pressed finding a Christmas-celebrant who wasn’t familiar with the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge). The story is as much a part of the holiday as Christmas trees, exchanging gifts, and vain attempts at skirting family drama for 24 hours. The holiday was also a time to find myself parked in front of the television, wrapped in a robe and blanket, flipping through UHF channels looking for something to watch. If it wasn’t “A Christmas Carol” (1938), it was often “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947); for some reason, I never saw “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) until much, much later. I could have gone out and enjoyed the snow but I never liked it much. The snow  always ended up melting in my boots or (if my brother was around) getting stuffed into my hood and down the back of my coat. None of which has anything to do with the book. In later years, I discovered the Richard Donner adaptation “Scrooged” (starring Bill Murray). Who couldn’t like the thought of stapling antlers to the heads of mice in spirit of Christmas?!

For those who are not familiar with the tale (how is that possible?) the story revolves around an old miser who after several visitations from the spirit-world (or possibly just a restless night?), is imbued with the Christmas Spirit.  What is the Christmas Spirit? Well, to Dickens at least, it’s having mercy on his readers and writing a story that comes in under 150 pages. Other than that, old Ebenezer is forced to remember what people used to mean to him and how he let that all slip away. Even if you’re a bit of a humbug about the whole Christmas thing, this story has a great deal to offer about choices, consequences, and redemption. Who wouldn’t be changed and/or humbled by the sight of their own weed-choked grave?

So, what message did I take from my first reading of this story? Never let life stray far from the reason that life is worth living, friends and family. It’s a sentiment that makes me gag on the one hand (that would be the 12 year old boy inside me) and makes me sit in silent agony on the other, as my imagination conjures the graves of all I have ever loved: past, present, and future.

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” – Ebenezer Scrooge to Jacob Marley’s Ghost, Charles Dickens

5 out of 5


Nov 24 2009

A Town Like Alice

A Town Like AliceLast night I finished Nevil Shute‘s 1950 novel “A Town Like Alice“. I had very little idea what the story was about before opening the book, which is perhaps the best way to start any read. I’m not even certain how I found my way to this book. It might have been something as stupid as having heard the catchy 1982 The Jam song, “Town Called Malice” (which has nothing to do with the book). Whatever the reason, after seeing a great deal of positive reviews on Amazon.com, I got a copy and proceeded to read. I’m glad that I did.

The story revolves around a woman named Jean Paget, who comes into a large some of money when an uncle (that she met once as a child) dies alone in Scotland following WWII. The trustor, an older gentleman named Noel Strachan (who drapes a melancholy pall over the entire book), finds the sole heir and takes her under his wing. As the paperwork is settled, he befriends the young woman and learns about her harrowing past during the war, where she partook in a death-march around Japanese-occupied Malaya. It was during this period that she met an Australian prisoner-of-war named Joe Harmon, who did his best to steal food for the starving women and children on the march, but ultimately paid the price for his efforts.

There is a great deal more to the story, but I’d be doing readers unfamiliar with the book a disservice by revealing anything more. I will note however that the book wanders a bit. I guess this is inevitable since it follows a person’s life across a number of years but there are long sections (it’s not a very big book) that had me wondering “how does this add to the story?”. I can only assume that Shute included more than he needed as a testament to the real-life people that he’d met and modeled the characters after, e.g., Carry Geysel and Herbert Edwards. The hardships endured by the story’s main characters are impressive; the fact that they fall shy of the events that inspired them are astonishing.

“You won’t know if [your time] was wasted until you come to the end of your life,” I said. “Perhaps not then.”

4 out of 5


Oct 21 2009

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Eliza Crossing the Icy RiverI just finished Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s 1852 abolitionist classic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin“. I have of course known about this book for as long as I can remember, but never really intended to read it (until recently). Why? Not sure. Maybe I thought it was irrelevant? Maybe I thought it would be awkward? Old racist stereotypes often are. Maybe I was just embarrassed to read a book surrounded by such negative connotations (which it doesn’t deserve). Much of the criticism for the book actually stems from unsanctioned “Tom Shows” during the 19th century where the main character was depicted as a subservient fool who would not stand up to his white owners.

The book is filled with cookie-cutter stereotypes: demonic slave-owners, dancing and singing black children, angelic golden-haired white children (well okay… just one), large brutish black men, etc., but that’s completely understandable given the book’s purpose. This was never meant to be a great work of literature (though it was the best selling novel of the 19th century); it was composed to illustrate the plight of slaves in pre-Civil War America to a populace that had become complacent (Fugitive Slave Act of 1850). The entire book was an appeal to “Christian values” (I won’t go into that) and an attempt to expose the horrors of slavery to white readers that either had no clue what was going on or didn’t care enough to do something about it.

Was it successful? In its time, absolutely. Today’s reader may find the story a bit of a slog through a seemingly unending barrage of Bible passages, hymns, and perorations on the importance of accepting Jesus and his gospel. The main character pretty much goes down without a fight because he believes it’s the Christian thing to do. Some might argue that his faith and restraint made him the ultimate victor (i.e., “he’s gone to a better country”), but that doesn’t change the fact that his story ends in a grave (spoiler?). Again, it’s important to recognize the audience she was writing for, and how best to stoke their passions. I also found it interesting that Stowe’s idea of reparations seemed to consist of freeing the slaves, educating them, and shipping them off to Liberia.

So, is it a good read? If you have ever had troubles staying awake through a sermon, you’re going to have troubles with this book.  If you’re able to appreciate the importance of this book in its historical context, it is worth reading. It was important 150+ years ago and prelude to where we are today.

“…there can be no high civilization without enslavement of the masses, either nominal or real.”

4 out of 5


Oct 9 2009

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Ichabod CraneBook reading sex-fecta (sounds dirty) for the week? Maybe. Many of the stories I’ve read this past week have been short. Today’s was very short. With the approach of Hallowe’en (I like that spelling), I thought it appropriate to read (possibly for the second time, can’t be sure) Washngton Irving‘s 1820 tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow“.

The story of poor preceptor Ichabod Crane, never gets old. I think most people are familiar with the Disney adaptation (1949) which tells Irving’s tale pretty faithfully. One difference I did notice however, is that the Headless Horseman in the story doesn’t have a jack-o-lantern head, but instead rides with his severed head mounted on the saddle’s pommel. Too macabre for Disney, or just not as theatrical? I also liked the way that Irving weaves the ghost story, finishing the tale with a healthy helping of doubt as to the events which actually occurred, but then admitting that he (the narrator) prefers the version told by “old country wives”. I enjoy ghost stories a great deal, but I think they’re made better when the truth of these events are left to the shadows of the reader’s imagination… that is where they are born and where they belong.

“The pedagogue’s mouth watered as he looked upon this sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare. In his devouring mind’s eye, he pictured to himself every roasting-pig running about with a pudding in his belly, and an apple in his mouth; the pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie, and tucked in with a coverlet of crust; the geese were swimming in their own gravy; and the ducks pairing cosily in dishes, like snug married couples, with a decent competency of onion sauce. In the porkers he saw carved out the future sleek side of bacon, and juicy relishing ham; not a turkey but he beheld daintily trussed up, with its gizzard under its wing, and, peradventure, a necklace of savory sausages; and even bright chanticleer himself lay sprawling on his back, in a side dish, with uplifted claws, as if craving that quarter which his chivalrous spirit disdained to ask while living.”

4 out of 5


Oct 8 2009

The City of Ember

City of EmberI finished two books in one day! Yea, me! I just finished Jeanne DuPrau‘s 2003 book, “The City of Ember” (a movie based on the book was released last year, might have to Netflix that). It came highly recommended to me by a friend (a teacher, not a teacher of MINE, just a teacher of stuff… kids, and those sorts of filthy, screaming, slimy things), so I felt compelled to give it a shot! The book seems to be aimed toward tweens/middle-schoolers, which is fine. Some of the books I remember most fondly are books I read when I was younger (e.g., Chronicles of Prydain, The Tripods, Satanic Mill). The story revolves around two 12-year old children named Lina and Doon. It follows their initial graduation, employment, and explorations in and about the isolated city of Ember (they start early in Ember… tween empowerment?).

The city of Ember is running out of resources (e.g., food, clothes, light bulbs), it’s residents having lived there longer than the Builders intended. This is all explained in the book’s prologue. I’m not sure how to categorize the book, it’s not really sci-fi (all the tech is 20th century), it’s not really a mystery (you know what’s going on from the start), it’s not really a romance (the kids are 12… Pedo Bear Seal of Approval), it’s sort of a thriller (but you sort of know what’s going to happen)… I guess it’s an adventure book, even though everything happens within a fairly confined area where the most dramatic event is flickering light bulbs. Don’t take from this that the story isn’t good, it is. It’s just hard to pigeon-hole. Basically, if you want to read a non-challenging tween pseudo-post-apocalyptic-adventure book, read “City of Ember”. It’s enjoyable and sometimes that’s all you need.

“In the city of Ember, the sky was always dark.”

4 out of 5


Oct 8 2009

The Castle of Otranto

Horace WalpoleFirst things first… Before today, I was completely unaware of  Horace Walpole‘s 1764 novel “The Castle of Otranto“. I encountered the title by chance on LibraryThing and proceeded to download a copy from the Gutenberg repository. I was intrigued (that word keeps popping up!) about a story described as the first Gothic novel (i.e., a story containing horror and romance). I was also interested to see how an 18th century author dealt with fantasy elements, e.g., apparitions, damsels in distress, knights in shining armor, hereditary curses, superstition, etc. The book does not disappoint (though it is very “over the top”).

“The Castle of Otranto” was originally published under a pseudonym, and marketed as a translation of a 15th century Italian manuscript of a Crusades-era (11th to 13th centuries) tale. *deep breath* The “translation” was well-received originally, until Walpole finally admitted that it was a work of pure fiction… at which point the praises turned sour. Think: 18th century “Blair Witch Project“. The movie was MUCH better if you believed the uncredited early screenings were real, than it was after you’d seen the “doomed” actors final hurrah on the MTV Awards.

So did I like this chance find? Yes, I did! The story rolled along quickly and kept my interest throughout. It is packed with turns and twists and intrigues (hmmm…) and a healthy dose of the supernatural. Maybe it’s just me, but my only advice is to keep your dictionary handy, the book is a vocabulist’s wet-dream.

“The fellow made no answer, but continued pointing towards the courtyard; and at last, after repeated questions put to him, cried out, ‘Oh! the helmet! the helmet!'”

3.5 out of 5


Oct 7 2009

Ethan Frome

Ethan FromeAre you looking for a tale that’s dark, cold, moody, haunting, romantic, and depressing as hell? Look no further! Today I finished Edith Wharton‘s 1911 novel “Ethan Frome“. Wharton is probably best known for “The Age of Innocence” (which I haven’t read, but won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1921). After reading Frome, I may be exploring more by this author.

It starts simply with a businessman visiting a bleak New England town called Starkfield. After seeing a crippled, strong, and quiet man named Ethan Frome, the businessman sets out to learn more about him. His curiosity is further piqued upon discovering that no one wishes to speak of Frome’s troubles. After meeting the man, the businessman learns more about his life, love, and trials than he may have wished (though it’s unclear whether he actually learns these things, or if the book simply outlines all the details that he can never know).

This story is unrelentingly bleak and depressing. I really enjoyed it. I didn’t like it because it was depressing but because it illustrates how little we know about the lives of others and how little thought we give to the struggles,  trials, and sufferings others carry with them through their lives.

“I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”

4.5 out of 5