Tuesday, May 25, 1999

The Man Who Walked Through Time: The Story of the First Trip Afoot Through the Grand Canyon

by Colin Fletcher

Fletcher, supposedly the first man to walk the length of the Grand Canyon, below the Rim (seems unlikely), wrote a book about it.  I must say I’m sorely disappointed in the result.  It’s horribly repetitive and boring, to begin with.  But my main objection is that Fletcher was determined before he left to have some sort of “break” with his old self, to become a new man, to have new heights of understanding.  So every time he had some new impression of the Canyon, he would go on and on about how “now I had finally escaped the trivia of everyday life.  Now at last I no longer needed to scrutinize the wildlife; I had become part of it,” and so forth.  And each time he would then begin to scrutinize the Canyon and have another grand Moment, and repeat himself about escaping the trivia again.  All very tiresome; still there are some good scenes here, and his final chapter, consisting of his ruminations on Man, is pretty interesting.  I just wish we had more of a memoir of what it was like to walk and live in the Canyon, not a diary of forced mystical epiphanies. 

two stars

Sunday, May 23, 1999

The Inheritors

by William Golding

The story of the gentle, mostly vegetarian Neanderthal tribe that is all but obliterated in a meeting with wandering Homo sapiens.  Told almost entirely from the viewpoint of Lok, a slightly dim Neanderthal "with many words and no pictures," it’s an interesting story and a sad one.

But the power of the tale is softened considerably by Golding’s laborious, descriptive prose.  At times I found it very hard to understand what was going on, as the Homo sapiens’ activities – drinking wine, portaging boats, arguing – were described in Lok’s terms at length, with little clarity.  Discounting those passages, the novel was a good one, capped off quite amazingly with two more narrative voices.  First we see Lok as a hairy “creature,” an “it,” and then finally we hear the story from the view of one of the humans, who, it turns out, are as scared and confused as the Neanderthals, whom they consider fierce devils.  A skillful comment on how far humans have come from a natural state of innocence, acceptance and wonder.

four stars

Saturday, May 22, 1999

The Return Of Sherlock Holmes

by Arthur Conan Doyle

1. "The Adventure Of the Empty House."  In which Sherlock Holmes, supposedly having gone over Reichenbach Falls, reveals in melodramatic fashion that he is alive and sets a trap that catches one of Moriarty’s most ruthless henchmen, solving a puzzling recent murder at the same time. A ripping yarn, though the conceit of the noiseless air gun is really a deus ex machina.

2. "The Adventure Of the Norwood Builder." In which Holmes solves an apparent murder, saving an innocent man, who stood to inherit the supposed dead man’s wealth, from the gallows. Well written, with a firm sense of drama, although I have to say I suspected a faked death all along.

3. “The Adventure Of the Dancing Men." In which Holmes solves the mystery of a woman being stalked by a former admirer from America simply by breaking a code composed of stick figures. Of course the instant I saw the figures I supposed they were some sort of representative semaphoric cipher. It seemed fairly obvious, although it occurred to no one else in the story. As always, a fun tale to read, but Holmes needs more challenging mysteries, I feel. Interestingly, the ending is rather tragic.

4. "The Adventure Of the Solitary Cyclist." In which Holmes comes to the aid of a woman being stalked by apparently more than one too-tenacious “admirer.” The least interesting of these stories, this mystery really resolves itself in a bizarre scene of forced marriage, and then Holmes simply fills in the details of why it all happened with some broad (but of course correct) assumptions.

5. “The Adventure Of the Priory School." In which Holmes solves the kidnapping of the Duke of Holdernesse’s son from the Priory School. An excellent detective story, with a few questionable bits here and there (as when Holmes asserts it’s in the "interests" of a murderer to be silent about the Duke’s illegitimate son’s involvement, though the murderer is heading for the gallows) but on the whole highly enjoyable and intelligent.

6. "The Adventure Of Black Peter." In which Holmes solves the murder of a sea captain through reasonable deduction, saving the life of the police’s suspect. Since the captain was pinned to the wall with a harpoon, his murderer must be an old harpooner. Etc. It’s not a bad tale at all; there’s nothing outstanding about it, but it’s well done and enjoyable.

7. “The Adventure Of Charles Augustus Milverton." A rather different Holmes story, in which he is hired by a woman to prevent her from being blackmailed. At the first meeting, Holmes acts like rather a fool, assuming that the blackmailer (the Milverton of the title) would have the papers on his person, and so forth. Then Holmes decides to burgle Milverton’s house. Then Milverton is killed by another woman while the dynamic duo are present. The detectives flee the scene, and the next day Holmes flat out refuses to investigate the murder. Juicy, entertaining stuff, and an excellent departure from the typical solving of cases.

8. "The Adventure Of the Six Napoleons." In which Holmes solves the case of a “madman” who is smashing busts of Napoleon. A bit of a bust, this story — heh heh — as the police would have to be colossal morons not to guess that the man was not a madman at all, but obviously looking for something buried in one of the identical busts. Nice try, Doyle, but we must do better than this.

9. "The Adventure Of the Three Students." An excellent, old fashioned detective story, in which Holmes solves the problem of Who Took An Advance Look At the Test Answers. The only flaw here is in the premise, which seems forced (why can’t the professor just issue a new test, claiming he lost the old one?). The rest is pure logical deduction, and it’s well done. Holmes gets in a good snide line here, when the professor is slow to grasp his reasoning: "Watson, I have always done you an injustice. There are others."

10. "The Adventure Of the Golden Pince-Nez." In which Holmes solves the murder of an invalid professor’s research assistant. The motives behind the actual crime are a little too contrived, impossible to guess at, but the reasoning leading to the culprit is good, as is Doyle’s usual, well-paced prose.

11. "The Adventure Of the Missing Three-Quarter." In which Holmes solves the mystery of where the star football player has gone to under suspicious circumstances just before the big match. Not that Holmes’ powers of deduction get all that much of an exercise in this tale; his intellectual opponent, Dr. Armstrong, merely eludes Holmes in a coach until Homes gets a bloodhound and tracks the coach to the player. Wow!

12. “The Adventure Of the Abbey Grange." In which Holmes discovers that the murder of a drunken wife-beater was not done by a gang of robbers, but by the lover of the wife. I suspected her from the start; the story is disappointing in that Inspector Hopkins is rendered a total buffoon for not suspecting it, despite all the clues that the burglary was faked. Not the best Holmes tale.

13. "The Adventure Of the Second Stain." In which Holmes recovers a lost letter between heads of state, so sensitive it could bring war if made public. A fun, well thought out story. I enjoyed the pace of the detection, as well as how the events of the story showed Holmes’ almost maniacal desire to know the details of every case.

four stars

Thursday, May 20, 1999

The Ginger Man

by J.P. Donleavy

A great big stream of consciousness slice of life book about the boozing, lazy, nasty, cruel, selfish Sebastian Dangerfield, an American in Dublin who is supposed to be studying law at Trinity but instead drinks all day, chases women and exchanges abuse with his wife.

To be sure, Sebastian is an unpleasant character, but that doesn’t bother me.  I was simply bored by the events of the novel.  I didn’t find it, as all the blurbs promised, an exuberant, witty, wildly comic escapade.  Donleavy’s writing style is good and his language is rich (and the book contains amazingly graphic sex scenes for its time), but I wasn’t interested in what he was writing about.  And, as with The Horse's Mouth, the same nothings seemed to happen again and again: Sebastian avoids creditors.  Sebastian beds women.  Sebastian gets drunk and waxes outrageous and lyrical.  Okay, but must there be so much of it?

two stars

Monday, May 10, 1999

The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H.

by George Steiner

Adolf Hitler is found, very old but alive, by an Israeli search party in the hellish swamps of Brazil.  As various world governments plot and agents and mercenaries speed to the site, the five Israelis hold a crude trial for their prisoner.

A startlingly original novel, written in a confidently worldly style.  As a story, it’s compelling enough, but the message behind the story is unexpectedly powerful.  There are some fantastic passages, such as the Israeli mastermind’s litany of dead Jews to keep his party from humanizing Hitler; or the ruminations of the sous-secrétaire d’état on why the French really fought the war; even the cogent descriptions of the deadly swamp.  But the crowning passage of the novel is the end, Hitler’s impassioned, anti-Semitic, but perversely logical, defense speech.  He was no satanic mastermind, he claims, but an average man of his time who dared express what millions have before, notably the Jews: national supremacy, and destruction of those that oppose his people.  He even claims that he might be the Messiah that gave the Jews a national homeland and a sense of righteous militarism.  Disturbing, powerful, astonishing stuff.

four stars

Wednesday, May 5, 1999

The God Of Small Things

by Arundhati Roy

Winner of the Booker prize, this novel tells the story of a family torn apart by cruelty, divorce, class and caste difference, time, family jealousies and rivalries, and everything else that helps a dysfunctional family break apart.  At the center of the tragic tale are Estha and Rahel, twins, and their mother who dared divorce, and then dared love an Untouchable.  It’s told in a compelling fashion, with foreshadowing hints here and there, flashbacks and remembrances and the present melding together, with doom looming over the whole and never going away.

This novel really is an impressive debut.  However, I was hugely put off by the horrible cutesy writing: the strung together words that fail to add meaning to anything (“steelshrill police whistles,” “skyblue”), inane, useless capitalizations (“the Air was Alert and Bright and Hot,” “Hotweather”) that supposedly represent Important Concepts to the children of the story but really just evoke A.A. Milne, and worst of all the totally absurd invented use of adverbs (“her eyes were redly dead,” “it waved a cemently paw”) that serves no purpose except to disgust me.  Without this irritating cutesy prose, the novel’s dramatic web would truly be mesmerizing.

three stars