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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-12-18

To Sublime or Not to Sublime—

Iain M. Banks' tenth and last Culture novel Hydrogen Sonata (2012) is all about Subliming. For millennia the Gzilt have felt superior to other galactic civilizations because of their scientifically prescient holy book, and now only 24 days remain till they Sublime. In theory this happens when a civ has nothing more to achieve technologically and culturally and involves nearly everyone abandoning possessions, desires, and ambitions etc. and transcending from the Real to a Childhood's End-like nirvana in multiple unknown dimensions.

But are the Gzilt really ready for Subliming? Why does one of their warships atomize a diplomatic ship sent by the already Sublimed civ who helped them develop by giving them their holy Book of Truth? The destroyed ship was carrying a message, and if it was, say, "The Book of Truth was an experiment on the Gzilt by an advanced civilization," what would the Gzilt do if they found out? Will the two scavenger civs eagerly waiting for the Gzilt to Sublime start fighting over the abandoned technology too soon? What role should the Culture (the preeminent galactic civilization comprised of disparate societies guided by near divine AI ship Minds) play in all this? Their ship Minds don't like to interfere with other civs, but they also like to get to the bottom of mysteries and want to do the Right Thing. If they confirm that the Book of Truth was an experiment, should they tell the Gzilt? And what is the connection between the Gzilt Subliming and the legendary QiRia, a 10,000-year-old Culture man whose memories are encoded in his body, and the nearly unplayable and unlistenable to Hydrogen Sonata, which the Gzilt woman Vyr Cossont has decided to play as her life work (to the extent of adding a second pair of arms onto her body)?

For that matter, what IS Subliming? It is an act of faith, because information is scarce, because (typically) no one returns from the Sublime or communicates from it to the Real. Is it as most Gzilt believe a promotion to "the most brilliant lucid dream forever" in the "Happy land of good and plenty," or is it as many Culture Minds believe a kind of retirement into an old people's home or an act of collective insanity and annihilation? Banks, who died before he could write another Culture novel, isn't telling.

Whatever happens once you say "I Sublime" and vanish from the Real, it has no connection with ethical behavior. The Gzilt are no angels. Their politicians are amoral, their military leaders inhumane, their artists decadent. All that may be Banks' point. As QiRia puts it, "my heart is broken with each new exposure to the idiocies and cruelties of every manner of being that dares to call or think of itself as intelligent." But he also says (sounding like Banks) that one pleasure of benign misanthropes like him is watching the dolts repeat the same "fuckery."

But Banks is no future downer. He exuberantly spins out small s sublime technologies and scales of time and space for his galactic post-scarcity playground, like sculpted planets, a 30,000 km-long city girdling a world, elevenstring instruments so big you have to sit inside and play them with two bows, hyperspace, anti-matter and anti-gravity, body implants, stored consciousnesses, eccentric drones, combat arbites, nano missiles, and smart battle suits. Not to mention the Culture AI ship Minds keeping an eye on things and deciding what to do in conference calls, with their different personalities, agendas, hobbies, capabilities, avatars, and quirky names: the Beats Working, Mistake Not. . . (ellipsis intentional), Smile Tolerantly, You Call This Clean?, A Fine Disregard For Inconvenient Facts, Empiricist, Caconym (which means an incorrect name), and more.

Banks is not just parading awesome techs and sublime scales for the fun of it (although his book is fun), but to explore serious questions, like What is the meaning of life when there is no Meaning? What are the ethical and practical limitations of simulations? Should more advanced civilizations take a hands on or off approach to less advanced ones? Is intelligence connected to decency or to technology? Can we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past? What makes us human? What makes us individuals? Where does identity reside? And so on.

Banks writes space opera about the human condition, as when an android in real danger says, "Happily, I am not human, and this is only a simulation." He writes snappy and humorous dialogue, like "Are you afraid of heights?" "No, just of dying generally." He writes sublime space opera comedy: "Back aboard the Passing By, the mind controlling both the systems vehicle and the avatar was doing the hyper AI equivalent of grimacing and mouthing the word, 'Shit.'" He writes straight space opera sublime, as in a description of the sound made by giant wind pipes, like "from an enormous choir of bases singing a slow sonorous hymn in a language you never understood."

Peter Kenny reads the audiobook with verve and skill. He distinguishes among the many characters by changing the pitch of his voice (Vyr Cossont's familiar Pyan talks like an infant stuffed animal, a combat android like a cheerful machine, an Ronte prince like an insect, a mysterious ship Mind like a senile Merlin, etc.) or his accent (though I wonder why people or AI Minds from the same civ speak American, British, Scottish, or Australian English).

Hydrogen Sonata is not perfect. There may be too many advanced technologies and point of view characters, some of which/whom finally don't seem so vital to the plot (like Tefwe, the Zoologist, and even the Hydrogen Sonata). True, Banks wants to freely exercise his imagination in a universe in which anything is possible, and at one point a "body enhancement artist" tells an interviewer that he recently had 53 serviceable penises on his body and that one should "never feel sorry for excesses, only for failure of nerve." But this novel feels more excessive and less satisfying than earlier Culture novels. The climax is exciting, but the resolution (deciding whether or not the Gzilt will Sublime and what will happen to some bad actors) is somehow disappointing. The last words of the novel nearly blow every prior thing away: "caught in the swirling breeze produced by the flyer's departure, [the elevenstring instrument] hummed emptily. The sound was swept away by the mindless air."

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-30-18

A Framed Whodunit Outperforms Its Whodunit Frame?

Editor and fan of whodunits Susan Ryeland has barely finished reading the typescript of one that her company Cloverleaf Books is keen to publish when she finds herself caught up in a real murder mystery. The manuscript is called Magpie Murders, and it's the ninth entry in the best selling Atticus Pund detective series by the popular author Alan Conway. Conway's novel is set in the 1950s in the small fictional village Saxby-on-Avon and features the "accidental" death of the housekeeper at Pye Hall, the bloody murder of Sir Magnus Pye, the host of locals with motives and opportunities kill him, and the famous detective Atticus Pund wanting to solve this last case before a brain tumor can kill him. Just after Susan discovers that the typescript is missing some crucial chapters, she learns that author Conway has apparently committed suicide. Her search for the missing pages leads her to believe that he has been murdered, and despite saying things like "I wasn't a detective. I was an editor," Susan is soon using her keen intelligence, observation, and whodunit chops to play detective. And because Conway was not the world's nicest author or man, Susan is soon dealing with multiple suspects and motives for murder. Has the extraordinary number of murder mysteries in books and TV shows made her imagine a murder where none exists, as a local police chief scolds her? Will butting into an affair best left to the police get her in some danger, as her boyfriend Andreas warns her? Will her investigation risk her job with Cloverleaf, as her boss Charles cautions her? Will she ever get to the bottom of it all or get to read the rest of Magpie Murders?

Alan Horowitz' novel Magpie Murders (2017), then, is a whodunit nested within a whodunit. Susan's "real" framing story takes place in contemporary England (partly London, partly the countryside), Conway's fictional framed story in 1950s England (wholly in the countryside). Conway used Agatha Christie's oeuvre as a reference, so his part of Horowitz' novel reads like an excellent pastiche of Christie. Horowitz is an expert in the genre, so the Conway part of his novel also reads like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, with Pund's brilliant and observant detective Pund evoking Holmes, his obtuse and good-natured assistant Watson, and the well-meaning but misguided police detective Lestrade. Such is the power of Horowitz' writing and his knowledge of the genre, that for the long interpolated passage of Conway's novel about the investigations of Atticus Pund we nearly forget that we are reading a fictional mystery inside a "real" one. The characters are interesting enough and the mystery challenging enough and the sense of time and place vivid enough. The contemporary frame part of his novel in which Susan endeavors to find out what happened to Conway and who did it is also a compelling read, enlivened by many self-referential remarks on the whodunit genre and by many references to other detectives and mystery writers, including Holmes and Poirot and Conan Doyle and Christie.

The audiobook readers Samantha Bond and Allan Corduner do excellent work here, Bond reading the frame narration from Susan's point of view, Corduner reading Conway's framed Magpie Murders from a variety of point of view characters, though I did prefer Corduner's Pund (refined and elegant German accented English) to Bond's (so it's lucky that Bond reads very little of Conway's novel). Anyway, having different readers for the different whodunits works well.

Finally, as often happens when I finish a whodunit, I felt somehow let down and wondered, "It was entertaining and has lots of human nature and drama, but was it worth it?" Part of me sympathizes with Andreas when he tells Susan that the mystery genre is unworthy: "Eighty-thousand words to prove that the butler did it?" Sure Horowitz' book has going for it all its commentary on the whodunit genre (it is very much a whodunit about whodunits), and some interesting things about gender (a fine use of and explanation for the c-word at one point), but…

More criticisms. It's uncool when a writer has a character like Susan say something like, "I dislike coincidences in a whodunit" just before running into a whopping one, and I am not a fan of unnecessary sensational action scenes in the climaxes of mysteries like what happens in Horowitz' frame mystery here. Worse, I think Horowitz indulges in excessive pastiching, as when he has Susan (and us) read an entire chapter by an amateur who can't write well and then an entire chapter by Conway who stole the plot from the amateur so we may compare the two, even though they have nothing to do with Magpie Murders, or an extended passage of the serious "literary" novel by Conway that will never be published because it's "derivative rubbish" aping contemporary novelists like Martin Amis and Will Self. (Actually, I enjoyed that part because it's short and demonstrates that Horowitz can write pretentious, sour, and witty "literary" fiction with the best of them, but…) Finally, Andreas (Susan's middle-aged, understanding, Cretan hunk of a boyfriend) is a bit unbelievable (he was married to Aphrodite!), and the resolution of Horowitz' frame narrative is a bit disappointing.

Complaints aside, fans of mysteries will like this book; it is clever, funny, and compelling. It does have plenty of neat lines on crime and life, etc., as when Pund speculates "on the nature of human wickedness… how it is the small lies and evasions which nobody sees or detects but which can come together and smother you like fumes and a house fire," or as when Susan supposes that people around the world like murder mysteries because they provide certainty in an uncertain world. But that the best lines come from Conway's Magpie Murders makes me think that the framed mystery is better than its frame.

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-25-18

"A god moved him--who knows?"

Like The Iliad, the Odyssey is culturally, psychologically, and aesthetically fascinating, moving, and entertaining. Recently I re-read it by listening to two different audiobook versions: Fitzgerald's 1961 translation read by Dan Stevens and Robert Fagles' 1996 translation read by Ian McKellan. Both translations and readings are superb. I don't know Greek so I can't compare their accuracy, but their English is tight, dynamic, beautiful, and flexible. Here are two versions of a great short scene where Medon tries to explain to Penelope why her son went on a dangerous voyage:

“A god moved him--who knows?--or his own heart
sent him to learn, at Pylos, if his father
roams the wide world still, or what befell him.”

“I don’t know if a god inspired your son
or the boy’s own impulse led him down to Pylos,
but he went to learn of his father’s journey home,
or whatever fate he’s met.”

Both versions capture the Homerian ambiguity about why we do what we do, but Fitzgerald does more compellingly in 28 words what Fagles does in 34, and I did find that Fitzgerald is usually more concise. Fagles tends to be more colloquial (catch my drift, cramping my style, etc.), while Fitzgerald uses unusual, "authentic" spellings of names with k for c etc. (Kyklops, Akhaians, Telemakhos, etc.). The above two translation examples are similar in meaning, but there are other places with greater differences, like when Odysseus blesses the royal house of the Phaeacians by saying he hopes they'll pass their riches down to their SONS in Fagles but to their CHILDREN in Fitzgerald, and I wonder which is closer to the original Greek.

As for the audiobook readings, both Dan Stevens and Ian McKellan are excellent, versatile actors with appealing voices and manners and great intelligence and empathy. Neither strains artificially for male or female or young or old characters. Both greatly enhance Homer's poem. I did find that, perhaps because of his greater age and experience, Ian McKellan revealed a wider and deeper range of emotion than Stevens. McKellan does a great Cyclops giving Odysseus a "gift," Circe enticing Odysseus to her bed, Menelaus predicting a blood wedding for the suitors, and so on. The 40-page "Postscript" by Fitzgerald is missing from his audiobook, while Fagles' informative 65-page introduction is missing from his. Anyway, I highly recommend both audiobooks of The Odyssey, which was after all originally meant to be listened to rather than read.

The first four books of the poem begin not with the beginning of Odysseus' epic ten-year effort to return home but in its last year, and concern not Odysseus but his son Telemachus, introducing the situation in Ithaca where for the last three years many reckless suitors have been hanging around the hero's wife Penelope in hopes that Odysseus will stay missing so one of them can marry her. Telemachus has been helplessly watching the greedy suitors devour his patrimony, until Athena decides to spark his maturing into a man by inspiring him to travel to his father's old Trojan War comrades to ask them what happened to his father. The next four books recount Odysseus' long longed for departure from the island (and bed) of the minor goddess Calypso and his arrival at the island of the Phaeacians, where, in the next four books he suspensefully narrates to his hosts his past adventures trying to return home after the Trojan War (encountering lotus eaters, sirens, Cyclops, wind gods, Circe, the House of the Dead, and more). The last half of the poem depicts Odysseus finally back in Ithaca, disguised by Athena as an old beggar, recruiting an ally or two, visiting his palace to assess the suitors and servants (and to suffer their affronts), and plotting some ultra-justice on the people who've been living without proper manners and morals.

The poem features many memorable fantastic and or emotional scenes. When Zeus complains about the tendency of foolish mortals to blame the gods for their troubles, when Athena prays to herself for a smooth journey, when Odysseus meets the shade of his mother ("like a shadow dissolving like a dream" in Fagles), when Odysseus treats Polyphemus to some wine and a sharpened stake (in an exuberantly gruesome scene), when Odysseus meets Nausica, when Odysseus tells Athena another fake autobiography ("You chameleon, bottomless bag of tricks," she calls him in Fitzgerald), when Telemachus sneezes at something Penelope says, when Penelope interviews a beggar, when Odysseus tests his sad old father, when the shade of Agamemnon happily hears the shade of a suitor recount what Odysseus has done to his fellows and him. And many more.

There are many interesting aspects of the poem, like the following:
--divine interference in our affairs may be explained by human nature or chance.
--Odysseus travels around sleeping with goddesses, while Penelope must stay chaste at home.
--Odysseus is willing to raid strangers in their homes but expects the people he visits to be friendly to strangers (and that in a sense his treatment of the suitors resembles what monstrous hosts like Polyphemus and Hercules do to their guests).
--Odysseus metes out disproportionate violent justice, especially to a dozen slave girls and a disloyal goatherd.
--Homer addresses the loyal swineherd Eumaeus as "you."
--Homer really likes poets (especially blind ones).

Finally, such is the richness of the poem's characters and imagination and language (including the epic similes comparing, for example, Odysseus to things like an octopus dragged from its lair, children who feel relief after their father recovers from illness, and a sausage turned back and forth by a cook over a scorching blaze), that even though from the start Homer repeatedly foreshadows what will happen, it all manages to be suspenseful and entertaining every time one reads it.

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-09-18

Can a Leopard Change Its Spots? Should it?

Just as Freddy the Pig is finishing a poem in which he yearns for a useful tail like a dog or cat's, a robin called JJ Pomeroy mistakes the poet's short curly tail for a worm and gives it a painful tug. The bird apologetically explains that he's near-sighted and constantly taking inedible things home to his children. He also tells Freddy (after the pig recites his poem) that he ought to be proud of having the only purposeless tail on Mr. Bean's farm. Freddy is much impressed, nearly tears up his poem, and offers to help the robin get a pair of tiny glasses from the town optometrist. On the way to Centerboro to fulfill his offer the next day, Freddy is ambushed by Jimmy Witherspoon and his slingshot. Jimmy is the son of a Xenas Witherspoon, a skin flint farmer who refuses to pay for clothes or shoes for the boy so that he's always barefoot and raggedy so that he's ostracized at school, so that his only entertainment is watching animals jump when struck by pebbles from his slingshot. Later that day, Freddy and JJ run into Mrs. Church, the local rich woman who's come to town (driven on a tandem bicycle by her chauffeur because the war has made saving gasoline a patriotic priority) to get wedding invitations printed for her niece. The invitations will display the Church coat of arms (which her husband recently bought) featuring an unknown bird which Freddy is inspired to call a popinjay: because it's an imaginary bird, no one can say it's not a popinjay!

Thus begin the three main plot lines of Walter R. Brooks' Freddy and the Popinjay (1945), which deals comically and complexly with themes relating to identity and change. Should we be content with ourselves as we are? Are we capable of changing ourselves for the better? If we change our outer appearances, does that mean we also change our inner selves? Do we have the right or responsibility to "help" other people change? Should people be given second chances to improve? Etc. The story produces comical or interesting developments like the transformation of a robin into an imaginary bird; a new fashion by which live birds are paid to act like ladies' hats; a war between farm animals and a lonely and indomitable boy; an Arthurian jousting tournament featuring pillows, a duck pond, and bovine chargers; a school run by bears; a wild cat family that wants a new start (the parents promising that their kids won't eat their fellow pupils anymore); a milliner who decides she'd rather walk around in the woods than make a fortune; an overly eager to help wasp; an elephant trap that turns into a thinking hole; and more and more and more.

Like Brooks' other Freddy books, this one is very funny in many different ways. It features whimsical information about animal nature (e.g., "Wasps are no diplomats") as well as satirical takes on human nature (e.g., "Being a banker's wife, she was very difficult to please"). Its humor ranges from the philosophical (Hank the simple horse musing, "It's kind of hard to tell, sometimes, though, whether it's somebody outside that pushed you or somebody inside") to the farcical (Freddy and his friends waking Jimmy up every half hour all night by howling or mooing etc. so as to make him too tired to use his slingshot on them). Much of the humor focuses on Freddy, as when the not overly old pig writes a poem about his lost youth, "When I was a piglet, the grass was much greener," or attends the wedding of Mrs. Church's niece and is mistaken for an ambassador and then partakes in the nuptial fare: "Freddy, like most pigs, was always up in front when the refreshments were handed round."

Like other Freddy books, this one also works in much good-hearted and helpful wisdom (e.g., "Freddy did not think she looked funny any more than most people in Centerboro, because if you like people a lot it doesn't matter what they look like") and vivid description ("Mrs. Church laughed harder than ever, and when she laughed, she shook and all the ten-cent store diamonds sparkled and glittered in the sunshine, until she was quite blinding").

One of the interesting features of the Freddy books is that, after the first three or so, in which the animals can only talk to other animals (humans being too dense to understand animal speech), Freddy and his animal (and insect) friends can speak with people as well as with other animals. It makes for a charming narrative world.

John McDonough is, once again, the perfect reader for a Freddy audiobook, his slightly high and rough voice seriously enjoying Brooks' fantasy fun and never over-doing anything, modifying his voice slightly for rich old ladies, spunky mice, conceited robins, obstreperous boys, mercurial pigs, and so on. All just right.

People who like things like Charlotte's Web (with more humor and less pathos) and Dr. Doolittle (with less traveling around the world) should give Freddy books like this one a try. I am happy to be rediscovering them now after having forgotten them for 45 years.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-02-18

“Clean and bleed, bleed and clean”

My favorite part of Gone Girl (2012) was the first part, in which author Gillian Flynn alternates chapters narrated by Nick Dunne with chapters comprised of entries in the diary of Amy Elliott Dunne, because we cannot decide if A) Nick killed his wife Amy on their fifth anniversary, B) someone else like a former “Amy obsessive” kidnapped and or killed her, C) Amy disappeared herself to frame and punish Nick, or D) Nick and or Amy are playing games with us. For about the first third of the novel, Flynn ratchets up the ambiguities, as Nick’s narration and Amy’s diary become increasingly incompatible accounts of reality. Someone must be delusional or scheming or both.

Throughout the novel, Flynn writes impressively in the voices of Nick and Amy, making them feel like interesting real people. She makes us want to find out what happened “on the day of” Amy’s disappearance while entertaining us with the couple’s witty comments and original figures of speech. Through the minds of her co-protagonists (co-antagonists?), Flynn autopsies American culture, through references to TV shows like Eight Is Enough and CSI, movies like The Last of the Mohicans and Godfather II, novels like Something Wicked This Way Comes and Huckleberry Finn, shop names like Costco and Goodwill, differences between Manhattan and the Midwest, and contemporary trends like the economic crash of 2008, the replacing of traditional print media by the Internet, the increase in the number of fertility treatment enabled twins and triplets, and the desolation of abandoned shopping malls. She also incorporates into her novel lots of provocative views on gender (e.g., what is a “good” or “bad” husband, how women try to be “cool girls” to attract men, how abuse may take the form of brutal violence or smothering care, and so on), all while never quite taking sides--though I can understand why some feminist readers may dislike the book, I think Flynn is really exploring ways in which both men and women can be awful to each other.

Perhaps the real target of her realistic satire is the pervasive and unhealthy influence on the public mind of mass media, including children’s books, blogs, SNS, and of course popular TV shows exploring unsolved crimes and celebrity lawyers championing accused criminals, everyone seemingly manipulated by media and or trying to manipulate it, because whoever controls the narrative has the best chance of winning the game. Nick goes on a great riff about how difficult it is to have an authentic individual soul when inundated with modern media:

"I don't know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script.
It's a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters."

Ultimately, I was disappointed by the book. Without giving spoilers, I’d just like to say that the first part of the novel was more fascinating and exciting than the middle and last parts of the novel, wherein the ambiguities have been resolved and we know what’s been going on and wherein Flynn has some things happen that I couldn’t believe would happen and does not have some things happen that I couldn’t believe wouldn’t happen, all in order to get to the ending she wants to get to. And my failure to enjoy (or buy) the ending made me retroactively notice earlier hard to believe points in the plot.

Flynn does write some great scenes, including a nighttime visit to a vast abandoned shopping mall, a daytime visit to a dilapidated miniature golf course, a televised missing person vigil, a rehearsal for a TV interview, a surprising robbery, and a strange wedding anniversary gift. And she creates memorable and believable characters--Nick and Amy of course, but also Nick’s twin sister Go, Detective Rhonda Boney, Amy’s parents Mary Beth and Rand, and even Amy’s ex-boyfriend Desi Collings and a pair of Ozarks “grifters” named Jeff and Greta.

And she does lots of fine writing in Nick’s voice, as when he sees a homeless man squatting in one of the abandoned super-houses in his neighborhood, “floating in the dark like some sad aquarium fish” or describes Amy as “no longer my wife but a razor-wire daring me to unloop her,” and in Amy’s voice, as when she describes her parents’ relationship, “They have no harsh edges with each other, no spiny conflict, they ride through life like conjoined jellyfish--expanding and contracting instinctively, filling each other's spaces liquidly” or criticizes women’s expected roles implied by TV commercials for tampons and cleaning aids, “as if all women did was bleed and clean.”

Both readers of the audiobook, Kirby Heyborne and Julia Whelan, do spot on Nicks and Amys, whether as “themselves” or as their spouses, and fine other characters, too. Whelan is especially great when voicing an irritating cuckoo clock, a misogynistic man with Alzheimer’s, a resentful Nick, or a smarmy Amazing Amy.

I think anyone interested in thrillers about contemporary American culture and gender and media and bright, flawed, and charismatic characters should like Gone Girl.

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-30-18

When Animals Decide to Take Responsibility

The Bean farm animals, including the cat Jinx, the dog Georgie, the cow Mrs. Wiggins, a spider couple called the Webbs, four mice called Eek, Quick, Eeny, and Cousin Augustus, and the "brilliant but erratic" Freddy the Pig, decide that the best way to prove to Mr. Bean that they are capable of taking responsibility and running the farm so that he and Mrs. Bean may vacation in Europe is to start both a bank and a republic. Because they know nearly nothing about money or politics, complications quickly arise. Luckily, it seems at first, they are assisted in their endeavors by John Quincy, a woodpecker blown in to their upstate New York farm on a strong wind from the nation's capital, and by his father Grover and son X.

John Quincy's family lives in a tree at the White House, and hence name the male children after US presidents (X has to wait for a new one to be elected because all the former presidents' names have been used). Well-versed in DC society and politics, the woodpeckers feel superior to the backwater Bean farm animals of New York State, though they decide to stay for the tender and tasty bugs in the trees there. And soon enough they are scheming to take over the First Animal Bank and the First Animal Republic, or FAR ("Woodpeckers always have a determined look"). Brooks uses the campaign for FAR president to satirize American elections, including rival political parties (the Bean animals' Farmers' Party vs. the woodpeckers' Equality Party), campaign speeches featuring impossible promises (Grover says he'll install revolving doors in the henhouse), voter population manipulation (when woodpeckers invite flocks of birds to stay in the woods around the farm during the election, Freddy and company get field mice and other small animals to stay on the farm), election prediction (on the eve of the vote Freddy calculates a favorable result and writes a newspaper article celebrating his hoped for victory of Mrs. Wiggins), election fraud (the vote counting scene is priceless). It's all entertaining and funny.

Mrs. Wiggins laughs off the notion that "A cow's place is in the home" and runs for president. She fashions the FAR flag from a pair of Mr. Bean's old overalls, nightshirt, and underwear, and its resemblance to the Star-Spangled Banner makes me suspect Brooks of satirizing flags and patriotism. Freddy, who is "not very warlike," says, "Personally, I can't imagine going into battle under any kind of a flag." It's interesting to note that Brooks' book preceded Orwell's Animal Farm (1945), especially when Grover becomes "Imperial Grover," using a clockwork boy, heron and hawk bodyguards, and an obedient army of animals to start annexing neighboring farms so as to build an animal empire nested inside the USA. Published two years before America would enter World War II, Brooks' novel is a pacifist book, espousing ideas like, "Let us give up this dream of empire and cultivate the arts of peace." Mrs. Wiggins would be the best president because, as she tells the animals, "The thing I'd like you to do best is to just go on doing the things you want to do."

Mrs. Wiggins' other virtue is her sense of humor. When she disrupts Grover's demagoguery by laughing, he scolds, "Laughter is a destructive element. It has no place in a government." But of course Brooks means precisely the opposite, because like his other Freddy books, this one celebrates "the power of laughter." The humor takes many forms. In addition to political and cultural satire, Brooks indulges in slapstick (as when Freddy jumps on a bicycle and flies off downhill while forgetting how to use the brakes), plays with language (as when Jinx asks John Quincy, "Are you trying to tell me you don't know where the state of New York is?" and the woodpecker replies, "I'm not trying to tell you. I am telling you"), parodies diaries (as when a nosy neighbor records the strange happenings in the house of the town banker Mr. Wheezer), and writes farcical comedies of manners (as when Freddy disguises himself as an Irish woman and flirts with a snoopy detective called Jason Binks). Brooks writes amusingly authoritative yet whimsical statements on animal behavior, like "Spiders are very talkative, but few people know it, for they have to get almost in your ear to make themselves heard, and they don't like to do it much because they know it tickles." And his dry asides are fun, as when Freddy takes a dislike to Jason Binks: "When a pig has a face like a pig's, it's only natural. But when a man has a face like a pig's, there's something wrong somewhere."

Like Brooks' other Freddy books, this one's comedy has a core of serious life wisdom:
--"Most brave people are like Jinx. They're brave because they're afraid to act scared."
--"But he's afraid of me or he wouldn't call me names. That's what people do when they're scared."
--"Maybe he can't give it to them. . . but he's promised, and that's what counts in elections."

Kurt Wiese's realistic and humorous monochrome illustrations add much to the physical book, but John McDonaugh adds much to the audiobook, too. His voice is husky and moist, and he appealingly reads absurd events with gravitas and serious ones with humor. He does a great Grover (Southern stuffed shirt), Mrs. Wiggins (humorous leader), Freddy (multi-faceted and poetic trickster), Simon (sneery and schemy rat), Jinx (feckless and funny cat), and so on.

Brooks doesn't write down to kids, using plenty of difficult and savory words like balderdash, ribald, and velocipede. Indeed, I bet that kids miss much if not most of his humor. When I was a boy, I read the Freddy the Pig books as interesting adventures, while now I'm an adult, I read them smiling and chuckling. I am glad to have recently rediscovered the Freddy books after 45 years. People who like Charlotte's Web and Animal Farm and enjoy laughing would probably enjoy Freddy the Politician.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-25-18

Absorbing, Well-Written History

Ian Toll's Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 (2012), focuses on the first two years of World War II's Pacific theater and on the two main antagonists, Japan and America. After a prologue setting forth US (and world) naval philosophy before the opening of the war, oriented around the Mahanian Doctrine of concentrated forces, big battleships, and decisive battles, Toll starts the main part of his book in December 1941 (Pearl Harbor) and takes us up to June 1942 (Midway).

Being American rather than Japanese, Toll gives more weight to American points of view and anecdotes and men. For example, he gives more physical details of the features of key American navy men than he does for those of their Japanese counterparts, which makes us more sympathetic to the former than the latter, as when he writes things like, "Hornet's Torpedo Eight was skippered by Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, a lean, hatchet-faced South Dakotan, bronzed by long exposure to tropical sun." At times he perhaps goes into too much detail in that vein, like with his introduction of Admiral Nimitz, including information about his being a devoted father and his riding a train across America to California, when he tried to teach Lt. Lamar cribbage and drank whisky before going to bed, etc. While Toll provides such detailed sketches into the backgrounds and personalities of a variety of top American naval officers like Admiral King, he pretty much only does the equivalent thing with one Japanese officer, Admiral Yamamoto, the leader of the Japanese navy then, revealing his candid nature and vaudevillian sense of humor and affinity for gambling and geisha. And although he gives a fair amount of detail from the Japanese point of view before, during, and after a particular battle, he goes into more detail about the American point of view. All that said, he is objective in his depiction of the conflict, treating both the Americans and the Japanese with dignity, sympathy, and understanding.

Throughout his book Toll provides vivid details about various aspects of the war in the Pacific: about what it was like to take off from and land on an aircraft carrier deck (in windy weather, strong seas, or nighttime), about the tricky nature of refueling at sea, about the different kinds of planes in use and their different strong and weak points and roles etc. (torpedo planes, dive bombers, fighters, and reconnaissance planes for both sides), about the intense heat in an aircraft carrier around the equator, about the preparations before a sea battle between carriers, about the role of war games in naval planning, about what happens when a bomb or torpedo hits a carrier, and so on. He effectively conveys the change in naval strategy and warfare from battleship based to carrier based. He also effectively conveys the confusion (fog) of battle. Perhaps the most fascinating part of his book for me was his account of the burgeoning military communications intelligence and code-breaking field, including the competition between rival units, the suspicion with which the intelligence guys were viewed by the regular navy men, the way they intercepted radio broadcasts and cracked codes and put all kinds of data together to predict what the Japanese were going to do, and so on.

Toll's accounts of the several battles leading up to and including Midway are riveting, even if we generally know the outcomes. He can turn a nice phrase, like "The sixteen B-25s heaved and strained at their tie-downs, like butterflies clinging to a windblown leaf." He writes some witty lines, like "Like Mae West, he did most of his best work in bed." He ends his book with an interestingly sober look forward (he stops his account right after the Battle of Midway in June of 1942, so if you want to continue the journey with him, you'll need to read his The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942–1944):

"They [the Americans] would go on fighting, killing, and dying, overcoming fear, fatigue, and sorrow, until they reached the beaches of the detested empire itself. There, in 1945, the Yankee war machine would meet the immovable object of the 'Yamato spirit,' until two mushroom clouds and an emperor's decision brought the whole execrable business to an end."

Which makes me think that although Toll recognizes the heroism of both Japanese and American men during the war, he also believes that war is nothing glorious to be proud of, being "an execrable business."

The audiobook reader is the consummately professional and appealing Grover Gardner, who gives his usual fine reading of a book. Thankfully, he does not assume accents when reading British or Japanese people or Southern men, which is nice.

People interested in the first stages of World War II as it developed in the Pacific--especially those readers not well-versed in the field--should be enriched by this book.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 05-06-18

The Sad Vampire: A Silver Clock Ticking in a Void

You might think that having immortality, a perfect complexion, and super strength, speed, healing, and senses would be a gift. But wait--imagine eternal nocturnal life: an endless series of years comprised of a never-ending series of nights (the sun and daytime are off limits to vampires). After the intoxication of heightened perceptions wore off, you might come to feel bored or out of touch with a given century. You might come to dread the prospect of never dying. And if you saw the taking of human life as a horrible crime, being a vampire might become a curse. Perhaps all that's why in the world of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (1976), the oldest vampire is a mere 400 years old.

The novel consists of Louis, a nearly 200-year-old vampire, telling his unhappy life story to a mortal "boy" interviewer who is rather clumsily recording it on cassette tapes (it is the 1970s after all). Louis begins by recounting how he became a vampire near New Orleans in 1791 and began a strange and strained relationship with the vampire who turned him, Lestat. While Louis is a reluctant predator of humans, revering life and retaining his human feeling (it takes him four years to start feeding on mortals, and he feels guilty once he starts), Lestat is a callous and wanton killer seemingly intent on revenging himself for his immortality on the mortality of humans. Lestat can't understand why Louis must always be so reluctant and remorseful in his new life: "You look the gift horse of immortality in the mouth." Louis cannot understand why Lestat refuses to explain the meaning of it all to him. Did God or the devil make vampires? And why? Although Louis finds Lestat repugnant and Lestat finds Louis exasperating, they stay together because Louis continues to hope for answers from Lestat, because Lestat needs a financial provider like Louis (who is a wealthy plantation and land owner), and because they appear to be the only vampires around.

The most interesting development in the novel occurs when Louis and Lestat become fathers when Lestat turns a five-year-old girl into their vampire daughter in order to keep Louis with him: quite the modern (19th-century) family! Claudia is a fascinating character because becoming a vampire froze her physical growth as a little girl, so she must rely on her cuteness to trick human prey and comes to resent having been made a vampire before her body could mature to a size and strength that would enable her to take care of herself. But although Claudia's physical growth has been arrested, her emotional and intellectual growth (given her vampiric advantages and limitations) continues, her two fathers educating her, Louis in his appreciation of life, Lestat in his enjoyment of killing. And as her mind matures, her feelings for Louis and his for her morph into a kind of romantic love.

Rice heats the discreet sensuality of the vampire genre (circa 1976) and to an sensual and psychological fever. This happens not only when Louis is drinking a mortal and feeling his heart beat synchronize with the person's--sexual intercourse is replaced for vampires by blood drinking, which is called in the novel "taking" a victim--but also when he is holding Claudia and nuzzling her hair or kissing her eyelids and inner arms and smooth palms or looking up "into my paramour's eyes." That most of the love in the novel occurs between male vampires and between an "adult" male vampire and a "child" female vampire adds to the strange nature of it all. As I read, I thought, "OK, she's an immortal vampire and vampires don't have sex," but then, "Louis sure likes touching her five-year-old body!" Love takes odd forms.

Rice puts us in Louis' head so deeply that we often forget that he's rather reprehensible. Ever searching for the meaning of his existence, ever prizing life but loathing his, he feels sorry for himself in being so "alone" (an eternal exile in the world) and believes that he is more human than other vampires but doesn't shirk from killing people when he could survive on animals.

Rice's novel is more provocative and moving than the movie (compelling though young Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt's vampires are), for the film downplays the sensual and romantic nature of the love between Claudia and Louis and the homosexual love between Louis and Armand and cuts out potentially upsetting moments like when Louis "takes" a priest on his altar after a botched confession. Although homosexual vampire romance must have been pretty new for 1976, Rice follows the tradition of white vampires (still maintained in Twilight et al). In her world becoming a vampire makes white people whiter, vampires of color don't appear, and she doesn't interrogate the slavery-source of Louis' wealth and power. She also gives no biological or other explanation for vampire powers, limitations, and physiology.

The reader of the audiobook, Simon Vance, reads Rice's style and story with understanding and a smooth and appealing voice and manner. However, the "French" accent he assumes for Louis sounds more Cinema Transylvanian than New Orleans French, and his interviewer sounds like a Brit trying to sound like an American.

Finally, although Rice's vampires are inhuman monsters, they also represent us to the extent that "the only power that exists is inside ourselves." Readers not averse to the vampire genre should give Rice's highly wrought, sensual and emotional, moving and appalling novel a try.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 05-06-18

Whimsical Pre-WWII Americana with Talking Animals

Freddy Goes to Florida (1927/1949) by Walter R. Brooks begins like a whimsical Animal Farm. Orwell probably didn't get inspired to write his grim Stalinist parable by reading about Freddy and company, but in Brooks' book Mr. Bean's animals are sick and tired of working and living uncomfortably during winter on his farm. The rooster Charles hates having to wake up before sunrise to crow (Mr. Bean threatening to fricassee the rooster for dinner if he doesn't do his job), while the horse Hank has rheumatism. And so when a barn swallow explains migration, Charles and Hank call a meeting to discuss migrating to Florida for the winter. The animals argue about who will go and who will stay to help Mr. Bean run the farm--until the cat Jinks has everyone draw lots. Jinks also gets a robin to draw a map of the way south, and when Mr. Bean is away in town, the cat leads the migrating animals out on their journey, "with his tail held straight up in the air like a drum-major's stick." In addition to the mischievous Jinx (useful in a pinch), the traveling companions are comprised of phlegmatic Hank, the young dog Robert, the cow Mrs. Wiggins ("a character"), the pig Freddy (a songster with "an inquiring mind"), a few mice like Cousin Augustus (good at chewing through things), the white duck sisters Emma and Alice (good at teaching swimming), and the barn spider couple Mr. and Mrs. Webb (tiny-voiced and philosophical). Will Charles' wife Henrietta (who likes to henpeck him) let him go?

The book depicts the adventures of the animals as they walk to, in, and from Florida, featuring roads, rivers, and towns, a treasure, a swamp, a doll baby carriage, the Grandfather of All the Alligators, some timid burglars, and a dangerous and desperate man with a black moustache and a dirty-faced son--and more. As they journey south, the animals begin to realize that maybe Mr. Bean isn't such a bad master after all, and they resolve to bring him a present when they return home.

The light-hearted book has many funny moments, like Henrietta's explanation for why hens don't crow, Mr. Webb's conversations with an ant and a fly, the animals' welcome in the nation's capitol, Mrs. Wiggins' heroic defense of a bridge armed only with a few mice, the animals' enjoyment of jewelry and disguising of themselves on the way home, etc. Every animal plays a key role at least once during their adventures. There are also some bizarre touches like when we learn that Mrs. Wiggins gave Jinx and Robert some milk, without being told just how she managed this.

Here are some examples of Brooks' dry humor and clear style:

-"Mr. Webb, however, was firm in his decision, as spiders are apt to be."
-"Mrs. Wiggins had a sense of humor. That means that she always laughed at the wrong time."
-"Now, if you are a rather timid burglar, and you light a match in a dark room and see a cat that is within an inch of your nose, you'll probably do just as Ed did. He dropped his match and let out an awful yell."

This is the first of 26 Freddy books, and whereas in later novels Mr. Bean's animals talk with each other AND with people, here they are limited to speaking with other animals, because although they understand human speech perfectly, people only hear them quack and squeak and bark etc. Perhaps this is because animals "hear better than people." Another difference is that here Freddy is but one supporting character among many, whereas later in the series he becomes the mover and shaker and hero of the animals' adventures (which must be why the original 1927 title of this book, To and Again, was changed in 1949 to Freddy Goes to Florida).

Audiobook reader John McDonough has the perfect gravelly voice and sensitive manner for the book, taking humorous things seriously and serious things humorously. I got a kick out of his horse, mouse, and spider voices, and he sings Freddy's songs with tune and gusto. The only drawback of the audiobook is that it lacks the illustrations by Kurt Wiese, so charming, realistic, and humorous.

When I binged on the Freddy the Pig books in elementary school in the 60s, I missed much of the humor and read the stories as exciting and interesting adventures, while now I feel less suspense and laugh more. Their quirky charm and affection for animals make them a pleasure to read. You should enjoy Freddy Goes to Florida if you like talking animal stories (like Charlotte's Web minus the pathos), journey and return adventure stories (like The Hobbit minus the fantasy world), idyllic rural American stories (when phaetons could be found in garbage dumps, the best way to get to Florida was by surface streets, and small farm communities spread out everywhere), and lightly satiric stories targeting foolish and or bad humans. It's the kind of book you read smilingly.

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4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 04-17-18

'The time has come for sorcery and swords.'

Swords against Wizardry (1968) is the fourth book in Fritz Leiber's sword and sorcery series about the rogue-adventurer duo Fafhrd (tall, fair-skinned northern barbarian) and the Gray Mouser (short, swart scion of southern civilization). It features four stories, each full of all the things that make the series so uniquely delectable: dry irony, witty banter, comical slapstick, graphic horror, kinky hints, suspenseful action, heroic anti-heroism, original imagination, and baroque style--including quaint archaisms, quirky vocabulary, Shakespearean syntax, rich alliteration, and vivid similes. Here follows an account of the four stories.

I. 'In the Witch's Tent' (1968)
Favorite line: 'It appears that someone doesn't like us.'
This short prologue-story is funny and entertaining in situation (visiting a drugged out hag for a prophecy), climax (using a tent as a weapon), description ('Its glow showed her face to be as dark, jagged-featured, and dirty as the new-dug root-clump of a black apple tree'), and banter ('You'd turn a wizard's workroom into a brothel'). However, it's really only a fix-up bridge between the last story of the third book ('Adept's Gambit') and the second story of this one.

II. 'Stardock' (1965)
Favorite line: 'I'm beginning to think . . . they aren't sportsman.'
In this novella Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have been challenged to climb Stardock, the tallest peak in the north, to win a pouch of stars and the right to father sons on the Snow King's daughters. The story is a funny and suspenseful mountaineering fantasy featuring an ice-cat, a flying-carpet manta, snow serpents, ice-gnomes, rival rogues, a race of invisible people, and a neat climax. Alternating between the comical (e.g., Fafhrd forgetting about the Mouser trapped in a chimney), the sublime (e.g. the vanishing of an entire snow ridge 'as if some great God had reached down while the Mouser's back was turned and removed that block of reality'), the physical (e.g., eating powdered or raw meat while climbing), the story finally asks what drives men to climb mountains.

III. 'The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar' (1968)
Favorite line: 'Mouser? Your box is buzzing.'
This short story is a perfect length for its plot, freshly focuses on what comes after an adventure, and humorously humbles its heroes. Having spent too much time together before and after Stardock and quarreled over the best way to sell their invisible jewels, the friends part--until 'Night was a-slink' and the 'malfeasors' of Lankhmar are readying for business, and they run into each other by chance (?) outside the headquarters of their respective fences, Ogo the Blind and Nemia of the Dusk. When the Mouser proclaims that he and Fafhrd are the two best thieves in the city and Fafhrd crosses his fingers, one expects something to go amiss with their jewel selling. After all, adventuring is not conducive to thieving, and men are no match for women.

IV. 'The Lords of Quarmall' (1964)
Favorite line 1: 'He almost stuttered midway through the word 'slewerisophnak.''
Favorite line 2: 'But they assured me they were the very greatest sorcerers.'
This novella, the longest story in the book, is uneven, having been begun in 1936 by Leiber's friend Harry Otter Fischer and completed by Leiber decades later, but it is an entertainingly lurid romp that reads like a fusion of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, Robert E. Howard's 'Red Nails,' and Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Unbeknownst to each other Fafhrd and the Mouser have hired themselves to the two feuding sons of the King of Quarmall. Quarmall is a 'huge ramified castle kingdom,' an unwholesome realm consisting of the King's above-ground castle, the older brother Hasjarl's subterranean Upper Levels, and the younger brother Gwaay's Lower Levels. Genetically modified pinheaded slaves with elephantine legs run treadmills to pump fresh air underground. Fafhrd's boss Hasjarl looks like a 'kobold birthed in a hot-spring,' pours invective from his sphincter-shaped mouth, tortures his slaves, and drives his bearded mages to bespell Gwaay with diseases. Gwaay, the Mouser's master, is 'a pallid, handsome, soft-spoken youth' who goads Hasjarl while acting calm and keeping his depilated sorcerers blocking the disease spells. The hating brothers are fire and ice foils for each other and for their hired champions. As we read the story wondering what will happen when Fafhrd and the Mouser finally run into each other, we encounter many fine scenes: e.g., Gwaay playing a telekinetic strategy game; the King looking down from his tower at villagers walking like 'ants struggling through some sticky trap'; Fafhrd reading the 'dry and prosy' history of Quarmall inscribed by an eon-old cockroach called Scraa; Hasjarl having his eyelid grommets inserted; Hasjarl and Gwaay playing a game of chess; the Mouser finally getting to read a dread spell; the principles participating in a splendid climax; etc.

As usual, Jonathan Davis gives a wonderful reading of the audiobook, doing an Aussie/Cockney Mouser and an American Fafhrd and relishing all of Leiber's outre events, characters, and style. I particularly enjoyed his High Eunuch, combustible Hasjarl, and Blind Ogo, his Eyes, and Nemia.

Fans of sword and sorcery who want to see one of its decadent, imaginative, and witty fathers at the height of his powers should read this book.

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