Thursday, July 27, 2017


I can assure you, Dear Reader, that if you tackle this very early British novel, you will have three reactions:

*You will want to throw up because of its sanctimoniousness.

*You will want to throw it into the trash because of its tediousness and repetitiveness.

*You will believe that either Samuel Richardson wrote the whole thing with tongue in cheek or that it is the most unbelievable drivel ever published.

This is the absurd plot:
Pamela is a 15-year-old maid in the household of gentry. Her Master lusts after her mightily, and proceeds to kiss her and put her on his knee. She protest that her Honesty (virginity) is the most important thing in the world to her. She says she will leave to go home to her parents, but decides to stay to finish embroidering flowers on a waistcoat. Then he further accosts her and even, as she says, "put his hand in my bosom." He promises not to do it again, so she stays. He kidnaps her and takes her to another of his houses, where he holds her prisoner. When she escapes from the walled garden, she decides not to flee because she sees two cows (which she says she thought to be bulls) and is afraid to cross the pasture. He attempts to rape her, with the help of his housekeeper, but she falls into a fit and he stops. He offers her all kinds of money to be his mistress, but she still refuses to sacrifice her Honesty. All throughout he has called her vile names and abused her, but then he decides that he really loves her mind (yeah, right) and, despite her low station, he proposes.

Reader, she marries him. Believe it or not.

Yes, after he has stalked her, kidnapped her, and attempted to rape her, not to mention cursing her and "calling her out of her name," she decides that she loves him and goes on and on about how much he has honored her by condescending to marry her. And we readers are supposed to believe that she was not coldly calculating to snare him the whole time, hoping that his lust would overcome his class consciousness.

Now for the sanctimoniousness--While Pamela tells us over and over how humble and non-prideful she is, she repeats ad nauseam conversation of others who praise her godliness and beauty. In addition, she flops to her knees at the slightest provocation, first in thankfulness for delivering her from her persecutor and later in thankfulness for his goodness and excellence in all things. God is mentioned on almost every page. Dear Pamela, thou doth protest too much, methinks.

This novel was a run-away best seller in its day. It had spin-off sequels, copy cats, and lampoons by other authors, and even spin-off products, such as Pamela fans and playing cards. I believe the reading audience must have been titillated by Pamela's close escapes from a "fate worse than death." It must have been the Fifty Shades of Grey of its time.

Not recommended as enjoyable reading. Kind of interesting in a historical way, because it was a big deal once upon a time.

Monday, July 24, 2017


Third or fourth reading: First read in the mid 1980s.

This science fiction/fantasy is one of my favorite escapist reads. It has a unique and creative premise, features an unusual depth of characterization (for this genre), and includes one suspenseful and surprising event after another. Though it is lengthy (nearing 2,000 pages in four volumes), May's writing style is such that a reader can zip right through in record time. I fail to understand why it has not become a cult classic; it is that good.

Volume 1-The Many-Colored Land
In the mid 2,000s, when Earth has joined many other planets and races in a Galactic Milieu, a scientist invents a time machine, but it only goes one way--back to Earth's Pliocene Epoch. With no return trip being possible, the device seems of no use, not until those who do not fit into the new society begin choosing it as a means to escape to a time of more freedom for individuality. The action of the novel centers on eight such travelers:

*a nun, who is suffering from compassion fatigue following years of counseling dying patients and their families;
*an elderly man whose wife of many years has just died;
*a star ship captain who has lost his license to fly;
*a teenage lesbian girl with anti-social behavior;
*a former metaphysical Grand Master, who has lost her mind-meld and psychic abilities due to an accident;
*a gigantic man whose violent and quick temper has unsuited him for the peaceful new society;
*a sociologist who is following his "one true love," who had traveled back earlier;
*a mischievous trickster whose antics have made him persona non grata in the Milieu.

Here comes the surprise. Instead of the 100,000 humans who had traveled to the Pliocene earlier, the eight new arrivals are greeted by very tall, very beautiful humanoid ALIENS!!! from another galaxy, who had been stranded on earth when their sentient space vehicle expired. Their latent metaphysical abilities are enhanced to operancy by the golden torcs they wear. They have essentially enslaved most of those from Earth by the use of torcs of various metals, which give them psychic control. A few very valuable humans have been given golden torcs, raising them to the level of the overlords. The aliens have instigated a quasi-feudal society, with humans, of course, as the vassals.

One of the problems faced by the aliens, called the Tanu, is that the background radiation of Earth interferes with their fertility, so that they produce few offspring, despite their voracious sexual appetites. They have found that a solution to the population problem is to use humans as breeding stock. The nun and the lesbian girl, in particular, find this to be problematic.

Another problem faced by the Tanu is the Firvulag, their so-called "shadow brethren" who traveled to the planet with them, even though they are traditional enemies. Both races were expelled from their home planet because they insisted on adhering to their ancient battle religion. Each race seeks the extinction of the other.

Sorry for the long set-up, but this is a premise entirely original in my reading experience.

Another unique attribute of this saga is that most of this first volume is given over to character development of the eight time-travelers.

Volume 2-The Golden Torc
The group of eight is divided by the Tanu: four deemed of especial value by the Tanu are taken to the capital city and four of lesser value are sent to another location where they are to be assigned tasks suitable to their talents. The latter four escape to join free humans who are hiding out in the wild. The story follows both groups as they cope with their new situation. Important new characters are introduced.

*The nun regains her compassion.
*The elderly man finds new love.
*The star-ship captain finds a new purpose in life.
*The teenage girl's latent metaphysical powers are transformed by the time passage into psychic operancy. She later is driven insane.
*The former Grand Master metaphysical regains her psychic abilities.
*The violent man finds gentleness through love.
*The sociologist embarks on a study of the impact of humans on Pliocene society at the behest of the Tanu.
*The trickster also gains metaphysical operancy and plots to take control of the Many-Colored Land.

This volume is maybe my favorite because the story encompasses so many twists and turns and suspenseful adventures, plus some developing love stories. It culminates in a surprising catastrophic event which changes the whole nature of the Tahu-human-Firvulag conflict.

Volume 3-The Non-Born King
Despite all odds, the human trickster assumes the kingship of the land. The Firvulag, risen in power after the cataclysm, plot against the Tanu and the new king. Meanwhile, in North America the adult children of the instigators of a Metapsychic Rebellion which had occurred 27 years previous in the Milieu plan to travel to Europe, against the objections of their parents, to build a new time machine which would provide the way back to the future. The Tanu Battlemaster, long thought to be dead, returns to challenge the trickster for the kingship. The free humans discover and repair the flying machines which had brought the Tanu and Firvulag from their dying space ship to the Many-Colored Land. Plus many other exciting incidents.

Volume 4-The Adversary
The former leader of the Metapsychic Rebellion in the Milieu enters center stage. As the most powerful psychic in the Pliocene world, will he stop at preventing his children from escaping via the new time machine or will he also decide to unseat the upstart trickster to take over the Many-Colored Land? Meanwhile, the Firvulag are preparing for what they are convinced will be the Nightfall War, the alien equivalent to Armageddon.

This series has some shortcomings, to be sure. A few story strands are left hanging. A few events are illogical. (How does it happen that all the aliens speak colloquial English, even those who have been isolated from humans?)

One interesting added element that May inserts is that many of the happenings and customs of the aliens are currently remembered in present-day legends and folk tales. One of the humans concludes: "Both Tanu and Firvulag will contribute to the Homo sapiens stem. I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that remnants of both groups persisted on Earth almost into historic times, mating with human stock just as they have mated with time travelers here in the Pliocene. Our myths and legends and other heritage of the collective unconscious confirm it."

I highly recommend this series to any fan of fantasy/science fiction. It is far superior to most others I have read, including Game of Thrones.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


I am amazed that Quintin Tarantino has not adapted this novel to make a movie. It would seem to be his kind of story. It features ultra-violence about every third page, with people dying right and left in picturesque and gory manner. Everything is exaggerated for effect, including the physical appearance of the characters. Consider this description of the title character:

". . . his immense dwarf shape, shoulders of a grizzly ear, that bushel basket of a head low and cocked, as if he was trying to determine the sex of something. His hands were wide as shovels and his fingers so long he could palm a man's skull but his lower half was smaller, thin horseshoe legs and little feet. . . . There were several bullet scars in his right shoulder and one in each forearm and another in his left foot. There were a dozen buckshot pocks peppered over the hairy knoll of his back and the trail of a knife scored across his belly. His left eye was gone a few years now, replaced by a white glass ball two sizes small. He had a goiter under his beard. He had gout, he had the clap, blood-sugar, neuralgia and ague. Malaria. The silk handkerchief balled in his pants pocket was blooded from the advanced consumption the doctor had just informed him he had."

As the book begins, Smonk rides into town, ostensibly to face trial for the last of a long stream of crimes. In reality, he has arranged a bloody surprise for all the men of the tiny town who have gathered there: a machine gun and two henchmen. The townsmen also have a surprise: they have agreed to hang him before the trial, so that he cannot once again escape punishment. Smonk, of course, wins and escapes. He is pursued by a wounded lawman, who, by the way, has Smonk's glass eye in his mouth where it had landed when it popped from Smonk's eye during a consumptive coughing spell. He later swallows it for safekeeping.

In the meantime, a teenage whore named Evavangeline is on the run from an unlikely group of Christian vigilantes who have mistaken her for a boy who they believe has been engaged in pederasty.

The action eventually returns to the small town where it began, where things get even weirder. It seems the town has its own guilty secret. Why no children or dogs? What do the women do when they gather in their "church"?

The ending, as is to be expected, is grotesque and distasteful.

This is a book made blackly humorous by its excesses, exaggerations, and straight-faced presentation of the fantastical and perverse, but it will certainly not be to everyone's tastes. The laughs, if they come, will be guilty laughs. Anyone who takes the book literally will be disgusted.

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Erik Larson is the only writer of non-fiction that I regularly read. All of his books that I have read have been fascinating, not so much for the subject matter as for the author's writing skill and narrative style. He approaches non-fiction with a fiction writer's sensibilities, and his books are just as engrossing as suspenseful made-up stories. That they are true and extremely well-researched and documented comes almost as a surprise.

Thunderstruck covers two stories, which are marginally related. One is the history of Guglielmo Marconi who perfected and marketed wireless telegraph. That doesn't sound very exciting perhaps, but Larson manages to make it interesting. The other is the tale of the mild-mannered and genial Dr. Hawley Crippen, who became the most talked-about fugitive of the time after he was accused of the grisly murder of his wife. The two stories intersect when Crippen is caught because of the ability of the wireless to communicate instantly across distances of ocean. (Not a spoiler. This information is contained in the first chapter.)

Along with the two story strands, Larson provides readers with a slice of life of Victorian and Edwardian England and a look at the London of the time.

This is actually the least impressive of Larson's books that I have read, and it is still excellent. His Devil in the White City is the best non-fiction book I have ever read.

Thursday, July 13, 2017


For his second novel, following Lord of the Flies, William Golding chose an unusual scenario: this is an account of a meeting between two pre-history humanoid tribal clans--Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Most of the book is from the viewpoint of the more primitive Neanderthals as they arrive at their summer home on the banks of a river. The group of eight communicate in very basic language and sometimes by shared visions to work together to find food and fire wood. Their harmonious existence is shattered by the arrival of the more advanced species, whose weapons and abilities make them clearly superior at survival.

The subtext of the novel reveals Golding's bleak view of humanity, as the Neanderthals with their closeness to nature and peaceful existence are inevitably overcome by the organized violence of a foe they do not understand. With "civilization" comes the propensity to overcome adversity and fear through force.

Notable here is Golding's ability to portray a primitive people realistically using sophisticated language and literary techniques. His account was accurate, according to anthropologists at the time of his writing, including the survival of one of the Neanderthals to later interbreed with the humans.

This is a notable addition to Golding's extraordinary body of work, which earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


If you have read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, you needn't bother to read this rip-off. I mean it. Don't waste your time reading it.

For most of the book, Brooks literally lifts incidents from Tolkien's masterpiece, just changing the names and a few details. He does come up with a couple of original characters toward the end, but that's too little, too late.

The story begins when a Druid named Allanon (instead of the Wizard Gandalf) comes to a small and unassuming young Vale man (instead of the Hobbit Frodo) to tell him that he is the one to defeat the once dead Warlock Lord (instead of the once dead Wizard Sauron) with the help of an artifact, the Sword of Shannara (instead of the One Ring).
Accompanying the two on their journey are another Vale man, two men, two Elves, and a Dwarf (sound familiar?).

During the course of their adventures they
* fight with Goblins (Orcs)
* hide from airborne Skull Bearers (the Black Riders)
* defeat a man-consuming tree (Old Man Willow)
* fight a many-tentacled pool monster (the Watcher in the Water)
* battle a giant spider thing (Shelob)
* journey through the tunnels underneath a mountain (the Mines of Moria)
* watch their Druid leader seemingly fall to his death into an abyss (Gandalf in his fight with the Balrog)
* help to defend a tiered stone city against a Goblin army (Gondor).

And that's not even a complete list of the events and people copied from Tolkien.

In the latter part of the book, the author does introduce a charming highway robber and his mute Troll sidekick to accompany the Vale man across the wasteland as they follow a half-mad Goblin (Gollum) to the lair of the Warlock Lord. I don't know what author Brooks stole from for those two. Maybe William Goldman in The Princess Bride.

Why have I wasted so much space to write about a book I did not like? Because it makes me angry that an author can so blatantly copy another's plot and characters and still find a publisher and become a favorite of those who read fantasy. The writing here is not even praiseworthy, in contrast to Tolkien's elegant and sophisticated prose.

Go figure.

Sunday, July 9, 2017


"On those days when the wind stops blowing across the face of the southern plains, the land falls into a silence that scares people in the way that a big house can haunt after the lights go out and no one else is there. It scares them because the land is too much, too empty, claustrophobic in its immensity. It scares them because they feel lost, with nothing to cling to, disoriented. Not a tree anywhere. Not a slice of shade."

With this, Timothy Egan begins his factual account of the Dust Bowl days, set mainly in Oklahoma and the high plains of Texas. Tragically, during that time there were few days when the wind stopped blowing, and it carried with it much of the soil, which had been striped of the native grasses in to order to plant dry land wheat. Instead of merely citing facts and figures about how bad it was, Egan interviewed many who remembered the hard time and tells their stories. These were the ones who toughed it out instead of heading out for California and elsewhere.

Intertwined with the first-hand accounts are the facts and figures and an explanation of what caused the unprecedented disaster. The stripping of grasses to plant wheat in an area with an average rainfall not really sufficient for the growing of crops, together with a depression and falling prices that encouraged farmers to plow up more and more land in an effort to make money combined as the main culprits. Poor farming methods prevailed. Then the drought came, and with it the wind.

I grew up on the southern plains in the 1940s and '50s, and by that time deep well irrigating out of the Ogallala Aquifer had tamed the dust somewhat, but it was bad enough, just the same. I remember how I felt during a duster. I can't imagine how those coped who experienced it when it was this bad. One thing that Egan fails to mention is that blowing dust makes you mean. Short tempered. Irritable.

A subtext of the book is an ecological message applicable to the here and now about how human actions can destroy the environment. Continued Global warming would result in even worse conditions than those here. I wonder what will happen on the southern plains when the Ogallala Aquifer runs dry.


This was a winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Friday, July 7, 2017


This is exactly the book you need to read after you have just previously read two very depressing novels. The characters here often make poor choices and are a danger to themselves, but their inherent decency allows them to overcome their mistakes and end up on the right side of happiness. As an added plus, Everybody's Fool is also very funny.

Russo's characters are a group of middle/lower class residents of a small town. The sheriff is suffering from a loss of confidence and becomes obsessed with tracking down the unknown lover of his recently deceased wife. His smart-mouthed receptionist is giving him grief. The town's boisterous jack-of-all-trades has just found out that his heart may give out in a few years as a result of past hard living. His once-upon-a-time married lover is facing the threat of her violent ex-son-in-law. His rather dim sidekick is worrying that the two aren't best friends anymore. The town's seemingly most successful citizen is watching his world fall apart. They are bunglers all, prone to behaving the fool, but they are good hearted fools, and as such are lovable.

This novel is not earth shaking in importance or even very realistic, but it is a picture of the way life should be. We have all done foolish and stupid things, but hopefully our good intentions will carry us through to a relatively satisfactory end, if not exactly happily ever after.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


Damn. What was I thinking? Right after reading the very depressing The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, I chose to read next the very depressing Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. At least the characters in this one don't act insane, although they don't always behave rationally.

For instance, the title character nurtures unrealistic expectations of rising from his lower class background to become a scholar at university, although he has had no formal scholastic training and has not enough money to afford the tuition. Then he follows his lust instead of his brain to enter into an unsuitable marriage. When his wife leaves him to go to Australia with her family, he conceives a hopeless love for his cousin Sue, although they are close kin and he is married. I could go on and on with the unfortunate choices Jude makes in his tumble-down life. His cousin also makes some poor choices, beginning when she impulsively marries a much older man who is physically repulsive to her. She soon deserts her husband to live with Jude, although they can't marry. I won't detail the subsequent progression of events, but rest assured, nobody lives happily ever after.

Jude's story bears many resemblances to Tess's story in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but Tess proves to be a much more sympathetic character and her story has a pathos that this one lacks.

This novel created a furor when it was published because of its unfavorable view of the institution of marriage. Hardy was also critical of a society which doomed the unhappily married to stay together based on religious belief. It is an extremely well done novel but, fair warning, it is depressing.

Sunday, July 2, 2017


I don't enjoy reading Dostoyevsky. I feel depressed and slightly unhinged afterwards. I have the almost irresistible urge to fly into rages and blurt out all my negative feelings to friends and family. Why, then, you may wonder, did I choose to read this book? Intellectual pretension, I guess. I like to think I could discuss the merits and ideas of all the most respected books, should the subject ever come up in conversation (which is not likely to happen).

The Idiot revolves around Prince Myshkin, an epileptic who has been reared away from society and is considered by some to be feeble minded because of his infirmity. In reality, he is merely an innocent--naively childlike, truthful, and self sacrificing. All of the many secondary characters gravitate toward him and react to his goodness, which they fail to understand. When he impulsively offers marriage to rescue a "fallen" woman, he sets in motion a dramatic spiral of events encompassing them all. Tragically, Myshkin's generous actions only result in confusion and tragedy.

What disturbs me most about Dostoyevsky's writing is the extravagant actions and dialogue of his characters, who all react disproportionally to any situation. Many seem quite mad. They are most certainly overly dramatic. For example, Myshkin's love rival vows eternal friendship with him and shortly thereafter tries unsuccessfully to murder him. None of the characters can seem to decide whether they love him or hate him. Surely no people ever behaved like this, even Russians of the 19th century.

As in all of Dostoyevsky's books that I have read, someone commits murder, with dubious reason.

I understand that Dostoyevsky is concerned with weighty matters such as sin and redemption, and that he is also commenting on aspects of Russia at the time. I understand why this novel is respected. I still didn't enjoy reading it. But that's one of the wonderful things about books. One is out there for every taste and disposition. We all don't have to like the same thing.