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The Riverworld Books:
It is kind of strange to discover that some of the Riverworld Book are available in multiple editions, while at least one of them is barely available at all. There is, however, a comprehensive edition of the whole sequence, in paperback: only it is rare, and selling for about $100! I here offer a link to it, in case you have not read any of them, and are desperate (or wealthy). If you merely need to fill in, there are individual links to the books after each review. In the long run, its cheaper to buy them individually.
RIVERWORLD SEQUENCE: To Your Scattered Bodies Go; The Fabulous Riverboat; The Dark Design; The Magic Labyrinth; Gods of Riverworld; Riverworld and Other Stories: J.C. on the Dude Ranch; Volcano; Henry Miller Dawn Patrol; Problem of the Sore Bridge
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To Your Scattered Bodies Go, by Phillip Jose Farmer
I must begin this review with an autobiographical preamble.
When I was somewhat younger than I am today I became enthusiastic about science fiction (from the public library, in hardback): an enthusiasm which struck my mother and my grandparents with alarm. I had already been taken to the principal’s office for bringing in a sunday supplement article (for ‘show and tell’) by Werner von Braun, suggesting that the United States could build a space station: such a suggestion provided the school with serious doubts about my sanity. And then -- science fiction! Oh horror! That was ‘that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.’
But, my grandfather worked painting and papering people’s houses, and one day he returned home with the whole back seat of his Chevrolet filled up with used magazines. There were mysteries, westerns, and science fiction. The very first science fiction magazines that I had ever seen.
The very first of these that I opened and read was the issue of Startling Stories containing Phillip Jose Farmer’s epochal story The Lovers. I suspect it changed my life completely. It was, among other things, the very first story to successfully blend science fiction with (gasp!) sex.
When Farmer began to publish his greatest epic, the Riverworld stories, I read a great deal about the books but somehow did not get to read them. Yet as the years went by it grew increasingly apparant that this was a work I was destined to read. I have spent nearly half my life being inhabited (as an actor) by Mark Twain, a man I hold to be the greatest American writer; and Twain, I read and heard, was at the center of the epic.
Imagine my surprise to discover, upon opening this book, that the central character is not Mark Twain, but Richard Burton. --Not the actor, but the Nineteenth Century explorer, translator, and all around great adventurer.
Farmer could not have chosen a better protagonist to set forth his enormous conception of a world with a river that spirals around it, and in which every human being who ever lived is once again living. And living and living, because one does not die on the Riverworld without near-immediate resurrection.
Too much has been written by others for me to go into detail about plot and characters here. Suffice to say, this is one of the great works of the imagination from the Twentieth Century, a must read for anyone seriously interested in the genre.
While aknowledged within the field as a grand master, Farmer’s unique imagination and sheer scope should be much better known among those who profess to know and teach imaginative literature in the colleges.
After Riverworld, the story involving historical characters playing out alternative lives became almost a subgenre. These days we are swamped with books about famous people doing things they never did: almost as if a lot of readers really would rather be reading historical novels, but just can’t give up the sense of wonder that science fiction and fantasy provide.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go
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The Fabulous Riverboat, by Phillip Jose Farmer
The second of the Riverworld books begins with Mark Twain going upriver on a dragonship with a bunch of Tenth Century Norsemen, cursing his inability, after three years, to make himself understood in old Norse. This is certainly in keeping with Twain’s famous disgruntlement with the German language. It continues with bloody battles involving wonderfully improbable allies and enemies, then continues with some enormous industrialization.
If this writer is a little less than satisfied with the book’s characterization of Sam Clemens, it is only due, perhaps, to 35 years of close association with Mr. Twain, on stage and off. I have read a number of books in which various authors have used Mark Twain as a character, but none which seem to hit quite on the mark. That said, and given that this is a science fiction novel by a writer noted for his loving pastiches of the works of other authors, it’s a pretty good job.
Farmer’s examination of the way people need their work is a greatly interesting aspect of the book. One does not spend a life in the world doing something only to toss it aside because of the inconvenience of death. One thing that was consistent in Twain’s life was how much he missed piloting a riverboat, and so it is not difficult to believe that in the next life (one of many) he would be concerned, not with writing more stories (which he professed that he detested: most writers complain of that now and then) but with building a riverboat. --After all, Riverworld provides the greatest river ever for piloting.
--Though one might note that a great deal of the pleasure of being a pilot was ‘knowing the river,’ a thing which could never likely be done with this particular river, down which one would likely not sail a second time.
When Sam’s beloved wife Livy turns up as the lover of Cyrano de Bergerac, in the company of Hermann Goering (who has subscribed to a rabidly pacifistic sect), the situation warms up, character wise. Setting up Bad King John as the villian also adds some zest.
But then, that is the fun of this story. Pitting pithy people out of history one against the other and watching how they react.
This could have been done as fantasy, of course, but Farmer was a science fiction writer from the beginning, and this is science fiction. As much fun as the character interaction is the technological game of solving problems in a physical world similar, but marvelously different, from the one where the characters originated: right down to the little epilogue to this volume about preparing potassium nitrate on the Riverworld.
The Fabulous Riverboat, a science fiction novel in The Riverworld Series
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The Dark Design, by Phillip Jose Farmer
At the time in which I am writing this review the Science Fiction community is much taken with Steam Punk, a sub-genre concerned with alternate technologies and historical settings, as well as alternative histories. There was a Steam Punk convention in Emeryville (California) last weekend which I did not get to attend. Earlier this year I did attend a panel on Steam Punk, and was surprized to hear that the two novels considered the foundation of the form were, respectively, Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates and by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine.
The Anubis Gates was published in 1983, while The Difference Engine dates from 1990.
The Dark Design, the third of Farmer’s Riverworld books, dates from 1977. The edition which sits before me features a battle in the sky between three dirigibles, and if that doesn’t turn on the Steam Punk button in the reader’s brain, I don’t know what should. I rather think that the Riverworld books must be considered among the earliest examples of Steam Punk, and should be more discussed among aficionados of the form.
That said: by this point in the story the central problem has clearly emerged. Who has made this world, how does it function, and what does it all mean?
Richard Burton re-emerges as the man who wants to know, and we begin to see some shadow of the hand behind the shadow show. Just who is manipulating the thirty-six billion people along the ten million miles of the river, and why? It appears that there is more than one faction at work, and just who is the Good Guy and who is the Bad Guy, behind the scenes, is not nearly so clear as that King John is definitely a Bad Guy.
The vision of two magnificent riverboats fighting each other with lasers is just too delicious to contemplate, but that vision occurs half way through the book: there is much more complication ahead, chief of which is the journey to the mysterious tower in the middle of a sea at the pole, where the river finally ends up.
Sam Clemens is not interested in going there by dirigible. He notes that flying is a good way to miss all the people and sights along the way, and his heart really belongs, not with the river, but with the boat. Here at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, there is some assessment that flight, while the long time dream of humanity in general, may not have been the great solution to everyday problems that it promised to be. --Only the pilot (of the plane) really enjoys flying from one place to another, much as Mr. Twain enjoyed piloting his riverboat. But the airplane leaves on devoid of human contact along he way, and burdened with jet lag at the end.
Other characters continue to emerge, and the ones we have to deepen.
And, we have the assurance of the author, that this book is really only half of a four hundred thousand word work which had to be split in two; there is still another coming, which, he promises, will wrap up everything neatly. Or maybe...
So yes, this reads like Steam Punk, as well as the best kind of Science Fiction.
It has been said that Fantasy is the literature of ethics, while Science Fiction is the literature of ideas. Farmer manages to examin a good many ethical questions along the way, but this really is a novel of ideas.
The Dark Design
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The Magic Labyrith, by Phillip Jose Farmer
--And then there is Alice. The Alice, the one in the book, the little girl who inspired Lewis Carroll. She, of course, is in the Riverworld, now all grown up. Any reader who has read the writings of the writer writing this review will understand how important Alice is, was, can be.
But, this book begins with the musings of The Mysterious Stranger, also known as X, whose veiled presence has permeated all the books; and thereby, through non-identification, the book becomes a classic mystery, to possibly be solved by the reader, but not likely.
Now Farmer is in the pure Science Fiction element of his story, as the tower at the top of the world is breeched, the nature of everything that has happened is revealed, and the mechanisms of the Riverworld begin ot break down. He shows us the wheels within wheels, explains the reasons for everything, and, in short, gives us a little more satisfying an explication than the writers of the Bible managed to cobble together. But then, a single writer has an advantage over a committee every time.
God as auteur is appealing, but the evidence of the universe indicates more than one cook in the kitchen.
Farmer also manages, in fleshing out his characters, to provide satisfying biographies in about a paragraph, or sometimes up to a page and a half, of the people he introduces.
Who would have known that Alice’s husband (on Earth, in her Earthly life) had a botanical garden in which he had redwoods? In England!
In looking through the book for this review I find myself again and again sucked into the narrative, rereading scenes, finding details fresh and exciting. It holds up well, I think.
When I began writing in the 60s, a novel was still a novel if it had sixty thousand words. Sometimes a novel was a novel with only forty thousand. That was the age of the short attention span, the age of The Old Man and the Sea, of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. People had begun to live on pablum and television, pre-chewed and pre-digested, and spoon fed. Universities taught that Dickens was not very good, and lauded writers with small vocabularies and lack of skill in plotting.
I suspect that Farmer’s Riverworld books were among the instigators of the rebellion against literary TV dinners and a return to the many-coursed banquet with substantial content that has now become the norm: though I am quick to note that sheer quantity in a meal does not make for a gourmet feast.
For a generation raised on the extended delights of the Harry Potter books, I think the Riverworld saga may be a good meal ticket. It is not a ‘series,’ by which I mean a bunch of books connected by background or characters and little else: it is a unified whole. Around the same time as its publication we saw a resurgence in long story arcs in television, in which disparate stories were connected not only by characters and background, but by a background plot which unified them more fully than the backgrounds and characters of previous presentations.
I think this is probably an important thing. The infusuon of ‘long books’ that followed, with much fanfare, can only have been symptomatic of the hunger of the readership for more than a snack: and though most of those books have been forgotten, this one holds up pretty damned well.
Recommened, very highly.
The Magic Labrynth
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Gods of Riverworld, by Phillip Jose Farmer
While the previous four Riverworld books form a complete tetralogy, Farmer still had some ideas with which he wanted to play, among them material which I take to be autobiographical and theological. I only met Farmer a few times, but he was clearly one of Science Fiction’s most imaginative Grand Masters, and it should not surprise us to consider that one of his chief characters is a Science Fiction writer whose early life is revealed in this book; which is not about the whole population of the human race throughout its history, as were the previous books, but about a group of people who must decide the fate of those billions who have not, at the beginning of the tale, been resurected: not since the failure of the technology that built the Riverword.
There are ten of these characters, and I had might as well list them, because, like the old game of ‘Dinnerparty,’ the fascination of the tale is with the interaction of this diverse group of complete individualists.
Loga is a grandson of King Priam, and was killed at the age of four in the fall of Troy. But he was born again on the planet that would eventualy build the great experiment of the Riverworld.
Richard Francis Burton is the great British explorer, adventurer, translator, etc., etc., etc..
Alice Pleasance Liddel Hargreaves is that very Alice whose father was one of the authors of the ‘Greek Lexicon’ and who served as the model of Alice in the Lewis Carroll novels.
Peter Jairus Frigate is the fictional Science Fiction writer whom I assume to be an alter ego of Farmer, much the way we can see Jubal Harshaw as the alter ego of Robert Anson Heinlein.
Aphra Behn is someone of whom I had never heard before reading these books. A spy for Charles II in the Netherlands, she is reputed to be the first English woman to support herself entirely by writing.
Nur-ed-Din el-Musafir is a Moorish Muslin Sufi woman whom I assume to be fictional: Farmer marks the connection of Sufism to Omar Kayyam.
Jean Baptist Antoin Marcelin, Baron de Marbot: another historical personage of whom I had no previous knowledge. His biography and history of military campaigns fascinated A. Conan Doyle enough for Doyle to base a character on him.
Tom Million Turpin, a ragtime composer and boss of the Tenderloin and redlight district in St. Louis. He was the first black composer to have music published, according to Farmer. (When I checked to make sure he was ‘real’ I discovered a site that purported to supply his e-mail address: for a fee!)
Li-Po, perhaps the most famous of all Chinese poets. I remember many years ago talking with Linn Carter about his translating Li-Po: he laughed and noted that everybody translates Li-Po, and nobody does it well.
Star Spoon: a young woman who is loved by Li-Po, and resurrected against the consensus.
This book is a sort of chamber piece, with ethics and theology melding nicely into technology; and, oh yes, there is deceit, double dealing, and psychological wheels within wheels in a world where what we might think of as a holodeck is the everyday norm. Nothing is as it seems, and this, quite frankly, makes for a very good read.
If you have read the Riverworld tetralogy, then this is the logical next stop on your journey. If not, go back and read it, and then read this.
Very much recommended.
The Gods of Riverworld (Riverworld Saga, No 5)
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Riverworld and Other Stories, by Phillip Jose Farmer
Most writers are forced to make hard choices about things like plot, character, and so on. You may write something, be inspired by something, desperately want it to go into your story: but eventually realize it doesn’t belong there, and so you cut it. That’s the breaks.
Phillip Jose Farmer went around the end of the river.
The beginning of this collection of stories details the history of his writing about the Riverworld: his twenty year excegesis in giving birth to this remarkable landmark in the stream of science fiction. --The book features introductiones to all of the stories, a practice that was quite popular at the time of publication, but which eventually fell out of favor. (Nobody really cares that you were inspired to write twelve million pages because you broke a madeleine for breakfast.)
The opening story, “Riverworld,’ is in fact a chaptered novella whose protagonist is Tom Mix, the cowboy movie star; and whose ‘sidekick’ is Yeshua: better known to the non-scholarly Christians as Jesus. It fills about a quarter of the volume, and shows us, perhaps, what Farmer’s first conception was of the Riverworld. --But it just didn’t fit with what he was later to do with the whole magnificent conception, and so it exists as a kind of missiing chapter from the epic. It is a grim tale and it examines in detail some of the baser traits of human character. It has lingered, unfortunately, in my memory, despite my best efforts to forget.
The second story offers a little introduction about how it was inspired by an idle comment from Robert Bloch (I wonder how many thousands of things important to our lives were inspired by idle comments from Robert Bloch?) and again features Jesus, this time as a tall handsome cowboy being sent to a ‘dude’ ranch where the women guests work the cowboys extra hard. --This one is a tall tail comedy, and throws away a minor character worth more than a short story in the process.
In the third story, ‘The Volcano,’ Farmer plays a game that few were as good at as he: the invention of a fictitious writer whose work is then presented to us strait-faced, sort of. (It may be well to remember that it was Farmer who penned the only novel we have from the fictitious writer Kilgor Trout, who was invented by Kurt Vonnegut but based on Theodore Sturgeon, and... Well, A. E. Van Vogt was not the only writer to artifice wheels within wheels within wheels...) This writer is one who has known Nero Woolfe, and who writes private eye mysteries, that may or may not be fantasy.
‘The Henry Miller Dawn Patrol’ is one of those unique pieces of Farmer erotica that leaves one wondering whether he ever took sex seriously: well, perhaps when he was under fifty. It crosses World War One biplane fighting with a kind of Henry Miller sex hunt, and puts me in mind of my youth in the Middle Ages, when one could not write about religion except by disguising it as sex.
In “The Problem of the Sore Bridge - Among Others,” Farmer once again plays with fictional writers, pulling off a pastiche in which the once very famous Raffles crosses paths with Sherlock Holmes; a locked room mystery, some mysterious jewels; and if we are not as much surprized at the science fiction element as we might be, we are still delighted by Farmer’s skillful result.
“Brass and Gold, or, Horse and Zeppeliin in Beverly Hills” is a love story, mildly erotic but awfully funny. Farmer says it is part of his Beverly Hills trilogy, which includes the amazing “Riders of the Purple Wage.” It once again proves his ability to write clearly, plainly, and with a perpective so unique that nobody can touch him, except Theodore Sturgeon.
It is so close to certain a probability that anyone who lived in the latter half of the Twentieth Century wondered as we wonder what it would have been like if William Burroughs had written stuff by Edgar Rice Burrouughs that it is a great relief to discover that Farmer wondered about it too, and actually did it, thereby letting us off the hook. “The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod” is William rather than Edgar Rice telling Tarzan. We are relieved to report that Farmer did not suceed in Edgar Rice writing “Nova Express.”
“The Voice of the Sonar In My Vermiform Appendix” is a neat and amusing little piece about the nature of the appendix. Only now, nearly forty years after its writing, is science actually positing a reason for this quaint organ, leaving this a pretty good piece of prognostication.
“Monolog” is a simple horror tale, much of a piece with the things that other people were writing from about 1950 through the mid 70s. But as usual, Farmer put his own spin on even something simple.
“The Leaser of Two Evils” is a playful look at what these days we call multiple personality disorder. A prudish policeman who works for the vice squad has to deal with his other self, a sister who writes pornography and indulges in every kind of behavior he detests. --I wonder if Farmer knew any members of Congress at the time he wrote this?
“The Phantom of the Sewers” is, in some ways, a kind of summation of writing in the Twentieth Century. It was terribly important for us to be able to write about everything, including all the things society told us we must not write about. So improper words, fecal matter, violence, and above all, sex, became the major topics of creative endeavor. Further, we demolished all the paradigms of the poetic and replaced with with a poety of image that included all the above. For some, it worked. For others, not so much. Poetry can encompass any topic, but topics do not make poety. Farmer ties it all together very neatly here, and makes a story that is both an exemplar of period esthetics, a comedy, and a horror story, and even poetic, even as he fights the good fight for and against the poetics of the period.
Now, at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, we find ourselves a bit bored with our freedom. The conceit of the word poets brought us back to the awareness that poetry is a primarily aural art form. We are surrounded with song lyrics over ripe with vulgarities, and we wonder if perhaps repeating the same four letter word a hundred times doesn’t leave one craving at bit more. Let us not forbid the use of words or the examination of topics, but let us try very hard to find new and more interesting ways of discussing those topics and describing those conditions.
One of the pleasures of Farmer’s writing is that, next to the use of those words and discussions of those subjects, he invents new images and metaphors that keep us from being bored. He lets us see things in a peculiar new light.
And perhaps I should mention that this story is another of his pieces written by a fictitious character, a practice which he explains in his preface.
Yes, I do recommend this.
Riverworld and Other Stories (Riverworld Saga)
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A Difficulty with Dwarves, by Craig Shaw Gardner
Years ago somebody handed me this book, saying “You write humorous fantasy, you’ll love this!”
Later, when I finally got to read it, I was sitting in the waiting room where I was getting my tires replaced and one of the salesmen said to me: “Oh, Craig Shaw Gardner! I used to read him all the time, back when I was twelve or fifteen.”
That kind of defines the parameters, not only of the person who gave it to me but of the audience for which the book was intended.
It is from that period when anything funny in the way of fantasy was getting published, and publishers wanted lots of series book. (They still do, and they still can’t tell one book from another, for the most part.) Gardner is one of the writers whose work has held up, and which is still in print.
I think today we might call this a ‘young adult’ novel, and certainly it will appeal to the eleven to seventeen readership. It is most emphatically not the sort of novel that I write; but it is lightly amusing, being a series of extended gags that feel as if they ought to be heading somewhere, but which ultimately don’t because it is the first of many projected books (I can certainly identify with that!).
Of course, having a character cursed with iambic pentameter is something I rather enjoy. And one should not think that I didn’t enjoy this book: it simply didn’t motivate me to rush out and find the next one. Had I been younger, I probably would have. Had I been younger, I would probably have a whole shelf of this author’s works, which include a trilogy that comes before this book, and a number of other works.
The trouble, for me, is that I grew with with the Pratt-deCamp ‘Incomplete Enchanter’ books, which are the model for all this sort of thing, and which are much better than anything of the sort short of Terry Pratchett. This is not Pratchett, but then, neither am I. (Sigh)
Gardner has also done some novelizations of films, and I suspect he is a pretty popular writer.
If you have any young friends who you think will enjoy this kind of book, be sure and try to track down more than one volume of each trilogy, etc.. I think the author deserves a more complete reading than the first volume provides.
The Wanderings of Wuntvor- A Difficulty with Dwarves; An Excess of Enchantments; A Disagreement with Death
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The Frogs, by Aristophanes, in a modern translation by Richmond Lattimore
I decided to grab a copy of this play and read it not because I had always wanted to read it (I had) but because I had just acquired a recording of the muscal version by Stephen Sondheim, which features Nathan Lane as Dionysos.
Never mind that Sondheim, and thus Lane, mispronounce the God’s name: it’s still a good show, and I include here a link so that you can go get it. (The link is to the version that I have, which includes the 4 songs for "Evening Primrose," a show Sondheim wrote based n an Alfred Bester story: there is another recording of the Broadway cast, which includes a couple new songs.)
The Frogs / Evening Primrose (2001 Studio Cast)
Sondheim’s update changes some of the principals to more modern figures (Shakespear and George Bernard Shaw instead of Aeschuylos and Euripides), but comedy is always topical, and that is why it is so much harder for a comedy to survive than it is for a tragedy to do so.
The great actor Edmund Keene was asked, on his deathbed, what it was like to die. He replied: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” And expired.
But ‘The Frogs’ maintains a certain currency, even after two millennia, and probably will as long as there is Theater. Audiences of the Twenty-first Century are still complaining that the theater is not what it once was, still whining about the good old days, still wondering where we will find a good playwrite to take the place of... Well, you get the idea.
The quest of the God Dionüsos, in which he goes down into the underworld to bring back the best of the best, is not strange or unfamiliar, it is the stuff you read in the newspapers. (Or did read, when there were still newspapers.) The comic hero and his comic sidekick remain stock characters, and they play well.
I saw a production of this play this past summer (2009) and was delighted how well it worked, how few changes were required to make it work. Watching Euripides and Aeschuylus tearing each other to pieces in trying to win the prize of a renewed life was somewhat like throwing Neal Simon and Robin Williams into a box and shaking it, with possibly the addition of some ants.
And you really don’t need any background in Hellenic Culture to enjoy this one. It’s terribly self-contained.
Four Plays by Aristophanes: The Birds; The Clouds; The Frogs; Lysistrata (Meridian classics)
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The Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens
Well, all right, you know that Little Nell is going to die. That’s a given. It would be hard for anybody in the English speaking world to avoid the phrase ‘the death of Little Nell,’ and not, therefore, know that she is going to die.
But you know what? So is everybody else!
Very few people die interesting deaths. What is interesting is life, and the path by which we arrive at death. And that, precisely, is what makes “The Old Curiosity Shop” a great novel and why, long after the world it depicts has vanished, we can still relate to its people and its events at an incredibly personal level. There is still poverty, there is still love, there are still miserably wicked (and successful) people who take pleasure in the abuse of those not so fortunate as themselves. Good people do bad things in the hope of making things better, and still they bring down those they love to destruction, for all their good intentions.
The vice of this novel is gambling: compulsive, destructive gambling, the kind that is not ‘just for fun’ but the sort with which the gambler hopes to solve the problems of his or her life, even to the degree of staking important things upon the next turn of the cards. Well, we seldom actually see Grandfather gambling, and we don’t see the thrill he experiences. What we see is his shame and the ruin which he brings upon himself, and the iron clad pursuit which his gambling debts bring about.
In today’s world one is far less likely to be hounded by thugs over gambling debts than one was even thirty years ago. Indian casinos don’t need that kind of underworld connection when the debts are handled by credit card companies which, through perfectly legal means, can still destroy one’s life.
It is also about usuary, the lending of money at interest, which most societies hold to be a contemptible sin, which is forbidden in the Bible, and which our society has elevated to a kind of curious respectableness. The villian Quilp is, at heart, the CEO of every credit card company in the world. Has everybody forgotten the term ‘loan shark?’
I cannot remember how many businesses I have seen set up with the name of ‘Old Curiosity Shop,’ but I wonder how many of those persons of business have bothered to read the novel; in which the titular shop exists for a brief time at the beginning before being seized by the evil dwarf Quilp, Grandfather’s chief creditor. I would not personally use that name if I were setting up such a shop, though I must confess that the draw of Dickens will pull me into such a place every time.
Quilp, with his menacing cheerfulness, could stand as a poster boy for why one should not smoke, or do any of a thousand other bad things the man does. Surely one of Dickens’ most unsavory villains; and Dickens wrote some of the most unsavory ever committed to paper. Quilp stands next to Shakespear’s Iago in that respect; he is bad because he likes being bad, because he likes doing as much damage to his fellow humans as he can. It amuses him. Quilp belongs in Sanctuary!
I think it was Thackery who said that he would trade everything he had ever written for Dickens’ picture of life on the road. Indeed, the journey of Grandfather and Little Nell is a scaled down epic in which one can see the later journeys of Bilbo and Frodo. There is a sense of landscape, fear, and horror, which is not made less important by being a depiction of real things.
Children don’t sleep in piles of coal in factories anymore, not because there aren’t kind-hearted factory workers but because laws have been made to prevent them doing so. Now they are lucky to find someone burning papers in a trash barrel if they want to keep warm in bitter winter.
Dickens became unfashionable in the age of Hemingway, when everybody wanted shorter books with smaller vocabularies and everything laid out with easy familiarity. At the price of books today, people have gone back to big, thick tomes that will be entertaining long enough to justify the price. Given that, Dickens should again be at the top of the best seller lists. His canvas is enormous, the characters stand up and live long after you have put the volume back on the shelf, and he runs the gamut from the delicate to the grotesque, all with a deftness that few since have ever matched. In a lot of ways, one could say that Dickens writes Harry Potter without the magic.
And by the by, the death of Little Nell is not the most intense part of the book, nor is Little Nell even the most engaging character. Corrupt lawyers and accountants, evil money lenders, good and innocent people fighting to stay out of jail and not be done in by the inadequacies of the law. Does this sound like another age, or the one in which we live?
Really, ignore all the bad jokes that may have put you off. This is a hell of a great novel, and well worth your reading time.
The Old Curiosity Shop (Penguin Classics)
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American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
As genre barriars continue to break down and ‘crossover’ works continue to expand their dominion of the market place, I think we can count ourselves lucky that Neil Gaiman has decided to write fiction, and that it falls into the catagories we normally call Fantasy and Science Fiction. His imagination is excellent and this book won the Hugo for best novel in 2002 (he also took a couple of Hugos for short fiction after that), and also won the Nebula that year; an award that only sometimes matches the Hugo choices.
It is a very big book, long, and a good read, no doubt about that. Gaiman’s outsider view of a Mythic America is at times mesmerizing, at times puzzling, always engaging. His characters vary from spot-on real to not-quite-realized. One wants, most of all, to take the road trip the protagonist is taking and see all the tourist attractions he is seeing, whether or not they are real in our universe. Perhaps that is Gaiman’s main genius; that he can make his universe natural enough that we believe it might be our universe.
When one is reading it one never questions anything. The suspension of disbelief comes into full play under Gaiman’s thaumaturgy. But in retrospect, there were places where it bogged down or lost focus. It is not really a picaresque novel at all, but rather a series of novelletes with an overwhelming story arc. More like a long TV series than an adventure.
This is the area where crossover becomes an important concept, and where writers like Gaiman may be affecting a major change not only in the nature of the novel but in the concept of story telling itself. His background in illustrated novels, as exemplified by “The Sandman” (a work which in this writer’s opinion places Gaiman as the best writer of the illustrated story yet to produce), gives him a view more in keeping with the psychology of the generations whose tastes were formed after the advent of both comic books and television: a focus in which the incident is paramount, the flash image more significant than the linear movement of the narrative. This is a deep and significant awareness which many of us, raised in the tradition of linear narrative, do not have at gut level.
Some of us still expect a clear cut beginning, middle, and end. Gaiman has tuned in to the fact that most people expect to be able to go out to the kitchen for a beer and not have to worry about missed data.
With a book, you were always able to stop for a beer and come back exactly where you left off. With television you can’t do that (well, now you can, but that will only be an influence felt by the post-Tivo generation, and that will surely turn things around in a different direction). It becomes important for the audience to have enough material constantly in action to fill in missed data, or simply not miss it.
Gaiman knows how to write a novel that fulfillls the expectations of people used to “The X Files,” or the long-term, non-resolved plottings of soap opera. --It would be wonderful to give him a budget without end and let him write and produce a TV series a la “Babylon 5.” --Which is not to suggest that he has not mastered the novel form, or that this book does not come to a suitable ending: only that he is using a slightly different deck to deal the game than one expects.
Not the least of the attractions this book profers are the religious legerdermains which the author performs, handling Gods, both real and imaginary, with the skill of an accomplished card sharp. As Odin is a major character(s), this makes the book a must-read for the Norski community, and certainly a should-read for anybody considering what may, or may not, be going on in America’s increasingly bizarre religious arena. (And I use the word ‘arena’ advisedly, because the war which is Gaiman’s central consideration is both unreal and real in America at the time of this writing: there a big battle going on, for those who have not noticed.)
I do recommend the book. It is entertaining, contains much wisdom, and if you don’t like some parts the chances are you will like others: it is large enough to accomodate a great deal in the way of entertainment, which is what a novel must do first if it is to do anything at all.
American Gods: A Novel
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Rasta Dogs, by Z. Budapest
Most people know Z. Budapest as the fiesty Feminist author of many memorable books and many exciting appearances. I have met a number of men who were downright terrified of her! That’s a shame, because she is, when not at war with the wrongs the world has done women, a charming and gracious person, a fantastic racontuer, and an individual with many more stories to tell than life is likely to provide her with the chance of telling.
The book at hand is one of those stories, which the books-on-demand technology has allowed her to tell, in spite of the pigeon-hole mentality of the publishing industry.
It’s about her dog.
And really, it is ‘by’ her dog.
No ordinary dog, mind you (though from my perspective there really are no ‘ordinary’ dogs), but a Hungarian Puli, a remarkable little herder with natural dreadlocks, who tells his story from the time he was born in Memphis, Tennessee, through his move to California to live with Z., to his becomming an official therapist in the Mission District of San Francisco, dogtoring to the mentally ill; and then to his scrapes with Human Law and his final salvation by San Francisco’s Mayor Willy Brown.
His name is Zoro, and he manages to splice in pieces of Hungarian history, observations on the Human condition, and a great deal of wisdom that mere Humans are likely to neglect.
I don’t usually like the word ‘heartwarming,’ because critics use it to describe books that have no plot, and often no characters. But yeah, this book is heartwarming. It was scary, and Zoro makes us feel how incomprehensible Human activities can be; but in the end, Good Triumphs.
As Kelson used to say: “Puppies are the hope of the world! Yeah, they are!”
If you can’t guess, I loved this book.
Of course, if you don’t like dogs... Well, maybe you ought to go get stuffed!
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The Wine Critic’s Choice, by Jack Smith
I wandered into a wine store in Calistoga to ask about some wine and for some directions, and met Jack Smith, who just happened to have copies of his novel, “The Wine Critic’s Choice,” available for purchase. Funny how those of us who write books may have them at hand, or in some other convenient manner for sale.
This is Jack’s first novel, and he makes some of the mistakes that first novelists usually make. A weak opening is often death to the reader, but this intrepid reader is not put off by such minor problems and is glad that he is not. The book is charming and once Smith gets his feet under him he carries the reader along quite nicely. There are engaging characters, beautiful settings, and details about the wine industry (I hate to call it that, because the word ‘industry’ conjures up masses of machinery and production lines, and that is not really what wine making is about) that reward the mystery lover in particular. (In a Mystery one is moved along by the plot, but what one really reads for is the setting: some locale or culture to which one would not usually be privy were it not for the writer.) Though I hasten to add that this is not a mystery but a story of intrigues.
There are some wonderful vignettes in this tale of critical blackmail by an evil wine reviewer. The moment when the woman requires her lover to cover his eyes and then describe her is as romantic a moment as one could ask, giving us that joy of recognition that comes with good literature by throwing light on the doubt that every lover eventually has to confront.
Smith lives in the wine country and his depiction of the Napa Valley may be the closest most people get, now that “Most Happy Fella’” is pretty much out of production. He does equally well with San Francisco, a City which requires a new novel every ten years because it changes so constantly.
The scene where our wine grower is asked to recommend a good wine for vegging out in front of the TV while watching sports with a bag of Cheetos is a sheer delight, with its satire of conventional wine snobbery. The end of the book, though slightly contrived (you need to learn to plant your surprizes a little earlier, Jack), is nonetheless particularly satisfying to anyone who has ever had to deal with a critic who is willing to destroy the lives of creative people, despite all evidence that he or she is simply incapable of appreciating the art which she or he criticises.
All in all, the book has a nice, light bouquet with overtones of stoned fruits and smashed imbibers. The writer can use a few years in the bottle, but I hope he produces another vintage soon, as this one is now all drunk up. He writes clearly, and with a small amount more attention to formula (though not too much, because I love books that don’t fit the commercial template), he ought to mature into something quite elegant.
The Wine Critic's Choice
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The Greek Qabalah: Alphabetic Mysticism and Numerology in the Ancient World, by Kieren Barry
This is a delicious little thesus of a book and may very well be a necessity for anyone whose Hellenismos has an interface with the general NeoPagan community, as NeoPaganism is very much involved with Magick and in the discussion of Magick, with or without the k, the subject of Quabalah (or Kabala, or however one chooses to spell it) will come up.
Barry sets forth a history of the practicie of Qabalah as it is known in today’s world and traces it back to Greek Isopsephy, i.e. the mystical and magickal use of number. --Well, he doesn’t do it in quite that order, but that is the outcome of his thesus, and it is a very practicable one indeed.
I cannot enumerate the times I have encountered people working on a synthesis of the very practical methods of the Qabalah with the remaining evidence of Ancient Greek magical practices; an attempt which inevitably leads to the many extrapolations of Hellenismos into workable Tarot decks and other forms of popular divination: all of which require a good deal of speculation and a great deal of creative effort.
While a number of Barry’s detailed analyses are arguable (and are argued constantly) one could do far worse than to make use of his material rather than spending years researching it for one’s self. The book should not be taken as a final statement, but rather as a springboard from which to jump into the great pool of resources he cites.
For those who like tables of comparisons, he’s got ‘em! For links to other systems: they’re there! Planetary correspondences are covered, proto-Sinaic signs, Phoenician, Hebrew and Aramiac scripts, Moabite stone inscriptions, coins from Delphi, gems from Egypt, Pythagorean, Gnostic, and a lot of other items.
The guy has spent a fortune in time and work on this, and if this study is of interest to you, you probably want to read this book. It was published in 1999: if it had been published 30 years earlier it would have consumed my experimental activities.
I find myself recommending it to people with some frequency. Let this stand as a general recommendation to those who are working with this kind of material.
The Greek Qabalah: Alphabetical Mysticism and Numerology in the Ancient World
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Orpheus and Greek Religion, by W. K. C. Guthrie
I suspect that at core a great deal of the Hellenismos practiced in today’s world is Orphism. Certainly in Greece, where Hellenismos has been legally forbidden, first at the demand of Greek Orthodox Christianity, then at the demand of Islam, and then again Greek Orthodox Christianity, Orphism offers a reasonable and practicable connection to the Ancient Hellenismos without the outward emblems which the Abrahamics find so frightening. It is far closer to the ascetic religions of the latter day Christian mold than the Homeric Hellenismos which first attracts one’s attention in a perusal of the Ancient texts, and therefore less likely to attract a general censure from the populace. And, because Orphic Cultus was generally an ‘in-home’ sort of religion, in practicum similar to, say, the Society of Friends or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it produces less stress for its members in the setting of the body of society.
That said, it behooves one who wishes to seek the path of Orpheus to hit the books and discover as much as possible about what he or she may wish to pursue.
Guthrie, who is perhaps best known for his 1949 book “The Greeks and their Gods,” devoted a great deal of attention to the study of Orpheus and what is loosely termed Orphism over the very long span of historical scholarship. The first edition of the book was in 1934. He later revised it a bit in 1952 to include more recent scholarship by way of annotations and calling attention to adjunct materials by others.
He does a pretty thorough job of it, pulling in every tidbit he can find, and though his conclusions are at times a bit strained (straining conclusions seems to be a very popular pastime among scholars) he does not let his conclusions get too much in the way of his presentation of the data.
For those of us with a more ‘hands-on’ approach, of particular interest are the plates at the back of the book. Some, such as the picture from the House of the Mysteries at Pompeii and the relief of Hermes with Orpheus and Eurydice, are overly familiar. But some are things which I have not seen elsewhere, such as the gold case and chain which held the famous plate from Petalia, or the actual unrolled plate from Cecelia Secondina. These two pictures give us a view of the practice of the religion which merely reading the text contained on the plates does not. Discovering that the text was worn on the body as a lamen, not just included as grave goods, is important to know. The little case looks remarkably like a modern Mezusah case such as one would find on the door of any devout Jew in today’s world, though it is probably a bit smaller.
For people seeking to follow Orphic Hellenismos, this is am important connection. Too often people are reduced to wearing a pentagram or other symbol which inaccurately manifests their beliefs due to a lack of appropriate symbols (though your reviewer has been at pains the last few years to provide a symbol of Hellenismos in general) and for followers of Orpheus, this simple, elegant picture is a very important item.
Guthrie’s commentary on the Neoplatonists is cogent and useful to those with an interest in the magical applications to which they put the Orphic poems, and he provides some leavening for the discussions which follow that tradtion.
All in all, this is a most useful book for those with a general interest in Hellenismos and probably indespensible for those with an intense interest in Orphism.
Orpheus and Greek Religion (Mythos Books)
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