THE WALK by Richard Paul Evans

the walkAn inspirational kind of book, sort of along the lines of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, without the birds.

Told in the first person by the protagonist, Alan Christoffersen, it is the story of a successful young man who loses everything.  He was a successful ad man in Seattle.   He marries his childhood sweetheart.  But they overspend, making a big lifestyle,  and they are deeply in debt.  His ad agency partner is secretly stealing his agency.  Then his wife has a fall from her horse, and after an agonizing month, dies.  During that time of her recovery, he neglects the agency, and when she dies and he goes back, he finds the partner has stolen everything, even the furniture.  His cars are repossessed, and the bank forecloses on his house.

After this tear jerking beginning, he decides to walk away from everything.  He dumps the work of selling off his personal belongings and dealing with the creditors on his assistant, and takes off for Key West.  Lucky him, he ends up with $27,000 in his bank account.  And off he goes with a backpack and a tent.

The Walk is a  look at mourning, despair and repair.   It is  Love Story meets Travels With Charley (without the dog or car). It is about the people he meets and the things he sees, and a rather inordinate emphasis on what he eats at every meal.  It offers some pithy moralizing

We can deny reality, but we can´t deny the consequences of denying reality.

and Old Sage advice

We can be victims or circumstance or master of our own fate, but make no mistake, we cannot be both.

A pleasant read, a little too … oh, what is the word I want … feel-good without the feeling good part.  Suggesting that we can restore ourselves by dumping our obligations on to someone else and then just walking away from everything is irresponsible advice, to my way of thinking.   By the time we have hit our thirties or forties we have all suffered losses, big and small, and failures, big and small.  Few of us can be fortunate enough to have lived that long unscathed.  But we are still here coping.  That’s what a grownup does.  Cope. Deal.  Come through it out the other side.  Not dump your sh*t troubles on someone else and walk away.

There are several more volumes in the series.  This one ends before he even reaches Spokane.  I think I will let him carry on to Florida without me.

THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN by Simon Winchester

ProfessorYou might at first glance think this is a thriller about academe, but aha!  you would be wrong.  It is about the Oxford English Dictionary and the personalities involved in it’s creation.

If you are a lover of words and their etymology, or just a lover of words after they are strung together to create literature, you will certainly enjoy this beautifully written account of the conception and process of creating the world’s largest, most complete dictionary — in any language, the OED.

It took more than seventy years to produce the twelve huge volumes that made up the first edition. It was completed at last in 1928, then there were five supplements issued.  Finally, a half a century later,  a second edition that integrated the first and all the subsequent supplementary volumes into one new twenty-volume set, was issued.

The OED defines over half a million words, and contains quotations showing exactly how a word has been employed over the centuries, and when it first slipped into use.

The story stars Dr. William Minor, an American medical doctor who served in the battlefields of the Civil War.  After a time, his behavior became erratic, and eventually, he was relieved of his post, and placed in an institution.   After some time, he was released, and decided to travel overseas to England to paint and write.  He, for some reason, went first to a seedy boarding house in a very bad part of London, where his delusions returned, and he was convinced that Irishmen were after him, and coming into his room at night.   After one horrifying night, he took his gun and dashed into the streets after a nonexistent devil, saw an innocent workman on his way to work and shot him dead.  He was sentenced to the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

He was given two adjoining rooms, and because he had money, he furnished them in fine style, having one room filled with bookshelves that he then proceeded to stock with books.

Our British protagonist was Dr. James Augustus Henry Murray, who became in charge of the making of the dictionary.  The method for amassing the words was to solicit volunteer readers to read books, and collect quotations.   It was through this procedure that the working committee first came in contact with Dr. Minor, who wished to volunteer.  It was not known initially that he was a patient at Broadmoor, but it soon became apparent that Dr. Minor would become one of the most reliable and efficient contributors.  It was only later that it became known the state of his mental health and his residence.

The entire book encompasses the lifes of Minor, of Murray, a nice history of dictionary-making giving some reverent space to Dr. Samuel Johnson, creator of the first really useful dictionary in English.  The problem was that the good doctor only included words he deemed worthy, and the goal for the makes of the OED was to include EVERY word.

It was an amazing undertaking, had amazing personalities involved in it, and this is a beautiful and thoroughly readable telling of the tale.

This photo (from the OED archives) was taken on Murray's last day in his Scriptorium, 10 July 1915. Left to right, seated: Elsie M. R. Murray, James A. H. Murray, Rosfrith A. N. R. Murray; standing: A. J. Maling, F. J. Sweatman, F. A. Yockney.

This photo (from the OED archives) was taken on Murray’s last day in his Scriptorium, 10 July 1915. Left to right, seated: Elsie M. R. Murray, James A. H. Murray, Rosfrith A. N. R. Murray; standing: A. J. Maling, F. J. Sweatman, F. A. Yockney.

oxford_english_dictionary_01

 

THE AMULET OF SAMARKAND by Jonathan Stroud

AmuletThis is the first of the Bartimaeus Trilogy, starring, ta-da — Bartimaeus, a 14th level djinni,  a creature from the Other Place, which is an indescribable place of chaos and …… stuff.   And please, don’t call him a demon.  That is just wrong and rude!

In an alternate reality England, where their big rival is Prague, the land is ruled by magicians, and frankly, they are all  a mess – ambitious, greedy, cruel, manipulating, and petty. Apprentice magicians are children whose parents have traded them to the government in exchange for a large sum of money.  And that’s how our second star, 5 year old Nathaniel, ends up in the household of a second-rate government functionary magician for his training.  This guy, Underwood, has all of the above magician qualities, with the addition of being weak, cowardly, and not terribly bright.  For poor Nathaniel, his only bright spot is Mrs. Underwood, a kindly soul who does her best for him.

He is a smart kid, much brighter than his master, and is secretly reading far ahead in his master’s library, and has taught himself a number of spells of which his master knows nothing.  He makes himself a scrying glass from a piece of polished brass, and imprisons a small insolent imp in it.

A visiting magician, the powerful and nasty Simon Lovelace, ambitious to take over the government, is disdainful to the young lad, now age 12, and Nathaniel is determined to get back at him.  He sends his scrying imp to Lovelace’s house to spy, where the imp overhears a conversation that Lovelace has stolen an important amulet from the government and has a plot to destroy everyone and be, as it were, the last man standing.

That’s when Nathaniel summons our boy Bartimaeus, and binds him to his service to steal the amulet from Lovelace in a revenge move.

As you can imagine, everything from then on goes wrong way round, and there upon hangs the tale of dangerous political intrigue, magic and  the lack of morality therein.

We learn about the amazing ability of a djinni to change his shape into all kinds of fab creatures to fit the occasion.  He is clever, cheeky, audacious, and lots of fun.  The story is told in Bartimaeus’ voice, and he includes a number of informative footnotes to give info and sarcastic comments.  The parts about Nathaniel are in the third person.

All of the magicians’ power comes from summoning and ensnaring the various beings from the Other Place.   I found this award-winning YA fantasy work less wonderful than I might have because of this.  Perhaps it is because of all the shootings and talk of racists etc. that is going on right now, but I was not beguiled by the idea of enslaving another plane of entities simply because you can.  These entities are not interested in humans, and only appear because they are summoned.  (It is not made clear just how or where the power comes from to do the summoning, but hey, it’s fantasy.)  The magicians are a caste in and of themselves who consider themselves vastly superior creatures, and look down in derision and contempt on the ‘commoners’.    I thought it distasteful, and unworthy.  Perhaps I am of the Victorian Age where we kind of like our literature to be if not uplifting, then at least edifying.  Creating a desire to subjugate and enthrall others in order to feel more powerful  is not my idea of either uplifting or edifying.

When closing the book, one comes away with the moral of the story being do unto others before they can do unto you.  I found it unsettling.

Magician summoning djinni

Magician summoning djinni

WHISPERS UNDERGROUND by Aaronovitch

indexThe third (and last so far) of the Rivers of London series featuring wizard-in-training Peter Grant, London constable and all around nice guy, Nightingale, his master and mentor and boss in their two-man police department; Leslie, his wounded partner; and Mollie the strange we’re-not-sure-if-she-is-human-or-maybe-a-vampire housekeeper at the Nightingale residence.

We meet again some of the river goddesses and police personalities from the previous books, and this time, the mystery is a guy stabbed to death in the subway.  There are elements of vestigium (that’s those traces of magic) around the guy and the pottery shard in his back, which is the murder weapon, so the ‘special’ force is called in to help work the case.

The roommate of the murdered man is a crazy dude (I couldn’t help picturing Rhys Ilfans as Hugh Grant’s goofy roommate in Notting Hill movie all the time I read this), who is a dem-fae.  His father was a fairy.  But some of the demimonde call him a goblin, but he refuses to explain what that might be, claiming that our protagonists have no idea about anything.

Investigation takes our protagonists deep into the London subway underground tunnels, where they look for secret entrances and passageways, get shot at, end up in the sewage tunnels, and get washed away from water drainage.  They also learn of a population living below ground for a couple of hundred years, the Quiet People, or the Whisperers, who have a thriving pig industry, using its wastes to make an unbreakable pottery, unbreakable because of the magic within it.

I love the writing, and the humor, and the perspective:

When asked about what he actually does, he replies:  That depends on how much you want to know, boss.   “What are my options?” she asked.  “Meaningless euphemisms at one end and your full-on Unseen University at the other”, I said.

Perhaps an homage to the late Terry Pratchett.  I hope so.

The Metropolitan Police has a very straightforward approach to murder investigations, not for them the detective’s gut instinct or the intricate logical deductions of the sleuth savant.  No, what the Met likes to do is throw a shitload of manpower at the problem and run down every single possible lead until it is exhausted, the murderer is caught or the senior investigating office dies of old age.   As a result, murder investigations are conducted not by quirky Detective Inspectors with drink/relationship/mental problems but by a bunch of frighteningly ambitious Detective Constables in the first mad flush of their careers.

And

There was a ye olde carriage lamp mounted next to the front door just to show that money can’t buy you taste.

And

It was a good plan and like all plans since the dawn of time, this would fail to survive contact with real life.

Yeah.  Another one of those books with literary allusions, and a smart mouth.  I like that in a book.  There are also some nice historical notes on building the London subway tunnels.

Building the tunnels in the early days.

Building the tunnels in the early days.

Need I explain what this is?

tunnel4

Water drainage

Water drainage

Last ContinentI think this is the second to last of the Wizard Rincewind series, except for a graphic book, and a short story.  I liked it least of the ones I have read, for a number of reasons.

Rincewind finds himself in an arid country, digging for grubs to eat, having been sent there by mistake by the inept wizards of Unseen University back in Anhk Morpork.  As we go along, we get the suspicious feeling that it is Australia in a very thin disguise.  The country turns out to be XXXX, pronounced EcksEcksEcksEcks.  It never rains there.  Never has.  The water in all underground, and the landscape is filled with windmills that pull up the water for the livestock and the people.

On the rocks, drawings appear and disappear.  A large magical kangaroo appears and helps Rincewind, who is now able to find food by lifting up rocks, where there might be a sandwich, or other standard edibles waiting.  He makes his way to the port city, which is just about to have its river races in the bone dry riverbed.  The boats are bottomless and propelled by men running inside them.

Rincewind through an improbable series of events (what am I saying?  The whole book is improbable, so what’s a few more implausible happenings, more or less?) comes upon a university for wizards.  A rather ramshackle, unprepossessing affair, with a truly laughable tower, only a couple of stories high.  But wait!   These wizards are no slouches.  It turns out to be a reverse Tardis – taller on the outside than the inside.  After climbing up its few steps, upon looking out, Rincewind can see that it is MILES high.  Not bad for a bunch of backwater sorcerers,  eh mate?

It also turns out that these guys are the time warp counterparts to the wizards back at Unseen University in Anhk Morpork.

Meanwhile, the wizards of Unseen University are trying to cure the Librarian who is constantly morphing into other objects, but for that they need his name.  To do that, they need Rincewind, and to find the FourEcks continent to which he has been inadvertently sent by them.  To find the continent, they need the Egregious Professor of Cruel and Unusual Geography and so go to his room, but he is not there, and they find only an open window, through which they can see a tropical paradise.

They climb through, and when the housekeeper climbs through to bring them tea, the window closes and they are all trapped there.  They discover a verdant place, but also discover that all of its flora and fauna have only ONE specimen.  They meet a god, who is busily creating all this stuff, but hasn’t discovered sex as a means of furthering the species, so is wearing himself out creating a new specimen each time one dies off, making it better, thus creating evolution.

Through more crazy and far-fetched events, the wizards end up in FourEcks, where they help Rincewind produce rain for the first time ever on the continent, thereby saving the population.  Only the boat racers are pissed, because now their regatta is ruined due to all the water rushing down the riverbed.

In this book, Pratchett plays with the aspects of time travel such as the grandfather paradox and the Ray Bradbury short story “A Sound of Thunder”. It also parodies Australian people and aspects of Australian culture, such as Crocodile Dundee, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Mad Max movies, the Australian beer XXXX, Vegemite, thongs, cork hats,  Peach Melba, and the popular Australian songs “Waltzing Matilda” and “Down Under”.  [description blatantly stolen from Wiki.]

It was funny, clever, erudite in its own way, but perhaps maybe a bit too much, cramming too many themes into one story.  Rincewind on FourEcks and the Wizards and their time travel paradoxes in paradise are really two fully different stories, and it is only with a lot of wrenching and torquing are they brought together.

But it is still a hoot.  On to the final book in the series.  No worries, mate.

THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Shadow of the windCarlos Ruiz Zafón is a contemporary Spanish writer who, before this book, had written several acclaimed young adult novels.  The Shadow of the Wind was his first adult novel.  It was translated, (as were his other works) by Lucia Graves, who is the daughter of the poet Robert Graves.  Small literary world, right? His books have been published in 45 countries and have been translated into more than 40 different languages.  Zafón is the most widely published contemporary Spanish writer today.

And I never heard of him.

Isn’t that embarrassing when an internationally published writer has never made it onto your radar?  I make excuses like, “Well, you can’t know EVERY author, yada yada yada.”, but sheesh, the man has won awards, for Pedro’s sake.

We first meet our narrator, ten-year-old Daniel Sempere, in post-civil war Barcelona, when his father, proprietor of a small used book store, takes him to a secret place called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  It is a depository of maybe thousands of books which are no longer in print, and their authors forgotten.  He is told he may take one book, any one he chooses.  Young Daniel selects a book called The Shadow of the Wind, which he later finds is the last extant copy of any of the works of that author.  Daniel stays up all night reading it, and it goes to his heart.  He then vows to find out all he can about the author, one Julián Carax, and to obtain more of the author’s books.

Thus begins what can only be described as a literary soap opera as we meet a homeless man who comes to work for the Semperes, a violent, evil cop, Fumero, who is after the homeless guy, a rich bookseller friend who desperately wants to buy the book from Daniel, wealthy industrialists, family of school boy friends, friends with secrets, and so,  little by little, we learn the life of Carax.  It is a matryoshka doll of a book, with story within story, and secrets within secrets.   No wonder it won awards.

And, as I have found with all Hispanic writings I have read, it has a touch of the surreal to it, not a lot, but just that soupçon of the unreal, to give it flavor.

I, who am so parochial and who knows almost nothing of Spain and its history, other than Queen Isabella and Columbus, (which I think is apocryphal anyway), was intrigued by the glimpses of life during and after “the War”, by which was meant the Spanish Civil War, widely known in Spain simply as the Civil War or The War.   This was a civil war fought from 1936 to 1939 between the Republicans, who were loyal to the democratic Spanish Republic, and the Nationalists, a rebel group led by General Francisco Franco.  It was brutal, and there were atrocities on both sides.  One of the prominent characters in the book, the Evil Fumero, an odd schoolboy friend of Julián Carax who grows up to be a corrupt and murderous police inspector  who changed allegiances as the situations dictated. If you so choose, you can see the principle actors as representational of the politics of Spain, with Fumero representing the vicious Nationalists of Franco, Daniel and his father as symbols of the beset average populace, at the mercy of the rampaging civil war factions, and the wealthy persons as those who benefit no matter who wins.  You will probably see more, these are just ideas which occurred to me after I read the book  and then did a little studying up on the Spanish Civil War.

As the story moved into later times, we had a look at life after The War, this time meaning WWII.

It is above all a love story and a mystery.  And I loved it.

Foreshadowing the conflict: Salvador Dalí's Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936)

Foreshadowing the conflict: Salvador Dalí’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936)

 

 

Descriptions – Essential or Padding?

keep-calm-and-love-descriptive-writing“It was a dark and stormy night”.   Probably the most famous piece of descriptive writing in the English language.  But it wasn’t that particular sentence that got me thinking about all that description in books.  Oooh, nooo, my thought processes are much more convoluted than that.

I have always been a dedicated description reader, from a very early age.  I know a lot of people just skip right over the parts about the daisy-filled meadows and the storm cloud-filled skies, and the aromas and odor wafting around.  They just want to get to the story part.   Or get on with the story part.

But I always felt that the descriptions in books — of a landscape, or the weather, or a room, or a street, was there for a purpose.  The author put it there to give us more ‘world’ in the fictional world we were reading about, and that we would be the lesser for having bypassed it in order to get to the battle scene or the smoochie stuff.

I gotta tell ya, nobody does long descriptions better than Kim Stanley Robinson.   I first came across his work when I read the Mars Trilogy.  The story was great, but it was the minute, detailed descriptions of the Mars landscape that kept my nose in that series until the very end.  But I think many people found his long descriptive passages tedious.   That is when I began to seriously consider description and whether it served a purpose other than padding to make the book seem longer.

I have since become a connoisseur of the compelling, well-done description.  I confess to going back to reread passages that I particularly enjoyed, in order to ask myself just what was it about that particular description that caught my fancy.  Was it because it evoked an emotion?  Or was humorous?  Or because it so nailed the place that it would seem there was no better way at all to describe it.

I think writers of an earlier age were better description writers.  Maybe because life was slower then, and more thought was given to it.  Or maybe I am wrong.  Maybe those early descriptive passages were simply more flowery,  more elaborate.  Certainly today’s offerings often contain some wonderful descriptions.   Even in genre fiction, where you might expect a cut rate approach to narrative in order to get to that the story in a cleaner, sharper way, have some wonderful flights.  But sometimes, it is the minutiae that hauls us kicking and screaming into the bowels of a story.  Sometimes we need to know the wallpaper was faded, or the carpet was worn in a path to the kitchen, or the cicadas singing in an August morning portended a hot day.  Sometimes we need to know what the world felt like just then.

I still remember a phrase from a book I read over fifty years ago:  …”the pale November sunlight…”    I was young and not so attuned to the world back then.  I said to myself, how can sunlight be pale.  It either is, or it isn’t.  But as life jostled along and I accumulated a bunch of years, and began being more aware of my surroundings, I came to recognize that particular kind of sunlight, that pale November sunlight.  If it weren’t for that descriptive phrase in that book, I might never have taken notice of the differences in sunlight quality.

It was a dark and stormy night, and it was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.*   Stop skipping over the descriptions.  They have something to tell you.

 

* Bonus points for knowing who wrote the two halves of this sentence  — WITHOUT googling.