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Chip’s book reviews

“The Brain Twister” is a thoroughly enjoyable sci-fi / mystery story.

There’s a telepathic spy at work, but this is really just a MacGuffin that works to send the hero, Malone, chasing across the country and hanging out with the certifiably insane. So the resolution of the telepathic spy thing is a non-climactic climax. But what with Malone, Queen Elizabeth, the delectably pneumatic Miss Thompson, a gun battle, and some high-stakes poker, well… there’s some good readin’ here, friend.

The whole thing is tongue in cheek, and the authors play with genre elements typical to classic sci-fi and to mysteries. The language is probably the most obvious of these. The prose is “The Brain Twister” is so hard-boiled you could chop it up, add mayo, and use it to make a sandwich. You’ve got manly-men and girlly-girl(s) and love and violence and everything you want from the best of pulp SF. It’s all there and it all works well. Just don’t look for any meaning beyond the surface: this novella is meant to be enjoyable, and it is just that, nothing more.
“Robinson Crusoe” has been called by some the earliest English novel per se. Somehow in the course of the centuries it has become the stuff of children’s stories and movie adaptations (generally bad, although it has inspired some good ones, like “Castaway”).

All this obscures the fact that “RC” is in and of itself a really excellent book. It is no coincidence that one of (if not the) greatest current writer of English, JM Coetzee, wrote “Foe,” putting himself into the mind of Defoe. For this earliest of novels is still one of the best.

The plot of “RC” is simple and its broad outlines are known by all: Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked on an island; much adventure ensues.

Robinson struggles with his environment and himself, and comes out a better man. This is, I think, generally recognized. There are goats there on the island, and he eats them. Everyone knows that properly prepared goat is tasty, so again: no news flash.

What gets less attention is the dark paranoia that drives much of the action of the book. Robinson spends much of his time imagining and preparing for violent eventualities that in the end he encounters only because he brought them on himself.

The other thing that struck me as I read this book for what must have been the fifth time is how profoundly religious it is. Not just because Robinson talks about God all the time. That is believable (after all, Evelyn Waugh in his travel book “Ninety-Two Days” wrote about tendency of men who live alone to obsess on theological topics), but just the first step.

What “RC” gives us is a profoundly Protestant view of salvation: A man—a sinner, and a willful one at that—is left alone with the Bible, discovers within himself the forgotten seeds of Protestant (Defoe is explicit about that) Christianity, reconciles himself with God, and proceeds to convert the unbeliever. Whatever one thinks of this as an ideology, I think Defoe’s incorporation of it into his story was brilliant. The whole thing is a Protestant morality tale, and is probably the only such tale I've encountered that possesses literary value.

Come to think of it, maybe the two elements—paranoia and religion—are actually linked: Schreber’s depiction of his schizophrenia in “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness,” too, reflects perhaps not dissimilar obsessions (though rather differently formulated, of course).

Anyway. “RC” being a work of its time, one must also note the absence of women characters, except for Robinson’s mother, and of course the pervasive sense of racial superiority that characterizes all depictions of non-Europeans. And also, I think, as a result of its age, the language of the book is sometimes not euphonous to the modern ear; the syntax sometimes rather more tortured than clear.

But the book remains a resounding success, and is well worth reading.
As the notes above mention, Maugham derived much of "The Moon and Sixpence" from the life of Paul Gauguin. And although Charles Strickland (Gauguin's proxy in the novel) is at the center, he is in fact not the main character. Let me explain.

First, Maugham formed his novel around several different characters. None of these are Strickland himself.

First is Strickland's wife -- and indeed when the narrator first meets her, Strickland himself is a non-entity. And when he throws it all away to become a painter, it is a total surprise (or would be, if one didn't know what was coming from elsewhere). Later the novel shifts to follow Dirk Stroeve, friend of the narrator and acquaintance of Strickland. Finally Maugham turns to the narrator's discussions with people who knew Strickland after he had gone to the South Seas.

So Strickland's presence is actually quite minimal. But in the end I think that is not surprising. Because he is not the real main character.

The real main character is art. That is where the action is, and that is -- I think -- why Maugham wrote "about" Strickland/Gauguin, made the painter a thoroughly unpleasant character, and then made him a creator of wonderful beauty.

The point is, in the end, how art and beauty supersede the individual, and come to mean something completely beyond him or her. This may sound like wannabe nonsense. But Maugham develops and explores the theme without a hint of pretense or condescension.

Since this is Maugham, it goes almost without saying that the writing is excellent, and the characters themselves memorable and well-drawn.

Totally recommended. Even -- maybe especially -- for people skeptical about modern art.
"The River of Darkness" is a highly readable adventure story. In terms of novelist skill, it is well done.

Its content is far from original. Graydon cribs from Burton's _First Footsteps in East Africa_ (itself well worth reading) as well as Haggard's novels -- and indeed he acknowledges his debt to both these writers by mentioning their names in his book.

It is filled with scientific implausibilities -- like the cave-dwelling, man-eating snakes that try to devour the narrator.

But being derivative and re-using material found elsewhere is a classic part of the adventure novelist's trade, so there's no foul there.

If you're looking for great literature, look elsewhere. But if you want a bit of straightforward entertainment, you may well find it here.
"Little Brother" is well-written sci-fi of a caliber one usually doesn't find for free. Sci-fi as a genre tends to be derivative, and "LB" is no exception (influences of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, et al. are evident). But Doctorow keeps his story flowing, his plot believable and his characters more or less realistic. "LB" is a great read and if you like sci-fi, I think you'll like this.

"LB" is, as the other reviews indicate, a strongly political work, criticizing recent moves toward government intrusion in areas most people would consider private. That is great. And I was impressed that Doctorow managed to both accurately criticize American policy and yet avoid tarring an entire country as backward troglodytes (something that happens all too often).

But as I was reading this book, I kept thinking of Herman Melville. Melville wrote, of course, what is almost surely the best American novel, and perhaps even the best novel in English: "Moby Dick." Before writing "MB," Melville wrote a number of good novels, including "Typee" and "Omoo" (which are worth reading still, btw).

But Melville also wrote "White Jacket," which was his attempt at social commentary. "White Jacket" is a novel arguing against flogging as a naval punishment. It is also amazingly dull (to me, anyway).

I don't think any sci-fi novel will be challenging "Moby Dick" for its place at the top of the novel rankings. But just as trying to argue for social change made Melville write a novel inferior to his other work. And I think the same goes here.

I am of course far from the first to argue in this vein at the general level. But I felt that Doctorow's choice to try and engage present-day issues diminished my enjoyment of the novel. For example, much of the technology he talks about either already exists (RFID, Onion routing, etc.) or could easily. And most of the security issues Doctorow treats are far from new.

Thus, as I was reading the novel, I kept wondering: Why is he treating this like it's some sort of bleeding edge stuff? Does anybody even semi-savvy not know about these issues?

Now I know that Doctorow may be trying to spread knowledge, and that is great, but when a work of art is used as a vehicle for political statement, usually it suffers as a work of art. And I think that is the case here.

But it's still a good read and highly recommended for sci-fi fans.

John T. McCutcheon’s In Africa is an enjoyable account of the author’s safari trip to Kenya, then British East Africa. The tale begins in London and covers McCutcheon’s pretravel outfitting as well as the journey by sea to the starting-point of the safari in Nairobi. It goes on to the main part, which consists of safari travel and killing as many lions as possible and other animals as deemed necessary.

What makes this book a good read is the author’s light and often humorous writing. According to a note, it was written for a newspaper, and its style reflects this.

McCutcheon notes and laughs about the absurdities of safari travel, including everything from the quirks of his companions to the absurdity of the giant entourage a hunting trip entailed. He even acknowledges in passing many of the things that bother the conscience of a modern reader of such literature, like the waste involved with trophy hunting, showing that these were not unknown at the time (just ignored).

In many ways McCutcheon is the anti-Hemingway, though he of course preceded the great novelist. For Hemingway hunting was a test of manhood and courage, and he embues the events of his safari writing (like his other works) with dark, metaphorical meaning. Patterson gives another view again, refusing to admit any secondary significance to his actions, filling his tales instead with a colonial certainty about the rightness of his every deed -- be it killing man eating lions or building a bridge.

And McCutcheon refuses to take himself or the safari seriously. He jokes about courage and cowardice, laughs about danger and difficulty and his own desire to avoid them, and makes light of his own alleged purposelessness in taking part. Such an attitude combined with blood sport and colonialism jarred me more than once. And of course In Africa is ultimately not nearly so important or weighty as work like Hemingway’s.

But I liked the McCutcheon’s frankness and lack of pretense, and his story includes details of the hunting life that I had not found in other writing. His prose is delightful, too, being possessed of that seemingly effortless grace that characterizes good writing from the time. We are -- most of us -- hopefully -- now to a point where observing and photographing African wildlife, not killing them, is the purpose of a safari. But reading about the past can still be enlightening and enjoyable, and for that I can recommend In Africa.
At the outset I must say that I highly recommend "Of Human Bondage." It is a solid and serious yet enjoyable work, written in a crisp and clean style, and well worth reading. Its characters are realistic and very human, both in their strengths and their failings.

Its situations are very hard-edged -- Maugham shows us what social problems look like, and pulls no punches while doing so. Prostitutes here don't sell sex by choice, but because they have no choice. And they don't end up nicely turning into housewives, but instead infected with syphilis, their children dead, on a downward spiral into destruction.

"Of Human Bondage" is also probably the best picture of poverty I've seen since (in terms of my reading) Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London," and is all the better for being more serious on the one hand, and broader on the other, for it concerns itself not with those who are poor by choice (like Orwell was), but whole families and classes of people who are poor for reasons beyond their control.

Jeff Bristol has written a long review of this book, and in addition to giving a general introduction makes a number of good points. I am going to concentrate in the following on some ways my take differs from his (though with all due respect for his fine review).

The first of these would concern the end of the book, namely, Philip's marriage to Sally, the daughter of his friend. And although I agree there is a degree of compromise there, in that Philip gives up on his dreams, I think that this actually relates the strongest aspect of Philip's internal growth, namely, the ability to finally look beyond his imaginings and desires, and instead being "where he was": this was a move away from dream and toward maturity and reality.

It was a hard-won development, and it is not only sexual politics but also personal growth that leads Philip to acknowledge the problems with his lust for Mildred, and to contrast those feelings with that something quieter but deeper he feels for Sally. The fact that Sally was _not_ pregnant when Philip asked her to marry him underscores that this was a free choice on Philip's (and her) part, not because of external factors.

I think also we can connect this to Philip's changing attitudes toward his job. Philip dreams of sailing away to distant lands, to visiting a world he knew from picture-books as a child. This world of pictures is clearly an analogue of his dreams of becoming a painter (an avocation he lacks the talent for). Leaving the world of pictures behind represents leaving his childhood and becoming an adult.

Instead of this dream, he chooses a comfortable but hardly luxurious life as a physician in a small community, working with a difficult partner. This may be compromising youthful dreams for adult reality, but that is a compromise many people make.

Finally I would argue that although it is true that Mildred's character is manipulative and destructive in the end, she does not start out that way. Indeed she starts out being diffident, and clearly showing her lack of interest in Philip, who himself seeks to manipulate her through gifts and demands. It is only after she is deceived by another man and left alone with a child -- a position of extreme shame and impoverishment -- that she turns into the grasping woman she ends up as. Indeed, the her character is more a portrayal of how poverty changes a person than it is of how a society viewed women. And that, I think, is why Philip ends up feeling simply sorry for her, and trying to help her.
"The Coral Island" is a readable adventure story of the sort Ballantyne wrote so well.

The core idea itself is, of course, hardly new. Being stranded on a desert island has been a part of English novels since the first "novel" (per se) in English: "Robinson Crusoe," a story that (on the surface, anyway) is about one main fighting his environment.

In "The Coral Island," there are three friends involved. They have minimal trouble with their environment, and the climactic aspects of the book come through their interactions with native peoples.

This book was written for youth. Nowadays youth literature too often means an impoverished vocabulary and structure -- a lack of intellectual content. Back in the day, it could just mean plots, themes, and characters that were simpler and/or naive. But they were treated in language not all that far removed from that of ordinary literature (see e.g. F.H. Burnett's beautiful novels), and the ideas driving them were not so different from what drove adult lit.

"The Coral Island" is in line with this trend. The plot is simple as can be, and highly marked by the imperialist ideology of its age. The characters are quite simple, and give the impression of having been picked out of a box of cardboard cutouts.

But it's an entertaining and pleasurable read. I think anyone who enjoys old-fashioned adventure literature will find it worthwhile (though with the usual caveats of the genre).
Ballantyne was a master novelist and an expert at writing page-turners. "The Gorilla Hunters" is no exception, and it flows along at a pace that would make Wilbur Smith proud.

The idea of hunting gorillas seems a bit strange today, but Ballantyne acknowledges within the scope of the story the incongruity of killing in order to study nature. So although this realization doesn't seem to really affect the outcome in the story, it shows some sophistication, I think.

But despite this book's good points, I found the racist character of much of the depiction of local people in Africa to be troubling and distracting.

Of course anyone who reads 19th century or early 20th century English adventure literature has encountered these things before, and (hopefully) learned to acknowledge such things for what they are, and to read around them as much as possible.

Some books are good despite serious flaws like racism, which reflect the mentality of their time. Thus, even Edward Said could acknowledge the excellence of Kipling's "Kim" from an "aesthetic" viewpoint, even though it is shot through with racism and imperialism.

But sometimes those depictions form such an integral part of the book that they leave little unspoiled. Unfortunately I think that's the case for "The Gorilla Hunters."
"In the Heart of Africa" is a quite readable -- sometimes even exciting -- example of what I think of as the "White Men Exploring" (WME) genre. The tale concerns Baker's wanderings through Africa tracing the Nile. Simple as that.

And to most people living in the age of Google Earth, exploration as a purely geographical quest may well have minimal intrinsic interest. I know that I didn't and still don't care about tracing the exact path of the Nile.

But "In the Heart of Africa" also relates Baker's adventures while traveling, the people he met and animals he hunted. There are some great passages describing this or that group's particular manner of living. He has some particularly detailed descriptions of hairstyle, which I found interesting. And the stories about men who took elephant with swords, or tracked lions through dense brush, etc., are very well done.

Like all examples of the WME genre, Baker's book frequently creates very mixed emotions. One cannot but envy him for meeting the variety of people he did, for coming into contact with such a great diversity of culture and custom, as well as an astounding quantity and variety of wildlife.

But -- of course -- Baker's encounter with local people is colored by an ingrained sense of racial superiority, making it sometimes a bit depressing. The hunting stories, too, seem also sad. In a day when we take it for granted that too few elephants are left, it sticks in the craw to read about Baker killing as many as possible of them -- and indeed many other animals -- with a wide array of guns brought for that purpose.

But these are all par for the WME course. And if you enjoy tales of hard travel through distant lands, you may well enjoy "In the Heart of Africa."