Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dorothy Sayers: Have His Carcase

Welcome to part two of four in my Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane series. When we last left the most attractive man in fiction, he had just saved the woman he loved from the gallows, but got no closer to winning her affections. After writing a few other Lord Peter books which did not feature Harriet, author Dorothy Sayers picks up her story again with the novel Have His Carcase (That last word is the British spelling of the word "carcass").

Two years after she was exonerated of the charge of murder, Harriet Vane is still trying to create a normal life for herself. The publicity from her murder trial has made her book sales skyrocket, but her personal life remains unsettled. Lord Peter Wimsey continues his attentions to her, but Harriet still cannot decide what to do about him. She will not accept his proposals, but at the same time she does not have the willpower to send him away altogether.

In order to dodge her noble suitor, Harriet decides to go on a walking tour of England. This goes well until  one day she comes across a body with its throat cut lying on a remote beach. Since the tide is coming in quickly, and Harriet knows it will probably be impossible to get the police to the scene before it gets covered in water, she takes pictures of grisly deed, then runs for help.

To all the world this death looks like a suicide--why else would a man with a full beard be in possession of a razor with which to cut his throat? And there is no discernible evidence of another person having been at the crime scene. In Harriet's mind, however, there are enough incongruous elements to make her suspect murder. Being a shrewd businesswoman and generally wary of the press, she calls in the media in order both to garner publicity for her upcoming mystery novel and to deflect suspicion away from herself, since her character has already been darkened.

Unfortunately--in her view, anyway--all that press immediately attracts the attention of Lord Peter Wimsey, who could no more resist an opportunity to solve a murder and court his great flame than a cat could resist a ball of catnip. With the impetuous Lord Peter proposing to her every five minutes, Harriet nevertheless set out with him to solve a case that only seems to get more baffling the further she and Peter go.

The murder victim turns out to be a Russian dancer named Paul Alexis who worked at a local resort. Far from having any reason to want to kill himself, however, Paul Alexis had been about to marry a rich widow and enjoy the life of ease and luxury that he'd always wanted. Of course the fact that he was about to come into a large some of money means that there should be a motive for murder. When the widow's son shows up the next day with very unkind things to say about Paul Alexis, Peter and Harriet get an inkling that this man would be the likeliest candidate for their murderer. The only problem is that the son has an airtight alibi for the time of the murder. In addition Harriet ran into a few other suspicious characters on the road to the beach immediately after the murder, none of which have been traced yet. So Lord Peter and Harriet have their work cut out for them in solving this caper.

In the meantime the two of them indulge in some wonderful flirtation and witty banter, which only gets interrupted at one point when Lord Peter reminds Harriet to be careful what she says because even though her heart isn't involved, his is, and she thus has the capacity to hurt him much more deeply than he could ever hurt her. In Have His Carcase we get a glimpse of both what a good team Lord Peter and Harriet of them make at crime-solving, and of how much fun they can have together when Harriet lets her guard down. By the end of the book, however, it becomes clear that Harriet still has a lot of issues to work out and is not comfortable with the idea of a romantic relationship.

I must now admit that this is my least favorite of the four books in this series because it lacks the depth that the others have and instead tries to concentrate more on the murder itself. This is not to say that the murder in itself isn't any good. On the contrary, it's quite ingenious and baffling, and it only loses my interest at the part where Lord Peter and Harriet try to solve a cipher, a passage which is both overly long and impossible to follow. So the murder does well, and the banter between Lord Peter and Harriet is delightful, but I still cannot excuse the absence of the introspection that elevates the other books beyond the pack of common murder mysteries. Fortunately the next book in the series more than makes up for this one's weakness.

Still, however, this book is delightful and well worth reading. A good entry to the Wimsey/Vane series, even if it's not as strong as the others.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Robert Ludlum: The Bourne Identity

"The Bourne Identity" was published in 1980, and soon secured a reputation as one of the best action-adventure novels ever published. It was adapted to film in short order: a television miniseries by 1988, and a silver-screen blockbuster by 2002 (which is how I first learned of it).  Its sequels also received Hollywood treatment, with "The Bourne Supremacy" released in 2004, and "The Bourne Ultimatum" in 2007. In 2006, it was rated by Publisher's Weekly as the second best spy thriller novel of all time, behind only the blockbuster "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold." This novel also marked a first for me, since it was my first attempt to go through a full novel in an audio-book format.

First things first: this novel bears little resemblance to the films. Besides the premise -- Jason Bourne is a former assassin and retrograde amnesiac who's trying to recover his memories -- there is little resemblance between the narratives.  Some of the names remain (Bourne, Marie St. Jacques, Alexander Conklin, etc.) but their personalities have been scrubbed: Marie St. Jacques is no longer a professional economist from Canada, but seems to be instead a wandering French bohemian without roots or family. I suppose economists just aren't sexy enough for the big screen. Moreover, many characters don't even appear in the film, most notably the primary antagonist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (alias Carlos "the Jackal," who was apparently a terrorist in real life).

The first thing I noticed about this novel, perhaps because it was being read aloud, was the quality of the descriptions given.  Ludlum is truly gifted at depicting atmosphere, the settings of his plot. Throughout the book I felt as though I were participating in an authentic French (or Swiss) cultural experience. The back-story is likewise detailed and rich, ranging from covert missions in Vietnam to assassination rings in France to intelligence agencies in America. Ludlum maintains a fairly intense momentum throughout the narrative, especially in Bourne's movement from almost total ignorance to a fair degree of self-knowledge.

However, it is precisely in this movement of the narrative that the novel develops problems.  First, I felt that too much time and effort were spent on Bourne's ignorance and confusion.  While it was a useful vehicle for presenting new information and filling in the back-story, the plot device grew old. After a certain point I just stopped counting how many times the novel resorted to Bourne saying or thinking "I recall something, it strikes me as familiar, but I don't remember; please explain what it is." Phrases and images, from an unremembered past or from his months recovering with the alocholic Dr. Washburn, were repeated almost ad nauseum. Many fragments of memory were given without letting the audience know their significance, which I suppose would be useful for priming a shocking revelation towards the end, but the references continued even after their meaning was revealed.

I was also bothered by the novel's tendency to erect and dismantle the obligatory rabbit-holes at an alarming rate. It's not possible to move from amnesia to complete self-knowledge without at least a few false starts in between, and these could have been quite useful for setting up twists and unexpected reveals along the way. But most of these red herrings were essentially non-starters, quickly dismissed as new facts become available or (worse) already known by the reader to be fallacious due to previously disclosed information. Using false starts for twists and third-act reveals would require that they be preserved for some length of time, but the author did not seem to be patient enough to let these misconceptions play out.

The greatest failing of the novel, however, is in the ending. Despite excellent pacing throughout, the story falters pretty pathetically towards the end of the novel, and the tone borders on incoherence. After setting up all of the innumerable difficulties lying between Bourne and his safe return to America or to his former life, the author seems content to sweep all of those previous difficulties aside with a wave of his hand. Thus, 'shoot-on-sight' protocol notwithstanding, the untrained Marie St. Jacques is able to contact the Canadian embassy without difficulty, find a receptive audience, tell her story, return home, and move the entire American bureaucratic apparatus to save her One True Love before his untimely demise later that afternoon!

Likewise, Alexander Conklin, Bourne's nemesis within the American intelligence community, who had heard the amnesia story from Bourne personally, and tried to kill him on the same occasion, is at the last minute and on very unconvincing grounds brought to realize his mistake. What's worse, his transformation is so complete that he ends up acting as an almost paternal figure, and lets Carlos the assassin escape from the trap Bourne had set up in order to save Bourne's life. This was not only contrary to the nature of the character (Conklin was the hard-nose C.I.A. man who had been using Bourne as the bait to catch Carlos, after all) but also the conventions and expectations of the plot. After all was said and done, how is it that the villain Carlos remains at large, with the merest glimpse of his face being our big payoff? Carlos isn't even the subject of the sequel; his storyline is concluded two novels later in "The Bourne Ultimatum." So, to sum up this ending: obstacles are summarily swept aside without explanation, largely helpless characters suddenly develop the ability to work miracles, sworn enemies are reconciled at a glance, and the villain gets away. What's up with this?

The horrid ending notwithstanding, "The Bourne Identity" is still a worthwhile read, and was at times even tremendously enjoyable. The momentum is excellent, the plot is involving, and the imagery is to die for, sometimes literally. I think it's possible to appreciate the many layers of complexity and difficulty the author set up, even while recognizing his inability to satisfactorily resolve them in the end. If you're looking for resolution, though, you'll have better luck with the movies.

To purchase, check out
The Bourne Identity: A Novel

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Orson Scott Card: Ender in Exile

Ender’s Game is widely regarded as a classic in the genre of science fiction, perhaps even the classic. But the full story does not end with Ender on the colony ship to former formic lands. Since the original publication, Orson Scott Card has expanded the universe of Ender’s Game in multiple directions: exploring the rise and regime of the Hegemon, the political and military movements on Earth by former members of Ender’s jeesh (Card’s term for ‘squad' or ‘cadre’) and the voyages of Ender himself far into the future.  I’d read a few of the Earth-based sequel novels, and lost interest after that, but I was curious to read about Ender’s travails after the book. So, mostly on a whim, I picked up Ender in Exile.

The book takes place almost entirely between chapters 15 and 16 of the original Ender’s Game. It serves as an expansion of the original, a sequel to the Earth-based novels, and a prequel to the Ender-based sequels, which puts it in a somewhat awkward spot from the beginning. Furthermore, this is one of the later novels he wrote for the Ender’s Game universe, which meant that a good deal of effort was spent reconciling the various accounts from all of the books, especially the sometimes “careless and cavalier” inconsistencies (his words) from the earlier novels . Yet despite the difficulties, the book succeeds in its own right.

The book itself is a compilation and extension of a number of short stories Card has written over the years, which lends a certain episodic nature to the narrative. The main storyline concerns Ender’s recovery from the trauma depicted in Ender’s Game, and thus doesn’t really determine external events. The book opens in the immediate aftermath of Ender’s victory over the formic, with his parents, his siblings, and various world powers trying to figure out how to respond, how to turn Ender’s victory to their own advantage, and how to deal with this military genius when or if he returned to Earth. Ultimately, Ender decides to take himself out of the global political power-struggle, by traveling with the first colony ship to a former formic world. This is the next episode in the plot: how Ender deals with a power-hungry admiral of the colony ship who commands the only military regiment and might be tempted to seize power on their arrival.

A bit of time is also spent focused on Ender’s friendship and quasi-romance with Alessandra Toscano, a young woman who is pressured by her mother (the admiral’s wife) into seducing Ender to hopefully remove him from the power dynamic. It’s your fairly typical “boy meets girl, boy wants girl, girl offers herself to boy, boy analyzes the situation, boy leads girl to self-actualization” story. Thinking about it now, it kind of reminds me of that delightful scene in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, where a sleazy creature approaches Obi-Wan at a bar and offers to sell him “death-sticks.” Obi-Wan responds with a mind trick: “You don’t want to sell me death-sticks.” The creature is suddenly struck by a thought: “I don’t want to sell you death-sticks.” “You want to go home and rethink your life.” Ditto. George Lucas’ dialogue is often excruciatingly bad, but that scene is truly wonderful.

The next episode in the plot is oriented around Ender’s time on the Shakespeare Colony, particularly his discovery of the Giant’s Head (from the original Ender’s Game) and of a larval formic queen, for whose preservation Ender dedicates his life. He goes on a voyage, relying on the relativistic nature of time to bypass several generations until humanity has forgotten its loathing for the formics and might be more welcoming to these creatures. Along the way, he stops at the Ganges colony, where he meets Randall Firth, the ostensible son of evil genius extraordinaire Achilles but in reality the youngest child of Bean and Petra, two of Ender’s closest friends from Battle School. The confrontation between Ender and Randall provides and emotional center-point for the novel, though I personally found it less compelling than other episodes depicted.

This novel is defined by a conceit, or rather a whole string of them. Each chapter begins with a letter written by one of the characters (that is, in first person). The chapters themselves are written from the perspectives of a character (in third person), though the person at the focal point differs from section to section. While we may relate to Ender, to an almost unique degree we are not bound by the main character’s perspective. The thought strikes me that perhaps Card set himself up for the fall. People don’t explain things to Ender: he’s often kept out of the loop, and is clever enough to find things out on his own besides. Without that easy narrative fallback, Card had to find a way to convey the relevant information to readers, preferably without relying on a third-person omniscient voice. If you don’t know what that means, watch the movie Stranger Than Fiction.

Furthermore, since we’re dealing in space travel at light-speed, time itself is relative, and Card must deal with multiple (and constantly shifting) timelines. Generations live and die in the few years spent on the colony ship; Ender is sent to Ganges to deal with the problem of Randall Firth when Randall was still barely an infant; Ender’s brother Peter, only a few years older than he, is dying when a still-adolescent Ender leaves Shakespeare. In sum, Card is dealing with four separate “worlds” – Earth, the colony-ship, Shakespeare, and Ganges – running on multiple timelines, and that’s not even to mention some of the lesser conceits invented to keep characters alive, such as Graff’s ingenious scheme to only “live” two months every year and spend the rest in space, resting in an ageless stasis.

In short, this is an exceptionally impressive effort, demonstrating invention of a less whimsical but more methodical mind. This is not Scott Pilgrim; this is the Lord of the Rings. A world is invented, populated, and developed along clear and logical lines. Characters are drawn and given voices, their own voices, not mimicries of character but personalities of their own. It is also an immensely rewarding effort, as we are given the chance to see the events of the novel through multiple perspectives. We are allowed to truly empathize with each person we come across. Like Ender himself writing as the Speaker for the Dead, we are given a uniquely penetrating glimpse into the inner-workings of almost everyone we meet. We get to see them as we presume Ender sees them: stripped of their duplicity, with all their secrets on parade.

To purchase this book, check out
Ender in Exile

For other reviews of the Ender's Saga and Shadow series, check out these links:

Ender's Game (13 Aug. 2010)
Ender in Exile (23 Sept. 2010)
Speaker for the Dead (8 Apr. 2011)
Xenocide (9 Apr. 2011)
Children of the Mind (11 Apr. 2011)
Ender's Shadow (15 Apr. 2011)
Shadow of the Hegemon (19 Apr. 2011)
Shadow Puppets (25 Apr. 2011)
Shadow of the Giant (29 Apr. 2011)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Dorothy Sayers: Strong Poison

**This guest post was contributed by The Supreme Arbitress of Taste, who reviews films of Golden Age Hollywood and movie adaptations of classical literature at her blog, Seeing Sepia.**

Welcome to the first of a 4-part series on the Lord Peter and Harriet Vane Mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers!  Those of you familiar with my article My Top 10 Fictional Boyfriends of Page and Screen know that Lord Peter Wimsey was my unequivocal choice for the most attractive fictional man of all time. Apparently my description piqued Publius' (Perhaps I should say Publii if I want to decline the Latin noun correctly) curiosity to the point that he asked me to review some Lord Peter books for the sake of public edification. Of course I was only too happy to oblige him, but before I get on to the book review, I would like to say a few words about Dorothy L. Sayers.

Sayers was one of the first women to be awarded a degree from Oxford University, and before she became famous as a mystery writer, she developed a reputation as a Christian theologian. She was also the only female member of the Inklings group that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. During the 1920s she took her first foray into fiction when she published Whose Body? a murder mystery starring the socialite sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, younger son of the 15th Duke of Denver. Needless to say, the book was popular enough to launch a whole series of Lord Peter novels and short stories over the next twenty years, making Sayers second only to Agatha Christie in popularity for British detective fiction. Perhaps the reason that Sayers was so successful was that she didn't try to copy Christie's style of labyrinthine plots and mile-long lists of suspects. Instead Sayers relied on compelling and realistic characters, an area in which Christie with all her brilliance could not come close to equaling Sayers. 

Like most successful detective novelist, Sayers had a plan to "kill off" her famous detective, not by poison or a bullet, but rather by having him marry, settle down, and live happily ever after. Thus in 1930 she introduced us to Lord Peter's future bride Harriet Vane in the book Strong PoisonHarriet was a thinly veiled portrait of Sayers herself: an Oxford grad and mystery writer who was haunted by an ill-advised love affair, and because of this Sayers injects a depth of feeling and insight into that character that exceeds her already-high standards.

In what I think is one of the best opening in detective fiction, Sayers sets the scene for the murder trial of Harriet Vane:

"There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.
"The judge was an old man, so old that he seemed to have outlived time and change and death."

Miss Vane has been accused of murdering her former lover Phillip Boyes, but the case against her is purely circumstantial. Unfortunately public opinion is almost uniformly prejudiced against her because she is a "loose woman" who had the gall to refuse her lover's offer of marriage. Her reasoning makes more sense, however, when we learn that Boyes had hounded her for over a year about her living with him, claiming that he was against marriage on principle and that co-habitation was the only way they could be together. Then after Harriet had given up all her friends, relatives, and moral scruples for Boyes' sake and had been living with him for quite some time, he had the effrontery to ask her to marry him, at which point she broke off the relationship entirely, saying, "I didn't like having matrimony offered as a bad-conduct prize." I for one entirely agree with Harriet's decision because what Phillip Boyes did to her was manipulative and boarding on the mentally abusive. To hound someone into disgracing themselves like that and then tell them that it was all for nothing is the sign of a sick mind. Unfortunately the only person who seems to agree with that assessment is Lord Peter Wimsey, who has fallen in love with the intelligent and  defendant.

With Harriet's character thus blackened by her past actions, it looks as if she will hang for sure until a lone juror ruins the trial by refusing to go along with the guilty verdict. Lord Peter, therefore, has only one month to exonerate Harriet before the re-trial.

There are many brilliant parts to this novel, but many people have made the case for the first few chapters--the trial scene--being the best. Of course it's rather ingenious to start a mystery story with a summation of the case against the prime suspect, and my lawyer father says that it's the best portrayal of a hostile courtroom he's ever seen in print, even better, he says, than Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution . And this is all contrasted to Lord Peter's comments to his friends during the trial, his firm conviction that Harriet is innocent. Of course I have no wish to deny that the scene is wonderfully written, but I feel that there are some equally good moments later on.

My favorite parts of this book are the encounter with Blindfold Bill, now an Evangelical minister, and Miss Climpson's fake seance. Even though Miss Climpson is extremely moral and honest, she pretends to be a psychic medium in order to obtain a copy of a will that proves someone besides Harriet had a motive for killing Phillip Boyes. What's delightful about this scene is that is conveyed in the form of letters from Miss Climpson to Lord Peter in which her tone is half-child-like giddiness at having an adventure and half-apologetic for the subterfuge to which she must stoop. As for the Blindfold Bill scene, I just appreciate how lovingly Sayers draws a character that in another author's hand would be a  stereotypical religious fanatic and possibly a hypocrite. Instead Bill is extremely likable as he now uses his safe-breaking powers for good and not evil, helping investigators to break into safes in order to retrieve evidence. Of course the whole scene is still hysterically funny because the best lock-picker in Europe is a family man and says "By God's grace," whenever referring to the past events of his life, but it doesn't feel cruel or anti-religious.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the book, however, is the beginning of Lord Peter's courtship with Harriet Vane--if you can call it that at this point since Harriet is completely non-receptive to Peter's advances because of the extreme trauma she's going through. I really appreciate how realistically Sayers portrays a woman who has been badly hurt by men. We see her dejection, her bitterness, her self-loathing, reticence for any further commitment, and none of these things conveniently vanish for the sake of advancing the plot

Of course compounding Harriet's issues is Lord Peter's awkwardness in dealing with her. A sane, normal person would never speak of love to someone who is both emotionally bruised and in dire peril as a result of it. We can assume that Lord Peter knows this, but he gets so flustered when he's around Harriet that he just kind of blurts it out without thinking. Despite his clumsiness, however, I really admire the reasons for which Lord Peter falls in love with Harriet. Lord Peter is looking for a true partner and companion, and he sees qualities in Harriet like deep feeling and and intelligent, analytical mind--to say nothing of her interest in crime--that complement his own. I also appreciate that he doesn't judge her for the mistakes that she made in the past. We all make big mistakes, after all, but most of ours aren't as public as Harriet's. Also, although it's never stated, Harriet holds the additional allure of being a damsel in distress whom Lord Peter can rescue from the gallows, which certainly appeals to his romantic nature. If Lord Peter wants to win his lady fair, however, it's going to be a long journey because by the end of the novel, he has made absolutely no progress in her affections.

So there's a lot of reasons why you should read this book, even if you're not into mysteries generally, because it has so much more to offer than just a baffling case to solve. Obviously that dimension of the story holds up well, but the book has true merit in terms of characters, comedy, and underlying social issues. This--the whole series, in fact--is one of those rare genre novels that transcends the bounds of its categorization and moves into the realm of true literature.

** This was a guest post by the Supreme Arbitress of Taste. The Supreme Arbitress is the second-generation heir to the title, which was first held by her grandmother, a fashionista and interior decorator, and then by her mother, the most cultured woman in the world. The Supreme Arbitress is a San Francisco native with a degree in English from Seattle Pacific University. When she's not composing the next great American novel, she writes articles for her blog Seeing Sepia, which reviews the films of Golden Age Hollywood and film adaptations of classic literature. In her spare time, she enjoys knitting, dancing, and long walks in the country.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Connie Willis: To Say Nothing of the Dog

**This guest post was contributed by The Supreme Arbitress of Taste, whose blog Seeing Sepia is one of my favorite resources for reviews of classic movies from Golden Age Hollywood, as well as reviews of film adaptations for classical literature.  Check out her blog, and enjoy this review.**

Connie Willis has long been acknowledged by literary critics as one of the premier writers in the science fiction genre, but her taste--while excellent and always worth reading--is not mainstream enough to make her a popular favorite. She is not sci-fi enough for typical readers in that audience nor can her books really be classified as regular fiction and thus draw on that considerable demographic for support. Thus despite wining multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, Ms. Willis remains generally unknown even to dedicated bibliophiles who would appreciate her genius the most.

Out of her impressive oeuvre, the three novels that really stand out to me are Doomsday Book (1992)Bellwether (1996), and To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997)the last of these being my personal favorite and the subject of today's review. Any lover of 19th and Early 20th Century fiction will be delighted by the endless stream of thoughtful literary references in this book, and while the novel is mostly a fun romp through the romantic comedy genre, Willis still manages to add depth and urgency to the narrative, elevating it far beyond typical literary homages like Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books. Since this book ranks easily as one of my favorite books of all time and is fairly obscure despite winning Hugo and Locus Awards, I will necessarily be taking a lot of print to describe its considerable merits.

Perhaps one of the best features of the story is the witty, erstwhile narration by the protagonist Ned Henry. Ned is a time-traveler/historian at the Oxford University in the year 2057, when the whole program has been hijacked by their stentorian patron Lady Shrapnel for her project to rebuild Coventry Cathedral. With her mantra that "God is in the details," Lady Shrapnel has every historian in Oxford racing across the centuries checking to make sure every stone in the cathedral is laid exactly as it was before the Nazis destroyed it in the Blitz, but the most important piece of the restoration remains unaccounted for: the Bishop's Bird Stump. While to most people the Bird Stump would appear to be a hideously chintzy piece of Victorian crockery, viewing it changed the life of one of Lady Shrapnel's ancestors, and thus she is determined to have it at costs.

This, however, translates into no rest and little-to-no sleep for Ned as he hunts in vain for the Bishop's Bird Stump with Lady Shrapnel breathing down his neck. The story opens with Ned and his team searching the burned-out ruins of the original cathedral just after it was bombed in 1940. As the chapter progresses, an inappropriately sentimental comment from his partner Carruthers convinces Ned that the man is suffering from time-lag, a condition brought on from making too many trips to the past in a short period of time. The symptoms this malady are maudlin sentimentality, hallucinations, extreme fatigue, and impaired vision and hearing. By the end of the chapter, though, it's clear that Ned is the one suffering from time-lag, and Carruthers hauls him off to the infirmary.

Most of the humor in this style of narration comes in the disconnect between what Ned sees while time-lagged and what is actually happening along with the tangential manner of Ned's thoughts. Ms. Willis thus makes the first quarter of the book laugh-out-loud funny by using the time-lag device to establish the tone during the exposition, but her combination of Murphy's-law-induced irony, moments of biting satire on bureaucratic efficiency and the overabundance of stupid people in the world in addition to madcap situations inspired by Victorian plays like Charley's Aunt and The Importance of Being Ernest sustains the high level of comedic excellence through the rest of the book.

Back in the plot: despite being ill, Ned has no time to get the rest he needs because fellow historian Verity Kindle might have accidentally caused a chain reaction that could destroy the space-time continuum. What horrible crime did she commit? She pulled a drowning cat out of the Thames and brought it back to the 21st century from the Victorian Era. According to their temporal theory, live creatures cannot be brought back from the past because they are significant objects and their absence would rip apart the fabric of the universe. So while the research department tries to figure out what caused this anomaly, Ned and Verity must bring the cat back to the Victorian Era and attempt to return things to normal before everything is irrevocably altered. And in his time-lagged state, Ned thinks Verity the most beautiful women he's ever seen, an effect that remains even when he is in his right mind.

On his way to bring the cat home--a cat which, by the way, in Ned's time-lagged state he doesn't even realize he has--to its owner at Munching's End, Ned finds himself punting down the Thames with an eccentric Oxford don who quotes Latin and is obsessed with fish, a love-struck undergrad named Terrence who incessantly quotes Tennyson and Shakespeare, and Terrance's bulldog Cyril. Thus Ned realizes that he has Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) just like Jerome K. Jerome's comic Victorian memoir/travel book.

As Ned and Verity desperately try to set things right in the Victorian Era, they find themselves in the dilemma of of trying to figure out how to get the right people to the right places at the right time so that their destinies can be fulfilled, which takes a work of detection akin to what Verity recognizes in a mystery plot. Since her area of expertise is the 1930s, moreover, she is extremely knowledgeable about the mystery genre and goes on at length about the novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, wondering what Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey would do in these situations. She also finds herself irresistibly attracted to Ned because his boating costume and mustache remind her of the dashing Lord Peter--for which I can hardly blame the poor girl because Lord Peter, especially when he is courting Harriet Vane, is undoubtedly one of the most delightful characters ever written. Willis actually borrows two famous scenes from Lord Peter mysteries in this book: the seance scene from Strong Poison, and a role-reversal of the scene from Gaudy Night where an exhausted Lord Peter falls asleep in a boat on the Thames while Harriet Vane contemplates his slumbering countenance. Willis also treats us to a delightful scene in 1930s Oxford where two old ladies are gossiping about the plot of of Agatha Christie's famous mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

While this all makes for superb comedy, what elevates the narrative is the contemplation of free will and determinism that occurs as a result of Verity bringing the cat through to the 21st century, which according to temporal theory would be impossible because significant and living objects should not get past the safety parameters on their time machine. The historians and technicians must then ask themselves if one person can really destroy history or if there are forces beyond our contemplation that move things regardless of our consent. This idea is then then echoed in the Victorian Era with the conflict between Professor Peddick and his rival Professor Overforce. Peddick is convinced that history is determined by the actions of great men like Caesar and Napoleon while Overforce is equally sure that history is controlled by social forces beyond any individual's control. But Ned wonders if there can be a Both-And answer to the question (something similar to the chaos theory), and you'll have to read the book yourself to see what he concludes.

I will end by saying that if, after reading this book, you find that you like the concept of the Oxford Time Travel Department, consider reading the other books Willis wrote with them: Doomsday Book in which a historian accidentally gets stuck in the Black Plague, and her newest novel Blackout about the Second World War. Be warned, however: these books are not laugh-out-loud funny the way To Say Nothing of the Dog is because they deal with much more serious subjects, but they are both handled beautifully by Connie Willis, who is equally adept at tragedy and comedy.

** This was a guest post by the Supreme Arbitress of Taste. The Supreme Arbitress is the second-generation heir to the title, which was first held by her grandmother, a fashionista and interior decorator, and then by her mother, the most cultured woman in the world. The Supreme Arbitress is a San Francisco native with a degree in English from Seattle Pacific University. When she's not composing the next great American novel, she writes articles for her blog Seeing Sepia, which reviews the films of Golden Age Hollywood and film adaptations of classic literature. In her spare time, she enjoys knitting, dancing, and long walks.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My 10 Most Desirable Ladies of Page and Screen

**This is an excerpt from a guest post I contributed to the Seeing Sepia blog, maintained by The Supreme Arbitress of Taste.  It serves as a companion piece to the Supreme Arbitress' earlier post, "My Top 10 Fictional Boyfriends of Page and Screen" (available here).**

The greatest challenge about this post was not writing each entry; it was selecting the ten ladies to be memorialized. Those characters who enjoy "happily ever after" endings are often so one-dimensional that it is hard to view them as real or compelling. On the other hand, those who are compelling are so often laden with baggage that life with them would be exceedingly difficult, and not something I would jump into lightly. Each choice thus came down to balancing between these two qualities.

10. Yvaine, Stardust

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, but he does not create many characters with whom I would willingly spend a life. His books seem to contain every emotion but joy, while his characters are more likely to "live in interesting times" than "happily ever after." In Stardust, Yvaine is an evening star, thrown from the heavens by a collision with the royal gemstone. She is an archetypal damsel in distress, but demonstrates her mettle and loyalty to her friends over the course of the novel. Yvaine is played in the film adaptation of Stardust by Claire Danes, one of my favorite actresses, who captures both her independence and affectionate nature. She maintains a constant stream of insults at Tristan Thorn (the poor man), but they only cover for the subtle movements of her perception of him, from disgust to genuine affection. The best insults are always the ones that mask true love.

9. Suzanne, The Marriage of Figaro

The Marriage of Figaro is the second in a trilogy of plays by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a watchmaker-spy-playwright of the court of Louis XV. The play was an instant classic: Napoleon later said that the first public performance of The Marriage of Figaro marked the true beginning of the French Revolution. Suzanne is the beloved bride of Figaro and confidante of her lady the Countess, even while her favors are sought by the unfaithful Count. Figaro may be fleet of foot and word, but Suzanne has captured his heart with a wit and vivacity of her own. She even tricks Figaro in the course of the play -- the only one in the trilogy to trick the charming trickster himself. Suzanne is loyal to her love and to her mistress, and one of the most delightful female characters in French literature.

Check out the Seeing Sepia blog if you'd like to read the rest of this article.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Robert Caro: Means of Ascent

In "The Path to Power," Robert Caro had sketched the essential character of Lyndon Johnson as a man of appetites, dominated by twin desires for money and power and by a consuming impatience to sate them. Yet by 1941, Lyndon Johnson was a stymied man, devastated by his first electoral defeat in the 1941 Senate election. That loss had left him with few allies and fewer prospects. He was the junior member of the Texas delegation to the House of Representatives, and it simply did not satisfy him. Like an Dickensian urchin outside a great estate, Johnson longed to be among a more exclusive society: the United States Senate.

“The Means of Ascent” concentrates on seven relatively uneventful years in the life of Johnson, in which he struggled to maneuver a path to the Senate. Johnson’s first tactic was to make a name for himself in the military. As the United States entered World War II, a number of congressmen volunteered themselves for the military, often out of patriotism and just as often out of ambition. The danger, as Johnson quickly discovered, is that the chain of command was not very friendly to political opportunists. Johnson kept seeking high-profile assignments, and his commanding officers kept burying him far away from the gaze of Washington. Johnson’s extensive connections within the D.C. elite ensured him the honor of a Silver Star (awarded under false pretenses), but not even military honors were enough to save him from the obscurity of service. Moreover, Johnson had relied on his political allies in Texas to put his name on the ballot while he was away, but by the time he returned from the war they were strongly considering dropping him from the ballot entirely. He managed to keep his seat, but realized that he did not have the political stature to stay for long.

The election of 1948 was Johnson’s last hurrah. His 1941 opponent, former Governor “Pappy” O’Daniel, had declined to seek another term in the Senate, so Johnson had to face the current Governor instead. Coke Stevenson was an immensely popular statesman, who had succeeded O’Daniel in 1941 and won all subsequent elections with landslides. Caro portrays the 1948 campaign not merely as the last stand for Johnson, but the last stand for the so-called “gentleman’s campaign” that Stevenson personified. Since the time of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, most politicians did not actively campaign, but remained at home while their allies and associates spread the news of their candidacy. Stevenson was a politician in this mold, a man more comfortable at his ranch than in a legislature, but who commanded respect and exuded extraordinary gravitas in his political dealings. Thus, tragically, Stevenson was largely absent from the campaign trail, while Johnson not only had the ambition to defeat this political behemoth but the energy to sustain that ambition.

Johnson launched what would become the prototype for the modern campaign. Texas presented unique difficulties for a candidate, foremost among which was the low population density. Towns were sparsely populated and sparsely distributed around the non-urban regions. Johnson overcame this challenge with a gimmick that would define his campaign: he traveled by helicopter from town to town, with multiple stops each day. He managed his supply lines as carefully as a general, sending staff ahead to spread the news and provide fuel at each stop. Audiences would gather from miles around, some to see the candidate and most to see his ride, which had been nicknamed the “Flying Windmill.” Johnson was lucky in other ways as well: the primary was hotly contested between three candidates, and while Stevenson dominated the early returns, he did not receive a majority on the first ballot. Thus, a special runoff was held, allowing Johnson the needed time for campaigning.

Lastly, Johnson developed relationships with the local political machines around the state, and it was these relationships that would prove decisive. Stevenson’s honesty gave him an advantage in public opinion, but gave him a severe disadvantage when it came to the widespread practice of ballot fraud. As the votes were tallied on the night of the primary, Stevenson led Johnson by nearly 20,000 votes. Caro details how Johnson’s connections to the machines in San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere allowed him to reduce that lead to 854 votes by the end of the first night, to 349 votes the day after, to 157 by the end of the week. “And suddenly,” Caro reports, “with virtually all the counting in the election over, Coke Stevenson was no longer ahead.” Jim Wells County (of the Rio Grande Valley machine) had amended its results and given Johnson an 87-vote lead.

The matter eventually came before the Texas Democratic Party’s executive committee. The testimony ensured the notoriety of the incident, by bringing to light incidents of clear voter fraud: hundreds of pro-Johnson voters had apparently shown up at the polls right before closing time to cast their votes in alphabetical order. Astonishingly, Johnson had such support in the executive committee (and had flown in several absent supporters) that the disputed totals were upheld, even if it was by only a one-vote margin. Stevenson filed and won an injunction from a Federal District Court, ordering Johnson’s name off the general election ballot until after an investigation, but that order was voided by by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Johnson proceeded to crush his Republican opponent in the general election – the South would remain solidly Democratic until after 1964, when Johnson led the Democrats in passing the Civil Rights Act.

Caro’s biography provides a glimpse into the life of a master of realpolitick, and thereby a glimpse into the very fabric of modern politics. Caro describes in this book how Johnson became the pawn of a few oil tycoons, whose business (the future Halliburton) prospered from an alliance with Johnson. He further describes Johnson’s mastery of political maneuvering and the new campaign techniques that would soon dominate the field. Caro depicts Johnson’s method of politics as belonging to a world of lusts, for power, money, glory, and women. Johnson epitomized this world, this very different mode of politics than ever envisioned by Aristotle, let alone by the Founding Fathers for the American experiment. Caro provides a sobering glimpse into a world of corruption, of ballot-stuffing and horse-trading. It is a rather depressing perspective in a world where money makes a man and man returns the favor.

Yet, whatever implications Caro draws, this biography does not drive the reader to despair. In the midst of Johnson’s vain ambition and voracious appetites, he maintains a principled core that seems oddly out of place amidst his character. Once all his appetites were sated, after ascending to the Presidency, these principles seemed to take precedence. It certainly could not have been political expedience that drove him to push the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a veritable act of hari-kari for Democrats across the American South. Caro’s depiction of Coke Stevenson is also encouraging to those seeking redemption for politics. Stevenson was a deeply principled man, a deeply respected man, whose only campaign flaw was his inactivity, borne of his desire to appear disinterested in power. Yet such disinterest is by no means inextricably linked to keeping a healthy attitude towards politics. If “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” then the activity of good men should be sufficient to prevent evil from triumphing. Perhaps that is the lesson of this biography, beyond its descriptions of Johnson determining his own fate despite adverse conditions. Caro shows us the strategic and tactical blunders made by the decent men left in Johnson’s wake, that those who seek a more honorable polity may learn their history to avoid repeating it. It is a lesson well worth learning.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Robert Caro: The Path to Power

2012 will be a banner year. Besides the long-anticipated apocalypse, Christopher Nolan will release his third “Batman” film, Steven Spielberg will release the first in a trilogy of movies based on Herge’s acclaimed “Tintin” comics, and Pixar will release for the first time two instant-classic animated films in the same year. For those more inclined towards the academic, 2012 is also the year that Robert Caro has indicated the fourth and final volume will be released in his landmark series “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.”

Robert Caro is a political biographer, who won early plaudits for his biography of New York City planner Robert Moses. In 1982 he launched the work that would define his career, and define the legacy of his subject. “The Path to Power” was an exhaustively researched and exquisitely written glimpse into the early life of Lyndon B. Johnson, from his childhood to his failed campaign in 1941 for a U.S. Senate seat. A second volume, “Means of Ascent,” was released in 1990, covering the pivotal seven years from Johnson's 1941 defeat to his successful 1948 campaign. A full twelve years elapsed before Caro released his third volume, "Master of the Senate," covering Johnson’s tenure as Senator and as Senate Majority Leader. His final volume is expected to encompass Johnson’s 1960 campaign against Senator John F. Kennedy for President, reluctant acceptance of the Vice-Presidency under a Kennedy administration, assumption of the Presidency after Kennedy’s assassination, the events of his administration until 1968, and his death four years after leaving office.

"The Path to Power sketches the early years of Lyndon Johnson's life, from his birth until his devastating defeat in the 1941 Senate elections. He outlines a character that is essentially ambitious, dominated by twin appetites for money and power. His father had been a relatively successful Texas legislature before his fall from grace, and had spent his last years as the poorest inhabitant of a poor country village. Like Scarlett O'Hara, Johnson was determined never to suffer his father's fate, to "never be hungry again!" This voracious desire for wealth was only tempered by his hunger for influence and power, which came to a fore in Johnson's college years.

Before Caro, the standard view of Johnson's early life treated his childhood as a beatific thing favored by the gods, or at least by every one of his neighbors. Caro discovered, to the contrary, that Johnson was actually not well regarded by his peers, but had an unbelievable ability to be taken under the wing of his elders. That essentially defined his years at the Southwest Texas State Teachers' College. Johnson had finagled his way into the office of the college's President, and was the trusted adviser when it came to filling various staff positions at the school. It was a rare student who could afford tuition (most who could were going to betters schools), so these jobs were the only way many students could afford to attend... and Johnson controlled the purse strings. He used that influence to buy the loyalties of others, and put himself in a position where he controlled the entire apparatus of student government. Caro is clearly impressed by Johnson's performance, if a little disconcerted by the heartlessness of it.

After graduation, Johnson became a teacher, at one point coaching the debate team at Sam Houston High School. He volunteered briefly for the 1930 campaign of Welly Hopkins for the U.S. House of Representatives, and performed so well that the senior Texas congressman Richard Kleberg hired Johnson as his legislative assistant. This position whetted Johnson's appetite for Washington politics, and gave him to opportunity to secure many connections. Caro documents how Johnson stole the election for the "Little Congress," an association of Congressional aides, and turned it into a well-oiled publicity machine that got the attention of newspapermen, Senators, and Presidential aides. He also secured the patronage of Senator Sam Rayburn, an alliance that would later secure his path to power.

Within five years, Johnson was appointed Director of the Texas National Youth Administration, a prestigious position that let him travel throughout the state and gave him considerable access to the political movers and shakers, particularly the owners of Kellogg, Brown & Root, who would become his sponsors and financiers. However, Johnson made quick work of these opportunities, and soon moved on: within two years, he won a House seat for himself.

Yet the House did not satisfy him. There were too many Congressman, and he could not abide the strict rules that derived power and advancement from seniority. Within three years, in 1941, he made his ambitions clear by running for Senator. It was a special election, and Johnson had the connections and the reputation already in place that would have guaranteed his victory... if the sitting Governor had not thrown his hat into the ring at the same time. "Pappy" O'Daniel was an immensely beloved populist, a former radio broadcaster who hadn't been a terribly effective administrator but knew how to tug on his listeners' heartstrings. O'Daniel had the name and the connections to rival Johnson, and it was a fight for the ages. Ultimately, it came down to who could steal the most votes, and in that O'Daniel had the advantage. Johnson lost the election by 1,306 votes, and it devastated him.

Caro spent his life to explore the character of the man whose portrait he gives in his volume. Fortunately for all involved, this is more than a portrait. This volume draws from a regimen of research that can only be described as exhaustive. "The Path to Power" single-handedly reframed the standard view of Johnson's childhood, every other biographer and Johnson's own memoirs notwithstanding. The writing is vivid, magnifying each vein within Johnson’s complex and devouring personality. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, Caro is not content to merely present the details of a single life, but uses the canvas of that life to portray a much more impressive subject: the very nature of politics. Like Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style,” Caro’s biographies serve as a grammar book on the elements of power. This is the definitive biography of Lyndon Johnson, and the definitive political biography of our time. It is an extraordinary book, and comes with my highest recommendation.