Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heilein (1957)


As I was listening to this (Blackstone Audio, narrated by Lloyd James, more on the production later), I was trying to recall whether I'd read any Robert A. Heinlein before.  I know the name, of course, but as for reading a book by him, this is my first time.  I think this will probably be the last book I read by him; I wasn't particularly enamored by his style.  I think that if I had actually been reading this rather than listening to an audiobook, I may have put the book down in frustration.

Supposedly, this is based on Rudyard Kipling's Kim, a book I've never read and knew next to nothing about before I wikipedia'd it.  I knew so little about the book that I thought Kim (the main character) was Indian.  He's not.   So if Citizen of the Galaxy was based on Kim, I wouldn't be the person to ask how and/or why.

I think you can probably divide this book into four parts.  The first part is the youth of Thorby; his purchase and then subsquent education by Baslim the Cripple, and his eventual leaving of the planet.  I think if I'd been reading this, I would have stopped; I'm not sure what kept me going.  The second part was Thorby's adoption by the People of the starship Sisu; this was the most fascinating part to me, the most interesting, and if the whole book had stayed on Sisu, I would have been happy.  But the third part, when Thorby's adoptive father gives him up to the Hegemony, ugh.  That part was my least favorite; I'm not a fan of military fiction at all, and Heinlein clearly was; there is definitely a glorification of masculine military life that for me, personally, was dull at best, and annoying at worst.  The final part is Thorby's legal battle to regain his inheritance back on earth; I thought this part was okay, but really - by the time I got to this section, I was ready for the whole thing to be over.

The book has a lot to say about various kinds of slavery.  Thorby is an actual slave at the beginning of the book.  Later, Doctor Mader gives Thorby the idea that he's become a slave to the customs of the People.  A little light went on in my head that said "Libertarian."  I think I was right; Heilein wants everyone to be "free" and has all of his best characters spout that, but I'm not sure I agree.

This is an utter mishmash above and doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I think that's because I really didn't enjoy this book all that much.  I thought it had hints of sexism - although the female characters are actually quite strong and interesting - they aren't sci-fi pin-ups.  But they all still had a whiff of traditional values about them; for example, on earth the secretaries are all women, and cousin Leda is a shopaholic.  I was annoyed by Dr. Mader trying to lure Thorby away from the safety of the People; I think they had taken him in at his lowest point, and her talk of being their slave was off mark - but probably matched Heinlein's view of how societal norms trap us and make us slaves (that's a guess, but the little I read about him seems to back this up).  I think that's bullshit, actually, but whatever.

I also, quite frankly, can't see how the military is more free than the customs of the People - I would think it would be a worse kind of slavery than that of the People.  I guess killing people in the name of honor and glory is okay, but doing business with them isn't.  Bleah.  I'm liking this book less and less as I write about it.

The audio book drove me NUTS.  I liked some of it immensely; Lloyd James is a good narrator. But some of his accents were awful. I mean, they were GOOD accents, but they were also so good they were annoying.  Baslim the Cripple sounded like Sean Connery, and he did this Mexican accent that bordered on racist.  Dr. Mader's southern accent was good, but annoying too.

Citizen of the GalaxyCitizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I liked this book less and less, the more I listened to it (be warned: the narrator's accents are occasionally awful) and after I finished it, the more I thought and read about it. There is a dusting of libertarian thought, not a philosophy I personally find very attractive - an anthropologist with a hideous southern accent - remember, I was listening to this - spouts some libertarian thought about mid-way through that made me scratch my head. There are some antiquated views on women (the spaceship captains were all men, the secretaries were all women - but this WAS 1957; that said, there were a couple of strong female characters, feisty old grandmother in particular (but aren't all old grandmothers in books feisty and "in charge" - that's hardly a progressive idea). The book is also dusted with some military glorification; the ideal job seems to the military, certainly not trading or business. Maybe if I'd read this when I was twelve, I would have enjoyed it more; at 46, I couldn't wait for it to end.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie (1932)

I was giddy about this book, although not because it's so good - it's one of the middling Christies for sure.  I was giddy because I guessed "whodunnit" about midway through and was RIGHT.  Maybe that is what makes it middle of the road.  But it did make me feel quite smart.

The title sounds like an old Nancy Drew.  

This book was filled to the brim with Poirot French.  So many, many French phrases.  
This book was also the most anti-semitic Christie I had yet read, with several phrases like "He's a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one."  Yet, interestingly, the Jewish character gets his girl at the end (although she is a drug fiend), and is really quite heroic.  So perhaps Christie makes her character say something horrid and exhibit the casual anti-semitism  of the time period, something she herself didn't believe in or ascribe to.

I loved how she described one girl as someone "with the kind of hair that has just become fashionable by accident."  Droll and witty.

And at another point, Poirot becomes quite philosophical and existential:  "To all us," he tells a grieving girl who wishes she were dead, not her fiance.  "There comes a time when death is preferable to life.   But is passes.  Sorrow passes, and grief.  You cannot believe that now, I know.  It is useless for an old man like me to to talk."

Peril at End House (Hercule Poirot, #8)Peril at End House by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a middle of the road Christie; not brilliant, but solid with a fun whodunnit. Although, let's be honest, the title is lifted right out of Nancy Drew. Christie's wit can be positively Noel Cowardian at times, such as when he described one girl as someone "with the kind of hair that has just become fashionable by accident. That's what makes even middling Christies such a pleasure.

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Watership Down by Richard Adams (1975)

Rabbit Trio by Martin Ridley.
"I want to emphasize that Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable.  It is simply the story about rabbits made up and told in the car."  So says Richard Adams in his introduction to Watership Down, and I believe him. But I can't help but to think that at least some of his novel can be used as a caution for humankind to watch our Ps and Qs, particularly about our forms of government, our care (or really, lack of care) for the environment, and war and peace.

I've been listening to more audio books lately, and Watership Down was an excellent example. The narrator, Ralph Cosham, was incredible.  His very male, very English voice was perfect for what is really a very male, very English novel.  His performance of General Woundwort in particular was incredible - he uses a dispassionate, gruff, very old school British military type of voice that captures the tough old general; you can imagine this rabbit sending boys to their death over the trenches in World War II.

A Fox Chasing a Rabbit by Mackeprang
Government.  I thought about this a lot as I listened to the audiobook; if Adams wasn't writing an Watership Down. First is that of the Sandleford Warren, under the governance of the Threarah.  This is a (mostly) benevolent dictatorship, with the Threarah in a kind of boss role; I guess some sort of 1970s African or Central American dictatorship would be the be a human equivalent, with a strong leader who does some good things (protection, order) but also corrupt (the Threarah and his cronies get all the lettuce, for example); it's a conservative dictatorship, afraid of change, which at the end leads to its downfall.  Second is Cowslip's Warren; this seems to be a perfect society, but at it's core is rotten.
allegory or parable - and I believe him - he at the very least was commenting on how human people can and do (and should) lead themselves.  There are five kinds of government in
Rabbits by Dick Twinney
The Cowslipians have everything they want or need, but because a dark secret lies at the heart of their world, they've given up their freedom - and in this case their very lives - for comfort and security.  "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety" writes Benjamin Franklin; that's essentially what Hazel and his warren discover about the Cowslipians.  Thirdly, the Efrafans.  This is a military dictatorship of the worst kind, and the one that Adams most hardly criticizes.  You are supposed to compare and contrast the reletaively free society of Hazel and the Watership Down warren with the brutality of General Woundwort and his Council.  Everything in Efrafa is run on military lines; there are several kinds of police, the people have no freedom of movement or freedom of speech; no one is allowed to question authority, and rebellions, even small ones are brutally dealt with.  Finally, of course, Hazel and the rabbits of Watership Down, are the ideal type of government.  Unlike the Threarah's government, they aren't corrupt; rabbits can share in the wealth of the warren, and the very fact of moving away proves their progressive attitudes.  They won't sacrifice their values and freedom for security - they did not stay with Cowslip's warren, nor did they stay with Efrara.  Finally, Hazel as a leader allows his rabbits to question him; in fact, this questioning makes him a stronger leader, as he is always given various types of advice and is able to choose the best course - unlike General Woundwort, whose lieutenants are afraid to give him true advice, ultimately leading to his downfall.    Another example of this was the digging of runs and burrows - the Efrarans comment on this when they invade Watership Down.

War and Peace.  I think Adams is also commenting on war, and peace.  The rabbits of Watership Down go out of their way not to fight; they use trickery and cunning to get what they want, but only fight when forced to do so.  Adams casts a harsh light on rabbit version of the military industrial complex that makes up Efrara; in the end, for all General Woundwort's warlike ways, war doesn't pay off for the Efrarans; in fact, it destroys their society.

Environmentalism.  I don't think you can read Watership Down without thinking that Adams has some idea of humanity's care-taking of the planet and how it's gone awry.  The novel wouldn't exist without the destruction - by humans - of the Sandleford Warren to build a housing development; this in the mid-1970s, and we know it's gotten worse.  Adams attention to natural detail is astounding; he clearly loves nature.  I also think he's not the type of environmentalist that hates mankind though; men are destructive, but it's also a man (and a girl) who save Hazel at the end (in a scene that reminds me so much of Rabbit Hill that I kept getting the two confused).

Watership DownWatership Down by Richard Adams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been listening to more audio books lately, and this was an excellent example. The narrator, Ralph Cosham, was incredible. His very male, very English voice was perfect for what is really a very male, very English novel.

I've read Watership Down several times over the years; I come away each time as enthralled as the first time. Adams attention to natural detail is incredible; his rabbits are real creatures, in the natural way, and also as fully developed and interesting characters. He's also a fantastic storyteller; listening to it (rather than reading it), I was on the edge of my seat, and even though I knew exactly how it would end, the sense of tension was amazing (and enjoyable). Adams hasn't written an allegory or parable (he says as much in his introduction) but he does have some lessons for humanity on war and peace, the environment, and the nature of government, freedoms and even civil liberties. A story about bunnies wouldn't necessarily seem to be so deep, but that's the genius of Watership Down, and explains its publishing longevity. This is the same world that Bambi inhabits; close by (but not next door) you may find The Wind in the Willows; I'm also reminded of Rabbit Hill (although Rabbit Hill has a cutsier feel).

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Monday, July 11, 2016

The Renaissance: A Short History by Paul Johnson (2000)

This is part of a series called "The Modern Library Chronicles."  I've read two others before - a book about Islam by Karen Armstrong which I don't recall liking very much (emphasis on "short" in "Short history") and a book about the Balkans, which I apparently liked slightly better but can't remember much about now.  Karen Armstrong is an expert in religious history; Mark Mazower is an expert on the Balkans.  Paul Johnson is a renowned historian, Wikipedia says conservative historian.  He's not one of my favorite authors, although I remember vaguely reading a book by him in college called Modern Times, a history of the 1920s through the 1980s.  Another vague thought about him is that he is anti-gay. (a quick search on Google proves that I was right about this).  It's always been difficult for me to set aside my prejudice against a writer's anti-gay public attitudes and their writing.  I can't pinpoint any place in The Renaissance where Johnson's bad attitude towards the gays infects his writing, other than discounting of the gayness of Leonardo and Michelangelo.  He calls the gay rumors about Michelangelo "nonsense" - but then, maybe they are. He said Leonardo "may" have had homosexual inclinations.  That "may" is actually probably a truism as well - it's all conjecture.  Historians far less gay baiting than Paul Johnson have been discounting of historical figures' gayness.

I'm never going to run out and buy the next Paul Johnson book or pick one up on purpose, but his The Renaissance was passable.  I think Will and Ariel Durant did a far better job - it's what I read before I went to Italy, even though it's quite old.  But there wasn't anything in Johnson's book  that wasn't already detailed more lovingly and in chattier, more interesting prose by the Durants.  I skimmed a bit of Johnson's book, and only finished it because it was short.

There were a couple of tidbits.  Ghiberti made the very famous doors of the Florence baptistry, across from the Duomo, and as Johnson says, he "finished them in 1452, three years before his death.  So he spent virtually his entire working life, more than half a century, on these Florentine doors." (I saw these doors when we were in Florence, but didn't take a picture of them; there is just too much in Italy to photograph; there is art and architecture and antiquities everywhere you turn).  That struck my fancy - your whole life spent on one work of art.  He only created a few other things, but the doors were his life's work.  I don't know if I find that awesome or awful.  Probably a bit of both.

Michelangelo's first marble masterpiece was The Battle of the Centaurs - made at 17!  I can attest that creative juices flow and flow at 17, but also are quickly stoppered too. Which was true for Michelangelo - he never finished The Battle of the Centaurs.

This book wasn't great or even very good.  It was a passable history, sort of unimaginatively written.  With some suppositions too - like when Johnson says that "Chaucer had not read The Decameron."  How does he know what Chaucer has and hasn't read?  He can suppose Chaucer hasn't read a book, but can't also suppose that Leonardo was gay.  Bleah.  Fuck you Paul Johnson.  Maybe I don't like this book afterall.

(I also never thought of Chaucer as a Renaissance writer, but Johnson says he was).

The Renaissance: A Short HistoryThe Renaissance: A Short History by Paul  Johnson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Johnson says it's nonsense to write that Michelangelo was gay - and it may well be nonsense. He also emphatically states, among other things, that Chaucer never read The Decameron. I'm not exactly sure how he knows both of these things for certain; actually, I'm certain that these are his opinions. This is a "short history" with the Johnson's occasional opinions. I'm not so foolish to think that historians don't inject their opinions into what they write; quite frankly, that is what makes history so interesting to read. But I think that Johnson's opinions aren't every really qualified with any facts to back them up. He wants certain things to be true, and thinks by writing them, they will be. Bleah. This is lazy writing at worst, and almost completely unimaginative at best. If you want some meaty, opinionated but also beautiful prose on this subject, try the longer but much richer The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304 1576 Ad .

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Friday, July 1, 2016

The Railway Children by E.Nesbit (BBC dramatized production, 1993)

I've never reviewed or even blogged about The Railway Children here before; and this isn't really going to be a review, because quite frankly it doesn't count.

I've been listening to more and more audio books in the car to and from work, and I'm streaming or downloading them from various libraries, also occasionally buying them as a "whispersync" for my kindle app.  I checked out The Railway Children from Los Angeles Public Library.  I loved it; it's one of my favorite stories of all time.

But it's a radio production, not really a book.  It follows the book really closely, but it's not the book.
Even Blithe Spirit, which I reviewed here and at Goodreads, was exactly the play; I could have read along.  As delightful as The Railway Children was, I'm not going to review it in depth.  I will save that for the actual book (which I may read, or listen to).

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