Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Baccalario Kirby Myklusch

Ring of Fire
by P. D. Baccalario
Recommended Ages: 12+

Translated from the Italian by Leah D. Janeczko, this book is the first of four in the Century Quartet. The other three books, in order, are: Star of Stone, City of Wind, and Dragon of Seas. You might speculate, based on these titles, that the series has something to do with the medieval "elements" of fire, earth, air, and water. And after reading this book, you would have even more reason to suspect this.

The ring of fire in Pierdomenico Baccalario's fantasy world is not a flaming hoop to jump through, the mouth of a volcano, or even love (with all due respect to Johnny Cash). In this case, it's an actual ring, like one might wear on one's finger. And the finger that wears this ancient, powerful ring could wield terrifying power—like, for example, the power to burn the city of Rome to the ground. That's why the ring's location is a secret known only to the handful of people who guard it. And that's why, just when that group is about to pass the (cough) torch to four specially chosen members of the younger generation, a modern-day Dark Lord is willing to kill to get hold of it.

Our main characters only learn this much in bits and pieces, as the story unfolds. First they must discover each other: four children from widely different backgrounds, who happen to share the same unlikely birthday, and who happen to find themselves sharing a room in an overbooked hotel in Rome during the week between Christmas and New Year. The coincidence is really only remarkable in the case of three of the guests—Mistral, Harvey, and Sheng—since they have traveled from as far away as Paris, New York, and Shanghai. It's not such a surprise to find Elettra there; she lives in the hotel year round, because her family owns it. What is surprising about Elettra is her weird, burny hands that sometimes let loose a discharge of power, with results ranging from an exploding light bulb to a citywide blackout. She also has an aversion to mirrors, which lose their reflectiveness when she looks into them. So you can trust that any adventure involving Elettra will be a strange one.

What none of the children would expect, though, is an adventure that begins with a strange man handing them a suitcase full of weird clues, just before he is murdered by a violinist with a razor-sharp bow. Now the violinist, actually a hit man who calls himself Joseph Mahler, is after the kids and the gimmicks that they have only begun to recognize as a map to the ring of fire. The idea of Joseph Mahler getting his hands on the ring isn't what should scare you. The idea of the creature Mahler works for is what should scare you. While the frightened kids race from one local character or point of interest to another, it is increasingly clear to them that killers and kidnappers are in the race with them—and not only the kids, but their families too, are in grave danger. But then, so is the world.

The four kids in this book, in spite of their shared birthday, form an interesting group of heroes with their contrasting and complementary talents, interests, and personalities. Harvey, the spoiled American rich kid, can be a sullen brat when he wants to (and that's most of the time), but he also has a nugget of Romantic Hero material within him. Good-humored Sheng—whose frequent exclamation of hao! translates to something like "Cool!"—braves a completely alien city to make some clever discoveries. And fashion princess Mistral, whose mother designs perfumes, manages to survive after being completely at the mercy of a coldblooded killer. These kids work so well together that, when they go their separate ways, you can be sure their joint adventures are only beginning. Or maybe the three sequels were your clue. Anyway, hao!

The Clockwork Three
by Matthew J. Kirby
Recommended Ages: 12+

In an east-coast U.S. city, sometime in the 1800s, three children who have never previously met each other have a strange adventure together. Together and separately, the face a series of challenges that may determine their future happiness, their family's welfare, their personal survival, and/or the fate of a nature sanctuary adjacent to the city. All of these destinies are caught up together, intertwined, and depend on the qualities of courage, resourcefulness, and friendship in each of them, qualities that bring them together in spite of their differences.

Giuseppe and Frederick are both orphans. Frederick escaped a hideous life in Mrs. Treeless's workhouse, thanks to his mechanical talents and the kindness of a clockmaker, who made him his apprentice. Still, Frederick hasn't learned to accept and trust his master's love, and so he labors in secret to build a clockwork man. He worries that if he doesn't figure out how to make the automaton's head, he will never pass the guild examination to be a journeyman clockmaker.

Giuseppe, meanwhile, longs to go back to his native Italy, from which he was taken against his will when an uncle sold him to the cruel padrone whom he now serves as a slave. With his battered old fiddle, Giuseppe busks for coins on the street with little to hope for except a bowl of gruel and a bed in a dormitory full of boys as bad off as himself. Unless he can save enough money to buy passage back to Italy, Giuseppe has little hope to escape from this harsh life.

Hannah, at least, still has her parents and a pair of much younger sisters. But she is the breadwinner of the family, since her stonemason father suffered a disabling stroke and her mother must nurse him day and night. Hannah's career as a hotel maid threatens to be short, however, when the head maid takes a dislike to her. The mysterious lady in the penthouse suite makes a pet of her, but this seems unlikely to help when a family medical crisis forces Hannah to take desperate steps.

Things start to change for these three children when a green violin with an exquisite, singing tone, washes ashore after a shipwreck. As Giuseppe bewitches crowds with the music of this instrument, he begins to hope for escape. But escape will not come in the way he expects, nor does the magic necessarily lie where he thinks it does. About the same time, Hannah grows interested in the rumor that a rich guest who died in the hotel may have left a treasure hidden in a secret chamber on the top floor. And Frederick risks stealing a marvelous object from a fiercely-guarded museum, hoping to learn not only how to make his clockwork man tick but also who his mother was, and why she left him at the orphanage.

As these children's separate quests become tangled up together, other strange people and things are drawn in as well: a deadly predator, a spirit medium, an ancient lady who talks to plants, a performance of Verdi's opera La Traviata, a labyrinth of secret passages, an untamed wilderness only steps away from the city's streets, a kindly old priest with the will to change the world, and a Russian mercenary with a heart of gold.

In his debut novel, Matthew Kirby conjures up a world of danger, wonder, mystery, and adventure, deftly weaving together multiple storylines with a curiously effortless blend of historical fiction, weird fantasy, and social criticism that pulls up just short of Steampunk. His imperfect but sympathetic characters face hardships, tough moral choices, and an extra-strong dose of most young adults' agony in discovering who they are and what really matters to them. He manages all this with grace and a stir of infectious emotion. Readers who enter this book will come out interested in what its author might do next. And behold, his second book is titled Icefall.

The Accidental Hero
by Matt Myklusch
Recommended Ages: 12+

Previously published as Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation, this first novel by a sometime MTV producer features a young hero who will appeal strongly to fans of Harry Potter, comic books, and science-fiction franchises such as Star Trek. His name is Jack Blank. And though he doesn't know it at first, he has super-powers. One power, actually—but one that explains why machines tend to break down around him when his emotions are stirred. This power could also be a curse, since it could make him either the savior or the destroyer of the secret country where many of the heroes of sci-fi, fantasy, and graphic novels live for real. And it comes in especially helpful one dreary day when a robo-zombie villain out of one of his comics turns up and tries to kill Jack.

Ah, Jack! Raised in a damp New Jersey orphanage that brutally squashes the childhood out of children, he is bullied by the staff as well as the other kids. Jack's only solace has been the secret stash of comic books hidden in the depths of an unfrequented library. Having read these comics so many times that he knows them by heart, Jack dreams of being a superhero, or an alien, or a ninja, or a robot, or a barbarian, or perhaps a sentient hologram, like the characters he has come to admire. He meets them in real life, soon enough. And he may even have a chance to grow up to be one of them, if he can pass the entrance examination of the School of Thought where superkids train to be superheroes. Or, instead, he might have to be destroyed and dissected, because his blood contains a teeny, technological plague that turns everyone it infects (except Jack) into robo-zombies, like the one that visited Jack in the orphanage at the beginning of this book.

Jack could be the Imagine Nation's best hope of defeating the Rustov (as those robo-zombies are really called), or he could be a secret Rustov weapon to doom the galaxy. No one knows for sure—and even Jack has good reason to wonder. In spite of the opposition of Jonas Smart (the Imagine Nation's genius inventor, publisher, industrialist, and would-be dictator), Jack joins a silver-skinned space-girl and a hard-bitten barbarian boy in a series of challenges set by the ruling council to test whether they are School of Thought material. He visits Cyberspace, survives an attack by undead ninjas, and manages not to get lost in a neighborhood completely devoted to secret hideouts. He witnesses a friend's loyal sacrifice, faces the awful truth about himself, and learns to make polite small-talk with household appliances.

Even after he learns why a Rustov named Revile means to destroy him—and faces him in a climactic battle—it is clear that Jack's journey has just begun. The Jack Blank series continues in The Secret War and The End of Infinity.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Dip Duel

Back here, I shared a recipe my Mom sent me for a dip that goes well with Townhouse crackers. Over Thanksgiving weekend, I sneaked a peak at my Stepmom's recipe for a dip to go with (say) Triscuits. We snacked on them at lunchtime this past Saturday. Dad and I used Rosemary and Olive Oil Triscuits. Stepmom used some kind of Ritz thingies. An awesome time was had by all. And I think it is evident that the recipe works equally well with turkey.

  • 1 8-oz. brick of cream cheese
  • 5 tablespoons of Frank's Red Hot sauce
  • Roasted chicken (or turkey) breast meat
Cut up the cream cheese into cubes, place it in a covered bowl, and melt it in the microwave. Stir in the hot sauce. Pull apart the breast meat and add it to the mixture until you achieve the desired consistency. Spoon onto small plates and shovel it up with your choice of crackers. Could it get any simpler?

IMAGE: Swiped from here. If you object to my use of this image, I'll swipe one from somewhere else.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Brontë Butcher Dickens Hawthorne Wodehouse

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
by Anne Brontë
Recommended Ages: 13+

Published in 1848, the year before her death at age 29, this was the second novel of "the other Brontë sister." It stands out among the seven novels those three sisters wrote between them—though not necessarily as the best-executed piece of writing, nor as the most daring structural experiment, nor the most enduringly appealing romance. It stands out, rather, as a searingly realistic depiction of a failing marriage at a time when wives were still their husband's property under English law. Its author braved public scandal and critical reproof to expose, in grim detail, the evil consequences of marital infidelity, alcoholism, coarseness, cruelty, jealousy, and gossip. The book sharply criticizes the social mores that made some women prisoners of their abusive husbands, that rushed people into unsuitable matches not based on mutual love and respect, and that robbed creatively gifted women of their artistic independence.

Far from being a celebration of adultery, debauchery, and bad parenting, this book is if anything a manifesto against such moral excesses. Some would call it one of the first great feminist novels. Others might call it a realistic rebuttal to the romanticized horrors of sister Emily's Wuthering Heights, or view its heroine an antidote to the self-absorption of Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë called it a piece of hack work and prevented its republication between Anne's death and her own. But I call it a deeply-felt and even more deeply thought, courageous, complex, scathingly honest, searchingly conscientious novel about a love turning bitter, an upright soul caught in a moral dilemma, a mother protecting her son from his father, and an imperfect but well-meaning man at war with his own heart.

Fans of Wuthering Heights may find something familiar in the structure of this novel, which shares the former masterpiece's "nested narrators" and affects to be a letter from male protagonist Gilbert Markham to his unseen friend Mr. Halford. In the center of this long letter is a thick section excerpted from the diary of the supposed widow Helen Gibson, who turns out actually to be a Mrs. Huntingdon on the run from a Mr. ditto. In defiance of legal statutes and social customs, she has abandoned her husband and taken their young son Arthur with her. Why did she leave him? It wasn't being left alone in a country manor for months at a time while he raised Cain in the city. It wasn't having her tranquil home invaded by his raucous friends. It isn't being subjected to the unwanted advances of one of her husband's chums and neighbors. It wasn't his heavy drinking, his psychological cruelty, his lack of sympathy for Helen's pious views, or even his affair with another man's wife carried on under their very noses. All this she puts up with for several years. Helen's "firing solution" is the danger she sees that her husband will corrupt their son and make him such a one as himself.

So she packs it in, retreats to a ruined mansion in a remote county, and tries to support herself and little Arthur by selling her work as a very talented painter. And it would have worked beautifully, too, were it not for a community full of prattling tongues, the passion of young Farmer Markham, and the spite of a parson's daughter who feels herself robbed of Gilbert's attentions. Finally Helen goes back to her husband, not to submit to his caprices, but to nurse him at his deathbed in a wrenching depiction of the end of life that is sure to tarnish the halo of sentimental sweetness that surrounds many another death in Victorian literature. And still this does not quite open the way for Helen and Gilbert to be together—nor is the final understanding between them necessarily the ideal outcome for a character in Helen's situation. In Anne Brontë's world, making a woman happy is an awful responsibility for a husband, just as choosing the one who will do so is a terrible gamble for her.

Above all other remarks about this book, I want to sing its praises. Anne Brontë was a wonderful writer whose early death was a great loss to English literature. She knows how to turn a striking phrase, how to use scenic descriptions to great psychological effect, and how to get her characters to communicate much while saying little. To qualify the tragedy of her untimely death as "almost as great as the loss of Emily" would be to diminish it too much. With Emily's Wuthering Heights we see a great romanticist spring at once into her fullness of powers; there is no way to guess what direction her career might have taken from there. Anne, on the other hand, made a tremendous leap forward from Agnes Grey to this book, and at that rate of progress she ought to have been writing circles around her better-regarded sisters within another book or two. More to the point, her book avoids the sins of romanticism in which her sisters' debut novels unrepentantly wallowed. It is a work of amazing insight and integrity.

To be sure, there are some clumsy, beginnerish touches in it—such as the early passages that simply describe a set of characters without capturing them in candid action, and corresponding passages at the end in which Gilbert interrupts his narrative to insert sketches of their subsequent fates. And, again as in Agnes Grey, Anne toys dangerously with the concentration of Methodist moral and doctrinal apologetic that a novel can hold in its solution. But the exactions of listening to Helen Huntingdon sermonize are repaid by the sympathy the reader feels for her emotions as her pure ideals are tested by conflicting desires and, at times, a torment of suspense. Before this story has run its course, both Helen and Gilbert run the full gamut of temptations to be resisted, dilemmas to be faced, painful resolutions to be borne, and guilty words and deeds to make amends for. Most likely there will always be debate on whether the ending is as happy as it could be, or perhaps happier than it should be. But where some books leave you relishing the scandal they provoke, this one—if it scandalizes you—should leave you abhorring the evils it so frankly depicts. And if that is the case, I think Anne Brontë would consider her book a success.

Academ's Fury
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this sequel to Furies of Calderon, or Book 2 of the "Codex Alera," Dresden Files creator Jim Butcher continues an act of fantasy-world-building so fresh and exciting that I simply can't believe he did it on a bet that he couldn't base a brilliant story on a mashup of two stupid concepts—in this case, "Pokémon meets the lost Roman legion." Maybe it's a mercy I never really got into Pokémon, but I just can't see it. The realm, of which the human society of Alera is but one of several races, is just too awesome to compare with "Pikachu, I choose you!" Aargh! Shudder! Don't make me even think about it! But, all right, the Roman part I'll grant you. Aleran society is related in some vague, alternate-world (or perhaps post-apocalyptic) way to the ancient Roman Empire—except that almost everybody has some degree of magical ability, especially those of the noblest blood. Their magic comes from an ability to command the entities that personify the forces of nature in wood, metal, earth, water, air, and fire. But young Tavi, an unconventional hero in that he has no "furycraft" whatsoever, knows that such power can also be a weakness—for example, because its wielders never learn to rely on their wits.

Tavi has been learning exactly that, and many other skills, during the two years or so since First Lord Gaius sponsored his entrance at the Cursors' academy. Between gruelling lessons in combat, history, and other subjects, he also serves as the First Lord's page, growing strong and lean from running up and down the spiral stairs to his patron's meditation chamber, and developing iron nerves by standing up to the ambassador of the wolflike Canim. Besides all this and trying to dodge magically gifted bullies without revealing the full extent of his non-magical abilities, Tavi is on special assignment to catch a thief.

With all these jobs to do and final exams coming up, Tavi is already missing a lot of sleep when things start to get really busy. The imperial capital is coming alive for the annual Wintersend festival. His Aunt Isana, the first female citizen to be made a Steadholder other than by marriage or murder, is coming to town on urgent business, regardless of the squad of assassins after her. A high lord is plotting to push Gaius off the throne and seize power for himself. The Canim, who not only can smell fear and tear out a man's throat with their teeth but also have some kind of magical influence over the weather, are brewing up a colossal storm, as if to test the First Lord and his empire for weakness. And when all this proves too much for the aging and overtaxed First Lord to cope with, Tavi is the one who must step up. Now, on top of everything, he must cover up for his lord's frailty, even to the point of surviving an attempt on his life and springing a buddy from jail so that the charade that Gaius is still in control can go on.

But the toughest part is yet to come. Back home in the Calderon Valley, Tavi's uncle Count Bernard has led the Garrison legion into a trap. The enemy is a strange race of insectoid beings called the vord, who have struck fear into the hearts of the fearless Marat for millennia. The Marat, you may remember, are a barbarian horde whose territory borders Alera, and have only lately become the Alerans' allies after a grisly conflict in the previous book that is now remembered as the Second Marat War. Massive, tough, and brutally honest, these Marat have a deep wisdom that compensates for their apparent lack of cleverness—and their battle-readiness is enhanced by the way warriors from each tribe bond with a particular kind of animal, fighting alongside them like two bodies with one mind. Imagine a horde of these warriors, each paired with a vicious, elephant-sized, badger-type creature called a gargant. Imagine two thousand of these warrior pairs, ganging up on a nest of the vord—a queen, her beetle-like warriors, her spider-like keepers, and (perhaps deadliest of all) the reanimated bodies of her captured enemies, known as the "taken." And now imagine that after destroying this one vord nest, all that remains of the horde is one Marat chieftain named Doroga and his gargant pal Walker.

Are you ready to understand the seriousness of the predicament our Aleran friends are in? No, you are not. Now imagine that there are two more such nests at large: the one that has Bernard and his legion pinned down in the valley, and the one that followed Tavi's scent to the capital city. The authorities should be very concerned, to say the least. But nobody in the capital knows anything about it except Bernard's sister and Tavi's aunt Isana, who doesn't know how to get Gaius's attention—doesn't know that the First Lord is, in fact, quite indisposed—and has her hands full just staying alive when every third person she meets is trying to kill her. For Bernard and Amara, the Cursor Countess he loves, prospects are dim. Even with Doroga and Walker fighting beside them, without reinforcements their legion is doomed. The only chance for Alera to survive this imminent threat is for Isana to make a deal with the devil... or at least the people who were trying to kill her and everyone she cared about in the last crisis. And even with reinforcements flying to the rescue, the nation will not be saved without a savage, bloody, desperate battle.

And that, dear readers, is what you can expect in this adventure. Magic, check. Intrigue, check. Suspense, humor, romance (adult content advisory!)—check, check, check. Shocking violence and spectacular battle scenes? In spades! Do events reach such a grim outlook that there seems to be no future in store for anybody? Absolutely! Does Tavi come through with clever and gutsy maneuvers? Yes. And will the ending leave you slobbering with anticipation of the next installment? Wipe your mouth, then, and grab hold of Codex Alera Book 3: Cursor's Fury.

The Old Curiosity Shop
by Charles Dickens
Recommended Ages: 12+

In 1840, after publishing his first three serialized novels, Charles Dickens started a new weekly magazine titled Master Humphrey's Clock. He meant it to be a break from novels, with little essays and one-off stories by himself and other authors, held together by the character of Master Humphrey by way of an emcee. But circulation plunged after the promising first issue, so Dickens realized that what his public wanted was more serial novels. And so he gave them The Old Curiosity Shop which, at the time it was first published, was his most commercially successful novel—especially the part of it that concerns Nelly Trent, an angelic girl whose melancholy journey and inevitable demise captured the sentiments of a hundred thousand readers while the series ran. Today, however, this book may well be regarded as Dickens' least successful novel—particularly because of the Little Nell plot line.

It isn't just that tastes have changed and critics no longer go in for mawkish sentimentality. It's frankly that the Nell side of The Old Curiosity Shop is, from beginning to end, the more boring, banal, badly-written half of the book. It's almost as if its author wrote perfunctorily, not caring what he did; which is strange, since Dickens' correspondence from that period shows that he cared passionately about little Nell, as her fate revived the pain he had felt three years earlier at the death of an idolized young sister-in-law. Whatever psychological insights may arise from the fact, neither did the "Nelliad" elicit the best of its author's powers of scenic description, social realism, and character detail, nor does it stir in the reader half the enjoyment of the more comical, dramatic, active, brilliantly-written flip side of the novel in which characters such as Quilp, Kit, Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness, the Brasses, and Whisker the pony come so vividly to life.

Until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, no novel's final installment attracted more enthusiastic public interest in its time than the last number of The Old Curiosity Shop, in which readers finally ascertained whether Little Nell lives or dies. It's a funny thing. From the perspective of 171 years later, I never doubted Nell was going to die from an early point in the novel (apart from that fact being widely known). As Nell and her dotard, gambling-addicted grandfather escape from the vice and menaces of the city and flee ever farther into the countryside, their journey is haunted by symbols and presentiments of death. The girl's health deteriorates steadily as she drags her grandfather from one sink of corruption after another, through scenes that would have fallen nicely into place in a picaresque novel where the punch show, the wax works, the canal barge, etc., would serve as steps toward success but that, in this novel, only seem to illustrate that there can be no rest for Nell in this world. Meanwhile the thought of her stainless character undergoing any change (such as puberty) remains inconceivable to any but the vilest character (such as Quilp), until any even semi-conscious reader must guess that Nell is going to die. And—SPOILER ALERT!—die she does. Her death is revealed in a scene that very sensitive readers may find cruelly sad, while others shake their heads in impatience to have it over with. I found myself somewhere in the middle.

The other characters, besides those Nell meets on her journey, proceed on their own course, their connection with her serving only to highlight their goodness or badness. And as evidence that this serialized novel was a somewhat improvised affair, many of these characters change greatly between their first appearance and the end. Kit Nubbles grows from a cockney imbecile who serves Nell and her grandfather with mindless devotion, to a likely youngster with a promising manhood before him. Dick Swiveller develops from an idle fop, reckless and ridiculous and lightly touched with villainy, to a candid though light-hearted hero, redeemed by hardship and his kindness to a half-starved servant girl whom, with a romantic flair that melted my heart, he dubs "the Marchioness." Slimy lawyer Sampson Brass, his hoyden sister Sally, his vile client Quilp, the latter's longsuffering wife and shrewish mother-in-law, his tumbling office boy Tom Scott, the sullen office drudge Mr. Chuckster, and the blustery but mysterious Single Gentleman, furnish the book with a wealth of comic relief, suspense, pathos, romance, loathing, and otherwise fascinating character studies. What they do, and what becomes of them, I commend to you to find out for yourself—though I am almost tempted to advise you to skip the Nell chapters. And if you need any more help sweetening the pill, you might try the audiobook narrated by Anton Lesser, a voice actor who disappears into every role he portrays.

A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Recommended Ages: 10+

In these days of hot-and-cold running plagiarism lawsuits and zealously defended copyrights, the watchword in all creative works is Originality. Luckily, the heirs of Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides, and their ilk are no longer enforcing their ownership of intellectual property. Otherwise, many of today's best entertainments would be up for challenge, if not for their overt content, at least for their themes. Sometimes the mania for strict originality becomes downright ridiculous, as in the oft-retweeted criticism of J. R. R. Tolkien for stealing ideas from J. K. Rowling.

I, for one, am a big supporter of the art of making old things new again. I have devoted many of my reviews to admiring the services of such authors as Walter Scott, Roger Lancelyn Green, Howard Pyle, Andrew Lang, Charles & Mary Lamb, and so on and on and on. In many instances, their retellings of older fables, legends, myths, and dramas have joined the originals amid the ranks of the classics, at least in some senses of the word "classic." Learning Greek and Latin is worthwhile, but reading Lancelyn Green is quicker. By the time your young classical scholar has painfully begun to construe Virgil and Ovid, he might not regret having read and enjoyed the same stories in a simple, friendly translation. And for the purpose of introducing young children to the wonders of ancient storytelling, no recycling could be more simple and friendly than that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of A Scarlet Letter.

In fact, if any fault is to be found in Hawthorne's adaptation of six tales of the ancient heroes, it may be the fault of being too precious, if not even patronizing, in his approach to the little heads and hearts of his hearers. But Hawthorne shields himself from this charge by putting a little "creative distance" between himself and the supposed adapter of the tales. For it seems that, during a relaxing retreat in the Massachusetts countryside (now the site of the Tanglewood Music Festival), where Hawthorne wrote this book, the author overheard these stories being told in their present form by a young scholar named Eustace Bright to a crowd of his younger siblings and cousins. The six tales are framed by passages in which we observe Eustace and the younger children recreating themselves amid the scenic charms of the Tanglewood estate and its neighborhood at different seasons of the year. The children all have floral nicknames like Primrose, Cowslip, and Dandelion, and although there seem to be a score of them (more or less), only a few of them speak up and display any sort of personality. The real, central character is Eustace Bright, and you learn what you know of him by the way he adapts Greek legends to the amusement of children of his day. And so, if you find any shortcomings in the way these stories are told, you must put them down to the unfinished education of young Mr. Bright, whose taste is perhaps not yet fully formed.

And which tales does he tell? The titles in Hawthorne's table of contents are helpful only as vague clues. Of course, "The Gorgon's Head" would have to be the story of Perseus, and how he slew snaky-headed Medusa, whose face had the same effect as the basilisk's gaze. And "The Golden Touch" can be easily identified as the affair of Midas, who foolishly wished for everything he touched to be changed into gold. Obviously this wish had drawbacks, as Midas learned when trying to eat or hugging his daughter. "The Paradise of Children" tells how Pandora opened the forbidden box and let all the troubles out into the world. "The Three Golden Apples" relates one of the adventures of Hercules, during which the Titan who holds the sky on his shoulders tries to leave Hercules in the lurch. In "The Miraculous Pitcher," two mysterious travelers reward an elderly couple named Baucis and Philemon for their humble hospitality... and punish the neighboring villagers for their lack of ditto. And finally, "The Chimæra" proves to be the story of Bellerophon, who (in case you don't know) is the character in Greek folklore who tamed Pegasus, the famed winged horse. Holy hippogriff!

All these stories are perfectly fabulous, and what Hawthorne (or Eustace Bright) leaves out will not be missed by small children. To be sure, those same children might not care if you left out the introductions and conclusions to each tale, in which the scene reverts to Eustace and the other children. I have it on good authority that the sequel, Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls, dispenses with these verbal picture-frames and lets the Eustace-Brightified legends stand on their own. For the serious student of this type of literature (I mean the "original" stuff), the bridge material is helpful in providing a little explanation of the way the stories have been modified—for example, infusing them with a moral sensibility that wasn't present in the authentic Greek version. But I am neither purist enough, nor copyright lawyer enough, to be picky about these things. For me, it is wonderful to see one great writer take the work of another and make it completely his own. And that is to say nothing of the miracle of sharing it with a child and making what was theirs, yours.

Carry On, Jeeves
by P. G. Wodehouse
Recommended Ages: 12+

This collection of humorous stories, published in 1925, is very similar to My Man Jeeves (1919)—so similar, in fact, that several stories from that earlier book appear, in a somewhat revised form, in this later one. In this case, all ten of the stories feature English playboy Bertie Wooster and his resourceful manservant Jeeves. (You may recall that half of My Man Jeeves was devoted to a different series of stories.) One of them, "Jeeves Takes Charge," tells the tale of how Jeeves and Wooster got together. Another installment is told from Jeeves' point of view, a striking departure from Bertie's usual narrative, revealing even more clearly which of the two is really in control of the relationship. Together they get mixed up in a series of comical capers of the kind that only over-educated, idle-rich chumps could get into during the early decades of the last century.

Many of these stories show Bertie ineffectually trying to assert some independent judgment regarding hats, ties, whiskers, and the like—only to be cowed into submitting to Jeeves' opinion. But the fellow is worth the trouble, since it is Jeeves' clever schemes that get Bertie out of many a scrape. Jeeves and his gentleman come to the rescue of couples whose marital hopes are in jeopardy, chums whose spendy lifestyle depends on the fickle favor of rich aunts or uncles, and Bertie's own bachelorhood (which Jeeves would go to amazing lengths to preserve). To accomplish their humanitarian aims, they indulge in minor thefts, impersonations, and swindles, such as publishing a ghost-written book to help a would-be bride curry favor with the uncle of her intended. And as each plot throws off unexpected side-effects, they meet the setback with deft footwork, outrageous lying, and an all-redeeming sense of the absurd.

The names of Bertie's cronies are a laugh parade in themselves. In this book, young Mr. Wooster comes to the aid of men named Motty, Bicky, Corky, Rocky, Bitty, Sippy, Freddy, and Bingo, among others. With these fine specimens of British and American gentry, Bertie gets into such sticky situations, and expresses himself in such silly ways, that I laughed until I cried—often—and even until I squeaked—once or twice. My wholehearted endorsement of the late Jonathan Cecil's audio-book reading is qualified only by the fact that the blurry vision resulting from my tears of laughter made driving conditions dangerous while I was on the highway.

Other books in the "Jeeves canon" include the novels and short-story collections The Inimitable Jeeves (1923); Very Good, Jeeves (1930); Thank You, Jeeves and Right Ho, Jeeves (both 1934); The Code of the Woosters (1938); Joy in the Morning (1946); The Mating Season (1949); Ring for Jeeves (1953); Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954); Jeeves in the Offing (1960); Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963); Much Obliged, Jeeves (1971); and Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (1974). All that is besides a stage play, a few individual Jeeves stories included in other collections, and an omnibus volume of the short stories titled The World of Jeeves (1967). Plus, just to add to the confusion, many of the above books were released in the U.S. under different titles. Never you mind. I intend to read all of them. I rely on the good all the laughter will do me. And I don't even mind if I hear some of the same stories a second time.

The Code of the Woosters
by P. G. Wodehouse
Recommended Ages: 12+

This novel, first serialized in New York and London newspapers in 1938, packs several "Jeeves and Wooster" short-stories' worth of material into one wickedly dense weave of plot, every stitch of which you will feel in your side as the ridiculous heists, blackmails, rivalries, counter-plots, and romantic complications bearing down on one Gloucestershire manor reveal just how many different shades of laughter your body can produce. In the center of it all is a fashionable fathead named Bertie Wooster and his endlessly resourceful gentleman's gentleman—Jeeves.

Bertie's crisis begins when his Aunt Dahlia commissions him to sneer at a silver cow-creamer (don't ask, just Wiki it). The caper doesn't come off, thanks to a badly-timed brush with a beak (that is, a magistrate) who had previously fined him 50 pounds for conspiracy to steal a policeman's helmet. The cow-creamer falls into enemy hands, jeopardizing a silver-fancying uncle's delicate digestion, as well as Bertie's chances of being invited to future dinners cooked by the best French chef in all England. With this horrible fate hanging over him, Bertie repairs to Totley Towers (the aforementioned joint in Gloucestershire) to have the first of his four novel-length adventures connected with that place and its inhabitants. (The other three are told in The Mating Season (1949), Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963), and Much Obliged, Jeeves (1971).)

To reveal any further plot points in this book would risk spoiling a moment of hilarious perfection. I might hint, though, that you could be laughing about a brown leather-covered notebook filled with choice insults, a policeman's helmet (another one!), a confidential club for valets and butlers, a bathtub full of newts, a vicar named Stinker Pinker, two (2) dangerously marriageable young ladies, and a daffy Fascist wanna-be dictator. (Clearly this was before World War II, if such a thing could be played for comedy!) Apart from the fact that nothing feels better to laugh at than a class of people one despises—and for many people even today, the idle rich of Bertie's set meet that criterion with ease—this is a book that will leave you feeling superb. Laughter, after all, lightens many aches and pains. And this book made me laugh as heartily as few books have done.

Ring for Jeeves
by P. G. Wodehouse
Recommended Ages: 12+

This novel-length installment in the Jeeves-Wooster adventures is an odd duck in several ways. The first thing you notice is that it is narrated in the third person, rather than in the voice of playboy Bertie or his manservant Jeeves. Second, while Bertie is frequently mentioned, he doesn't appear in this story. Jeeves has been loaned to the former Bill Belfry, now styled the 9th Earl of Rowcester (pronounced just like "Roaster"). Third, World War II has happened; the 1950s have arrived; and, in case 1950s U.K. history is a mystery to you, British society has undergone a bloodless revolution of the socialist type. The time of the idle rich is over. Chinless wonders with inherited titles, mansions, and real estate no longer have the resources to live high on the hog without working for a living. The good Lord giveth, but the tax man taketh away.

And so we find young Lord Rowcester living in a decaying pile of medieval stone, desperate for a source of funds to plug the holes in the roof and to provide for his bride-to-be, a veterinary surgeon named Jill Wyvern. It's all very well for his brother-in-law, Sir Roderick Carmoyle (Rory to his friends), to work at Harrige's department store. Even Bertie Wooster has fallen in the world, to the extent that he must go to school to learn how to darn his own sox. But Bill wants ready money and fast. While Jill, Rory, and Bill's sister Monica (a.k.a. "Moke") think His Lordship is doing something for the Agricultural Board, in fact he has taken Jeeves' advice and set up shop as a bookie, disguised under a false mustache, an eyepatch, a loud suit and tie, and the name of Honest Patch Perkins.

Things start to heat up when a beefy, red-faced, Anglo-Malay hunter named Captain Biggar wins a double at the horse races and his bookie—our own Honest Patch—finds himself £3,000 short of being able to pay. Bill and Jeeves flee, Biggar pursuing them nearly as far as Rowcester Abbey, where they doff their disguises and brace themselves for what comes next. What comes next is a farce involving a rich, house-hunting American widow with a taste for ghosts; a diamond pendant with a loose clasp; an old white hunter whose noodle has been so cooked by the tropical sun that he has but a light grasp of reality, though he never quite loses touch with the gentlemen's code; an embarrassing relative who can be relied on to say the wrong thing at the wrong time; a horse race in which so much depends on an unfavored horse closing in from behind; a household staff full of pimply teenagers; and a tough old magistrate who makes up his mind to ask a neighbor for the loan of a horsewhip, only to use it on him.

Besides this, it is a romantic comedy with two couples whose happiness is endangered by the silly goings-on. It a crime story in which the culprit is more worried about making amends for his crime than facing the music. It an adventure that gives full scope to the ingenuity of Jeeves, who not only knows what horse to bet on, but who can usually come up with a fiendishly clever scheme for dealing with sticky situations. Even when most strongly moved, Jeeves registers emotion by no more than a faint twitch of the eyebrow. Yet, somehow, there is a marvelous eloquence in his utterances such as, "Yes, my lord," and, "Indeed, my lord," and, "Most disturbing, my Lord."

The dialogue sparkles. The protagonist's nervousness gives spice to the high-spirited high-jinks. And if the narration seems to lack some of the unflagging zest of a first-person Bertie Wooster yarn, it compensates by making one think that the whole business would go off like a bang on the stage. This is well, since Wodehouse adapted this book from his own play Come On, Jeeves, co-authored by Guy Bolton. If it seems at times like good material for the book of a Broadway musical, perhaps it is because Bolton and Wodehouse collaborated on several such books. While it doesn't have all of the magic we have come to expect from Jeeves-and-Wooster stories, it is filled with a perhaps more grown-up hilarity, based on more grown-up times, and speaking to a more grown-up audience. And since, in the end, Jeeves announces that he is going back to Bertie, we can count on seeing more of the old magic yet.

Very Good, Jeeves
by P. G. Wodehouse
Recommended Ages: 12+

This 1930 short-story collection, entirely devoted to the hilarious adventures of Bertie Wooster and his "private gentleman's gentleman" Jeeves, was the third book of its kind, according to the author's foreword, which names The Inimitable Jeeves and Carry On, Jeeves as its predecessors. The foreword also helpfully provides a script, both in English and in French, for how to ask your friendly neighborhood bookseller to sell you the book.

The stories themselves (eleven of them) had previously been published separately in American and British magazines. Nevertheless, they are so united by a common cast of characters that they almost, between them, form a novel. A novel in which playboy Bertie and his brainy valet are always getting in and out of ridiculous scrapes with battleaxe aunts, dotty uncles, horrid cousins, frisky damsels, and the occasional dog or infant. Jeeves extends his services to such of Bertie's friends and clubfellows as have names like Bingo, Sippy, and Tuppy.

In these tales, Bertie gets the worst in a duel of pranks, evens the odds in a bet over which of two boys will be the best behaved, helps a pal escape the clutches of his wife's nutritionist friend, and dabbles with breaking into a girls' school (for the best of reasons, of course). Whether the problem has to do with a dog, a car accident, a painting, or a vase, Jeeves proves himself to be the man with the answers—though his poor master sometimes squirms a bit before he accepts his medicine. Somehow, the cure quite often involves sudden departures by boat, ship, or train. Such are the hazards of being a flighty playboy with a cool-headed servant who always knows which side the crumpet is buttered on.

These tales have the light, tickling froth of a flute of champagne, often with the additional tartness of a particularly dry vintage. A good part of my enjoyment of them came from the late Jonathan Cecil's tour-de-force of audio-book reading. But as the series' special blend of offbeat characters, silly situations, and Bertie's daffy, what-ho-old-schoolmate style of narration grows more familiar, I find it easier to understand why at least one of my friends re-reads his Wodehouse regularly. Even as the world of Jeeves and Wooster becomes as comfortable as a well-worn easy-chair, the laughs remain reliable, frequent and hearty.

Young Men in Spats
by P. G. Wodehouse
Recommended Ages: 12+

With this collection of eleven short stories, the prolific English humorist who created Jeeves and Wooster proves that his style of adventures can be fun even without the ever-resourceful Jeeves. All of the stories feature upper-class chumps of the Bertie Wooster set, who are constantly getting caught in wacky situations involving girls, country mansions, daffy uncles, hard-nosed aunts, money troubles, mistaken identities, and various dangers ranging from a punch on the nose to (even worse) social embarrassment.

Eight of the stories are told as gossip by, for, and about members of the Drones Club—a fictional gentlemen's club in London whose members subdivide, seemingly at random, into Eggs, Beans, and Crumpets. (I guess this has something to do with such endearments as, "I say, old bean," etc.) Wodehouse wrote dozens of Drones/Egg-Bean-Crumpet tales throughout his career. Towards the end of the book, three of the stories are told at the Angler's Rest pub, where a certain Mr. Mulliner holds his audience (identified by their drinks) spellbound with "fish stories" about his boundless supply of nephews, cousins, and so forth. Mr. Mulliner's far-fetched yarns also form a recurring theme in the work of Wodehouse, to the tune of some 41 stories. Besides these common factors, this book also includes four stories starring Freddie Widgeon and two featuring Pongo Twistleton, both recurring Wodehouse heroes.

Even though some readers may come to this book looking for more on Bertie and Jeeves, few to none will go away unhappy. The stories are outrageously silly. A good third of the fun is imagining what it would be like to live the comfortable life of a Drone, doing nothing for a living and yet living well, having nothing to worry about but the kinds of problems many of us almost wish we had. Another third part is the rib-tickling enjoyment of seeing these empty-headed chaps go through nervous hell (and sometimes, but not always, make a clean getaway), brought on in many instances by their fundamental lack of character. The third third of the laughs flows straight out of the impish charm of Wodehouse's language: the narrators' and characters' colorful way of expressing themselves; the over-educated twits' talent for mangling classic literary references, each ingeniously selected to suit the most trivial occasion; the clipped, high-society slang with which club members and pub crawlers make light of bizarre and shocking doings.

Such doings include an uncle passing himself off as a series of perfect strangers, forcing his nervous nephew to play along; an accident-prone suitor setting fire to the family home of the girl he loves; a Drone plagued by a houseful of cats and dogs, who can't seem to take a step without stepping on one or being attacked by the other; a comedy duo whose top-hats get mixed up, with romantically ridiculous results; and one Mulliner nephew (who also happens to be a Drone), whose daftness is featured in two stories. First the fellow risks his engagement to the love of his life by getting over his head in utopian ideals; then, thinking he must break off his engagement for the good of his intended, he hires a small-time actress to ham up a scene in the theater of life. With these and many other absurdities on parade, you are sure to run the full range from giggles to guffaws.

If Mr. Mulliner's stories grab you, you can find most of the others collected in Meet Mr Mulliner (1927); Mr Mulliner Speaking (1929); Mulliner Nights (1933); Blandings Castle and Elsewhere (1935); and Lord Emsworth and Others (1937). There is also a 1972 omnibus volume titled The World of Mr Mulliner. As for the Drones club, apart from novels featuring club members (among whom Bertie Wooster is numbered), the remaining stories are scattered among several collections—most notably Eggs, Beans and Crumpets (1940) and A Few Quick Ones (1959).

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Alex Cross

One day not too many weeks ago, I treated myself to a meal at Mike Duffy's Pub and Grill and a movie at the AMC theater in Clayton, Missouri. Dinner was a nice, cozy crock of chili accompanied by an order of an appetizer that, in spite of being named after one too many cities, could become a threat to Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's: Buffalo Chicken Rangoons, with a side of sweet-and-sour sauce. Flaky, crispy, creamy, tart, sweet, and tipped with a peppery sting that added a sheen of sweat to the glow of pleasure on my face, those little gimmicks made my evening. And the movie Alex Cross, featuring Tyler Perry as the detective created by author James Patterson, didn't.

The problem with Alex Cross is that it's not one movie, but four movies crammed into the running time of one. First, it's a family melodrama, like a retelling of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry set in present-day Detroit—what with Cicely Tyson playing the lead character's mother who stops him on his way out the front door with a duffel bag full of sawed-off shotguns and says, "If you walk out that door, you'd better think about who you will be when you walk back in." Naturally there is also a scene where Tyler Perry comforts his daughter as they grieve over the death of his wife. "I'll never play the piano again," this infant petulantly whines. I would almost swear I saw a "Thank God" pass behind her father's tear-filled eyes. But that might have just been the Buffalo Rangoons stirring up gastrogeographical confusion inside me.

Next, the movie was an evil fitness video starring Matthew Fox, late of Lost, as a cold-blooded assassin who carries out stages of a ludicrously complex murder plot in between sets of fiendishly shirtless pull-ups. And it's all so very sad, because most people within 10 or 15 years of my age (+ or -) can remember when Fox was a nice-looking young man, whereas now, after riding a physical-fitness mania into his mid-forties, he just looks scary. Dude needs to put some body fat back on, that's all I'm saying.

The third movie within the movie is a buddy-cop flick featuring Tyler Perry (again?!) in a role previously played by Morgan Freeman, and Ed Burns as a sidekick who violates the canons of cops-and-bad-guys actioners by surviving to the end of the film with little more than a black eye to show for his jeopardy. In fact, it is Burns's character who does a Sam-and-Frodo and pulls his partner out of the crack of doom (here depicted as an abandoned theater repurposed as a parking structure). It just isn't right. At best, Burns should be last seen being loaded onto an ambulance, bravely hanging on and jonesing for Gummi Bears. The partnership between these two cops is especially awkward because: (1) they both lose their main squeeze at the same time, so neither gets a clear shot at comforting the other; and (2) after turning dirty to get the killer, they move on in tandem to a career at the FBI without suffering any consequences. I mean, couldn't there be an apoplectic captain to yell at them? OK, they do have John C. McGinley for a while—but he gets blown up before the buddies give him a really good reason to nail them.

And finally, squeezed into about a quarter of the movie's running time, there is the mystery-thriller in which a brilliant psychologist/detective (that's Doctor Cross to you) slowly gains ground on the equally brilliant monster he is chasing, using only his powers of observation, deduction, psychoanalysis and solid police work. Which ultimately proves to be a cheat anyway, since the case isn't solved until Dr. Cross and his partner steal evidence from their own precinct and use it to make a deal with Giancarlo Esposito. The bastards!