I plowed through quite a few (for me) short books in September, several for research. Perhaps I should talk about some of my reading at more length but I tend to get impatient with writing actual reviews. Anyway, my list for September:
A Journey to the Interior of the Earth -- Jules Verne (1864)
Jules Verne's books were among the first science fiction I read as a kid and I stll enjoy them. Here Verne more or less admits that the science is innacurate, and in fact the adventurers get nowhere near the center of the earth (making the often seen "Journey to the Center of the Earth" title misleading) but the sense of taking a fabulous journey into the unknown is conveyed brilliantly, at least to me.
All Hallows Eve -- Charles Williams (1945)
This decidedly weird story takes place partly in London during WW II and partly in a contiguous, invisible city populated by ghosts. In the London of the living a sorcerer who has attracted a large religious following plots to take control of the world. For a respected man of letters, Williams' prose style is surprisingly awkward, to put it kindly. His ideas, however, are fascinating enough to make the slog well worthwhile. I was particularly interested in his "realistic" portrait of the sorcerer whose breaching of the barriers between the material and spiritual realms is both frightening and abhorent.
Up in the Clouds -- R.M. Ballantyne
Wonderful Balloon Ascents -- Fulgence Marion
Two short Victorian accounts of the history of ballooning. By the mid-eighteeen hundreds it was already apparent that balloon travel was not destined to evolve much beyond an adventure show, but the early balloonists put on some wild shows. (As did later ones. I avidly followed Steve Fosset's flights.) I've always been puzzled why we have no evidence that ancient civilizationsbever invented hot air balloons. Many early balloons were made of silk or other fabric, and the hot air produced by burning straw. Certainly the early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans were all capable of constructing hot air balloons long before the Mongolfiers first did so in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The evidence that the South American Nazcas (oops. I originally typed "nazguls") did so seems mostly circumstantial.
Meteorology -- Aristotle (350 BC)
I can't pretend I didn't skim parts. Most of Aristotle's explanations for the behavior of the atmosphere sound ridiculous (albeit suitably complicated) but presumably fit with what he was able to observe at the time. In a sense, we don't really "know" more than Aristotle, but we can just observe more and with better accuracy and given the extra data are able to come up with better explanations. Although considering how little success we have with long term weather forecasts it's an open question whether in the future our weather theories will seem just as silly as Aristotle's .
The Sword of Welleran -- Lod Dunsany (1909)
These short stories are all fantasy but encompass everything from ghosts to sword and sorcery. I particularly liked the tale of the "wild thing" who dances on the reflection of stars in the water of the swamp where she dwells, but attracted to the lights of the cathedral wishes to become human.
Secrets of the Pharoahs --Ian McMahan (1997)
A (very) concise history of Egypt and Egyptology, subjects about which I am woefully ignorant. It is stunning to realize that when Herodotus wrote his history, 2,000 years ago, Egypt was already an ancient civilization, much of its history as far removed from his time as he is from ours.
She - H. Rider Haggard (1886)
No wonder people are still reading this. Great fun and a bit of philosophy. It's sobering to realize that what with all the exploration that's gone on, and satellites, it probably isn't possible these days to journey into unknown realms. I mean, heck let's go to Google maps and get a street view of Kor and then get directions. (Maybe an underground trek would still be possible.) She Who Must Be Obeyed is definitely one of the most memorable characters I've encountered. Bigger than life and not all that simple.
In the Shadow of the Wolf -- R. Austin Freeman (1913)
I've already talked about this "inverted mystery." I found Freeman's approach more appealing than I thought it might be. The mystery elements are excellent but the characters and their plights are interesting in themselves.
The Lady in the Lake -- Raymond Chandler (1943)
I should've guessed what the "trick" was in this mystery since Mary and I used practically the same one in one of our Byzantine books. I haven't read Chandler (embarrassing admission, I know) and was surprised that the puzzle part was so conventional. However the characters, the descriptions and the dialog are outstanding. I preferred the slower moving first hallf of the book, perversely enough. One incident brings to mind a query. Say you're trapped, with the baddies headed for your door. Suppose a window opens onto a ledge several stories off the ground and a few feet distant, there's another window. Now also suppose there's a grille in the ceiling over an air vent. Do you escape out the window or up the vent? Is at least one of these options always available?
Sin in Their Blood -- Ed Lacy (1952)
Lacy manages to cram practically every early fifties social issue/problem imaginable into this short, lurid paperback: returning Korean War vets, the emerging women's rights movement after the Second World War, McCarthyism, race relations, even TB. (If it were a historical, he might be accused of laying the period color on too thick!) It is also ham-handed and cliched. The hero and heroine know they're destined to marry about three sentences after they set eyes on one other. Well, I guess in that era that was necessary to excuse what happens in the next sentence. Can be a book be terrible but readable and interesting at the same time? If it is readable and interesting doesn't that prove it isn't terrible? It's interesting to note that Lacy's (or at least his protagonist's) views on all the issues are decidely left-wing, except for an obvious and jarring homophobia. I guess that's a prejudice that runs very deep indeed.
The Postman Always Rings Twice -- James M. Cain (1934)
Talk about bleak. It's a good thing this novel's so short. If it were twice as long I probably would've cut my wrists before finishing. One aspect that makes the book so effective is that the scheming and not very pleasant first person narrator writes about his actions pretty much like you'd expect. He doesn't sound like a psychologist or an Englist Lit major. He doesn't philosophize or analyze very deeply and is surprised, towards the end, when it is suggested to him that he might have had subconscious motivations. The story is over-the-top but feels realistic.