Treasure Island

Treasure IslandTreasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed reading through this. It’s a great adventure tale, and it has been deemed a classic for good reason.

A lot of my reading was colored by the number of times I’ve seen various film adaptations of the story, and I must say I was impressed that no film version I have ever seen accurately represents the entire story. One will get these things right, another will get those things right, and all of them will miss out on this tidbit, or that one. But I liked the book a great deal.

It doesn’t get five stars for… some reason or another. I don’t quite remember. My brain is a little frazzled right now (there was a recent death in the family, and I’ve just returned from a long road trip); perhaps I will amend this review later if I think of more details.

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Foundation Compilation

Foundation (Foundation, #1)Foundation by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Asimov’s work is excellent, as always. He has the ability to condense important information into a small space, to introduce characters quickly and efficiently, to present scientific concepts with ease, and to lead the reader on whatever twists and turns he wishes. This makes one of his most famous books entertaining, at least, and delightful, at best.

There is not much I can say about the skill with which he writes this book. But I will mention why I downgraded the book from five stars to four.

First, the structure. In his style, he writes in sections, which separate the book nicely – but seeing as I complained about the chapter enumeration in McDevitt’s work, and that enumeration is almost identical here, it would be incongruous for me not to mention my displeasure with it in this case. On the other hand, Asimov’s publisher, whether it was a modern choice or not, has done a good job of making the pages clean and the chapter breaks clear, whereas McDevitt’s pages seemed cluttered, and the chapter breaks random.

The second issue was something brought to my attention by an old associate. Now, let me preface this by noting that I have no problem with authors trying to convey important messages through their work; if they don’t, there’s not a whole lot of point to the work to begin with. An author has to talk about the human experience, or political problems, or religious questions, or philosophy, or history, or something, anything, other than “Bob and Sally had an adventure.” It only makes sense.

But with that being said, it can get a little… overbearing. In “Foundation,” the overbearing part is the pacifism. “Violence is the last resort of the incompetent,” characters quip throughout the book. Every crisis, every situation, every challenge is resolved with completely non-violent means (or at least, no means involving direct violence; starting a kingdom-wide religious riot probably resulted in a little bit of violence). In fact, the whole point of the book is not the cleverness of psychohistory (which was heavily involved in “Prelude to Foundation”), nor is it technology, or even really the challenges of rescuing knowledge and science as civilization devolves at the end of an era. It’s mostly about how peaceful means are more effective than violent means – inventing religions, manipulating economies, and playing politics are all more ethical behavior than fighting a war (even defensively).

What was most frustrating was that the last two sections of the book proved this to me. The penultimate section did not even deal with a Seldon crisis; its only purpose was to lay the groundwork for the final section (i.e., “There are traders, and they trade stuff.”). And the final section does not bring us full circle to the first section of the book; it does not connect back with Seldon’s initial appearance; and it does not close an overarching story from beginning to end. It does bring us back to the Empire, but only as an unexpected twist. One of the defining characteristics of Seldon crises is the appearance of Seldon with sage advice, which did not occur in the final section of the book.

In short, the reason I downgraded this otherwise-excellent book from five stars to four is that it struck me, not as a cohesive unit with constant theme and strong message, but as a collection of short stories, each of which tried to say, “Peaceful coercion is better than violent coercion, even if the peaceful behavior is traditionally unethical.”

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The Woman’s Perspective of Dysfunctional Relationships

Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In many ways, I didn’t see the big deal about this book. I chose to read it because I fancied, for a moment, that if it were so highly praised, there must surely be something to it. I spent the majority of the book haunted by a peculiar despair on behalf of its characters; no one seemed disposed toward a good end, and the only character even remotely relatable was Mrs. Dean, the primary narrator of the story. Indeed, Heathcliff’s monomania and violent devotion, coupled with his unfettered anger, made him a most repugnant character… and, while I gather that this was the intended emotional response for the reader, his primacy in the book’s contents made much of it rather unpleasant.

Worse still is that this book is often lauded (or so I’ve heard) for its romantic depth. The only romance even remotely healthy in nature takes place in the last several chapters of the book, and indeed, it is the only one which I ever wished to take place. Every other was malformed, disordered, and ultimately broken. Again, perhaps this was the point in the writing, but again, the book was not an enjoyable read.

There were other issues, too, which I found vaguely amateurish and off-putting. The notion of supplying a story within a story within a story is a rather modern “meta” style, but this book employs it often. The primary story, of course, is Mr. Lockwood’s renting of Thrushcross Grange and his learning about the owner’s family history; most of the internal story is Mrs. Dean’s own experience, but on many occasions, she lacks experience in the story and relates the story related to her. While this may be the most literal means of maintaining perspective, it is quite ridiculous that Mrs. Dean, as intelligent and sociable as the character may be, could remember not only everything she said and did, everything that was said to her, over a thirty-some year period.

This perspective also makes certainly styles within the book seem out of place. Why is it, for example, that Catherine Earnshaw’s diary should record the servant Joseph’s accent in exactly the same manner as Isabella’s tale of her escape from Wuthering Heights, as told by Mrs. Dean? Ignoring, for a moment, that trying to read Joseph’s speech creates an intellectual dissonance that breaks up the story (and is, occasionally, utterly illegible, at least to my American mind), why should every person who quotes him repeat his accent perfectly, except as though the tale were written first, then given perspective afterward?

I am certain that high-school English teachers everywhere will vehemently disagree with my assessment, but the most valuable detail I gleaned from this book is that it was written, most certainly, by a woman. None of the male characters, when their perspective is employed, think like men. There is almost no visual description of any person, place, or object throughout the book, except insofar as the simplest of actions must be described. On the contrary, every event, every place, and every person is tied intrinsically to the emotional reactions of the narrator (whoever that may be at the time). We hear often of the feelings that seeing Wuthering Heights invokes in Mr. Lockwood or Mrs. Dean or Mrs. Heathcliff, but never – to my recollection – do we hear a word about its actual appearance. While this is enlightening as to the female perspective on life, it makes both the perspective of Mr. Lockwood and several male behaviors throughout seem utterly alien to me. Women behave like women, and men behave like women, only with greater violence.

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Detail, Perspective, and Religion: Thus the Leviathan

Moby-DickMoby-Dick by Herman Melville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can’t imagine that any paltry review I should write would do justice to this Leviathan, over which so much ink has been spilled these many years. E’en so, I shall endeavor to offer my thoughts, though they be incomplete, and insufficient, and nigh forgotten.

I delighted in the style and progress of this book. I can see how many would find it distasteful, and others a source of ennui, and still more a drab and distraught description of a dreary occupation. But I reveled in the work, in the detail, in moments both of focus and of bleary-eyed dedication to the craft.

Yet now I wax poetical, and I digress. The book is a monstrosity, like its final subject, the Leviathan – but in the same way, as Melville describes that creature as noble, even divine, his masterpiece warrants the term. I only wish that I could get away with such writing – indeed, that I could come up with it at all. I enjoyed this book immensely.

On the other hand, it was not perfect. That selfsame style, which I so enjoyed, creates a lackluster performance in the moments of greatest stress. The chase, the hunt, and the battle are as afar-off, distant, and vague. We observe the most thrilling events as one might observe liquid pigmentation exsiccating. Don’t misunderstand: I loved the detail; but it lent itself to exceeding dullness, when things ought to be most exciting.

Furthermore, Melville tells the tale from the perspective of one Ishmael, a sailor who signs on with the Pequod, the ill-fated ship of Captain Ahab. We follow Ishmael, and his friend, Queequeg, for the majority of the book. Indeed, the book that purports to tell the tale of Ahab neglects to speak a word about the man for pages and pages on end. A huge swath of the book passes by without even a mention of the dreaded monomaniac.

To be fair, though, Melville mirrors this neglect at the other end. As we near the finish of this tome, perhaps around the hundredth chapter, we seem to have completely forgotten Ishmael and any sense of perspective. We hear from Starbuck, the first mate; we hear from Ahab, from Pip, from Fedallah, but nary a word from old Ishmael, our first and last narrator. Perhaps Melville meant it this way, so he could close with an epilogue where he details Ishmael’s escape in brief – but it seems more like Melville himself got caught up in the tale of Ahab and his monomania, completely forgetting the original perspective of his story. It seems, to me at least, a shortcoming.

There are other failings. Melville’s notions of nobility and divinity in the whale hint at a blasphemy that does not end there. While the author condemns the Satanism, the violent dedication of the villainous captain, he carries on – through Ishmael – an unpleasant trust in paganism and pantheism. Abandoning the Christian values he at times espouses, he embraces a universalist idea, that pagans and barbarians and Christians all worship, in earnest or in vain, to their own salvation or damnation. In short, his religious views are weak, and flagrantly oppose good moral sense and piety.

And yet, all told, the book is a boon and a delight. You may disagree; you are so allowed. It would not surprise me. But I am better for the reading.

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I Knew Learning Latin Would Pay Off Someday

A Canticle for LeibowitzA Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

NOTE: Some spoilers follow.

Miller’s “A Canticle for Leibowitz” is indeed a marvelous work of modern science fiction. It wraps up the natural fear of nuclear weapons (which Miller no doubt experienced as he watched the bombs fall on Japan) and combines it with the innovative “what if” of a long and storied history.

“Canticle” does an excellent job of providing a deeply religious perspective on a dark and troubled future, with the full awareness of human nature and a Catholic understanding of original sin. The book ends with an intriguing twist on that doctrine, but – while it may be outside the normal realm of theological presumption – it is presented from a humble and simple eye, which presumes nothing of its own accord. Miller’s work here is delightful.

Enjoyable, too, are the echoes of the Mass and the cleverness of Miller’s classical education, which plays out in this work. There were a number of jokes and layers which I could not have understood without my knowledge of the Latin language or the Catholic Mass. Miller’s weave of these issues borders on the brilliant.

Now, downsides: first, Miller is a writer of short stories. This is evident in that each of the three parts of “Canticle” could be read and, more or less, understood apart from the others. There are elements that tie them together, but seeing those strings is more like gravy than substance. Of course, in a story that spans over a thousand years, this is to be expected to some degree. Even so, I would have appreciated more intricacies of plot between the sections.

I felt, too, that there were a few questions left unanswered. The nature and identity of the nomad, or Benjamin, or Lazarus, is unclear. Miller never resolves that question, at least not satisfactorily. There is some implication about the identity of the man, which plays (quite cleverly, if non-traditionally) on the lack of details about the (second) death of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, in the Bible. But I would have liked more resolution there.

But all of that said, the book is excellent. The imagery and depth of the story is striking, and I am glad all the more for having read this delightful work of science fiction.

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