Archive for April, 2009

Loving Douglas Adams.

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

He may be too soon gone but I hope he is never forgotten. To label Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series of books as science fiction does them no justice. They are fiercely funny, outrageous delights. Outer space might be the setting (sometimes), but these treats have nothing else in common with the genre.

How to describe his writing? How about this sample: “Flying is easy — all you have to do is throw yourself at the ground and miss.” This absurdist attitude shines on every page. The description of earth in the eponymous guide consists of two words, “Mostly harmless.”

Don’t think for a moment Adam’s works are much like the fairly recent (and fairly bad) movie of the same title. Though Adams was helping with the script, I can’t help but feel that his untimely death led to an inferior product. After all this was the man who said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly past.” So he probably was procrastinating more than writing. At least that’s what I chose to believe.

Besides taking you to the end of the universe and back again, Adams also created a couple of equally imaginative and impossible detective novels starring Dirk Gently. Other works include The Meaning of Liff, a dictionary of words Adams felt were missing from the English language and therefore invented for us.

To get a bigger sampling of his creativity, check out this website. It’s a group of quotations, some from his books and some from life. If that doesn’t convince you that Douglas Adams is a first rate humorist… well, I just have to wonder about your sense of humor.

You can check out his official website by clicking here, but I don’t think it’s worthy of the man. Do read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the first book in the series. The journey it takes you on may be short but it’s packed with pleasure. You’re sure to want to read the next installment.

I know I’m still pining for more. If only…

Poe: A Life Cut Short

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

By Peter Ackroyd

The Short Take:

The second of Ackroyd’s Brief Lives biographies, Poe feels even-handed in its treatment of the oft maligned yet seminal writer and poet, Edgar Allan Poe. In just under 200 pages, it provides substantial detail about Poe’s life yet doesn’t bog down in a lot of psychobabble. When you’re writing about Poe, that’s no easy pitfall to avoid.

Why?

My son insisted on reading a biography about Poe to fulfill a grade school requirement. I tried to dissuade him, to no avail. His final opinion: Poe was the saddest man who ever lived. Everyone he ever loved died.

Ackroyd would probably agree with that assessment. In his concise biography he reveals all the tragedies of Poe’s 40 short years — both happenstance and of Poe’s own making. But this book reveals no romantic tragedy, it points out again and again the dichotomy of Poe’s nature: Insecure yet haughty. Starving for approval yet a savage critic of others. Precise in his writing yet careless almost beyond belief in his personal life.

E. A. Poe’s influences on other writers is also noted. Arthur Conan Doyle himself said no one could improve upon Poe’s detective in Murders in the Rue Morgue, the very first detective mystery. Poe is also credited with writing the first horror story and of influencing writers as diverse as H. G. Wells and James Joyce. All this from a man who spent quite a bit of his adult life “under the influence” himself.

It’s a fascinating portrait, made all the better because Ackroyd does not judge. He occasionally speculates as to cause and effect, but maintains his role of reporter throughout. If you were ever interested in learning more about the enigma that is Edgar Allan Poe, this is a perfect place to start.

A Little Plot:

You probably already know the general story. Orphaned at an early age, Poe spent the rest of his life trying to compensate for that loss. This biography traces the arc of his life, from tragedy to continuous disappointments to death. Yet the haunted brilliance of this man transcends circumstances to create literary works that are still treasured at home and abroad.

A Thrilling Duo: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009


The Short Take: 

If you like your thrillers with a touch of the macabre, the books of Preston and Child are custom made for you. Particularly the ones featuring the eccentric FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast.

Why?

For me, Agent Pendergast is one of the most fascinating mystery solvers of the last 20 years. While he is supposed to be a FBI agent, he seems to do exactly what he pleases with little or no supervision. Unbelievably rich, emotionally flawed, and totally brilliant, his past is a Gothic as his present is dramatic.

Pendergast was introduced in Preston and Child’s first collaboration, The Relic. For some reason the authors chose not to develop him further for their next six books. But in their seventh collaboration, The Cabinet of Curiosities, he took center stage with a vengeance and has never turned it loose. He’s been the central character in their last six thrillers, with the seventh, Cemetery Dance, scheduled for release on May 12th.

It’s best to read them in order, starting with the above mentioned The Cabinet of Curiosities. They aren’t all of equal merit, ranging from “can’t put down” to “pretty darn good.” But if you enjoy mystery thrillers where the action depends less on guns and chases than it does on brilliance and the bizarre, I simply don’t think you can do better than this dangerously prolific duo.

Want to know more about them and their books? Just click here.

Fool

Monday, April 6th, 2009


By Christopher Moore

The Short Take:

Moore really does a job on Shakespeare’s King Lear. This famous tragedy is transformed into a broad and bawdy comedy. Though definitely not for those who blush easily or worship The Bard, I found Fool to be a royally raucous romp.

Why?

I admit to being a Christopher Moore fan, but nothing prepared me for this one. Moore mixes contemporary British slang with Shakespearean phrases (from a variety of plays) and adds in a big helping of “gratuitous shagging” (his words, not mine). He does follow a fair amount of the original King Lear plot but also throws in the witches from Macbeth. It’s that kind of book. 

Despite all the betrayals and a goodly amount of killing, this book is pure comedy, and not of the subtle variety. Though Moore does not particularly recommend that you read King Lear, I think breezing through a quick synopsis actually helps you to appreciate what Moore hath wrought.

The title refers to the court Fool, who is not only the central character but also the person who puts all those betrayals and murders in motion. He behaves as a Fool in temperament and antics, but he is anything but a fool when it comes to manipulating the players on this particular chess board.

To me, the funniest thing of all was Fool made more sense than King Lear. How weird is that?

A Little Plot:

Just read the a summary of King Lear. Then forget the last half or so. Lear still demands professions of love from his three daughters and believes the smarmy words of two but is angered by the honesty of Cordelia and disinherits her. Of course the remaining two plot against Lear — but here’s the rub: It’s actually the Fool that motivates the plotting all in hopes of bringing back his beloved Cordelia.

You want more? Read the book. Want to know more about Moore and his other books? Click here.

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