Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Books read in October

The Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
And just as we really start to get to know Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle kills him off.  The paradox, of course, is that the stories are more relaxed and mature as pieces of writing; less enamoured of the tricks of the detective and more concerned with the characters involved (although still not high art). As a result, the puzzles are more intriguing and the stories more satisfying. Indeed, the last story, in which Holmes meets his fate, has none of the detective’s skills on display (apart from one example of disguise) and no crime is solved. We never meet the villain first hand. The story is told simply (some say coldly), and that for me makes it all the more effective. It has a ring of truth about it for here is a man setting the record straight on events and people that are still painful to him.

Edison’s Conquest Of Mars – Garrett P. Serviss
Written in 1898 this unauthorised sequel to Wells’ War of the Worlds is a truly awful book. The author was an astronomer and should really have stuck to that. It is dull (even by late nineteenth century standards), jingoistic, militaristic, and to call it adolescent would be to pay it a compliment. It is an early form of fan fiction, I suppose, in the days before copyright protection. Should copyright go out of the window, this is the level of stuff we can expect in the future.

The reason it still circulates, we are told, is that it came up with some of the staples of science fiction first. In other words later writers have been lazy enough to bump along in the rut left by this clunky cart. When compared with other classics of sf set on Mars, this should really be left in a dark room and forgotten.

The Martians Are Coming! – Alan Gallop
This is the story the of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company’s broadcast of H G Wells’ War of the Worlds and the subsequent panic it caused. The book is well researched and well written with a lightness that makes the subject both interesting and entertaining. It gives background to Welles’ career and how he came to be in a position to put on the play and in so doing gives some insight into the character of a man often cited as a genius, yet whose output rarely ever reached that level. We are told how the broadcasts were done, and treated to an overview of the ensuing panic. One could have hoped for a more in-depth look at events and the reasons given, but as an introduction, this is ideal.

The Sword In The Stone – T H White
This book is important to me on so many levels it would be difficult to know where to begin with a full scale appreciation. I won’t attempt that here. Just to say that every time I read it, I enjoy it more (although I do wish someone would sit down with White’s notes and work out the definitive version of the five book sequence). White’s erudition shines through; not just his understanding of natural history, but his understanding of the spiritual underpinning of the Arthurian mythos. Yet it never gets in the way of a beautifully told tale of childhood and growing up, with all the poignancy not just for loss of innocence, but for the loss of an idealised chidhood that many in my generation (even those of us who lived in cities) came close to having. Glorious.

The Witch In The Wood – T H White
The second book of White’s tetralogy is remarkable in that it is both the same and different to the previous book. The tone and style remain the same, with the same unique setting. But where the previous book was clearly about childhood, this is clearly about ‘growing to man’s estate’ and how younger generations overturn the ideas and expectations of the previous generation.

The focus moves away from Arthur and we are introduced to the family that will, with all the inevitability of tragedy, bring ruin down on Arthur’s enterprise. Consequently there are shadows in this book not present before; cruelties that, through the various reactions of Gawain and his brothers, show how complex an issue evil is. No one here is out and out evil. They are all a product of their upbringing and their individual natures against a social background of turmoil and centuries of mythologised enmity. Very much like today, in fact.

Merlyn’s attempts to guide the setting up of the Round Table and all it stands for are flawed and Kay, despite depicted as not very intelligent, often sees these flaws and is puzzled by them. Yet flawed as they are, and dependent on methods Merlyn despises, it is clearly a vision of a more equitable world.

For all it is part of a longer story and was never intended as a work in its own right, White manages to make an entity of it, a complete episode. And all the time he does it with a lightness of touch that allows deep questions about the nature of personal and political power to be aired. More remarkable is that in the almost cartoonish atmosphere of the book walk some complex characters who have, as yet, to reach their full flowering.

Kim – Rudyard Kipling
A curious hybrid of a story that probably wouldn’t get to see the light of day these days. Partly a spiritual quest and partly the story of the training of a spy, it is also often presented as a children’s book. Presumably because the central character is a child. It is of course all these, but most of all it seems to me, it is an affectionate portrait of India. The book is exuberant and loving, a love letter to the sub-continent with all its beauties and faults and idiocies.

For those who enjoy children’s books in which children avoid or fight against the influence of adults to greater or lesser degree, this belongs there with the best (if not rightfully claiming to be the best. For those who enjoy gentle tales of spiritual quest, this belongs with the best, etc. For those who enjoy spy fiction (and have an interest in the history of espionage), this is an essential read. That someone could combine the three seamlessly proves that Kipling, for whatever faults you may perceive him to have, was a genius writer.

Welcome To Alflolol – Mezieres & Christin
The fourth in the Valerian and Laureline series. Yes these are for a youngish audience, and yes they are fairly straightforward, but they are also deeply political, reaching an audience that might otherwise be missed. In this adventure, aspects of colonialism are examined and found desperately wanting. And the framework continues to delight, with Valerian, as ever, coming round to the wisdom of his female partner Laureline. He might be slow, but he gets there in the end.

The graphics, too, are a delight and underpin much in the way of science fiction film since the ‘70s, much of it unacknowledged. Indeed, with proper handling and faithfulness to the stories, these would make excellent movies.

Tarzan Of The Apes – Edgar Rice Burroughs
In celebration of the book’s centenary, I decided to revisit. I can only assume the version I read as a child was bowdlerised as I don’t remember it being anything like as blood-thirsty (and I doubt my Junior school would have had the full version in the library in any case). The tale is so familiar that it is hardly worth repeating; orphaned child raised by great apes of unspecified type, encounters humans, becomes ‘civilized’.

Those bare bones (and many subsequent versions) do not do the story justice. Although there is savagery, Tarzan is a sophisticated character. And although the implausibilities pile up a bit, the book is an enjoyable read and ERB is not above taking a none too subtle swipe at ‘civilized’ man. It may lie firmly within the tradition of pulp, but it is one of the better offerings, far superior to a great deal of writing within that genre.

The Return Of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The observational skills of Holmes are much less on display in these stories. Presumably it is a trick that Conan Doyle could not or did not want to keep up, and whilst there are occasional flashes, the tales focus much less on this and more on the characters involved and the situations in which they find themselves. It makes for a more introspective set of tales which offer a glimpse into late Victorian society.