43. Chabon, Michael. The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (639 p.)
44. Asimov, Isaac. The Stars, like Dust (231 p.)
45. Avon Ghost Reader (258 p.)
46. Charteris, Leslie. Enter the Saint (190 p.)
47. Block, Thomas H. Mayday (322 p.)
August total: 1,790 pages
YTD total: 14,071 pages
War, history, science fiction, horror, dashing crime-fighting, disaster... It's been a pretty eclectic month. (Or, if you prefer, a more "well-rounded" reading selection than some past months.)
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a classic among the genre of films set during World War II. The Bridge over the River Kwai is the book on which it was based. It's a translation from the French Le pont de la rivière Kwai, but it doesn't have the slightly stilted feel of a translation. With the exception of the role of the movie's token American POW (whom I guess was added for American audiences to identify with), with a bit more getting into the minds of the British Special Forces team sent to destroy the bridge & a few different details regarding their trek to the bridge, and with 100% less "Colonel Bogey", the book is almost exactly the same as the movie.
Oh, and the ending lacks the movie's explosive ending with its ironic twist and instead goes for a much bleaker denoument much more common to the "war is hell" sub-genre. Personally, I prefer the versions with the the big explosions and feeling that all the death and carnage was somehow "worth it", even though that somewhat lessens the intended message that excessive pride ruins the best of intentions.
Both the book and the movie are excellent, and I thoroughly recommend both.
I've put off reading The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay for a long while now, even after getting several recommendations from people who loved it and knew I was into comic books, because of that magic sticker on the cover that serves as an anti-recommendation for me: "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize". In my experience, so many prize-winning books (and Best Picture-winning movies) fall into a single genre for which I have nearly zero interest that it's generally not worth my time to even bother picking them up. That rule of thumb lets me filter out a LOT of books I wouldn't enjoy no matter how well-written (after all, I need some ground rules, since I don't have time to read EVERYTHING), but it also means I often end up overlooking books like this one.
The book is basically about the lives of two Jewish kids who create a superhero comic book that suddenly becomes "super"-popular, only to naively sign over all rights to their work to the publisher who becomes rich while they scrabble for what they can. Since I'm a bit of a fan of the history of comic books, and since Jerry "Superman" Siegel was my wife's great-uncle, this story carried a lot of extra meaning for me. (Also, just like a modern comic-book movie, Stan Lee even puts in a cameo appearance.) While the comic book industry in New York City of the 1930s-1950s provides the bulk of the setting, the story really focuses on artist Joe Kavalier's escape from Nazi-controlled Prague and his attempts to do absolutely anything he can think of to help his family and/or fight the Nazis, and on both writer Sam Klay(man)'s attempts to do absolutely anything he can think of to be a success in the comic book industry and on his discovery of and coming to terms with being gay.
Along the way, Joe ends up living in hiding while drawing a 3,000+ page graphic novel, and Sam ends up marrying Joe's girlfriend. And in the end, when in a typical prize-winning novel everything would crumble to pieces, leaving most or all of the main characters emotionally damaged and/or dead, Chabon manages to take those pieces and--while constantly teasing a "standard" ending--use them to lay the groundwork for what looks like it might be an even stronger, emotionally healthy, future for the protagonists.
There were several sections of the novel that I didn't enjoy so much, but overall, I found it well-written and definitely worth reading. I definitely recommend it, even to other people who avoid prize-winners, but especially to anyone with some interest in the early years of the comics industry--but for those who aren't comics fans, don't let that element put you off; there's much more to enjoy here, too, including magic and escape artists, the Golem of Prague, the movie serials industry, life on an Antarctic military base in World War II, romantic triangles, and much more.
The Stars, like Dust is the third of Asimov's prequels to the Foundation trilogy. Or rather, it's the first, since I accidentally read them in backwards chronological order.
Biron Farrill, heir to leadership of his planet, survives an assassination attempt in his college dorm room on Earth, only to learn that his father has been accused, (and later convicted and executed) for conspiring against the neighboring multi-world empire of Tyrann. He quickly finds himself enmeshed in insterstellar politics and conspiracies within conspiraces as he first attempts to find a safe sanctuary, and then tries to clear his father's name (or at least his own) & win back his own realm, work against Tyrann's schemes to weaken the bonds between neighboring realms to make them easier to conquer one by one, figure out whether there is a real conspiracy against Tyrann and who's really behind it, and--above all--stay alive and out of prison.
Along the way he meets the girl of his dreams, is captured and escaping or is let go several times, almost gets killed any number of times, discovers and discredits the person who has been pulling his strings all along, and finally discovers the true leader of the conspiracy and the location of the "rebellion world".
For the third time in three books, Asimov includes an afterword apologizing for incorrectly predicting the path scientific discovery would take and thus including future "facts" that have since turned out to be false, but in this case, the issue in question (related to the probable atmospheric makeup of a lifeless Earth-like world), while crucial to one chapter in the book, is relatively easily ignored for the sake of the story.
This is, at heart, a quest story; as such, except for the presence of radiation, blasters, and spaceships, and the absense of magic and monsters, there is very little different here from a good quest-adventure fantasy story. It's a rollicking adventure with a lot of intrigue and a healthy dose of mystery & detective work. And, as is the case for all three of the Foundation prequels, some element of Earth's history ends up being important to the plot. In this case, it's a macguffin that is the entire inspiration for the conspiracy/rebellion and is one of the objects of Biron's quest--and ends up being revealed as only surviving copy of the Declaration of Independence.
From the title, you might think the short story collection Avon Ghost Reader is a collection of stories featuring ghosts. It isn't. You might instead think it's a collection of horror stories, most of which feature ghosts. It isn't. Of the twelve stories, only three include ghosts to one degree or another. The list of stories is "The Dunwich Horror", by H.P. Lovecraft (supernatural horror); "The Panelled Room", by August Derleth (horror/ghost story); "The Fireplace", by S. Whitehead (ghost story), "The Haunted Doll's House, by M.R. James (ghost story); "The Squaw", by Bram Stoker (horror); "Wingless Victory", by H.F. Heard (fantasy/science fiction); "Through the Dragon Glass", by A. Merritt (fantasy); "Naked Lady", by Mindret Lord (horror); The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", by F. Scott Fitzgerald (humorous horror); "The Bottle Party", by John Collier (humor); "By the Waters of Babylon", by Stephen Vincent Benet (post-apocalyptic fantasy/science fiction); and "The Salamander", by William B. Seabrook (psychological horror). So it's mostly a book of horror stories, with a few others tossed in. If there's any sort of a theme (and, based on the introduction, there isn't any intentional theme), it's that almost every story includes some sort of curse or cursed character.
A few of these stories I'd read before. One I even had to study in high school English. All of the stories were well-written, but, like the classic E.C. comics, the horror genre has progressed such in the intervening decades that the stories here are not nearly as "bone-chilling" as they might have been when they were written (ranging from 1917 to 1944), with the possible exception of "The Salamander"--though even it's peek into the mind of an increasingly dangerously delusional man isn't scary so much as unsettling.
"Wingless Victory" seemed the most out of place--with its super-smart penguins living in an Antarctic Shangri-La--though the narrator is cursed to tell his story and have no one believe him, so it has that tenuous link to the rest of the book.
"Benjamin Button" had me laughing at the initial absurdity, then tearing a little as it shifts into tragedy. I was just thinking that it would make a good movie, only to learn that it's currently in production, starring Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, and, as Benjamin himself, none other than Brad Pitt!
"The Squaw" is, I believe, the only work besides Dracula by Bram Stoker that I've read. It takes place in and around the castle and dry moat of Nuremburg, which helped greatly with the verissimilitude, since I've actually been there. The title and the story-within-a-story from which it is derived is an unfortunate throwback to the days when pulp Westerns were considered accurate portrayals of Indians, and this is a story of which PETA would definitely not approve, but otherwise, it's a dark and suspenseful, yet fun little story. I would not be surprised in the least if someone told me it had already been adapted into a Tales from the Crypt comic book or TV episode.
"The Naked Lady" is essentially a variation on Picture of Dorian Gray, except in this case, it is about the creation of the picture. Also, its existence is a curse (essentially a voodoo doll in the shape of a painting) rather than a way of cheating the ravishes of time and debauchery. The ending might be somewhat triggery for some people, but it is executed with a much lighter, defter touch than it might have been and cuts off at exactly the right point. I thought the story is an interesting extrapolation of the basic concept.
This collection was published in 1946, and is long out of print, but if you can find these stories in other collections, I definitely recommend reading them.
Enter the Saint (or, as the full title is given on the title page, "Simon Templar, Alias the Saint, in Enter the Saint") is the first in the long-running series of novels that gave rise to the television show starring Roger Moore and the movie starring Val Kilmer.
The book consists of three novellas. The first introduces the Saint, two of his associates, and his methods, as the Saint takes on a mobster. In the second, the Saint and his associate Roger Conway go after a diamond thief who has added kidnapping to his m.o. In the third, the Saint's associate Dicky Tremayne (with a little help from the Saint) joins up with a gang of thieves and disrupts their plans to rob a yacht full of millionaires--and falls in love with the female gang boss in the process.
This was originally published in 1930 (yes, another one!), and even Charteris admits that some bits have dated rather badly, given changes in technology and in everyday British life. That said, I rather enjoyed it, in spite of the clunky storytelling choices that probably got ironed out in later novels, and in spite of the obvious close ties to its time period.
Rounding out the books this month is Mayday. I think the back cover copy summarizes it well: "An airliner hit by a runaway Navy missile -- 300 passengers and crew brain damaged by oxygen loss -- a handful of survivors barricaded in the cockpit against a raging mob -- High in the air an amateur pilot, a resourceful stewardess and a courageous little girl struggle to fly a crippled jumbo jet. But on the ground, Beneficial Insurance, Trans-United Airlines and the U.S. Navy have all come to the same chilling conclusion: the world must never find out the full horror of what has happened. Flight 52 must never land!"
Why yes, it is a standard-formula 1970's disaster novel. (1979, to be exact.) Even down to the heroic lead being a terrible father who is going through a divorce. Oh, and the 10-seconds of screen time by the pretty co-ed who gets all of her clothes suddenly ripped off of her by the explosive decompression before being pulled out the hole herself.
This is one of the books that got me thoroughly hooked on the whole action/adventure/disaster über-genre when I was a kid. Re-reading it now, the plot has still held up (for the most part) but the technology required to make large chunks of the story plausible has dated very badly. In other words, while it's plausible for its setting the late 1970's, it shouldn't work as is in the 2000's. (For example: 1. All planes over the nothern Pacific Ocean are only trackable simply by where they say they are, and if a plane stops reporting or reports the wrong position, it's effectively invisible. 2. If a plane has its main radio knocked out, the only backup method of communication with the mainland is a teletype with no data storage capability other than the hard copy. 3. Navy radar displays, both in F-18s and in AWACS planes, aren't granular enough at a range of 300 miles render a drone target missile and a "797" jumbo jet as separate targets.) And that's assuming that the physics and biology of a passenger get decompressing at 60,000 feet are accurate in the first place, though for me that part generally falls under "suspension of disbelief". (The author was a captain for a major U.S. airline, so I'm willing to simply take his word for a lot.)
But despite all that, it's still a fun brain-candy read, and I can definitely see this as a cheesy made-for-TV movie. Wait... Oh, no-- it was! (With Dean Cain as the evil Navy commander?! But he's a big teddy bear, even as a bad guy!)
Feudalism: Serf & Turf