Book Review: The Last Unicorn – By Peter S. Beagle

 

Beagle The Last Unicorn.pngLetter MMy first exposure to Peter S. Beagle came around two months ago when I stumbled upon Tamsin in the local used bookstore. Although I had heard good things I had never read him, and with Tamsin I was hooked.

The Last Unicorn is Beagle’s most well known book, having been made in to an animated movie which I’ll have to check out now that I’ve read the book.

The Last Unicorn revolves, naturally, around the story of a unicorn who finds herself oddly troubled with the idea that she is indeed the last unicorn in the world and sets off in search of her kin. Along the way she is eventually joined by the Shmendrick the Magician, an individual with his own adventure to fulfill as well.

The thing which ever captivates me about the writing of Beagle is his ability to wrap the reader up within the story through his exquisite use of not only imagery but through his descriptions of the way his characters think and feel, an aspect which in many books (especially of the fantasy and fable genre) seems to be done to accent the text rather than to imbue it with life and meaning.

The narrative of The Last Unicorn is itself a fun, powerful ride following the quest of the last unicorn and her companion(s). And while the story itself is marvelously told, truly enthralling the reader within the world Beagle has created, I’m even more drawn to the world itself. Beagle’s works are simply astounding endeavors in mythopoeia and subtle all the same. Beagle’s stories seem to live on the border between our world and fairyland, which in my opinion is the best place for a story to live. There is ever a question hanging in the air of just how much the world Beagle is writing in is our world, and how much of it is magical, which keeps the reader in suspense as to just what is possible in the world presented. Is magic real, and how real is the magic, and what is the nature of this magic – these are the questions that perpetually come up. One is never quite sure what to make of the world and there is always a veil of mystery lying behind the scenes, being lifted only enough to entice and drive the story forward.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Beagle’s writing, especially here, is his near meta treatment of myth, fairy tale, and heroes (much of which can be seen in the ‘Memorable Quotes’). Much like Samwise in The Lord of the Rings when he ponders what sort of story they might be in, the characters in The Last Unicorn are ever conscious of the fact that they fit within a mythic narrative, where a hero is a type of individual and things are meant to be done in a certain fashion. However, while the individuals explore the meaning and nature of fairy tales from within, this isn’t done in a fourth-wall-breaking manner (which I think would spoil the fun). Rather, it is a glimpse of a world where what we would call the mythic (a unicorn) is the real, and what we would call the real (ordinary people) are actually less real.

I highly recommend this book, an absolutely amazing trek into fairyland.

Memorable Quotes:

-“This is a strange sorcery,” she said softly. “There’s more meaning than magic to this.”

-“Well, if they hadn’t, he couldn’t have grown up to be a prince. Haven’t you ever been in a fairy tale before?”

-“Your tale has no power over me. I am a unicorn. I am the last unicorn.”

-“…the true secret of being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock at the witch’s door when she is away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen.”

-“He thought, or said, or sang, I did not know that I was so empty, to be so full.”

Book Review: Dracula – By Bram Stoker

 

bram stoker dracula.pngLetter TThe definitive gothic novel, Dracula holds it’s place not just as one of the key standards for Gothic fiction, but also as the chief progenitor of vampire lore as a whole. It may have been present before, but here Bram Stoker set the norm for what we expect from the realm of vampires.

The text consists of a number of letters and journals arranged chronologically to form a narrative of events. The story begins with the arrival of Jonathan Hawker to the castle of the count, where he quickly begins to notice that things are not quite as they should be and the count is much more than just an eccentric client. It is the unraveling of this mystery around which the tale is based, taking the reader from the dark foreboding halls of the Transylvanian castle to the shores of England and back again.

I’m somewhat hesitant to distinguish a central protagonist in this novel. The only centralizing figure in the book is Dracula himself, though Jonathan Hawker (despite being absent from a solid third of the text) probably stands as the primary protagonist (a spotlight he shares in the latter half of the book with Van Helsing and John Seward). Even as centralizing antagonist Dracula himself becomes almost a backdrop as the focus of the novel shifts from Hawker in Transylvania to Van Helsing, Lisa and Seward in England. Once gone from his homeland he becomes the darkness in the background, a catalyst for the progression of the plot who enjoys very little screentime.

I believe it’s safe to say that without this book we might not have the trends in literature which have recently arisen (or re-arisen), fiction’s current fascination with the gothic undead. Apart from that the book is an enjoyable read, though it’s not without its faults (which are discussed below).

Memorable Quotes:

-“‘I had heard that madmen have unnatural strength. And as I knew I was a madman, at times anyhow, I resolved to use my power.'”
-“I suppose it is thus that in old times one vampire meant many. Just as their hideous bodies could only rest in sacred earth, so the holiest love was the recruiting sergeant for their ghastly ranks.”

-“Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all, and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain. But yet we see around us every day the growth of new beliefs, which think themselves new, and which are yet but the old, which pretend to be young, like the fine ladies at the opera.

Specific Criticisms

My main criticism of this story is that it seems at various times throughout the text there is instilled what I call forced ignorance. This is that thing which occurs either when a character arbitrarily withholds valuable information from another, or a character simply fails to notice things which should be manifestly plain to them.

The first example we get of this is in the opening chapter of the book where Jonathan Hawker is interacting with the townspeople. It is quite obvious that the townspeople either know Dracula’s secret or at least have a very strong feeling in that direction, and yet they most they do is give Hawker a crucifix. One can’t help but feel they thought Hawker was going to his death and yet nobody bothered to pull him aside and say “hey, you know that guy you’re going to meet, this may sound strange but he’s totally going to eat you.”

The next most obvious example of a character withholding valuable information is the good sir Van Helsing, who’s favorite course of action once he figures something out is to basically say “I’m not going to tell you what’s going on, but don’t worry, it’ll all be come clear before too long” even if it coming clear means that we’re going to all but let one of the other characters die. So much time and effort could have been saved if only Van Helsing would have spilled the beans at the very beginning, since it’s fairy obvious that he at least had a strong suspicion that there was a vampire at work (hence bringing in all the garlic right off the bat) – you’d think by the second or third time the girl had her blood drained we might be taking some more drastic actions than just garlic and sitting up with her all night, such as say, putting her in a room without a window (or just moving her to a different house in general).

The handling of Lucy’s situation was actually just poorly handled all around. Even if it wouldn’t have actually been helpful you’d think that with the constant “fluttering at the window” of the bat that somebody would have tried to shoot the dang thing (or again, put her in a different room). They’ll deck out the room in garlic, but for some strange reason never bother putting up a crucifix anywhere.

Probably the best example of forced ignorance is on Hawker’s arrival in England and his outright refusal to read his journal. Sure, one may attribute this to his weakened mental state but it comes off much more as a ploy to keep the plot from advancing too quickly, especially when all throughout the book anybody who actually has some useful information also conveniently has some reason for refusing to divulge it (or not, since alot of times it just seems to be whim).

The second type of just not noticing plain information comes with pretty much everybody involved in the case of Lucy (apart from Van Helsing, who notices but as noted likes to keep his findings to himself). These folks actually have the exact opposite of the problem which Hawker had when he met Dracula. Hawker actually seemed to realize things too fast, he was connecting dots which hadn’t even appeared yet and almost seemed to just guess that Dracula was a vampire on pure fancy. Meanwhile, everybody involved with Lucy can’t make the connection with vampires even with the dots connected for them. Puncture wounds on her neck, vast quantities of blood being lost overnight with no sign of it spilling (and only when nobody is around), bats constantly flapping at the window, strange red-eyed men found in the night, the effectiveness of garlic, etc.

To continue harping on Van Helsing, apart from refusing to divulge valuable information or doing anything to help Lucy besides giving her some garlic and blood transfusions, it seems arbitrariness is just one of his character qualities. For instance upon Lucy’s death Van Helsing has the very good idea of staking her and cutting off her head before the funeral, but after the coffin is closed so nobody will notice. The night before he puts a crucifix in the coffin, but the crucifix is stolen by a servant. Helsing gets the crucifix back, and then for no good reason decides he doesn’t want to stake the vampire anymore, apparently just for kicks and giggles. The funeral still hasn’t been held and the body is presumably still in the casket, Helsing just wasn’t in the mood that day or something. Hesling shows a similar bout of arbitrary when he decides not to stay in the cementary on their first attempt.
Sidenote
There are some interesting connotations which I can’t help but put with a few passages from the text.
One of these I’ve already quoted: “Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all, and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain. But yet we see around us every day the growth of new beliefs, which think themselves new, and which are yet but the old, which pretend to be young, like the fine ladies at the opera.
The first half of this quote can still seen in act today, most obviously in debates between theists and atheists, where the latter posit supernatural things being outside the realm of science as something against them.
The second half references either heresy or simply the revitalization of old philosophies (which are often the same thing). Given that Stoker was Protestant but also scientific it could go either way. Regardless, it is quite applicable to either.
Another one of these passages is the following: “To believe in things that you cannot. Let me illustrate. I heard once of an American who so defined faith, ‘that faculty which enables us to believe things which we know to be untrue.’ For one, I follow that man. He meant that we shall have an open mind, and not let a little bit of truth check the rush of the big truth, like a small rock does a railway truck. We get the small truth first. Good! We keep him, and we value him, but all the same we must not let him think himself all the truth in the universe.”
This bit is similarly quite applicable to both heresy as well as general philosophic thought, though I’m most directly reminded of Chesterton‘s ‘virtues gone wild’ in Orthodoxy.

Book Review: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – By Douglas Adams

 

adams hitchhikers guide to the galaxy.png

Letter TThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a fun, buoyant adventure following the tale of Arthur Dent as he narrowly escapes the earth’s destruction in the wake of a new space super-highway being built in its place, hitching a ride with interstellar researcher Ford Prefect aboard the ship of the very alien bureaucrats whom destroyed his planet. From here unfolds the winding and absurdly improbable tale which will take the sole survivor of earth’s destruction from the one side of the galaxy to the end of the universe, stopping along at every time and space in-between.

The storyline itself is almost secondary to the individual parts which make it up. While the reader’s curiosity is continuously kept, wondering what the answer to the mysteries will be, it is really the individual events which keep the reader going – that is, all the little bits of humor which wander throughout the universe and coalesce to form the light-hearted narrative which is the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Light-hearted is probably one of the best ways to describe the main body of the story. As I said, the actual objective and end goal the characters are trying to achieve in each book is only a backdrop for the multitude of smaller moments which serve to convey Adams‘ humor. This can especially be seen in the periodic breaks in the text, which serve to elaborate on some seemingly irrelevant piece of information on the universe such as the specific recipe or way of serving a special drink.

Most of Adams’ humor comes through the innovative, unexpected and interesting scenarios that he lays before the reader. The exact plot being of little importance to the book I won’t bother going into it here, such analysis would seem to defeat the purpose of what Adams is trying to achieve, which is simply a fun, twisting ride through the crazy universe which lies beyond our solar system.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Come on,” he droned, “I’ve been ordered to take you down to the bridge. Here I am, brain the size of a planet and they ask me to take you down to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction? ‘Cos I don’t.”

-“The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”

-“To summarize: it is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.”

Specific Criticisms

I don’t have any criticisms of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It is fantastic, end of story.

That said, I think it is worth pointing out that as the series goes on – beginning in the third book (and especially in the forth) – Adams’ tangential ramblings begin to get monotonous and tedious. In the first two and most of the third Adams’ extended quips and sidebars are amusing breaks in the main body of the story, which sometimes served to elaborate on some quasi-pertinent part of the story. In the third these sidebars begin their conquest of the main body and by the fourth book they’ve all but taken over. By the end of the third book I found myself skimming over and skipping chapter after chapter simply because they offer absolutely nothing to the content of the book, nor is any particular humor gained in reading them – they amount to nothing more than the author rambling nonsense in order to fill up space. What begins as a fun novelty in the first books quickly becomes drudgery in the latter.

I believe this effect is aided by the loss of the over-arching backdrop of a central story in the latter books. Without this backdrop to give meaning and centrality to the events taking place it’s simply hard to find a reason to care about what’s going on.

I will say that many times this tangential rambling is used for the purpose of world-building, such as giving an extended explanation of Vogon poetry. It doesn’t necessarily progress the plot but it better helps you understand what’s going on. Others, such as listings of certain drinks and their contents, do nothing apart from take up space and serve to wear-out the novelty which Adams so craft-fully pulls off in the first books.

On a positive note, Marvin the robot is probably one of my favorite fictional characters ever:

marvin.png

 

Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray – By Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde Picture of Dorian Gray.pngLetter WWith his life spanning the later half of the 19th Century, Oscar Wilde wrote in a wide variety of mediums, ranging from poetry to plays and from essays to fairy tales, and one novel. His fairy tales are arguably the most accessible of his writings, and as is the case with fairy tales revolve around some moral theme being conveyed. For instance in ‘The Selfish Giant’ a giant places a wall around his garden to keep the children out, and thus spring never comes on his garden, causing him to realize the result of his selfishness. Similarly in ‘The Star-Child’ a beautiful boy is forced to come to terms with his prideful cruelty.

The Picture of Dorian Gray can be seen as a continuing of this fairy tale manner of writing, except in novel form (though even then the novel is fairly short).

The story begins in the art-studio of Basil, a painter who is putting the final touches on what is said to be his most greatest painting. With him is Lord Henry, a shallow obscurantist of high society who upon hearing of the figure in the portrait desires to meet with him – the figure being that of a young and impressionable Dorian Gray. The two become friends and eventually the philosophy of Lord Henry begins to have its affect on him.

In the words of Lord Henry, this amounts to “if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream–I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal–to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be… The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

Throughout the course of the novel Dorian comes to embrace this ideal, giving into his own inner nature: Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins–he was to have all these things. The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame: that was all… For there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul. “

Thus Dorian Gray enters into a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of scenario with himself where he resolves to do away with his conscience – where Mr. Hyde reveals the truth of Dr Jekyll, the portrait comes to reveal the truth of Dorian Gray, and before the end he must come to face that truth.

The book is enjoyable, and at around 180pgs can be read in an evening. Like his fairy tales it comes away with a moral, though modern renditions of the character seem to miss this point.

Memorable Quotes:

“You know how I love secrecy. It is the only thing that can make
modern life wonderful or mysterious to us. The commonest thing is
delightful if one only hides it.”

-“Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality.”

-“Ah! in what a monstrous moment of pride and passion he had prayed that
the portrait should bear the burden of his days, and he keep the
unsullied splendour of eternal youth! All his failure had been due to
that. Better for him that each sin of his life had brought its sure
swift penalty along with it. There was purification in punishment.
Not “Forgive us our sins” but “Smite us for our iniquities” should be
the prayer of man to a most just God.”

Specific Criticisms

I don’t believe I have any real criticisms or complaints about this book. I do have to say that I greatly disliked the character of Lord Henry, and the book can be read much more quickly if you skip all his dialogue after his first few rants. If you’ve read one of his conversations you’ve read them all; the basic model is that he says something absurd or outlandish and then the other characters alternately gasp and fawn over his words.

Every now and then this is interrupted by him saying something exceptionally bland, such as remarking that “They are both simply forms of imitation” when Basil makes the statement that “Love is a more wonderful thing than art.” Or by making some contradiction in terms, such as “I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now. It is an absurd attitude to take towards life.”

Little nuances of character stand out, such as Henry and Dorian constantly remarking about the shallowness of other characters while demonstrating a pointed shallowness throughout the book. Of course this isn’t a criticisms of the book or the writing, it is likely in fact a praise of the writing, that he can create such a distasteful character.


dorian-gray

This book cover is an important lesson in advertising: of course it’s his most famous novel, it’s his only novel.

Book Review: The Man Who Was Thursday – By G.K. Chesterton

 

Chesterton Man Who Was Thursday.pngletter-oOver the past few years I’ve read almost every work written by Chesterton. This book, however, stands above the others as having been my first glimpse into his paradoxical yet brilliant mind. I was first exposed to it in a video-game, Deus Ex, which coincidentally turns out to be one of the greatest video-games ever created – whether or not this was in part because portions of this text were included in it perhaps we’ll never know…

Written in 1908, The Man Who Was Thursday is a book which is difficult to pin down, though it has stood the test of time and remains one of Chesterton’s most famous works. Not only is it hard to pin down now, but it was hard to for critics to pin down back then as well, and even Chesterton in his autobiography keeps from completely explaining what exactly is going on. It’s part espionage, part mystery, part allegory and part philosophy on the state of man. At less than 200 pages it’s certainly worth the time it takes to read it.

The story revolves around the man Gabriel Syme as he is recruited into a new sect of Scotland Yard, a group who believe that “the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher,” and thus seek to infiltrate the Council of Days, the intellectual dynamiters who would reek anarchy upon the nation. At the center of this council is the ominous and ambiguous Sunday, a leviathan of a man who seems to posses an unclear and yet overwhelming power of being. It is a story that is at once compelling and comic, surreal and yet touching on the heart of the human condition. It has a pattern of predictability and yet still manages to keep to the reader guessing though to the puzzling end.

The only thing left worth stating are Chesterton’s own words on the book, though to get a true idea of his vision one must of course read the book: “So far as the story had any sense in it, it was meant to begin with the picture of the world at its worst and to work towards the suggestion that the picture was no so black as it was already painted…. I was trying vaguely to found a new optimism, not on the maximum but the minimum of good. I did not so much mind the pessimist who complained that there was so little good. But I was furious, even to slaying, with the pessimist who asked what was the good of good.”

Memorable Quotes:

“…burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the central ideal of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it.”

“No one has any experience,” said the other, “of the Battle of Armageddon.”

“But I am really unfit-“

“You are willing, that is enough,” said the unknown.

“Well, really,” said Syme, ” I don’t know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test.”

“I do,” said the other-“martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good day.”

“Yes,” he said in a voice indescribable, “you are right. I am afraid of him. Therefore I swear by God that I will seek out this man whom I fear until I find him, and strike him in the mouth. If heaven were his throne and the earth his footstool, I swear I would pull him down.”

“How?” asked the staring Professor. “Why?”

“Because I am afraid of him,” said Syme; “and no man should leave in the universe anything of which he is afraid.”

Specific Criticisms

If you wanted to criticize something about this book there are two big points you could use. The first is the repetition of similar twists, resulting in a predictable pattern of events once you notice what’s going on. The second is that the ending of the book, and thus the book as a whole, is very hard to make sense of.

On the first, while there is this element of repetition to the book I don’t necessarily view it as a bad thing. It’s like using a trope or a cliche, it’s only bad if you use it poorly. Chesterton doesn’t use pattern poorly, but instead uses it to give an overall flow and form to the novel, similar to the bass-line in music. It is somewhat predictable, but that’s not what it’s about, it’s about everything that’s going on around it and where that pattern leads.

On the second, there’s not much I can say about this, especially without just giving away the ending. Hopefully the commentary given by Chesterton helps in resolving that.