Saturday, September 18, 2021



 


ELEANOR THE QUEEN

Norah Lofts (1904-1983)

Eleanor of Aquitaine was probably born in 1122, although the date is not a certain one.  She was raised mostly by a religious order, receiving an excellent education to match her superior intellect.  She was fluent in French and Latin at least and later in English, undoubtedly.  In her late teens, she was slated to be married to Louis the King of France, but, being in love with young Richard de Vaux, she resisted until Richard was accidentally on purpose slain by a sword in the back.  After becoming the Queen of France, she had two daughters over the next few years, but was in disgrace through lack of producing a son and heir to the throne.  The Crusades were well underway by this point and Eleanor took part in the second one, acting as one of the leaders of the French contingent.  Unfortunately, while crossing the Phrygian Mountains in central Turkey, the segment of knights with whom she was traveling got too far ahead of the main army, which was attacked and seriously mauled by native Turks.  Eleanor was blamed, partly, for her part in agreeing to outdistance the rest of the army.  When the Crusaders reached Jerusalem at last, she was mildly ostracized from the leadership, and was thus unable to introduce a sane voice into the squabbling disagreements among the other commanders as to their next goal.  Unfortunately the lure of Damascan wealth was too much for the generals to resist and the army spent its strength and power uselessly in besieging that city's walls.

Soon afterwards, the European members of the force left by boat to return home.  Louis of France then divorced Eleanor ostensibly for not producing a son and not too long afterwards she became somewhat enamored of the Henry II, the Duke of Normandy.  They were married, and upon the death of King Stephen, he became the King of England.  The next few years were mainly taken up with uniting the kingdom under one ruler.  There were around 1100 separate baronies in the country at that time, and all of them spent their time and substance fighting with one another.  Henry succeeded in eliminating most of the petty infighting and through his superior resolve and with his seasoned armed force, managed to unite the country, more or less.

Henry was not a very loyal husband.  He had lots of mistresses and when one of them died, he accused his wife of poisoning her and sealed her up in Winchester Castle.  The real reason, probably, was actually because Eleanor wouldn't agree to allow Henry to depose her son Richard, who was at that time King of Aquitaine.  Henry wanted to remove Richard because he was too good of a tactician and also because he wanted his other son, John, the King of Ireland, to take his place.  The politics of that time were just as involved and contorted as they are today.Anyway, Eleanor spent the next fifteen years in durance vile, so-called, in a cold cell with minimum comforts and clothes.  

Meanwhile, Henry had his own problems.  One of his best friends, Tom Beckett, a sort of Catholic functionary, had done very well in the priesthood and after many years, had been promoted to be Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was ambitious and wanted to spread Catholicism throughout the kingdom and be head of the entire business.  Henry didn't like this too much.  There's no evidence that he said, as Shakspeare would have it, "will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?", but shortly after, Tom was found dead of multiple stab wounds.  Henry was not a person with very many limits on his personal behavior.  As Ms. Lofts stated once, "Henry's reaction to weakness is to stomp on it".

Henry finally died and Eleanor was released from her cell to become the reigning regent of England and Aquitaine for several years.  The book ends with her in charge and Richard once more in the Holy Land, trying to "free" Jerusalem.

The novel/history was well written.  There was a lot of invented dialogue, of course, but most of it seemed to mesh with the actual facts pretty well.  It was all in English of course, when people of the day actually spoke French or a version thereof - Aquitainian?  The ending was a little abrupt.  Eleanor lived for another twenty years or so.  She helped free her returning son from the prison in which he was incarcerated near the Danube, then moved back to her beloved Aquitaine, living peacefully until she passed away.  Back in England, Richard was about as pugnacious as his father, spending much of his energy and substance in wars with France.  He died in a small siege in that country at the early age of 41.  Richard, Eleanor, and Henry II are all interred in the same place:  the abbey of Fontrevault in France.

I liked this novel quite a bit even though it was a bit dated.  Ms. Lofts is a smooth writer, and this work blends the historical record nicely, logically segueing from one episode to another.  Sort of like lolling about in a canoe on a quiet lake in the sunshine, to be metaphorically extreme, haha...

Friday, September 10, 2021






 TALES OF PIRX THE PILOT & MORE TALES OF PIRX THE PILOT


Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006)


The above pictures are there just to represent the type of unusual mind possessed by Dr. Lem.  These two books describe the adventures and mishaps in the life of Pirx as he graduates from the Space Academy and pursues his career in exploration and colonization of the planets in the Solar System.  "The Test" describes how Pirx flubs his final test while graduating, piloting a ship from initial take-off to the moon, but how everything, accidentally, turns out perfectly in spite of his ham-fistedness.  Each tale in the balance of the book and its successor features a new predicament for Pirx to either solve or muddle through.  There's an ongoing atmosphere of sardonic humor permeating many of the early stories, but as Pirx and the reader grow with experience, the tales magically evolve into subtle analyses of human nature and its relation to the utter strangeness of outer space.  

Several of the stories in the first book  are basically mysteries.  In "The Accident", Pirx is sent to the far side of the moon where two scientists have died under mysterious circumstances.  The descriptions of walking across the surface and through boulder fields and craters are superb, as if Lem himself had actually been there and was merely recording his own experiences.  When Pirx arrives at the remote station after doing a bit of lunar mountain-climbing, he manages to make sense out of the various electronic clues left by the late victims, and to solve what seems to be a series of nonsensical events. 

 In fact, as Pirx ages and the tales become more sophisticated, the relations between robot and human become more important.  Prejudice is examined, amorality plays a role, and the history of anti-android bias is educed.  

Lem doesn't just pontificate about what he thinks human attitudes and morals should be, he arranges his plot structures to show what happens under circumstances that bring out latent, instinctive convictions lurking in the human psyche.  In "The Inquest", an advanced android, the equivalent of a human being, controls an accidental mishap in order to alter the fabric of civilization so as to favor the ascendancy of robots in the future.  During an attempt to deposit satellites in the rings of Saturn, one of them is stuck in the ejection slot while being fired out, and the resulting forces endanger the ship.  Pirx calculates the android's intentions and is able to explicate his behavior.

And in the final story, "Ananke", the force of psychological conviction leads to a major disaster on the surface of Mars, when a 1/4 mile long freighter crashes into the planet.  The predisposition to detail has led the designer of the on-board computer to over-program the security protocols of the computer so it gets overloaded while trying to land the ship and literally dithers its way into a major cataclysm.

I've read most of Lem's work, i think, and i have the greatest respect for his penetrating and adept intelligence, as well as his underlying humor and wisdom.  There is a lot of techno-babble included in the context which might put some readers off, but Lem's intentions and perceptions are spot on as regards the human race and its behavior.  I'd recommend these books to any person interested in experiencing what it might really be like to explore other planets in the near - or remote - future.


Saturday, August 28, 2021


 


TALES OF A TRAVELER

Geoffrey Crayon (Washington Irving). 1815-1882

A collection of tales in four parts, sorted by title, hence:  Strange Stories. by a Nervous Gentleman,  Buckthorne and his Friends,  The Italian Banditti, and The Money-Diggers.

The first group relates the experiences of the members of a hunting party, lolling about in their chairs, after dinner, in an old mansion in 19th C. England and telling each other ghost stories.  The oldest diner tells a story about an ancestor who spent the night in the tower of an old French manse and was awakened after midnight by a tall lady dressed all in white who warmed her hands at the fire and slowly drifted away.  According to the host the next morning she was the Duchess of Longueville.  During the reign of Louis 14th, she was a participant in the civil war of the Fronde, and was upset by the imprisonment of her husband the Duke and some of his friends.  Then another raconteur recites one about his old aunt who solved the mystery of groans in her bedroom emanating from a large picture of her husband, who had died shortly after their wedding.  An Irish Captain then honors the group with a description of his grandfather, a bold Dragoon.  Stuck overnight in Bruges, on his way to England, he spent the night in an ancient hostelry and observed some very strange behaviors as regards the furniture occupying the apartment.  Next, the unfortunate fate of a young German antiquarian who became entangled with the fate of a beautiful lady and her appointment with Madame la Guillotine.  The tales continue, and this section ends with a peroration concerning a young Italian student and his fatal attraction to Bianca, the daughter of a Genoese nobleman.

In Buckthorne and His Friends, we learn about the life and adventures of a literarily inclined member of the English upper classes.  Buckthorne loses his inheritance and survives by taking positions in a variety of enterprises.  He joined a traveling troupe, tried his hand as an essayist, and eventually wound up attending classses at Oxford University.  Later, failing in most of his endeavors, he returns to his native soil, only to find that his father has died, leaving his money and property to a local runagate.  Concerning this period in his life, he comments:  "I was at that age when a man knows least, and is most vain of his knowledge, and when he is extremely tenacious in defending his opinion upon subjects about which he knows nothing."

In The Italian Banditti, we learn a lot about the culture and behavior of Italian outlaws and how they survived during the early 1900's.  Stories about kidnapping, thievery and murder are related by one traveler after another as they spend the night in an inn in Terracina.  How a brave Englishman single-handedly rescues the wife of a fellow passenger through the judicious use of hot lead;  the fate of a young maiden whose father wouldn't pay her ransom; and how an artist used his skills to obtain release from a bandit captain.  The final tale describes a battle between the members of a stage coach and its military escort, and the desperate attempt by a gang of mountain-dwellers to loot and kidnap the travelers.

The Money-Diggers has to do with the early inhabitants and settlers of the Dutch enclave of the upper Hudson river.  In The Devil and Tom Walker, we learn the ultimate fate of a poor miser who acquires a large fortune as the result of taking a short cut through a swamp.  Later we visit the family of Wolfert Webber, the last in a long chain of cabbage growers who becomes enamored with the possibilities of "gold as found" and with the thought of hidden buried treasure.  A red-headed stranger, a violent storm and the secret activities of a mysterious stranger all lead to a rather peculiar, and modern, salvation for poor Wolfert and his family, after several years of searching, fruitlessly, for the ill-gotten gains of Captain Kidd.

Irving is just a delight to read.  His sentences flow like water, and impart a cozy confidence in the reader that a master story-teller is in charge.  He's not particularly deep, or profound, but he's very human in the best sense:  civil, cultured, knowledgeable, and, above all, friendly.  It's like talking to your best friend, or visiting your great-aunt who pushes chocolate cookies at you.  i'd recommend his work highly to anyone at all interested...

Saturday, August 21, 2021


 

THE CONQUEST OF THE MOON

Andre Laurie 1844-1909


Norbert Mauny, scientist, adventurer, explorer, entrepreneur, and astronomer is visiting his friends the Kersains in the town of Suakim, Egypt near the Red Sea. Present are the ambassador, Mr. Kersain, his daughter Gertrude,  her uncle Dr. Briet, and Bucephalus Coghill, another explorer.  Mauny has a plan;  he has identified a large mountain of ferrous pyrite in the middle of the Bayouda desert and intends to magnetize it with the use of solar-powered generators to attract the moon down to the Earth's surface so he can explore it and identify economic resources therein that could be commercially useful.  Mauny persuaded a large corporation to finance his endeavor, and has persuaded Gertrude and Bucephalus to go along.  Also in the company are Virgil, an old Sahara hand, and three representatives of the corporation:  Wagner, Vogel and Gryphins.  They are ostensibly present to supervise and regulate expenditures.  After Virgil arranges for 800 camels to convey the massive amount of materiel, the group begins the trek across the desert, but are soon delayed by a local sheik who demands a toll.  Kaddour, the sheik's vizier, demands an outrageous fee for the caravan to pass, but eventually the two parties come to terms and the explorers are allowed to continue on their way.

The Tehbaldi plain has a 5000 foot high mountain made of "bisulphides of iron" that is Norbert's goal.  He plans to level the top of it and install his generators around the base and thereby magnetize the prominence using sunlight.  But first he has to isolate the pile from the underlying sand, so he drills a hole from the top downward to the bottom and uses the gensets to melt the sand into glass which he plans on pouring down the hole;  the idea is to spread it out at the bottom so as to form an insulating barrier to keep the electrical fluid from dissipating in the earth below.  Meanwhile, the three "commissioners", Vogel, Wagner and Gryphins, do all they can to frustrate Norbert's schemes because they believe it's all a waste of money.  They spend all their time playing cards and drinking.

This all takes place in the 1870's, when the Mahdi is about to initiate a Jihad to wipe the earth clean of unbelievers.  But his forces have been temporarily pushed south, so operations continue post-haste at the mountain.  But Kaddour appears with another army, intending to halt progress and grab all the machinery and money for himself.  Norbert makes friends with him, however, and he joins the company of adventurers.  

The moon approaches and everything is ready to get underway.  At its closest point, the generators are fired up and the resulting magnetic field does indeed begin to pull the moon closer.  Suspense mounts until a gigantic earthquake is felt and the voyagers pass out.  Since they've had the forethought to build themselves a series of leak-proof buildings on the mountain-top, they all live through the transition to the moon's surface when it collided with the Earth.  The moon resumes its usual orbit and the party wakes to find themselves on the moon.

Over the next few weeks, they explore the surface, finding the remnants of huge temples and statues, apparently created by an extinct race of giants, all made out of gold.  Norbert has designed oxygen tanks for walking on the surface.  They consist of tanks full of air connected to face masks via tubes that carry the gas through a sort of squeeze box carried under the left arm.  They are squashed by the upper arm when flow is needed.  In the 1/6 gravity, Norber, Gertrude and the others dance around the many craters and walls in sheer delight.  Later, Norbert travels to the dark side and is awed at the lightless panorama of stars. 

When they decide to return to Earth, the three commissioners, who have behaved badly, sabotaging and damaging the equipment in their attempt to destroy Norbert's plans, are jailed because they've tried to take a lot of the gold back with them.  For various reasons, they are left on the moon along with Kaddour when the mountain, driven by the gensets, returns home.  It is explained that two of the malefactors had kidnapped Kaddour when he was young and forced him to act in a circus for years during which he nursed irrevocable hatred for them.  On the edge of departure, he refuses to let them aboard and since time is of the essence, the others are forced to leave him behind.

Back on Earth, they are picked up by members of the British armed forces who are floating down the Nile on their way to the encampment.  After proving who they are, however, the luniacs are still not credited, the authorities believing that stress and dire experiences have warped their brains.  In the end, Nobert and Gertrude marry and they all live happily ever after.  Upon reaching England, they learn that the savior of Khartoum, General Gordon, has been slain by the Mahdi's forces along with all his troops and they express their gratitude that they escaped that holocaust.

I wrote to India to get a copy of this book, as it's the only other one by Laurie that i could find that had been translated into English.  The printing was not very well done, with pages 18-31 missing, much of the lettering was smeared so as to be illegible, and quite a few pages duplicated.  On the other hand, it was great to be able to get a copy at all.  Laurie wrote many books and it's a mystery to me why some one hasn't translated some of them, as he is in actuality a veritable second Verne.  Imaginative, descriptive and easily comprehensible, both of his books that i've read have held me glued to the page to see what was going to happen next.  i'd recommend his work to anyone, if they could manage to find it...

P.S.:  FeS2d, FeS, are sometimes magnetic, depending on what other molecular additions are included in the crystal matrices, so Laurie's not totally off the wall with this idea.  On the other hand, he certainly had been at some point exposed to Newton's inverse squared law, describing the attenuation of gravity and magnetic waves over distance, so his idea that any source on earth could have had an effect on the moon was sheer invention...  but an interesting idea nonetheless...

Sunday, August 15, 2021




MEMOIR AND CORRESPONDENCE OF CAROLINE HERSCHEL (1750-1848)

Edited by Mary Herschel in the 1870's


Isaac Herschel was an oboist with various German orchestras and bands during the early 1700's.  As his family grew he searched for more permanent employment and found a position with the National Guard Band in Hanover.  William was his eldest son:  he received a musical education from his father and others and became an accomplished violinist, organist and composer.  His younger brother Alexander studied the cello and developed into a formidable performer who was a popular soloist of the time.  The great earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, as well as intimations of war with France shook the stability of the family such that Isaac spent a year in England, near Bath, establishing connections and performing in various musical groups.  William went with him and soon was recognized as a superior artist both for his compositions and his organ playing.  William was a driven personality with a maniacal urge for learning.  He became interested in astronomy after Isaac died at 61 from overwork, and devoted all his spare time aside from making a living as a musician, to studying telescopes and astronomy.  After trying to handle it all by himself for several years, he traveled back to Hanover to persuade his sister Caroline to return with him.

Caroline was invaluable.  She performed in William's concerts, kept his house in good order, sewed socks for extra money, and, ultimately became as engrossed as William in his new hobby, watching the stars.  There was an enormous amount of information to be recorded as William identified new stars and planets through a telescope he'd made himself.  Caroline was kept busy as a sort of secretary, initially, transcribing the oblique and right ascension details that needed to be registered for each new astral object discovered.  She gradually became fascinated herself in searching the heavens, and as her skill improved, ultimately located eight previously unknown comets.

 In those days, lenses were made by hand, produced through intense and prolonged grinding to achieve the correct angular deflections to suit the telescope being created.  The largest lens William made was four feet in diameter, made to fit a telescope with a forty foot focal length (picture above).   As he ground away on his lenses, Caroline would read to him from many of the contemporary authors:  Sterne, Fielding, Smollet, etc.  And since her brother was also a full-time musician she also copied out scores for his many compositions as well as the parts for the individual musicians. 

As time went on recognition came to both of them from the Royal Astronomical Society in London and from foreign bodies as well.  Caroline not only received a medal from that organization, but one from the Irish Astronomical Society.  But William's health began to suffer from his intense workload and from clambering around in the dark.  Once during a windy night, the framework from which he was viewing  collapsed and precipitated him 15 feet to the ground.  And Caroline injured her leg one night while running off to get some needed object.  She experienced a short but alarming period of blindness at one point.  The lenses in those days were made of bronze compounded with arsenic and it has been speculated that leaning over his work and grinding so industriously on the metal may have exposed William to arsenic poisoning.  He confessed at one point to being bothered by dizziness.  By 1785, William and Caroline had accumulated a catalog of 1000 new nebulae, which they published to acclaim and admiration from astronomers world-wide.  In 1800 that number was increased to 8,760.

William continued working hard, but he gradually lost strength and finally passed away in 1822.  Apparently Caroline was so distraught by the occurrence that she left England immediately and returned to Hanover, a decision that she regretted for a long time, as she regarded the relatively uneducated Hanoverians as ignorant boobs.  She maintained her connections with the scientific world, though, and periodically received medals and honors from many European countries.  In particular she remained close to her nephew John, William's son, who became an astronomer like his father.  John spent three years in Capetown, South Africa, mapping the southern constellations, and letters about his discoveries between aunt and nephew were frequent and informative.  As well, Caroline was still catching up on cataloging and publishing the voluminous collection of information that had accumulated over the last thirty years.  Other events provided peripatetic interest over the years.  She went to a Paganini concert and had an interesting conversation with him.  Alexander Humboldt paid her a visit.  She recorded a hail storm in which the ice balls weighed 3/4 lb. each.  Her picture was painted by a professor Teilmann.  Another well known astronomer and generally scientific genius was Mary Somerville, with whom Caroline exchanged a long series of letters.  But as the years passed and her vision began to fail, she became house-bound, staying almost all the time in her room and sewing or writing letters.  She started a "History of the Herschels" but never finished it.  She passed away at the very advance age of 98.

This was a fascinating look at the early age of astronomy and a sort of reality check that graphically described how hard people had to work in those days, especially when involved with the sciences as ruled by staid Societies and dubious financiers.  I recall the same sort of barriers that inhibited the researches of William Smith, geologist, about the same period.  Caroline was driven initially by her love for her brother, but became entranced with the stars and almost as much of a stellar explorer as William.  At that time, no one knew what comets were, or how to observe them, and her discoveries were startling as well as illuminating, instilling a bit of light into some of the dark mentalities of the society she lived in.  I liked this book a lot and i wish there was more information about her.  The top picture is of Caroline.






 

Sunday, August 1, 2021


 


POLIOPOLIS AND POLIOLAND. 1900


James Macdonald Chaney  (1831-1909)


Gus Heins, mechanic par excellence, has a secret dream.  He wants to soar to the North Pole in a balloon.   His best friend, the narrator of the story, lost track of him due to job constraints after they both graduated from college.  But seven years afterwards, they met fortuitously and resumed their former friendship.  During the interval, Gus's father had died and left him a large farm in the midwest.  Seizing the opportunity to realize his dream, Gus had erected a very large barn and a fully-equipped machine shop and used them to initiate the construction of a balloon.  The narrator had recently been fired from his job and, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to help his friend achieve his goal.  The penultimate product was a sizable balloon with two ten foot wings that flapped, powered by a 33 lb. gas engine made of aluminum, a rudder fabricated from steel and brass and a basket about eight feet square to hold them and their accouterments.

They set off on May 18 and made rapid progress toward Baffin Island.  On the way they pin-pointed the location of the magnetic pole, partly through use of a planetarium:  a device invented by Gus that indicated the positions of the planets, moon and stars in relationship to any location on the Earth's surface.  (This instrument was very similar to the Antikythera orrery discovered just off a Greek island in 1901).  Using the planetarium as a guide, they steered the balloon toward the North Pole, noting the extensive fields of water in a "solidified condition" as they floated above the polar seas.  Several hundred miles later the atmospheric temperature seemed to be alleviating and they soon saw that the ice had vanished.  Flying over the open ocean, they espied a large island in the distance and as they approached it, they saw people scattering away from their proposed landing site.  But, curiousity overwhelming their fear, a crowd soon collected around the descending balloon.  Gus lit up his pipe and, smelling the tobacco, the people were reassured that the balloonists were actually human.  The island was about 125,000 square miles in area with a population of a million persons.  Agriculture was the principal employment, but there were extensive forests of large conifers as well;  one tree topping 367 feet.  Deer, dogs, sheep and fish were abundant and there were seams of precious metals and coal to be found as well.  The citizenry had emigrated five hundred years earlier from Northern Europe, mainly due to economic conditions;  they were trying to get away from what they regarded as oppressive dominance by the upper classes.  Sic:  "the general tendency of the laws is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer".

"Yustavus", a local engineer, befriended them and invited them to stay at his house, which was a prison-like edifice made of stone blocks.  The two adventurers noted that Yus was possessed of a telescope and a sextant that had been left by a polar expedition some fifty years previously.  Friendships developed with the local inhabitants and the visitors soon were accepted as honored guests.  Yus's daughter, Marie, showed interest in the planetarium and other instruments belonging to the newcomers, and Gus went out of his way to demonstrate how they were used.  Gus also was able to invent a few labor-saving devices to ease the life of the people.  He built a self-shuttling system adaptable to any loom which greatly increased the ease and production rate of woolen cloth.  He showed them what a gas engine was like and engineered a lathe for machining screws.

There was a bone of contention in the land, however, involving the official coinage.  Two systems were used, with silver constituting one level of value and gold coins a superior one.  The government tried to pass a law declaring that the gold standard was to be the official purchasing medium, while silver was relegated to a lower status.  The people soon realized that the end result would cause the already rich citizens to become richer and would place the lower classes in dire poverty.  A revolution occurred soon afterwards, during which five conniving politicians were arrested and four of them hung.  (I can't help but think this episode had something to do with the "Gold Standard" question that was occupying the media at that time).

At this point the story takes a sharp left hand turn in front of traffic and dedicates itself to explaining how the planetarium works.  Marie, being very interested in astronomy, learns how to locate all the planets in the solar system at any given time, such information being particularly useful in a land where six months of the year were dark and six months were sunny.  As a moment's reflection would indicate, during the "summer", the sun would circle around the pole without sinking, and during the winter gradually vanish.  Anyway, the book ends with Marie spotting the planet Saturn, which would be observable for the nest 23 years.

This was a very peculiar book.  Why Chaney suddenly decided to not write an ending to his story is somewhat of a mystery.  He was a Presbyterian Minister for 53 years and maybe he found himself caught in a trap of sorts, writing about the intensely scientific realities of the solar system and not paying attention to what he was being paid for.  It was pretty well written, and the explanations of the planetarium were accurate and complicated, but maybe he just got tired of writing.  Anyway, it was interesting and quizzical...

Monday, July 26, 2021



 


BARON TRUMP'S MARVELOUS UNDERGROUND JOURNEY 1893


Ingersoll Lockwood (1841-1918)

Bulger was an intelligent dog, a Pomeranian mix, short with a large head.  His master was shaped like him, with pipestem limbs and an oversized cranium.  One day, browsing in a curio shop, Wilhelm Heinrich Sebastian von Troomp ran across a dusty old manuscript and purchased it.  It was an account by Don Constantino Bartolomeo Strepholofidgeguaneriusfum of an expedition he had once made into a system of caverns located in Northern Russia.  Enthused, Trump determined to trace the Don's steps in spite of his father's disapproval.  Following the information on the map, he traveled east from St. Petersburg by train and peasant cart to a remote village on the Krasnoyarsk Peninsula, where he hired a local farmer to lead him to the Giants Well, as it was termed, in the northern mountains.  Before they arrived at their destination, Yuliana the peasant, terrified by "the black rocks hanging like frowning giants and ogres over their heads, with the dwarf pines for hair, clumps of white moss for eyes, vast, gaping cracks for mouths, and gnarled and twisted roots for terrible fingers, ready to reach down for their poor little weazened frames", ran away, leaving Bulger and Trump to fend for themselves.

The two explorers, after enlisting the services of a local cow as guide, eventually found themselves on the lip of a huge hole, funnel-shaped, that led down into a seemingly bottomless pit.  As it seemed narrow, Trump covered himself with lard and, attaching himself to a one hundred pound rock by a length of rope, pushed the rock over the edge and perforce found himself stuck in the tight spot, unable to move up or down.  Twisting himself around, he managed, corkscrew fashion, to free his body so that it fell a short distance onto a hard surface, which, with the aid of a myriad of spark-emitting lizards, he observed to consist of marble stones, ground flat to form a road surface.  The pair of adventurers followed the road until they arrived at a park-like garden with four fountains illuminating it.  A small person with a large black fan informed them that they were about to enter "Goggleland" and that their greeter was named "Cold Soul" and he was the prime minister of the country ruled by Queen Galaxa.  This Kingdom was totally socialist, with everything owned by the Queen, but all articles as well as food were free to all.  The Gogglites had transparent hearts, so there was no crime.  Each citizen's deepest desires could be seen at a glance.  Disease was rare, the most serious malady, "iburyufrosnia", derived from too much happiness, resulting in uncontrollable laughter that the doctors regarded as the effects of shivering.  Occasionally this was fatal.  The Queen's daughter was called Glow Stone, also known as Crystalina.  She was sad because of a dark spot on her heart, which meant she could never inherit the throne.  Observing closely, Trump saw that the spot was actually red so he used a large piece of ice to magnify the picture , showing the population that she was not, as they all had supposed, ineligible for the succession.

Leaving the rejoicing realm, Trump and Bulger continued on their journey until they espied a large dome flush with yellow light, and a pair of huge silver candelabra, marking the entrance to the land of the "Soodopsies", or the Ant People.  The citizens didn't look like ants, they just acted like them.  They had been driven underground by climate change.  Their city was built of solid silver, found locally in copious seams.  The residents neither could see, hear, or talk, conducting all communication through their acute sense of touch.  They could read, however, feeling letters and sentences with their feet;  books being incised on the surface of the local roadways.  They were a philosophic people, feeling that "vanity is the soil that rulers spring from, resulting in war, greed, hate, and competition".  They felt that dogs were more saner than humans, as their hearts and brains were on the same level.

The marble road ended at a large river, and Bulger and his associate entered a 5X8' turtle shell boat and cast off downstream.  They were attacked by giant white crabs, but Trump scared them off by firing both his pistols underwater, simultaneously.  They arrive at the land of the Koltykwerps (cold bodies) soon after, a country of ice with a large palace of the same element perched upon a terrace, and lit by sunlight reflected through a crack in the mountains and directed down into the cavern.  King Gelidus welcomed them and attributed the inhabitants' presence to the influence of the last ice age which drove them underground from their original home in Greenland.  The Koltykwerps were slow but deep thinkers, regarding others as sick from rapid enthusiasms and fevered imaginations.  An episode with a chimpanzee frozen into a block of ice transpired, which Trump was able to resolve by melting the ice but which ensued in him having to transport the simian around on his back to keep him warm.  After a year in the frozen domain, Bulger sniffs his way to the exit and they find themselves in an unknown, icy passage, creeping carefully along until a ledge gives way, precipitating them into the frigid depths.  They slide down through a train of spark lizard fire and ultimately are deposited once more onto the marble highway.  

They wander along the stone road and meet a man with metal sandals and notice that whenever he moves his head, a sharp click can be heard.  Thus they realize that they're in the land of the Rattlebrains, the fortunate forgetters, as they like to think of themselves.  Knowledge is considered the root of all evil, and the less one knows, the greater his contentment.  Knowledge implies decision which engenders opinion which results in conflict.  Trump and Bulger are only allowed one day in this kingdom.  Nobody would talk to him and they showed him the way out:  a sort of barrel-shaped turnstile which dumped them back into a river.  Pushed by a strong wind, they were ultimately shot out of a large fountain situated in the center of a lake.  Making their way to shore, they found themselves adjacent to a village in NorthEast Siberia.  They had actually traveled 500 miles underneath the Ural mountains.  They caught a train and went home.

Lockwood wrote several of these kinds of fantasy, all of which were quite popular.  One of them, "The Last President" is used today by certain spiritual or psychic groups as a guide to the term of Donald Trump, for better or worse...  I was under the impression that this effort was a sort of imitation of the Tales of Baron Munchausen, which it resembles quite a bit, but there are philosophical and political references that suggest the author had the limitations of human society and intellect in mind while he wrote it.  It was very original in conception, i thought, being unlike similar works i've read lately in the floridity of its language and ideas.  i liked it quite a bit...

Sunday, July 18, 2021




 

THE WAIF OF THE CYNTHIA

Andre Laurie (1844-1909)

Jules Verne (1828-1905)


In the small village of Noroe in northwestern Norway, the Herseboms lived as fisherfolk, trolling for cod to satisfy the national demand for cod liver oil, fostered by Dr. Schwaryencrona, a scholar and medicinal entrepreneur of Stockholm, who was an advocate of its health-giving properties.  There were five family members:  Mr. and Mrs. Hersebom and their children, Vanda, Otto, and Erik.  Erik was the youngest, and had been adopted when father Hersebom found him as a baby, floating in the water near the Faroe Islands, in a basket tied to a buoy on which "Cynthia" was inscribed.  His origins were a mystery, but he was welcomed in spite of his small, dark mien which contrasted sharply with the blond cragginess displayed by the rest of the family.  Erik was a gifted student in the local school, and when he celebrated his fifteenth birthday, Dr. Schwaryencrona convinced the Herseboms to let him move to Stockholm to further his education.

Two years passed and Erik's curiousity about his real parents was conflicting with his studies.  With the help of the doctor, he'd discovered that the Cynthia was a Canadian ship that had been lost near the Faroe Islands seventeen years previously after leaving New York City.  The doctor agreed to accompany Erik to America to do some research on the vessel's history and hopefully to obtain clues as to Erik's lost parents.  From a hotelier, a Mr. Bowles, they learned that the sole survivor of the wreck had been a certain Patrick O'Donoghan, a common sailor who disappeared years ago.  Back home in Stockholm, they published an advertisement in some of the world's largest newspapers offering 500 lbs. for information leading to Mr. O'Donoghan's location.

In answer to the ad, they received a visit from a Mr. Tudor Brown who claimed that Pat had been a crewman on his yacht, the Albatross, but had drowned several years ago.  Brown was a tall skinny person with red hair and a secretive, sneering look about him that led Erik and his friends to distrust him.  Several more years passed and in 1878 Dr. Schwaryencrona received a letter from a friend who was a member of the Nordenskiold expedition trying to open up a passage north of Russia, in an attempt to secure a shorter route to the Orient.  The letter stated that while sojourning with the natives at the mouth of the Lena river, they had met a man with "Patrick O'Donoghan-Cynthia" tatooed on his chest. 

Erik, aided by his associates, decides to search for the Vega, which was now ice bound close to the Bering Strait.  They purchase an ice-breaking steamer, the Alaska, and as they are about to leave, Mr. Brown appears with a detailed collection of charts he offers to them for a very good price.  They accept with some hesitance, and, deciding to reach the Bering Straits by traveling through the Suez Canal, they leave port and head south.  A storm is encountered near Brest and the ship runs aground.  After managing to free it at high tide, they look at the charts given them by Brown and realize that they've been altered intentionally, apparently with the objective of obstructing Erik's voyage.  Consulting with the others, Erik decides to defeat Brown's dastardly machinations by taking the Alaska through the Northwest Passage, west of Greenland.  With difficulty, they succeed in reaching the Vega, only to find out that the Albatross was three days ahead of them.

A chase ensues across the top of the Russian coast, past the Krasnoyarsk peninsula and into the Kara Sea, where the Alaska finally catches up with the Albatross.  A cannon duel ensues, with a minimal amount of destruction on either side, until, near the edge of the pack ice, a storm brews up and both ships are sunk, leaving Erik and his father (Mr. Hersebom) alone on an ice floe.  They cast about and find some supplies and the body of a sailor from the Albatross who they discover is Bowles, a pseudonym for Patrick O'Donoghan, the seaman's real identity.  The body opens its eyes and is about to tell Erik his story when Brown sneaks up and shoots him.  Mr. Hersebom immediately shoots Brown, killing him.  Sometime later, they hear the sound of a cannon and upon reaching the edge of the ice, see that the Alaska has not been sunk after all.  They climb aboard and sail home to national acclaim as they are the first ship to have achieved a "circumpolar Periplus":  sailing around the world through both Northern Passages.

Erik, back in Noroe, receives a letter from his real grandfather, informing him of the events that occurred before and during the sinking of the Cynthia, and mentioning that his mother was yet alive and living in Brittany.  Erik joins them and finds out that his father had struck it rich in the oil field and that Tudor Brown, trying to steal his rights in the property, had sabotaged the Cynthia and had attempted to murder his relations.  The book ends with Erik engaged to Vanda.

Andre Laurie, according to one source, wrote the book originally, but Verne rewrote it at a later period.  It did rather read like a Verne work, with his phraseology and structure, but that could have been due to the translation.  At any rate, Laurie (a pen name;  his real name was Jean Francois Paschal Grousset) was apparently well known in France toward the end of the nineteenth century as a fantasist and novelist.  Unfortunately only a couple of his 41 books have been rendered in English.  It was a great story, though, and i enjoyed it a lot...

Monday, July 12, 2021



 1500 MILES PER HOUR

Charles Dixon (1858-1926)

The unidentified narrator was conducting some investigations in the Sahara with two Bedouin assistants when they were caught in a sandstorm.  Buried under the wind-blown detritus, they were astounded by an enormous explosion.  When things quieted down, they observed that a large, three foot meteor had landed several yards from them.  It was of a strange consistency and had cracks on one side, which the curious natives immediately began banging on, presuming something rare to be inside.  And sure enough, they found a tightly rolled manuscript in a sort of iron container, which told of an expedition to Mars (actually known as Gathma) by four English persons some years previously.  Dr. Hermann of Yorkshire, together with his friends John Temple and Harry Graham and his estate manager Sandy Campbell, not to mention Rover the dog, had, after many years of experimentation, built a rocketship with which they intended to voyage to Mars.  It was a complicated device, called an electric air carriage, built in the doctor's barn and driven by a combination of paddles and propeller.  A generator set provided the power.  It was of a conical shape, forty feet tall, and designed to maintain a constant speed of 1500 miles an hour.  The adventurers calculated that the trip would take two and a half years to complete, and they crammed it full of condensed food and drink.  A special condenser was designed to convert the ether (which occupied outer space) into breathable air.

The rocket (named "Sirius") left Earth on May 1, 1875.  The journey was fraught with adventures and difficulties.  Once a piston pin fell out of the condenser motor, and later one of the windows was leaking air, requiring a space walk to be repaired.  Graham, wearing a deep sea diver's helmet, accidentally fell off while working on it, but managed to grab a rope that was trailing along behind the ship.  They ran through a meteor shower at one point but experienced no serious damage even though some magnetic dust had collected on the balcony (installed on the upper level of the vessel, meant to provide viewing capability from a safe stance once Mars was reached) which ignited and caused globes of purple fire to bounce off the rocket's shell.

They landed in a sort of marshy swamp full of reeds and red plants and occupied by large monsters with large teeth and eye stalks.  Since Sirius was stuck in the mud, they unpacked their rubber boat and paddled across a local lake to a beach covered with translucent colored pebbles, emeralds, diamonds and the like.  Spending the night, they were bemused by the singing butterflies and marsupial birds.  Once they saw a tall skinny greyhound type of beast that was three time as tall as an elephant.  Traveling over the mountains the next day, they saw in the distance a large city with huge golden domes.  Spires, bridges and jeweled castles decorated the scene, contrasting vividly with the surrounding red forest of tall, thin trees.

The four travelers lived with the Martians (they were 9 feet tall) in relative harmony except for being jailed for mistakenly shooting one of the guards who had pointed a weapon at them.  But relations went along swimmingly until Graham fell in love with the King's daughter and came into conflict with one Prince Perodii, who convinced the King that the visitors were anathema.  As a result, they were all, including Rover, sealed up inside the ship, then transported to the top of an active volcano and shoved off the ledge into the boiling lava percolating inside the caldera.  But, of course, they managed to fly the ship out and escape.  They traveled about 200 miles before the Sirius ran out of juice.  They continued west on foot, but were pursued by Perodii and his minions into a large cavern and eventually captured.

Back in Edos (the Martian city), Graham and Perodii fought and the latter lost;  Graham received the King's permission to marry his daughter only if he consented to undergo the rite of fire which would make him immortal.  He submitted to the torment, married the daughter, and was appointed Prince.  The other three voyagers made a home in Edos and spent their time in researches and experiments in collaboration with the Martian scientists.  They meant to build another ship with which to return to Earth, as the Sirius had been destroyed by Perodii.  So the story ends, with the future in a fair amount of doubt.

This was an amusing book, not terribly instructive but imaginative and ingenious.  I couldn't help but be reminded of Verne's tale of "From the Earth to the Moon":  it had the same sort of atmosphere, emphasizing the intrepidity and inventiveness of the courageous Englishmen, conquering and dominating unknown regions to the glory of the English nation (well French, in Verne's vision).  And the process that Graham goes through to become immortal greatly resembles the incident in "She" when the Queen is immortalized in the same sort of transfiguration.  So, even though there were echoes of former authors, the formula was still an exciting one and the book was well worth reading.  I'm surprised it's not more well known.  I wonder if E.R. Burroughs read it before writing his Mars books...

Sunday, July 4, 2021



 


AFTER LONDON

Richard Jeffries  (1848-1887)

The first part of the book describes a geological transformation called "The Change" that occurred in England some hundreds of years before the story begins.  Because the Thames became silted up downstream of London, the river backed up and flooded not only the city on a permanent basis, but also the surrounding countryside, the fens, and even central England.  Somehow the central highlands vanished, leaving a large, island-dotted lake that extended north and south, from the moors almost to the Scottish border.  The Severn ceased to flow as well because the ancillary streams and rivulets carried the erosional effluvia from the abrading mountains downstream and plugged it up.  

Humanity survived and recovered from the disaster to establish a sort of medieval society, based on local satrapies and loose allegiances that served to protect walled villages ("Baronies" as they were known) from foreign invaders.  Constant warfare was the general rule, with the Welsh and Scots continuously making forays on the English settlements.  In addition, Bushmen and Gypsies made traveling by horse, cart, or foot through the extensive forests surrounding the lake normally hazardous.  Science and Technology were non-existent and the inhabitants explained incomprehensible occurrences as the result of magic.

Felix Aquila and his two brothers lived in a Barony close to a small river.  Their father, the Baron, was not an enthusiastic utilizer of power, preferring to allow his small estate to run itself.  To Felix, life was utterly boring, so he built a canoe and set off on an exploration of the lake.  He was in love with a neighboring Baron's daughter, Aurora Thyma, but although she reciprocated, he knew there was no chance of them getting together because her father was ambitious and wanted to use her to advance his holdings via an appropriate marriage.  So Felix was looking for a way to make himself acceptable to her dad.

Initially his plan was to visit Isembard, a powerful King on the other side of the lake, hoping to achieve fame and/or position congruent with Aurora's father's expectations.  After being stuck in the mud and evading a ship full of pirates, he left the canoe in a hidden encampment and walked to the city of Iwis, where Isembard was besieging a castle belonging to one of his neighbors.  Felix soon realized that the armored knights as well as the King and officers of the court were totally incompetent.  They spent most of their time drinking and making ineffective raids on the castle walls with not enough assailants to achieve any sort of victory.  When Felix tried to straighten them out (he suggested a catapult), he was arrested and threatened with dire physical harm.  So he managed to escape and made his way back to the canoe and set off toward the North.

He was caught by a west wind and driven into a wide embayment in which he noticed that all the birds were flying opposite to the way he was traveling.  And all the greenery seemed to be drying up.  He became more alarmed when the water turned black and the air became misty with a noxious and deadly miasma.  He finally landed on a rocky beach and after walking about for a while, came to feel rather woozy and light-headed.  The ground was all black and stuck to his feet and there were no birds or any other signs of animal life.  So he retraced his steps, feeling worse all the time, and barely made it back to the canoe.  Luckily, the wind had changed so it helped blow him out of the danger zone.  It was only then that he realized he had been exposed to the deadly region that now occupied what was originally the city of London.  Millions of bodies and toxic chemicals had been buried by the silt from the mountains and the entire district was devoid of life and deadly to any form of sentient being.  The poisonous gases from underground pervaded the entire area and made it a tenebrous death-trap.

Traveling south, Felix happened upon several sheep herders and finding them friendly and courteous, went with them to their main campsite, where he met the leader of a large group of persons who made their livings by herding and trading sheep.  He spent several weeks with them and learned that their principal danger came from marauding bands of Gypsies, who stole sheep and tried to murder them.  So Felix introduced them to archery, which art was not very well known in that world.  At one point he stood off a band of 200 raiders with his bow and arrow:  apparently the sudden apparition of a totally unknown technology convinced them that he was a magician.  The sheepherders were so impressed that they made him King.  (Spoiler, of a sort, ahead). So, after sojourning with them for a number of months, he departed to make his way back to Aurora's demesne with the purpose of eloping with her back to his new Kingdom where he intended for them to live happily ever after.

The book came to sort of an abrupt end, with Felix traveling west.  There were a number of loose ends that were never addressed.  What was going to happen to Felix's home Barony?  And what if Aurora's dad still wouldn't let her go?  And were Felix's two brothers going to live with him?  And how would they live once they got back to the sheepherder Kingdom.  Would Aurora like spending her life with a bunch of smelly sheep and not having a real house?  But Jeffries was probably not concerned with those sorts of mundane questions.  He was a naturalist and loved animals, birds, forests and meadowlands.  The book was filled with acute and knowledgeable comments on bird habits and animal behavior.  In reality, it was pretty obvious, reading along, that he was a lot more interested in the wildlife than in the ignorant humans.  I wish he'd suggested any sort of basis for the geological transformation of the countryside;  it was provocative and interesting, but not very realistic, England being made up of formations dating from the early Paleozoic to the late Mesozoic eras and dipping to the west.  It would take a major cataclysmic revolution of modern geologic thought to produce the kind of derangements he had in mind.  Good book, though...


Sunday, June 27, 2021



 THE TWO ADMIRALS

James Fenimore Cooper. (1789-1851)


"...when the English flagship came sweeping past in a cloud of smoke, and a blaze of fire.  His own broadside was nobly returned, or as much of it as the weather permitted, but the smoke of both discharges was still driving between the masts, when the dark hamper of the Carnatic glided into the drifting canopy, which was made to whirl back on the devoted Frenchman in another torrent of flame.  Three times was this fearful assault renewed on the Scipio, at intervals of about a minute..."

If the above description pleases, you'd probably like this book, but it's not all thunder and mayhem.  The action takes place in the middle of the 18th century, beginning at a signal station on the coast of Devonshire in a small village named Wychecombe.  Master Dutton lives at the station with his wife and daughter Mildred.  Sir Wycherly Wychecombe is the aged land-owner and ruling baronet of the area.  He's a bachelor and at 85 years old, and there's some question as to who will inherit the estate when he's gone.  He had five brothers but they are all deceased.  the eldest had a son out of wedlock named Tom, who's eager to take over his uncle's property, but he's not liked by most people, being sneaky and  dishonest.  

The Baronet visits the Duttons to see if any ships have arrived in the small harbor.    He finds an emergency situation:  another Wycherly Wychecombe, this one from Virginia, has fallen over the cliff in front of the station and has landed on a ledge about thirty feet down.  He'd been talking with Mildred and had lost his balance while trying to pick a flower just over the edge.  After a certain amount of dithering, the Master and the Baronet rig up a rope and rescue him.  There's been a bit of fog hovering over the site and when it lifts, they see that a fleet has entered the shallow anchorage. There are two Admirals in charge of the battleships, Rear Admiral Oakes and Vice Admiral Bluewater.  The two grew up together in the Royal Navy, beginning as Midshipmen and serving in different vessels until they were both promoted at approximately the same time.  Oakes is a die-hard Naval Officer, while Bluewater, although just as competent, has Jacobite leanings.  This is the era in which Bonny Prince Charlie was about to land in Scotland in order to reclaim the British throne.

At a large dinner to welcome the fleet to the area, the Baronet has a stroke and dies.  Since he has no heirs, he leaves all his worldly goods and estate to the other Wycherley, him being a distant relation even though he's a colonial.  Tom has forged a marriage certificate to prove that he's the legitimate heir, but it's generally recognized as being fake.  Wycherley has fallen in love with Mildred and is about to declare himself when news arrives that the French are "out", meaning a French fleet has entered the English Channel.  The two Admirals make their plans:  the fleet is to be split into two halves in order to attack the French from two sides at once.  Sir Oakes leaves first with five ships, and engages the enemy, fulling expecting Bluewater to back him up once the engagement has begun.  But Bluewater has been approached by other Jacobites and there is danger of him sailing away up the Channel to aid Prince Charles.

Oakes can't believe his long-term friend would desert him in a crisis, but he fights a losing battle against the overwhelming French forces.  Things are about to look even bleaker, when...

(Will Bluewater arrive in time to rescue his friend?  Will Mildred and Wycherley marry?  Will Tom manage to take over his uncle's estate?  Will the Prince defeat all comers and acquire the English throne?  et alia...)

Cooper is a much better writer than Marryat.  He is one of those authors who can detail out a meticulous plot while interjecting interesting side comments at the same time on human affairs and human behavior.  Reading his work is like listening to an authority on whatever subject might lie under discussion, be it seamanship, surveying, hunting, anthropology, politics, exploration, farming,  or geography.  The result being a three or four dimensional impression, instead, as in Marryat's case, one limited to two dimensions.  Granted, his prose style gets a bit weedy sometimes, but that serves as a sort of bottomless receptacle for his multiphasic interpolations.  Reading his work is an adventure of the best sort.  Try it, you'll like it...

Sunday, June 20, 2021






THE KING'S OWN

Captain Frederic Marryat. (1792-1848)


The Nore Mutiny in 1797 saw the rebellion of 40,000 sailors complaining about their brutal treatment by the statutes and officers of the British Navy.  One of the leaders, Edward Peters, was flogged around the fleet and later falsely accused of stealing a watch for which he was hung from a yardarm.  His wife died shortly after but his son was adopted by a kindly ole bosun's mate, Adams.  He tatooed Willy, as the son was called, on his right shoulder with the king's broad arrow(shown above) so as to indicate his position as an employee in good standing with the Navy department.  At the same time they changed his last name to Seymour, so as to disassociate him from the recent unpleasantness.  He was officially enlisted as a midshipman at the age of six, when he showed his mettle, while his ship was engaged in a cutting out action on the coast of France, by rolling a live shell overboard during a cannonade and thereby saving the Captain's life.   

Later he was returning to England in a small boat to deliver messages and to get his uniform, when a sudden gale capsized the boat and cast him adrift.  He was picked up by a sleek sailing sloop, the Sainte Vierge, a smuggler captained by M'Elvina, a past master at evading official notice.  They became good friends and M'Elvina sent him to school in France for five months where he acquired the French language and the basic ABC'S.  Three years later, M'Elvina's boat was sunk and he quit smuggling, having acquired the wherewithal to move into a quiet cottage in the country which just happened to adjoin the property of Lord de Coucy. 

De Coucy was an irritable old curmudgeon who didn't like anybody and refused to make a will.  Therefore, when he died shortly after the M'Elvina's moved there, all his vast holdings went to his nephew Rainscourt instead of to Willy Seymour, who was his grandson.  Rainscourt was a wastrel and gambling fiend who was constantly in massive debt as well as being mean to his wife and daughter, Emily.  When he inherited the estate, he moved to London while the balance of his family stayed in the country mansion, or in the de Coucy Castle on the coast of Ireland.

Meanwhile, Willy has enlisted in the Royal Navy and he was appointed midshipman again in the frigate Aspasia.  The first tour of duty was to the West Indies, where they surveyed reefs north of the Bahamas for three years.  Sudden gales and the occasional pirate added spice to the otherwise rather somnolent occupation.  Willy went to visit M'Elvina when he got a chance to return to England and fell in love with Emily, but their relationship was discouraged by all since Willy was regarded as a commoner who was not a satisfactory mate for a rich heiress.

So he rejoined his ship which sailed for the Far East, stopping in Calcutta, Bombay, Sumatra, and points in between.  Years later when they were returning to England, the ship was caught in a major storm off the coast of Ireland.  At the same time, they spotted a French ship of the line which was battling the same hurricane force winds.  But the captain saw his duty as showing fight regardless of the weather, and in the ensuing engagement, both ships were wrecked on the Irish coast.  Bad things occurred and the book's ending was not a happy resolution.

Marryat is one of my favorite authors.  He was admired by Conrad,  Mark Twain, and Hemingway and he was a good friend of Charles Dickens.  This was his second book, published in the early 19th C., and i have to say it was just an awful book.  The story could have been artistically and logically related in a quarter of the 400 pages it occupied.  The plot was ignored for many pages, the author at one point chortling to himself over having written a whole chapter without once mentioning anything germane to the storyline.  The sea battles and storms were described with the accuracy and vividness with which the author is famed, but those descriptions didn't begin to make up for the messy nastiness of the rest of the book.  I wouldn't have read it except for having a copy and having read almost everything else he wrote, which works were nearly all excellent and well written.  I'm just grateful that he got this sort of unpleasantness out of the way before he produced his other magnificent sagas and travel diaries.  I wouldn't advise anyone to read this one, but i heartedly recommend any of his others.

Sunday, June 13, 2021



 


THE RED ROVER

James Fenimore Cooper. (1789-1851)


The story starts in Newport, Rhode Island in 1759.   A mysterious dark ship has been anchored in the outer harbor for several weeks and it has been the subject of popular speculation as regards its purpose and intentions.  James Wilder, a visiting ship captain and his two friends, Dick Fid and Scipio,  are in town and are curious about the ship as well.  Wilder meets a young lawyer all dressed in green and strikes up an acquaintance.  They amble up to an old abandoned mill and ascend a ladder to the second floor in order to view the dark ship through a spyglass.  The lawyer leaves Wilder staring through the lens while he quietly descends and takes the ladder with him.  Fid and Scipio rescue James and the three return to town, slightly irritated.

Apparently unemployed and looking for work, Wilder visits the ship and talks to the captain, who turns out to be the prankster lawyer.  After a certain amount of haggling, Wilder signs on as lieutenant along with his two friends.  It is tacitly assumed that the ship is the notorious "Red Rover", a pirate preying on ship traffic in the south Atlantic and Caribbean areas.  Back in town, the new lieutenant becomes familiar with the de Lacy family who are about to embark on the "Royal Caroline", a passenger ship about to leave for South Carolina.  Gertrude, a relation of Admiral de Lacey and her governess, Wyllys, and Bob Bunt, an old sailor, in spite of advice to the contrary, go aboard and discover that the captain has broken a leg and that Wilder has taken his place.  The Caroline gets under way but soon discovers that the dark ship (which Wilder knows is the Red Rover) is blocking their way.  Wilder executes some clever maneuvers but finally re-anchors so as to avoid a collision.  But with a change in wind direction, they're able to sail around the impediment and reach the open sea.

Wilder notices that the Red Rover is following them at a distance, but is helpless to do anything about it, as the weather is turning foul.  A veritable hurricane develops during which the Caroline is dismasted and most of her crew drowned.  The remnants appropriate the pinnace (a sort of lifeboat) and sail off, leaving Wilder and the two ladies behind.  The only chance the three have, in the sinking ship, is to climb into the larger launch and hope that it will float after the larger vessel is engulfed.  The Caroline fills with water, dives into the depths bow first and precipitates the launch into the air.  It lands upright and the survivors swoon in relief.  The Red Rover is lurking about, however, and picks them up before their small boat is endangered by the heavy seas.

A week passes and the Red Rover is sailing near the Bahamas, drifting along with the Gulf Stream.  The crew is restless, wanting loot, but a potential mutiny is averted with the help of Fid and Scipio.  They continue sailing down into the Caribbean.  Wyllys learns that the lieutenant (Wilder)  has had some connection with the "Ark of Flynnhaven", a Royal Navy ship lost some years ago and that the Captain's real name is Heidigger, although he as well as his ship is known as the Red Rover, even though the latter's actual name is "Dolphin".  A sail is spotted by the look-out and in short time it's identified as a vessel belonging to the British Royal Navy.  It is the "Dart", Captain Bignall commanding.  It has more cannon than the Dolphin and it's doubtful whether it is a suitable candidate for looting by the pirate.  Argument ensues over the question until Heidigger, adapting the disguise of an upper class Commander of the Royal Navy, visits Captain Bignall and convinces him that the Dolphin is just another naval vessel.  Returning to his own ship, Heidigger suspects that Wilder is a spy, and is responsible for the presence of the Dart.  But after fretting over resolving the dilemma, he decides to let Wilder and the ladies go free and they are ferried over to the Dart.  

A naval battle between the two ships results in which the Dart is partially destroyed by cannon fire and Captain Bignall is killed.  The Dolphin contingent boards and is about to hang the survivors from the yardarm when the chaplain of the vessel appears and various disclosures are announced.  Wilder is actually the great-nephew of the late admiral de Lacey, Wyllys is his mother and Heidigger is a de Lacy also, although it wasn't clear as to the actual relationship.  Heidigger is moved and swears to give up piracy.  He returns to the Dolphin with his cabin boy and blows up the ship, although one sailor thought he saw a small boat receding into the distance after the explosion.  Twenty years later, back in Newport, the de Lacey family (Wilder married Gertrude) is visited by an old man in a wheel chair who blesses them all and expires.  They find out from his companion that he was a hero in the Revolutionary War and that he had been a pirate in his earlier life.

This was another exciting sea story by Cooper, with vivid descriptions of storms and battles.  Cooper was one of those authors of whom it has been said, "he never settled for one word when twelve would do".  But if the reader can deal with his prolixity, he would discover an ingenious plot and a ship-load of interesting characters.  Cooper worked as a common sailor and as a midshipman in his early life, but only after he was summarily ejected from Yale for the egregious use of explosives and locking a donkey up in one of the lecture halls.  He was a strong advocate of people's rights and spent most of his life writing and pontificating for a Democratic society based on Constitutional mandates. 

Sunday, June 6, 2021


 


THE MAN


Bram Stoker (1847-1912)


Squire Norman of Normanstand estates desperately wanted an heir to carry on the Norman name and to govern the buildings and lands associated with the property in a manner which his holdings deserved.  Unfortunately for his future dreams, his wife passed away upon delivering his first child, a daughter, who he named Stephen.  She was raised as if she was a boy, and acquired many boyish habits, which somewhat warped her self-image.  Her best friend was Harold An Wolf, the rector of the local church's son.  Harold and Stephen grew up together, befriending each other and establishing an intimate friendship.  Harold went off to Cambridge at an early age while Stephen devoted herself to good works on behalf of the local citizenry.  She was deeply concerned about the well-being of "the submerged tenth", as she termed the lower classes.  The Squire was killed in a carriage accident along with Stephen's uncle Rowley, leaving Stephen the sole inheritor of the estates.  Mrs. Rowley, having little income, and being a long term replacement for Stephen's mother, moved into the castle with her.  Leonard Everard, a neighbor lad who spent time playing with Stephen and Harold while they were growing up, has developed into a characterless spendthrift, but Stephen, feeling the need of a partner in the absence of Harold, decides it would be a good idea to marry him.  So, with all the assumed prerogatives of a male landowner, she proposes to him.  But almost immediately she realizes that she's made a disastrous error, and Leonard, although not being in love with her, sees her as a solution to his debt problems so he makes plans to blackmail her over a letter she was foolish enough to send him revealing her matrimonial scheme.  Aunt Rowley comes to the rescue and pays off Leonard's debts, even though it puts a large dent in her "widow's mite".  

Harold returns from Trinity College and asks Stephen to marry him.  She, fresh from the contretemps with Leo, assumes he's making fun of her, and unleashes a formidable tirade on his head.  He, a loyal and loving suitor, is aghast and, not realizing that Stephen was just letting off steam, leaves England.  Onboard ship, he meets the Andrew Stonehouse family, a wealthy entrepreneur and his wife and six-year old daughter Pearl.  A storm brews up and Pearl is washed overboard but Harold dives in and saves her.  She loves him forever after, referring to him as "The Man".  Harold continues on to northern Alaska, where he looks for gold, and making a big strike, becomes rich.  After two years he decides to return to England

Meanwhile, Stephen has purchased another estate near the coast in northeast England.  She spends all her time helping the poor and indigent and makes friends with a Quaker lady known as the "Silver Lady".  She lives in a kind of watchtower overlooking the sea.  By this time, Stephen has realized why Harold left and she deeply regrets the last meeting with Harold that fractured their developing relationship.  She has acknowledged to herself her love for him.  

A huge storm arises and the ship in which Harold is a passenger is caught and driven aground adjacent to Stephen's castle.  Harold dives into the raging surf and manages to splice a line which he is carrying to one that has been shot from the shore, thereby enabling the rescue of the ship's passengers and crew.  But he's caught in a dangerous situation, outside of a jagged tier of rocks that prevents him from swimming ashore.  So he paddles around the point of land enclosing the beach and is rapidly tiring, when a local resident mounts his aquiferous horse, Hercules, and swims to the rescue.  Reaching Harold at the very last second, Hercules succeeds in saving the drowner and they all return safely to shore.

Harold and Stephen are glad to see each other but their memories keep them from resolving their feelings for one another.  Finally the Silver Lady intervenes and tells Stephen to get her act together and the two embrace and are happy.

Stoker wrote at least fifteen books in addition to "Dracula".  He was the manager of the Lyceum theater in London for 27 years, and the effects of that long exposure to the stage pretty definitely influenced his writing style.  In the works of his I've read, his prose is rather the opposite of flowery, but he has the gift of expressing emotional minutia very effectively.  Reading his prose is almost like observing the development of action on the stage, and, in the same way, the reader is, almost in spite of himself, pulled along by the drama whether he wants it that way or not.  The result is a riveting read, involving the peruser in almost a hypnotic relation to the developing plot.  I'm not sure whether I like that sort of thing or not, but it's certainly effective...

Tuesday, June 1, 2021



 


THE GATELESS BARRIER

Lucas Malet (Mary St. Leger Kingsley)


Laurence Rivers is an Englishman living in America, married to Virginia, an American lady born into the New England upper classes.  He's comfortable in his marriage, but two years after the wedding, he's informed that his rich uncle in England is dying.  Eccentric and reclusive, the uncle is the owner of extensive property and a large mansion full of servants, a large selection of horses and a commodious supply of gardens with cultivated pathways, white marble statues and dark cypress trees.  Laurence arrives after a sea voyage and finds his relation bed-ridden and wasting away.  They converse and the uncle  makes clear his aversion to religion, spiritualism and reality itself as it is usually regarded.  He says: "Reality as we know it, being the biggest illusion of all".  But he's generous in other ways, giving Laurence the freedom of the house and grounds.

Laurence explores the house and finds an old tapestry with sirens and unicorns woven into the fabric suspended at the end of a hallway.  Behind it is a locked door that he manages to open;  he discovers that it leads into a music room, with a piano, various sorts of guitars and lyres lying about and some odds and ends of sheet music.  And he sees a young lady with her back to him, looking through the window into the garden.  She is a sylph-like being and while he watches, she slowly, without looking at him, glides over to the escritoire and vanishes behind it.  Laurence examines the back of the piece of furniture but is startled to find no method of egress from the room.  It's love at first sight, though, as he can't get her image out of his mind.

The uncle passes away after a while and Laurence takes over the management of the property.  He becomes more and more friendly with the young lady (Agnes Rivers);  they walk in the garden and Laurence falls more in love.  She tells him her history:  during the Napoleonic Wars, her affianced sweetheart was killed and she died of grief and has haunted the music room ever since, waiting his return.  His name was Laurence also, and the present owner of Stoke Rivers (the inherited property) is the identical image of her former lover.  

Virginia sends an urgent telegram requiring Laurence's presence back in America and he is faced with making a decision that he doesn't want to deal with, but finally decides to ignore the cable and stay with Agnes.  But even though she has been acquiring more and more traits of reality, such as a shadow, she knows that there is no future on earth for her and Laurence.  One day she says farewell and slowly vanishes behind the escritoire for the last time.  But not until she affirms that they will be reunited in the hereafter.  Laurence pines away but ultimately realizes that his earthly future depends on him asserting himself as a property owner, so he attends to business and returns to America to his wife.

But the life she leads seems boring and repetitions with all the parties and inane conversation so he returns to Stoke Rivers.  But while he was absent, there was a fire in the music room that opened up a hidden chamber behind the escritoire, and (spoiler) in it they discovered an old charred coffin with the  body of a young lady in it.  So they bury it in the churchyard and Laurence finds some peace in the affirmation that he and Agnes will be reunited in heaven.

Lucas Malet was the pseudonym of Ms. Kingsley, who came from a family of authors.  Her cousin Mary explored parts of Africa and wrote a book about her experiences.  Her uncles, Henry and Geoffrey were famous authors and her father Charles was well-known also, principally for his novel, "Westward Ho" although he wrote many more.  The Kingsley's all were top-notch wordsmiths, and i've enjoyed reading their works a lot.  Mary was a friend of E.F. Benson and she was acquainted with Henry James.  This book is available on Gutenberg...   

P.S.  the picture at the top is me with an old bike i assembled out of odds and ends...

Sunday, May 23, 2021


 


THE ZAP GUN


Phillip K. Dick.  (1928-1982)


Lars Powderdry works for the government as a hypnogogic weapons designer.  This takes place in 2005 although the book was written in 1965, so an alternative future is predicated.  The idea is that the Wes-bloc and Peep-East (Russia, China, etc.)  are at continual odds with each other.  After a series of world wars, neither side is willing to initiate physical aggression, so, as a substitute, they both resort to designing weapons which are mocked up in a prototype, but never actually created.  The designer for Eastbloc is Lilo Topchev.  With the aid of specialized drugs, the two psychically sensitive operators enter a kind of drug-induced trance, in which they envision the proposed weapons and simultaneously draw the blueprints of said weapons on paper.  In the West, the plans are shipped to the Lanferman productions site which underlies all of California from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  It's buried, for secrecy and safety.  The Peep-East bloc has a similar facility.  

In addition the government of both sides is controlled by the Military.  In Washington D.C., below the Military "Festung" (fortress), lies the Kremlin, a secret chamber in which the civilian "concomody" meets to oversee the functions of the government.  There are six concomody members who hold the position for life and are only replaced upon the decease of one of them.  The collective members of the government as a whole are referred to as "cogs", after "cognoscenti" (experts);  cog is also another term for a cheat or a liar, as in dice play or the cup and pea game.

Anyway, the story opens with Lars complaining about not being able to go to Paris to see his girl friend. As well, he is trying to cope with his sense of guilt over his meaningless job whose sole purpose involves keeping the public misinformed about the country's armament status.  Some of the weapons he has dreamed up are the Garbage Can Banger, the Sheep Dip Isolator (very stinky), the Civic Notification Distorter (changes people into rugs) and the Evolution Gun, intended to displace the human race two billion years into the past.

Other characters are Surley G. Febbs, a library researcher from the middle west with an eidetic memory who has spent his life studying and remembering all conceivable data as regards military history and the operations of government.  He receives a notice in the mail informing him that he has been appointed a concomody replacement.  He spends the bulk of the novel trying to gain entrance to the Kremlin but is kept out by bureaucratic busy-bodies.  Also there is Vincent Klug, an itinerant toy maker who does manage to gain access to Lars' office.  He plays a significant role in the resolution of the upcoming quandary, which is:

The news travels across the globe:  a new satellite has appeared orbiting the earth.  A certain amount of hysteria occurs in the top levels of government, but things only come to a head when it's discovered that part of New Orleans has vanished.  According to reports, a dense mist was seen hovering around the city and soon after all the inhabitants disappeared.  And then another satellite arrives and more cities around the globe lose their populations.  Governmental Officialdom is in hysterics and they decide to hold a joint conference in Iceland, including Lars and Lilo in hopes that the two designers can discover a weapon that will handle the alien invasion.  It has become known that the satellites are from Riga and that they are turning Earth's citizens into slaves.  There's a lot of arm-waving and mutual accusations flung about with the end result being no solution to the problem.  

Back in D.C.,  an attempt is made to kidnap Lars, during which his girl-friend is killed.  But he's already fallen in love with Lilo, the sequel being that he feels even more guilty than he did earlier.  Meanwhile, Surley has managed to gain access to the Kremlin, but not much is achieved until Vincent Klug magically appears on the scene, with what turns out to be an unusual toy, that proves to be the key component in the resolution of the alien problem.

At this point, i'm going to quit describing the action and leave the balance of the novel and its truly inventive disentanglement of the alien problem to the pleasure of the book's readers.  

Dick was not a normal person.  He took a lot of drugs and they enhanced the instability of his already unstable personality.  But he was a genius at writing science fiction that included and dealt with some of the  philosophical difficulties common in the modern world:  what is reality, how do we cope with time, are there more than one universe, is there a God,  can we be in more than one place at a time, etc...  Although i'd read a lot of Dick's work in my early years, i hadn't read this book, and i was surprised at how cogent and rational and ingenious it was as compared with what i'd learned about his work in the past.  Dr. Bloodmoney or How We Lived After the Bomb was the first one i read and i recall being floored by it, although i don't even remember much about it now.  Dick's reputation has died in the ensuing years, and his books might be a bit recherche today, but he still has the ability to make the reader think outside his usual comfort zone.  I'd recommend his more popular novels to anyone interested in science fiction...