Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: DR. OX’S EXPERIMENT by Jules Verne, illustrated by William Pène du Bois

Dust jacket. All illustrations © William Pène du Bois.

Here’s a book I didn’t know existed but was delighted to find in a used bookstore recently. I’d heard of the humorous Jules Verne short story, and might even have read it once, but the real delight came from the wonderful illustrations by du Bois, a favorite author and illustrator of books for children in his own right. While many of his own books are mostly pictures, several are novels for older children, including the Newbery award-winning “The 21 Balloons,” and equally wonderful “Peter Graves” and “The Giant.” Though born in New Jersey, du Bois spent ages eight to fourteen in Paris, and perhaps came to love the work of Jules Verne there. Much of his own work follows similar themes of science fictional adventure stories.

In addition to the illustrations on every two-page spread throughout, the book’s unusual design gives it additional charm. You read the entire book sideways, with each spread forming a large page, as seen above. There’s an introduction by science writer Willy Ley outlining Verne’s life, and an afterword by Dr. Hubertus Strughold analyzing the science in the story.

Front cover of the book inside the dust jacket.

The story itself is only mildly amusing. Dr. Ox and his assistant Ygene have come to a small, bucolic Flemish town in mid 1800s northern Belgium where little has changed in hundreds of years, and the entire populace and their animals have become lethargic and extremely slow in every way. For instance, at the local opera house, the musical pace is so slow that it takes an entire day to perform one act of an opera. The most important men in local government are the Burgomaster Van Tricasse and his friend Counselor Niklausse who run things by doing as little as possible. Somehow Dr. Ox has convinced them to set up a new gasworks that he says will supply the entire area with gas-fueled lighting, and the plant and infrastructure is soon built, but actual lights seem to be taking a long time to arrive.

Endpapers.

As the story progresses, we find out the real “experiment” is to flood the town with pure oxygen to see what effect it might have on people, animals and plants. The effects on people are soon seen where the gas is being emitted: everyone becomes animated, energetic and soon excitable, irritable, argumentative and even violent. Animals are equally affected. Plants achieve such vigorous growth that giant vegetables and fruits are soon being produced. Eventually the town is so roused to action that they decide to declare war on a neighboring town and gather to march on it.

This is more of a social comedy than a real science fiction tale, and Verne’s ideas about humor are rather bland and obvious. The illustrations are generally more amusing than the text. The afterword by Strughold explains that, though based on ideas of the time, the science in the book is actually wrong in most areas, and oxygen, while dangerous if breathed in large amounts for long periods, does not have the effects described. I love some of Verne’s adventure stories, but humor was not his forte. I’m still delighted with this book because of all the terrific art and design.

Recommended.

Rereading: THE RINGWORLD ENGINEERS by Larry Niven

Cover art by Dale Gustafson.

Having enjoyed the audiobook version of the first “Ringworld” by Niven, I’ve reread the second. Louis Wu, the male human protagonist of the first book, has no intention of returning to Ringworld. He’s busy dealing with an addiction to a droud, which uses electrical current to directly stimulate the pleasure center of his brain. He learns someone is after him when his apartment is broken into, and he tries to escape, but is captured and soon aboard the ship of a strange non-human alien, The Hindmost, the life partner of his former Ringworld companion Nessus. The kzin warrior/diplomat “Speaker to Animals” is also there, also kidnapped, but now going by the name Chmeee. The Hindmost has press-ganged them into another trip to Ringworld to find treasures. The Hindmost, formerly the leader of her people, the Pierson’s Puppeteers, has been overthrown, and is hoping treasures from Ringworld can restore her position at home. While Louis and Chmeee are controlled in some ways, they craftily plot rebellion in others once they reach Ringworld.

Ringworld is that immense structure that orbits a distant star like a rotating ribbon, with millions and millions of acres of living space on the inside facing the sun. But the place was built long ago, and those who built it vanished. Ringworld has been gradually deteriorating ever since. It’s cities are mostly in ruins, its peoples of various sorts mostly reverted to savagery or simple agrarian and/or nomadic lifestyles. When the Hindmost and crew arrive they find things have gotten much worse: the ring has fallen out of balance in its orbit, and in a few years part of the ring will hit the central sun, destroying everything.

Through this fascinating example of creative world-building we meet many Ringworld inhabitants, and the mysteries of Ringworld’s creation and creators are gradually unlocked. Meanwhile, Chmeee and Louis Wu find ways to rebel against The Hindmost until she is forced to do exactly what they want. With help from some of the most knowledgable Ringworlders, Louis thinks he has a way to save Ringworld and some, but not all, of its inhabitants. The second half the the book is full of action and suspense as Louis tries to make his ideas work.

I enjoyed rereading this, especially since I didn’t remember much about it. In his forward, Niven admits that flaws pointed out by readers of the first book led him to write this one and come up with plausible solutions. The ideas are immense, the characters are appealing, and the storyline is top-notch adventure.

Highly recommended.

And Then I Read: COLD SHOULDER ROAD by Joan Aiken

Illustration © Edward Gorey.

In her long writing career, Joan Aiken wrote about a dozen novels for children featuring the Twite family and friends in an alternate-history somewhat Dickensian, somewhat steampunk Edwardian series that began with “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” in 1962. I’ve found and enjoyed about two thirds of the series over the last five decades, but many years go by between readings, and I don’t try to keep the continuity or characters straight, I just take each book on its own. This works fine for me. “Cold Shoulder Road” was published in 1996, and features Is Twite, the sister of Dido Twite (I’ve read more about her), and her cousin Arun. They’ve traveled to the southeast coast of England, known for its chalk-white cliffs, marshes, and smuggling across the English channel. In the Aiken alternate history, even though the book takes place in Edwardian times, pre-automobile, there’s a tunnel under the Channel for a private railway line, which seems to be in the control of a group called the Merry Gentry. They’re heartless smugglers who everyone in the area is deathly afraid of. One of their tricks is to kidnap the children of any family who dares to resist or report on them.

Is and Arun are looking for Arun’s mother, who was last living on Cold Shoulder Road in the coast town of Folkestone, which has been taken over by a “cult of silence” religious group. This makes finding out what happened to Arun’s mother harder than ever, and there are plenty more dangerous characters and situations that Is and Arun are soon in the thick of. There’s even an evil Twite in charge of the cult, and when they turn to an Admiral for help, Is and Arun are soon locked in an underground prison. When they escape and finally find Arun’s mother, things just get worse.

These books are fun, lots of suspense and thrills, some humor, and characters that are right out of a Charles Dickens novel, but with a few arcane twists. The cover by Edward Gorey captures the flavor nicely.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: THE BEE AND THE ACORN by Paula Susan Wallace

Cover art by Emily Isabella.

This is a non-fiction book, an account of the conception, founding, and development of the Savannah College of Art and Design by the woman who conceived it, was one of the four founders, and is its President today. SCAD, as it’s long been known, is one of the largest and best colleges in the world for education and career-training in arts of all kinds, with over 100 degree programs and over 12,000 students. In addition to their home base in Savannah, Georgia, they have satellite schools in Atlanta, Hong Kong, Lacoste, France, and online. The reason I read it? Ellen’s nephew is a freshman there, and next week she and I will be visiting SCAD along with Ann and Dave, the parents of student Zack. We’re looking forward to the trip, and Ann gave us this book to read about the school and the people behind it.

Paula Wallace’s story is, indeed, inspiring and amazing. She was an elementary education teacher with a big dream: to start a school for the arts. One that would be different from every other art school and university program out there: it would focus on the students, not only developing their skills and talents, but teaching them how to sell themselves and find careers. There would be no giant lecture halls, no teaching aides drawn from the student body. Classes would be small, and each taught by full professors. It would be inclusive rather than exclusive, it would spread the classroom out to the larger world, and help the community as much as the students.

Paula shared that dream with her family, and her husband Richard as well as her parents, May and Paul Poetter, agreed to help. With little money except May and Paul’s retirement nest-egg, they bought a derelict Armory in downtown Savannah in the late 1970s, a time when that part of Savannah was itself derelict and dying. They were beset with many serious difficulties: a hurricane that struck the town a few weeks before they planned to open, skepticism and distrust from some locals, doubt and disbelief in their dream from the accrediting groups that needed to approve them, and lots more. Somehow they made it work, and this book is a testament to that effort through Paula’s memories and stories. Yes, it’s slanted toward their successes, but also explains the ideas and attitudes that made the school attractive to students and successful in the long run, even with many roadblocks.

It’s a great story, and if you have any interest in the topic, or perhaps know someone who might be thinking about an arts education, I highly recommend it.

And Then I Read: ATLANTIC CIRCLE by Kathryn Lasky Knight

You’d think someone writing a travel book about sailing across the Atlantic Ocean twice in a small boat as well as through the waterways and canals of Europe would be enthusiastic about it. Not so much in this case. Kathryn’s husband Chris loves sailing, and comes from sea-faring families. Kathryn is from the midwest and happiest on land. Despite that, she agrees to Chris’s plan to sail from Massachusetts to Europe in their thirty-foot ketch. Once there they will explore the waterways of England and Europe over three summers (leaving the boat to fly home between) and finally sailing back across the ocean to the Caribbean in the fall of their third year.

Kathryn continues to tell us she is not suited for a life on the water, doesn’t like it, doesn’t want to be there. When preparing for the trip she is more concerned about how many kinds and amounts of Pepperidge Farm cookies she can pack aboard, as well as other comfort foods than preparing in other ways. Her husband Chris does all the hard work of preparing the boat, charting their course, and getting everything ready. The entire first two sections of the book, which delve deeply into family history and their relationship, and are full of complaints and denial from Kathryn, get pretty tiresome, and I almost gave up on the book several times.

Finally, in Chapter 14, page 80, they get sailing. Kathryn continues to hate the Atlantic crossing, which is admittedly rough and scary, but does write about it well. And once they arrive in England in Chapter 20, the book becomes much more fun to read. River and canal sailing are clearly much more the thing for Kathryn, and she writes appealingly about the places they go, always being sure to include lots about the food and people they meet. Travels through Europe don’t always run so smoothly, particularly in the rivers, where their small boat is often in danger of being run down and swamped by much larger ones, but the travel experience is fascinating, and well worth reading. The final Atlantic crossing goes much better than the first one, and the continued story of their lives after the epic voyage is entertaining too.

In all, I’m glad I read this, but I do prefer travel adventure books where the writer wants to be there. Kathryn and Chris are still together, surprisingly, as I learned on her website. The book was published in 1985, and the author has written many more books, mostly for children, under the name Kathryn Lasky.

Recommended.