Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS by Jules Verne

One of Verne’s most popular works, serialized in 1872 and published in 1873, I’m not sure why I haven’t read it before now. Growing up we went to see the 1956 movie version with David Niven in the lead role, and we had a short book adaptation of that, so I guess I thought I knew the story. I was right in some ways, quite wrong in others.

Phileas Fogg is a wealthy Englishman living alone in London, and one who thrives on exact routines that never vary. His home life is perfectly regulated with the help of a valet, and he goes every day to The Reform Club, one of those upper-class clubs the British were famous for, where he spends much of his time playing the card game Whist for money, and adding a bit to his fortune. One day there’s an argument about a newspaper article which cites the opening of a new railway line in India which would make it possible to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. Many scoff at the idea, but Fogg defends it, and bets half his fortune that it not only can be done, but that he himself can do it. The bet is taken by his club mates, and Fogg hurries home to begin preparing. One difficulty is that he’s recently fired his valet and just hired a new French one, Passepartout. In fact the day of the bet is that fellow’s first day on the job. Passepartout is mystified and frightened by the news of the difficult adventure he and Fogg are about to undertake, but anxious to please his employer, and they set off almost immediately.

At first the journey goes smoothly, but in Suez, Egypt, they fall under the suspicion of a British policeman, Detective Fix, who has been sent there to watch for a bank robber. Fogg fits the description, and Fix wants to arrest him, but an arrest warrant can’t be sent from England in time, so Fix decides to follow the adventurous pair, hoping to arrest them somewhere on English soil, and with plans to slow them down wherever he can. Fix befriends Passepartout, who doesn’t know Fix’s real motive, and the three travelers form an interesting triangle. Fogg is totally focused on his mission, but seems unruffled by any of the problems and difficulties that arise on the way, and he’s happy to join a game of Whist rather than even looking at the scenery. Only when the three have the chance to rescue an Indian princess, Aouda, from being burned at the stake does Fogg show true bravery and resourcefulness, and they succeed, bringing the princess with them, though the most dangerous role is taken by Passepartout. Aouda hopes to find family in Hong Kong, but eventually joins the travelers on their entire journey. Fix tries several times to stop them, but when he fails in his arrest plans, decides to continue also on the entire journey, hoping to make his collar when they are back in England. Many exciting adventures ensue, and Verne tells his story well.

Some of the things I thought would be in the book were only in the film, like a balloon section of the trip, and many more adventures happen than were in the film. The endings of each are similar, and based on a mathematical miscalculation by Fogg that would be very unlikely in real life, but it works in the story, as does the resolution of the Aouda situation. I enjoyed reading this, and recommend it. Unlike many of the Verne stories I’ve read, it has no science fictional elements, but perhaps at the time the entire journey seemed like science fiction to readers.

Rereading: HALF MAGIC by Edward Eager

Cover illustration by N.M. Bodecker

Edward Eager was a successful playwright and lyricist for musical theater in New York from the 1940s to the 1960s, but he’s best known today for the series of seven novels for children now called “Tales of Magic,” this being the first one, written from 1954 to 1962. I loved them as a child, and continue to do so. Eager’s role model was E. Nesbit, writer of similar magic books in England from 1899 to 1911, and Eager similarly structured his books and followed the rules of magic laid down by Nesbit, but with a more modern approach, an economy of plot and structure, and delightful touches of sly humor, not enough to spoil the magic, but making it all the more fun.

Half Magic happens to four children, Jane, Mark, Katharine and Martha who live in a small town with their widowed mother during the 1920s. Their mother works hard at a job she hates to keep them housed, clothed and fed, but there’s little money for anything extra, and the four children begin their summer vacation from school wishing they could go to the country like their school friends, but faced with the prospect of visits to the library as their only entertainment. They wish something interesting would happen, and without them realizing it at first, something does. Katherine spots a coin on the sidewalk, nabs it, and puts it into her pocket. As the day goes on, the children begin to notice some very odd things happening that can’t be explained in any ordinary way. For instance, Katharine wishes there would be a fire to make life more exciting, and suddenly there is one, but only a small fire in a playhouse down the street. No one connects this with the coin in Katharine’s pocket until later.

Magic in these books, as with Nesbit’s, has strict rules, and the magic coin Katharine found grants wishes, but only half of them. It takes the children a while to figure this out, and there are plenty of amusing events while they do. For instance, their cat Carrie (as seen on the cover above) is given the power to talk, but can only half talk, leading to dialogue from it like, “Idjwitz! Oo fitzwanna talkwitz inna fitzplace annahoo?” Once the nature of the magic coin is deciphered, the children agree to take turns using it for a day, but as with all magic things in these stories, the coin is as tricky and literal as a hostile lawyer, and many wishes go wrong, especially ones made by mistake or in anger.

I can’t recommend these books enough, and I’ll be rereading the whole series in the days ahead. This one is the place to start, and the whole series has been reprinted often and is easy to find. The original illustrations by N.M. Bodecker are equally delightful.

Rereading: PODKAYNE OF MARS by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover art by Stephen Hickman

While this novel by Heinlein has similarities to his “Juveniles” series of science fiction novels for younger readers published by Scribners, it’s not part of that series. For one thing, some of the subject matter is more adult than Scribners would have been comfortable with, and the ending Heinlein submitted was tragic. The original publisher, Putnams, refused to accept that ending, and insisted Heinlein write a happier one, which he bitterly protested. This 1993 printing included both endings for the first time, and there was a contest for readers to see which ending was preferred. The original ending was chosen, and has been the only one in the book since the late 1990s.

Podkayne Fries narrates the book, she’s a teenager living on Mars with her capable parents and her annoyingly brilliant brother Clark. The story is told mainly through her recorded audio diary. Poddy thinks she has her family and the world around her figured out, and she longs to travel to the other planets in our solar system, especially Earth, to see and learn more. Her uncle Tom is an important man in Mars government, and he agrees to take Pod and Clark with him on a trip to Venus and Earth, where he will attend an important conference. Once on board a luxury liner, Podkayne begins to realize that this is more than a pleasure trip for her uncle when her brother Clark unwittingly carries aboard a bomb planted by those who want Uncle Tom dead. Fortunately Clark is too smart for them, and disarms the bomb. Other adventures aboard ship include time in emergency shelters during a solar storm, and dealing with prejudice from Earth passengers. The family group first lands on Venus, where Uncle Tom is beginning negotiations with that planet’s government while Pod and Clark are given time to sightsee. Clark quickly becomes a casino gambler while Pod dates the son of a Venus politician. Then things turn dark again when all three of them are kidnapped by those who want to turn the three-planet negotiations their way rather than what Uncle Tom wants. The kidnappers have no qualms about killing any of them if Uncle Tom does not do as they say.

I can’t say I like this book as much as many others by Heinlein, but it’s well written and the characters are believable and appealing for the most part. The tragic ending really does make it a better book than the happier one I read originally.

Recommended.

And Then I Read: A MYSTERY FOR THOREAU by Kin Platt

In 1846, Concord, Massachusetts is a surprisingly intellectually active town, being the home of writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as the family of writer Henry Thoreau. Thoreau himself lives a short way from town in a cabin he’s built on Walden Pond, but his strong opinions about everything are well known in the village. Most of the villagers are average working folks of all kinds, and they get their news from the small local paper, The Concord Freeman run by Rufus Puckle, published twice a week. The main news reporter, and the narrator of this story, is his nephew Oliver Puckle, who is still a teenager but already knows everyone in town because of his job, from the strange madwoman Hetta who lives in the woods to his friend and fellow teenager Louisa May Alcott and many more. When Oliver’s uncle leaves him in charge of the newspaper while he visits Boston and New York for supplies, Oliver feels he is quite capable of handling the job. The female stranger that appears in the newspaper office one morning with a want ad to place surprises him. Her name is Margaret Roberts, and Oliver finds himself struck by her beauty and charm. She has arrived alone from Boston, reason unknown, and desires to place an ad in the paper advertising for any sort of work. Oliver is happy to comply, and gives her advice on finding a place to stay. He suggests the Thoreau home, which takes boarders. Henry Thoreau, meanwhile, has been placed in the town jail because he has refused to pay his taxes on matters of principle, and Oliver hastens there to get his side of the story.

Later, Oliver asks at the Thoreau home about Miss Roberts and finds she never appeared there. He searches for her around town, and no one has seen the young woman. Oliver fears some tragedy has befallen her, but can’t convince the town Sheriff to act, though he does tell local hunters to look for the girl when they go out hunting. Late that night the town bell rings repeatedly, a sign of trouble and alarm. When Oliver turns out to hear the news, it’s of a murdered woman found by hunters. He fears the worst, and is determined to find out what happened. Surprisingly, Henry Thoreau, though in jail all night, turns out to have the best ideas about that.

This is a great read by an author with a long and interesting career in many arenas, including comics. I’ve reviewed two more favorite books by him already, “Sinbad and Me,” and “The Blue Man.” This book, published posthumously, is a worthy addition, and recommended.

Rereading: THE TRIUMPH OF TIME by James Blish

The fourth and final book of the “Cities in Flight” series by Blish is my least favorite, though some of its story elements are unusual. The flying city of New York and its Mayor Amalfi have settled permanently on a world in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud beyond the edges of our galaxy, their long lives now devoted to farming and settling. Amalfi is unhappy, he longs for the excitement of his former nomadic life, and a new discovery provides a reason to return to it. Scientist on his world and the traveling world of He have discovered a major cosmic event is close to happening, a collision between our own universe and another one made of anti-matter that will wipe out everything we know and restart it all again. Amalfi and his scientists discover that an empire called the Web of Hercules in our galaxy is planning to influence this rebirth for their own ends, and Amalfi’s scientists want to stop them and influence the rebirth themselves. Thus, a new interstellar battle is underway with New York once again in flight to the center of the Universe. The crew are all doomed to die with the rest of that universe, but some elements of their personalities and ideologies might be allowed to survive if their plan succeeds.

While the ideas in this one are interesting, the plot is not as engaging. There’s too much talk, and some hard to believe melodrama between the characters doesn’t help much. The ending is, indeed, cosmic, but inconclusive. Still, having read the previous three books, it was fun to revisit these characters and ideas one more time.

Mildly recommended.