Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER and other short novels by Mark Twain

I’ve been reading and reviewing Twain novels from an eBook titled “Mark Twain: The Complete Novels,” though the last few in it are shorter than novel length. The most interesting and difficult read is “The Mysterious Stranger,” one I read and found equally difficult as a teenager. Twain worked on several versions from 1897 to 1908, and did not finish any of them. The published book was cobbled together after his death from two versions.

The story takes place in the remote village of Eseldorf, Austria in 1590. There the narrator, a teenager, Theodor, and his two friends, meet the stranger when out in the countryside. He tells them he is an angel named Satan after his more famous uncle, and the entertains the boys will stories and magic. When he later comes to their village, the boy uses another name, and soon becomes the talk of the town, everyone wants to spend time with him and listen to his clever stories. Soon Satan is involved in all kinds of village matters, and when the boys ask him to help those less fortunate, he does so, but his help always makes things worse, and soon the boys are afraid of the so-called angel, and try to keep him away from their friends and family. What makes this book difficult to read is the accuracy of Twain’s perception about human nature and all its flaws, which he points out through the character of Satan. I’ve never read such a damning condemnation of humanity as in this work, as Satan points out how cruel people are to each other and their animals, how superstition, greed and envy overcome their better natures, and how often they make the wrong choices. Twain’s writing cuts too well into all of us.

The other short works include “A Horse’s Tale,” in which the narrator is a horse, Soldier Boy, owned by Buffalo Bill at a time when he was working as a scout at Fort Paxton in the American southwest when Cavalry troops there were fighting Indians of several tribes. Much of the story is initially about a girl, Cathy, who has been sent from Spain to live with her uncle, the fort commander. Cathy is apparently based on one of Twain’s daughters, and she is full of charm and soon has the entire fort at her command, including Soldier Boy and all the other local horses, dogs and animals. At one point, Cathy is captured by Indians, and that makes for thrilling, though politically incorrect reading, but the true purpose of the story is only revealed toward the end when Cathy returns to Spain with Soldier Boy, who is stolen and becomes a horse used in bullfighting. The cruel treatment of bulls and horses both are the message, but that section seems tacked on at the end of a different story.

The third short novel is “A Double Barreled Detective Story,” contains two complex tales of attempted revenge. It begins in Virginia with a young wife abused and shamed by a husband who despises her. Her son by the man, Archy, has an uncanny ability to track and identify smells, like a bloodhound, and his mother sets him on the track of his father to find and ruin him. The second half of the story takes place in a gold-mining town in California where Archy has followed but lost the trail of his father. There we meet Fetlock Jones, a nephew of Sherlock Holmes, who is abused and hated by his employer, silver-miner Flint Buckner. Jones contrives a devious plan to blow up Buckner in his cabin, one he feels can’t ever point to him, but his plan is complicated when Sherlock himself visits the town. After the murder, Holmes declares he can solve the case, but instead gets everything wrong. Twain intended this story to be a satire of the Holmes mysteries, and it works pretty well if you can accept a Holmes who is far less perceptive than in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about him, and the two revenge tales tie up neatly together at the end.

Of the three, “The Mysterious Stranger” is the most interesting and worth reading.

Rereading: HAVE SPACE SUIT—WILL TRAVEL by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover illustration by Ed Emshwiller

This is the last of Heinlein’s “juveniles” or novels for young readers, and my favorite.

High school student Kip Russell is not quite sure what he wants to do with his life, but getting into space must be a part of it. Civilian space travel is available to the very rich, but way beyond the reach of Kip and his family. His father suggests he enter a contest offered by a soap company with a trip into space as the first prize for the best slogan for their soap, and Kip goes after it with enthusiasm, finding ways to sell soap to everyone in town and get the wrappers to send in with slogans, hundreds of them. He does not win the trip, but gets a lesser prize, a decomissioned but real space suit. Before he goes off to college, Kip makes it his summer project to get the suit into working order, using his machine shop skills to restore the suit and stocking it with missing items like air bottles and a radio from his summer job earnings. With the suit complete, he takes it for a practice run outside his home, calling on the radio to an imaginary ship. To his surprise and shock, he’s answered by the voice of a girl, and presently two unidentified flying objects, alien space ships, land in the field near him. A girl jumps out with some kind of small companion, but before Kip can get to them, all three are captured and knocked senseless by some kind of paralysis beam.

Kip wakes up in a cell with the girl, Peewee, who is much younger than he expected, and learns they’re prisoners of alien invaders in their hidden base on the moon. Kip and Peewee plan a daring escape, and with them will go a different friendly alien Peewee calls The Mother Thing. She is a kind of space cop, but also a prisoner. There are many problems to overcome in their escape, the worst being having enough breathable air to get them to a government base many miles away, but the three prisoners get free and begin their deadly march across the airless, mountainous moon terrain, not knowing if they will die in the attempt.

Heinlein got everything right in this one. He knew a lot about actual pressure suits, having worked on them for the government, and Kip’s restoration of the suit is completely believable and draws you right into the story. The characters are appealing without being preachy, and the plot is full of surprises that moves the narrative from the Moon, to Pluto, to a distant planet far from Earth. Our planet is eventually threatened with complete destruction and put on trial with only Kip and Peewee to defend it. Great story, never a dull moment, memorable characters, and full of fine ideas. Highly recommended.

And Then I Read: THE LAND OF LAUGHS by Jonathan Carroll

Thomas Abbey is a teacher of literature in a private school, but is not happy there, and feels the urge to write a great book. He’s the son of a famous actor, and that makes it hard to find friends who are not simply interested in his father. He has a private collecting and reading passion: the books of deceased chidrens’ book author Marshall France. In a bookstore one day he encounters another avid fan of Marshall, Saxony Gardner, and they spar over a rare Marshall book they both want to own and read, but after a while their common interest draws them together in a relationship. With Saxony’s encouragement, Thomas decides to research and write a biography of Marshall, whose life is largely a mystery itself. He visits Marshall’s editor and with some information gained there, decides he and Saxony will visit the small town of Galen, Missouri where Marshall lived and wrote his books, and where his daughter still lives.

Thomas and Saxony expect to find Galen and Marshall’s daughter Anna France difficult to know, but when they arrive they’re surprised to be welcomed with open arms by Anna and the entire town. Somehow, perhaps through Marshall’s editor, everyone knows Thomas is there to write the first France biography, and they seem enthusiastic about it. Thomas and Saxony are set up in an apartment and gradually learn more about the man they revere, his work, and the inspirations for it, people who live in and around Galen. Little by little the tone turns darker as strange things begin to happen to people in the town, and somehow they blame Thomas. He also begins a relationship with Anna that frays the one with Saxony. Things really start to come unravelled when one of the town’s dogs starts to talk to Thomas.

I loved this book until…it finally turned into a horror novel in the last quarter. Up until then I was able to completely empathize with Thomas and his obsession for childrens’ fantasy, something I share, and I ignored the dark clouds forming as long as possible. The final part of the story is well told, but I liked the rest better. The ending is clever and startling, and this book kept surprising and entertaining me throughout.

Recommended

Rereading: CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover illustration by Leonard Everett-Fisher

The penultimate book in Heinlein’s series of novels for young readers begins very far from Earth on a world in a different part of our galaxy where slavery is alive and well. Baslim the Cripple is a beggar with one leg who plies his trade near the slave market, and while he is normally only part of the audience when slaves are sold, one day he decides to bid on a young boy, Thorby, who no one else seems to want. Baslim wins the auction and takes the boy to his secret underground home, where Thorby discovers his new master can become a very different person there, one who leads the secret life of a spy. At first Thorby tries hard to escape, but eventually is won over by Baslim’s fairness and friendship, and Thorby becomes his apprentice beggar, and eventually also a messenger for Baslim’s other trade. All that changes one day when Baslim is arrested and imprisoned after the police trash their home. Thorby is being hunted, but he remembers his instructions from Baslim if something like this happened: find a way to contact the captain of any Free Trading starship for help. That sets Thorby on a journey through space first as a member of the Free Traders, later as part of a galactic military force, and ending on Earth as he gradually discovers many surprising things about Baslim and himself.

I remember enjoying this the last time I read it about 20 years ago, but this time it seemed too talky, with many Heinlein lectures and not enough action. It’s a fine book, but not one of my favorites in this series. Still recommended.

And Then I Read: PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke

This is a remarkable recent book by the author of “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” and “The Ladies of Grace Adieu.” Piranesi has lost much of his memory, all that happened to him before he came to the The House, an immense building that seems to have no end, but he doesn’t realize that as the story opens. He is the narrator of the book, but not a reliable one, though through the discoveries he makes as the story takes place, he gradually regains his memory and the entirety of what has happened to him is revealed.

The House seems to be a place not of our world. It is generally calm and quiet. An unseen ocean must lap around it because tides from that ocean come and go on the lower floors, and occasionally rise into the upper ones. The building has countless rooms and stairways, and decorating most of them are beautiful statues depicting people, animals, mythic beings, and all kinds of events and activities. There are birds that enter and sometimes live in the House. There are sea creatures in the watery lower levels, where Piranesi fishes and gathers shellfish and seaweed for sustenance, but mostly the vast building is empty. Piranesi spends much of his time exploring and writing about The House in his journals. One other person is sometimes there, who Piranesi calls “The Other.” He is a man who seems to be from another place, a man who wears fine clothes and has odd devices. Sometimes he helps Piranesi by giving him things he needs like clothes, and Piranesi often helps The Other with his rituals and reports to him on what he’s found in his explorations. The Other believes The House holds the key to great powers, and he wants to find them.

Gradually, as the story unfolds, Piranesi begins to learn more about The Other and how he came to be in The House. There are many things that trouble him, and even his own memories are suspect. Clues to the truth are found in things The Other tells him, and when Piranesi meets another person in The House, more clues are revealed. There are things in Piranesi’s own early journals that help him regain memories he has lost, but The Other tells Piranesi that they are both in danger from yet another person that is trying to find him and kill him, adding suspense and drama to the story. Piranesi himself is brave and resourceful, but also afraid not only of the dangers predicted by The Other, but by his own past and uncomfortable flashes of memory. When he begins to find signs of another person in The House, he feels he must contact her to find out the truth.

This is the best book I have read in a long time. The language and atmosphere are beautiful and intriguing, the mystery of the main character is fascinating, and Piranesi himself is complex and simple at the same time, a person I felt kinship with. The setting is equally fascinating, and the book is full of wonders. There are subtle connections to the painter Piranesi and also C.S. Lewis’s book “The Magician’s Nephew,” but they aren’t really important to the story.

Highly recommended.