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review 2019-06-23 22:12
The Heads of Cerberus by Francis Stevens
The Heads of Cerberus - Francis Stevens

Originally serialized in 1919, 'The Heads of Cerberus' is an early novel of a dystopian future. For sale at a Philadelphia estate auction is a strange artifact. A Renaissance crafted rock crystal vial with the titular silver heads containing dust rumored to have been collected from the gates of purgatory....

 

Robert Drayton is a lawyer down on his luck after being framed by unscrupulous businessmen, but an accident brings him back n contact with a formerly close friend, Terrence Trenmore. Trenmore collects curiosities and his purchase of the vial at an estate auction has drawn threatening letters from a mysterious collector and even an attempted break in.

 

Knowing there must be something more to attract this attention then mere dust the men investigate and accidentally breathe in the substance, unwittingly so does Trenmore's sister Viola. The three are transported to a mysterious land and when they are returned to Philadelphia they find it drastically altered.

 

The streets, buildings, and fashions of 2118 are strangely unchanged, but the mass of society are known only by their number, is cut off from its regions, ignorant of history and subject to the rule of Penn Service. In the former city hall, now a temple to 'Lord Penn', are the Servants of Penn named for virtues, and the Superlatives, named for the areas of government for which they are responsible.

 

The stranded refugees of the 20th century must face death or compete in the Civil Service Examinations. Forces in the city appeal to them to compete for the titles of Strongest, Loveliest, or Cleverest, but do they want to be a part of this society?

 

This was a lot of fun to read. Reprinted as a part of Modern Library's Torchbearers series, it novel about a dark, authoritarian future by a female author I'd never heard of before (and there's more, but I won't tell). In some ways its an artifact, but there were elements of this that elevate it above a historic milestone on the way to better things. In tone its more of a forebear to Philip K. Dick than the back-cover referenced 'The Hunger Games'. I especially loved the description of the transformation of Philadelphia's City Hall . Very cool, I'll be checking out other titles.

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review 2019-04-30 20:37
Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley
Parnassus on Wheels - Christopher Morley

Plain and simple, this book is about the love of reading and the joy of giving it to others.

 

Helen McGill was convinced by her brother to abandon life in the city and join him on a rural farm. They were happy then she remembers, until her brother decided to write a book about their experience and the pleasures of the "simple" life. Since literary fame came to him, Helen finds herself forced to do more of the work around the farm and sees no way out. No way out, that is, until the arrival of Roger Mifflin and his "Parnassus on Wheels", a mobile bookstore which he soon sells to Helen.

 

Helen happily leaves, leaving the farm to be taken care of (or not) by her often-absent brother. Mifflin travels with her for a time to teach her the trade before settling down himself to write "the" book he's long dreamed of.

 

This is a short book and a whole lot of fun. Over a hundred years after publication, this book will ring true to booksellers and other book lovers.

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review 2017-09-06 13:54
The War of the Worlds (Modern Library Classics) - 'H. G. Wells', 'Arthur C. Clarke'

Great story that still stands the test of time.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-05-01 19:24
Deliverance, by James Dickey
Deliverance (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) - James Dickey

The film version of Deliverance is known for "that scene," the one where Bobby, one of four city men traversing a wild river in Georgia, is raped by a "hillbilly." The scene is a bit different in the book--there's no "Squeal like a pig!" moment--but essentially the same. Before I even saw the film, I knew about that scene. Men as victims of rape (outside of prison as a context) in stories shock us; women as victims are so common, often serving as the impetus for a male protagonist to seek revenge, or to "develop" a female character, that it's rare for their victimization to become the talking point of a film or book, unless the scene is especially brutal (e.g. Irreversible) or unique (e.g. that turkey baster in Don't Breathe).

 

I mention this because I came to Deliverance as a reader who is now rarely interested in books with white masculinity as their subject. Its spot on the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century likely put it on my radar, and when I read a sample I was dazzled by its language. Dickey's prose is the best thing about the novel, for a reader like me. He has a way of describing moments of consciousness or states of being that is unlike anything else I've read. It carried me through the story, even as the book became what I feared it might. In essence, it's about using and relying on one's physical and mental resources as a man to make it through a dire situation.

 

The leader of this river expedition is Lewis, the most capable and masculine "man's man" of the foursome. He's what we would today call a survivalist; he has faith in himself and his body, first and foremost, and wants to be prepared for anything. There's Drew, the sensible, amateur musician, and Bobby, the smartass who's the least helpful on the river. The protagonist and narrator is Ed, Lewis's best friend. Ed is mildly dissatisfied with his work (in advertising) and goes back and forth about wanting to take part in the river trip. When Lewis is badly injured and another member of their party killed by the surviving local man who participated in the rape (Lewis killed the other), it's up to Ed to get them out of there alive. He does, though injured and obliged to murder (or kill in self-defense, depending on your perspective). The three survivors lie about what happened, concerned they won't be believed by local law enforcement. This experience will clearly haunt them always.

 

What troubles me is the way Bobby is characterized, especially after the rape. When reading, especially a violent and potentially offensive book like this, I try to separate characters' actions and attitudes from the author's. Immediately after the rapist is killed by Lewis, Ed thinks to himself that he doesn't want to touch or be around Bobby. This is a moment where you can distinguish between character and author. But Bobby is elsewhere characterized as weak by the author; his ineptitude makes him a hazard to his friends more than a help as they traverse the river and try to escape the situation. Bobby is, in effect, the least masculine and feminized. Drew had his sense of morality going for him; what does Bobby have except (useless) humor?

 

The few women in the book are wives or objects of a desirous male gaze. Ed has sex with his wife the morning he leaves for the trip, and when he returns, thinks he hasn't appreciated her enough. Drew's widow is angry and predictably points out how useless a death he suffered, adventuring on a river. Throughout the story, Ed thinks of the model who posed topless (back to the camera) and held her breast in a roomful of men, a gold tint in one eye. The women seem there to help define the men's masculinity.

 

Deliverance is tightly constructed, the type of book with symbolism to pore through, ready for a book group or class discussion. I've mentioned its stellar language and also gasped at several points. I can certainly understand its presence on the Modern Library's list, even as I struggle with some elements.

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review 2017-04-13 22:39
Lord of the Flies / William Golding
Lord of the Flies - William Golding

Somehow, I missed this book during my school years. I remember seeing stacks of them in our school, but it was never assigned in one of my classes. I can see why it is a staple of high school curriculums, however, since it’s themes are easily seen and interpreted. There is plenty to discuss.
I would have appreciated it in high school, having struggled with Orwell’s Animal Farm instead. Lord of the Flies is pretty straight-forward in its depiction of the descent of supposedly civilized British boarding school boys into “savages” when left without adult supervision. Perhaps it is also a comment on boarding schools in general, which a couple of my friends have experienced (and do not recommend).

I find myself wondering how Golding would have written things differently if there were girls in the mix. Would they have been considered a “civilizing influence”? Or would they have become prizes or hostages in some boy’s competition? How did the “Little’uns” manage to escape the worst of the mistreatment that can be dished out when group dynamics go awry?

I chose this book after reading Barrie’s Peter Pan last year, wanting to contrast the “lost boys” in both novels. Unlike Barrie’s Lost Boys, the boys in LOTF have to grow up. Golding makes them struggle with adult responsibilities that they really aren’t prepared for, like keeping a signal fire going and building adequate shelters. I was also reminded of Robinson Crusoe, but his journey was actually towards religion, rather than away from it. Many years with only a Bible to read turns him into a religious man, which at the time would be considered more civilized.

A worthwhile book, but not one that I will ever likely re-read.

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