Book Review: “Vanity Fair” by W.M. Thackeray
Book Reviews / November 1, 2014

This satirical novel is widely considered the peak of Thackeray’s career. Probably in its favor is the fact that it is hard to pigeon-hole. Said to be the second greatest novel of the Napoleonic wars after War and Peace, it has no scenes of battle, instead depicting Waterloo from the viewpoint of the frightened civilians hunkering in nearby Brussels. Concluding with the ambiguous possibility that Becky gets away with murder, it leaves a dark, bitter aftertaste.

Book Review: “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” by Ian Fleming
Book Reviews / July 8, 2014

We’ve run into this problem before: First it was a novel. Then it was adapted, more successfully than faithfully, into a movie. Then came a film novelization, a novel designed to be more faithful to the movie than the movie was to the original novel. They did it to Pierre Boulle’s “Planet of the Apes”. More recently, it happened to Cressida Cowell’s “How to Train Your Dragon”. It even happened to another book by Ian Fleming. And so your dilemma is this: Which book do you buy or borrow, to read or give to your kids? Which counts as the classic?

Book Review: “Don Quijote” by Miguel de Cervantes
Book Reviews / July 3, 2014

Everyone who meets Don Quijote is amazed that one and the same person can be so wise and well spoken regarding most things and so completely insane when it comes to chivalry and the deeds of knight-errantry. Really a sensible old country gentleman, he has had his head turned by “books of chivalry”—romances about the apocryphal acts of apocryphal knights, their quests and amours, their saintly virtues and their military exploits. At times it seems possible that he has deliberately chosen to set aside reason, to make a break with the modern world, and at hazard of looking like a lunatic, to pursue the ideals of a time that has long passed, if it ever was. Maybe he’s a danger to himself and others. Maybe he’s a harmless fool. Maybe his protest against the unromantic pragmatism of modern life will be heard. Or maybe his plight is a protest against the poison of romance. Spin your interpretation as you will, what happens to Don Quijote and his talkative, rustic squire Sancho Panza is so funny that you may hurt yourself laughing.

Book Review: “Right Ho, Jeeves” by P.G. Wodehouse
Book Reviews / June 26, 2014

While some of the “Jeeves” books are collections of short stories, this one is a solid (though not very long) novel. Its plot, similar to many other adventures of Bertie and his man Jeeves, has to do with mending two broken betrothals, saving an endangered marriage, distributing prizes at a boys’ school, and staving off the resignation of a supremely gifted French chef, all upon a summer holiday in the Worcestershire countryside. In its dimensions, it appears to be a trifling piece of entertainment. In its style of narration, it partakes of the stylish slang of a British upper-class dandy riding the crest of fashion à la 1934.

Book Review: “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes” by Arthur Conan Doyle
Book Reviews / April 12, 2014

Already in the table of contents of this book, we encounter a mystery. The Kindle edition that I read includes 11 Sherlock Holmes adventures in this book, as do most American editions and some British editions of this book. The very first edition, however, contained 12 stories. Fear not; “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” will eventually turn up, most likely in “His Last Bow,” where it has been added to most American editions. The reason for this has something to do with censorship and public morals, but I won’t go into that here. What you want to know about this book is that it is the second set of short stories featuring Holmes, collected from the monthly installments that Conan Doyle published in “The Strand Magazine” between 1892 and 1893.

Book Review: “The Sign of (the) Four” by Arthur Conan Doyle
Book Reviews / March 17, 2014

The second book of the Sherlock Holmes canon was first published in 1890 under the five-word title “The Sign of the Four”. Since then, it has often been republished under the four-word title “The Sign of Four”. The confusion actually originates in the book itself, in which both phrases are used interchangeably. Although Holmes did not really become a hit until Conan Doyle followed up with a series of short stories (later collected in such books as “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”), this book is an important step in the development of a great cultural icon. This is the one in which Dr. Watson meets his beloved wife Mary. It marks the first time Holmes enunciates his famous dictum, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this novel, the sleuth’s craving for a seven-percent solution of cocaine is first mentioned, as is the name of the Baker Street Irregulars, those dirty-faced junior detectives of his. Viewers of TV’s “Elementary” will be thrilled to find Holmes here saying, for the first time: “You can… never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to.” And fans of the late Holmes film featuring a bare-knuckled boxing Holmes may be delighted to spot the first mention of his pugilistic talents, already in his second recorded case.

Book review: “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper
Book Reviews / January 17, 2014

Forget about the 1992 movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and based on this book published in 1826. All these years later, I still remember a lot of things about that movie. Very few of them faithfully represent things in this book. It turns out to be not so much a film adaptation of the novel, as a piece of original entertainment based on characters and situations in the novel. Oh, well. I still like the 2002 film “The Count of Monte Cristo”, even though I now know it resembles its source book even less. It’s a trial to be both a bookworm and a movie buff.

Book review: “Emma” by Jane Austen
Book Reviews / September 2, 2013

While “Emma” has these qualities, the reader must flap his wings a little more often to keep up the momentum. Perhaps it is only my impression, but the novel seems a bit longer, the dramatic tension a bit less taut, the main heroine a bit less admirable, and the incidents in her journey from bachelorettehood to wedded bliss a bit sparser and more pedestrian than their opposite numbers in S&S and P&P.

Book review: “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin
Book Reviews / August 29, 2013

Winner of the 1970 Hugo Award for Best Novel, this book by the author of “A Wizard of Earthsea” more than deserves to be in the company of such books as “Stranger in a Strange Land,” “Dune,” “Foundation’s Edge,” “Ender’s Game,” “American Gods,” “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”. It packs a powerful impact on both mind and heart. It is rich both in world-crafting inventiveness and in human detail. It is—it is, straight-up, devastatingly beautiful.

Book review: “The Wells Bequest” by Polly Shulman
Book Reviews / August 19, 2013

In a basement room made larger on the inside than it looks on the outside (thanks to a bit of sci-fi know-how), the Bequest is home to the real gadgets, weapons, and vessels of exploration that Wells wrote about. Stuff like the tripods that attacked the Earth in “War of the Worlds”, and the anti-gravity element Cavorite that propelled “The First Men in the Moon”; and not just stuff from Wells’ books, but from other writers such as Jules Verne. How did these amazing things make the jump from imagination to reality?