Dune by Frank Herbert

So.  I am embarrassed to admit that I cannot tell you who listed Dune in their top ten.  I looked it up last night, but then was unable to post.  I can now post but don’t have the book where I’m at.  So, mysteriously enough, I can tell you that it was just one person who listed Dune in their top ten and that I think their last name started with a “M”.  That second thing might be wrong though.

Prior to this, whenever I heard about Dune or saw the book around, I always had vague images of deserts and huge worms and weird 70s looking men and women pretending to be desert dwellers.  Then, those images would mix in my mind with Luke Skywalker whining and C3PO and R2D2 getting sand in various mechanical crevices.

Apparently, at some point, I either watched Dune at a time where my young brain quickly forgot it, or when my brain was intoxicated, ensuring that I would also forget it (which happened with most movies watched in that state, except, ironically, Dazed and Confused).

Segue to me saying “These are not the droids you’re looking for”.

The movie is notoriously bad.  Everyone I told that I was reading the book all looked at me in horror and said “YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE MOVIE HAVE YOU?” and when I would say not that I remembered, they’d all look relieved and say “Oh the book is much better than the movie.”

The book is much, much better than the reputation and vague memories of the movie that I have.  I can’t say that it’s my favorite sci-fi I’ve ever read.  In all honesty, if it was written today and marketed, I can imagine it would be shelved in the YA section of the library.  That’s not an insult though, some of the best books I’ve read in the last 3 years have been shelved in the YA section of the library (Ashenfall, We Were Liars and Fan Girl, just from the last 3 months spring to mind).  It’s got an adolescent protagonist, Paul, who moves to the desert planet from Caladan which was a planet that was quite literally dripping with moisture (I refuse to use the word “moist”.  There is no worse word, well, except for Stephanie Meyers favorite word, “chuckle”).  His father has been assigned to the planet by the Emperor.  There is a huge feud between the Atreides (Paul’s family) and the Harkonnen household (which, going with the odd Star Wars parallels, has a version of Jabba the Hut as its patriarch).  The Harkonnens were the ones on the planet previously running the show.  The desert has something called “spice” which seems to be some weird class of something that is more than a spice for food but somewhere less than LSD.  People that can only eat food from Arrakis (mainly, the fremen who are the nomads of the desert on the planet) have eyes that are entirely blue, with no whites or pupils to them.  This indicates a diet entirely of food seasoned with “spice”.

Betrayal, disaster and exile occur.  Resurrection and retribution occur.  The book is both a novel of a humanity of the future’s quest to get genetics back under control and a group (they’d be the mage class if this was fantasy and not science fiction)’s desire to control the end result of the genetic manipulation and a coming of age story of a savior.

This is a completely PG novel.  While the main character Paul ends up having a son, if you were not aware of the mechanics of how sons come to be, you might think that a sand worm (yes, they do exist in the book but in a much cooler way) delivered them on door steps.  It’s also an accessible science fiction book.  I think some SF books are very hard to get into, obtuse and technical.  This reminded me a lot of Ender’s Game, in terms of the ease of reading it for a person who doesn’t read sci fi a lot.

And, the more I think about it, the more it seems like Lucas ripped a lot of Dune off for Star Wars.  I will have to discuss this with Greg.  Definitely put this on your list of things to read, while it might not be in my top ten, it’s worth the time and who knows, it might end up being in yours 😉

Have a great weekend!!

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The Untouchable by John Banville

When a novel is all about a character being unmasked as a Russian agent, it seems like you’d be expecting a bit of a suspense thriller. Real cloak and dagger type of stuff. The Untouchable by John Banville isn’t quite like that. Elderly Victor Maskell has been unmasked as having spent much of his life as a Russian agent, demonized and even his knighthood stripped away though curiously not even arrested, but from there the book mostly takes the form of a slowly moving retrospective memoir.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Anita Shreve and 7th for Robert Wilson)

Victor Maskell is highly placed in English society as WWII approaches. He’s not exactly fabulously wealthy, but he is distantly related to the queen. He attends Cambridge and moves in the right circles. The sort of circles that with his Socialist ideals get him recruited by the Soviets:

I knew what was going on; I knew I was being recruited. It was exciting and alarming and slightly ludicrous, like being summoned from the sideline to play in the senior-school game. It was amusing. This world no longer carries the weight that it did for us. Amusement was not amusement, but a test of the authenticity of a thing, a verification of its worth. The most serious matters amused us. This was something the Felix Hartmanns never understood.

He also starts working for the English secret service. A double agent. Thrilling, right? Well, he’s an art historian.

Victor doesn’t jump out of windows or watch shop windows to see if he’s got a tail waiting to bump him off with prussic acid. He just hangs out in high circles and relays gossip. In his work for the British secret service, he sometimes passes along memos he comes across. There isn’t big adventure here, not the pulse-pounding sort at least:

“Do?” he said, putting on an arch, amused expression; his earlier, violent mood had subsided and he was his smooth self again. “You do not do anything, really.” He took a draught of beer and with relish licked the fringe of foam from his upper lip. His blue-black oiled hair was combed starkly back from his forehead, giving him the pert, suave look of a raptor. He had rubber galoshes on over his dancer’s dainty shoes. I twas said that he wore a hairnet in bed. “Your value for us is that you are at the heart of the English establishment—”

“I am?”

“—and from the information you and Boy Bannister and the others supply to us we shall be able to build a picture of the power bases of this country.” He loved these expositions, the setting out of aims and objectives, the homilies on strategy; every spy is part priest, part pedant.

No, Victor is old. He’s been disgraced…but he’s living quietly at home and remembering how it all came about. No locking him in a room and throwing away the room, just memories. How he was recruited, how he served, how he was betrayed, his homosexuality, his wife and children, all that. It’s a quiet book. For a spy novel, The Untouchable is very quiet.

The Untouchable wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It’s more remembrance, and much more slowly paced than I thought it would be….not much of a thriller at all. It’s well done, but the prose is fairly dense and the pacing is a little slow for my tastes. Really, it struck me more as a literary examination of a character’s life. The spy stuff was just details.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

So, for some reason, and I’m sure it’s because I read it somewhere, I keep wanting to say the “Taming of the Shrew”. Is that a real story somewhere? Does anyone know where this literary mistake keeps coming from?

Michael Cunningham listed The Turn of the Screw as one of his favorite books (but not the Taming of the Shrew).

I liked this story. I wasn’t so wowed by it that I’m going to heap loads of praise on it right now. I think part of the lack of wow factor is that it reminded me too much of both Rebecca and Jane Eyre. However, the thing that I -did- like about The Turn of the Screw was that it was honestly something supernatural, not a thing that seemed supernatural but was not.

At the beginning, they have a group that meet together at a club and tell stories. While I was reading/listening (I listened to the first couple of chapters then switched to reading the book) to it, it reminded me of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Which, if you’re looking for a more contemporary ghost story, I highly recommend it. One of the only horror novels to ever scare me so badly that I nearly jumped out of my skin in a crowded public place (Village Inn) while reading it when Greg tapped my shoulder. It was cool though to think that it might be where Straub got his inspiration for Ghost Story (partly). I’ve also read at least one short story/novella from King that had a similar premise.

If you like ghost stories, and you have never read The Turn of the Screw, you must do so. In some ways, I think it was the real genesis of the literary ghost story. I did get a couple of shivers up my spine towards the end, so it is definitely worth it for that.

I think part of it was scary though because of being a parent. Like, there was nothing that could be done to really protect the two children that the book centers around. The story is about the governess’s struggle to do so. This is not me crawling up on some high handed “I’m a parent you aren’t so you don’t know nyah nyah boo boo”. I’m just stating that I think it created a different dimension to the creepiness I felt that would not have existed prior to having a child.

Definitely read this one. Even though I’m not cooing over it and not heaping mountains of praise on it, it’s a damn good story and not very long either.

Hope everyone’s weekend is fantastic and Happy Valentine’s Day!! (had my brain been more on top of things, I would have tried to pick out something more “love” appropriate. For example, the poetry of Pablo Neruda is in The Top Ten, and would have been perfect. But since Dave and I have approximately eight more years to go on this, I’ll just save it for a different V Day!)

In which I go slightly offtopic

In light of recent events, both of which I will talk about in the upcoming paragraphs, I wanted to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird. You might recall that I previously discussed it here.

The first event is one that, unless you either don’t care about Harper Lee, Atticus Finch or To Kill a Mockingbird at all or live under a literary rock, you will have heard of. (And I’m unsure if that previous sentence is grammatically correct or is too long, but I’m leaving it. Because I can. Unless Dave decides to edit it. Which he has only done twice. After asking. And I’m unsure where this whole parenthetical rambling came from.) In the last few days, it has been announced that Harper Lee is doing the very thing she has been insinuating or outright saying since 1962 she would not do; publish both a second book and a sequel of To Kill A Mockingbird.

“”When you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go,” she once said to a cousin. “I said what I had to say,” she told a bookseller in 2000.”
(If you click the quote, it’ll provide the New York Times article from 2006 I found saying it.)

I am really, really torn on how to feel about this. It just seems slightly fishy to me that her sister dies in November, whom was the person who protected Lee’s privacy, and suddenly in February there is the announcement that she is publishing the “yay! Serendipity!” recently found by her lawyer manuscript. Considering that more than one source has stated that Lee has a horrible short term memory, and considering the flip flop that occurred in regards to The Mockingbird Next Door, the most recent Harper Lee biography to hit the shelves, it just gives me an uneasy feeling.

But, I am also willing to consider that maybe she has reached a point where she figures, well what the hell, I’m not going to be on this mortal coil much longer, might as well get this out there. Or that her sister was a horribly controlling woman that no one realized was dominating poor Harper and now that she’s finally free she’s going to publish her book and the rest be damned!

And, most likely, I will read it. And I will then hope against hope to not be horribly disappointed that I did. Or to later find out that it -was- published against her will and then feel the literary book reader equivalent of the walk of shame at 9:00 a.m. on a Sunday across the campus green.

Now! Onto the more fun second thing. Dave recently published a short, very, very, very short piece of fiction. You can find it here. The site is called Cease Cows and I strongly encourage you once you read Dave’s story (because you all are going to of course) to browse around on there. Dave’s story is called “To Kill a Mokkingbird II – Kill Harder by Ahrrper Leeeeee”. It’s a pretty good guess as to what the sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird will be about. (Just kidding 😛 ).

I have like three different things that this piece of fiction is trying to tell me, in addition to the thing that just says “Yay! This is funny!”. And everything I’ve just tried to type about those three things keeps sounding stupid and I keep hitting the backspace button and deleting it. But, it’s something about how some things in our entertainment culture come and go so fast that even when they’re big hits they don’t really stick but Boo, Atticus and Scout have all stuck with us, even if we can’t remember quite why.

Read it. Let me know if you agree. If you like it, tell Dave. And if you’ve never read anything else of his, check out all of that too (which you can find on his bio, or his own personal blog, or add him on facebook, or search David S. Atkinson on Amazon).

I hope everyone has a great weekend! And let me know too what you think about the sequel. Will you read it? Or will you pass on it? Do you think Lee really does want this published?