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Crais, Sissel, Gutenberg, Carthage, and Thursday Next - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 30, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Crais, Sissel, Gutenberg, Carthage, and Thursday Next

Robert Crais has long been one of that select list of mystery writers whose novels I buy as soon as they appear. His series about Elvis Cole has been a delight, though Cole was beginning to show signs of having become so much bigger than life that the series might not have anywhere to go.

Whether Crais plans more Elvis Cole mysteries or not, his newest novel, The Two Minute Rule, is a quantum leap better -- one of the best mysteries I've read.

Max Holman was a drug-ridden bank robber as a young man, and always obeyed the two minute rule -- get what money you can from the bank in two minutes, and then get out, because it always takes the police at least that long to get there.

Then one day, because he was a decent guy, something happened that made him violate that rule -- and he was arrested and put away for a decade.

Now sober and determined to be a decent man, he gets out of jail only to find that the night before his release, his only son, a policeman, was murdered along with four other cops.

His son, Richard Holman, had hated his father -- and for good reason, given Max's neglect of his never-quite-wife and son before he was put away. And now Max has no chance to redeem himself -- except by finding out who killed his boy.

The trouble is that the more he probes into his son's death, the more it looks as though Richard was actually a crooked cop, involved in a scheme to recover -- and keep -- sixteen million dollars stolen by bank robbers who had been far more flamboyant than Max, but who also ended up dead.

What makes this novel so wonderful is the heart-wrenching struggle Max has to try not to get back into the criminal life, when the only friends he has are criminals themselves. Yet he is able to enlist the help of the former FBI agent who arrested him and sent him away, despite her own fully-justified personal dread of being involved with a convict.

Crais has not lost his touch -- just when we think we've got it all figured out, the story takes two sharp turns into weird but just-right territory, leading to just about the perfect climax. In fact, I want to see the movie, and I want Kiefer Sutherland to play Max. Not that anyone in Hollywood, least of all Sutherland, cares about my casting recommendations.

How much did I like this book? I was listening to the unabridged book on MP3-CD (Christopher Graybill does a wonderful job of reading it), when I had to go to Chicago and Dallas and forgot to take the CDs with me. I was one disk away from the end. So I ended up walking half a mile along Michigan Avenue in Chicago to the Borders near the Water Tower in order to buy the book again, this time in hardcover, just so I could read the ending.

But I don't feel like it's a waste of money. I was going to buy the hardcover anyway, because this one stays in my permanent library, to be savored again at some future date.

One nice thing about the audio of a book is that you can hear the author's name pronounced by someone who presumably knows the correct way to say it. I'd been saying "Crais" as if it were a homophone for "craze." Wrong. It rhymes with "face." Isn't that useful information?


In the checkout line at Borders I saw a CD called Into Paradise, by a singer I'd never heard of, "Sissel." I'm betting that her parents gave her two names when she was born, but that's the only one that appears on the album. The signage on the outside of the album talked about her appearance on PBS, and most of the song names were in German or Italian, so I figured that she must lean toward classical rather than hip-hop or country. And so, what the heck, I bought it.

At first I thought she was trying to be like a one-woman Opera Babes (and where's their next album, please?), but very quickly it became clear that she was doing something quite different. She has a clear-toned voice and is not afraid to sing with a light touch, though she has power when she wants it.

And while there are definitely "art songs" on the album, she sings them in a comfortable, accessible way -- she never sounds painfully overtrained the way so many classical singers do. She also reaches for other sounds, including something of a Celtic sound.

And the final song on the album, "Like an Angel Passing Through," is so pure and bittersweet yet filled with hope that it alone would be worth the price of the album, at least to me.


One of my favorite restaurants in the world is one called The Library, in Myrtle Beach. I haven't been back there for six years; I hope it still exists! Anyway, this is not a restaurant review.

Besides the excellent food, The Library also tried to live up to its name by having a few shelves of books scattered here and there. Unlike a similarly named library in Charleston, which inherited a real person's book collection, the books in Myrtle Beach's The Library were not selected by anybody. They were obviously bought randomly. Books by the yard.

Being a writer myself, I was curious and had to pick up books by authors I had never heard of. They were old books -- from the 1930s, some of them -- and when I opened them, most of them weren't particularly good, but they weren't awful, either. I couldn't help thinking that the authors wrote those books with the intention of achieving something -- a career, a reputation, maybe even a little world-changing. And now here they were, being sold like carpet remnants.

It made me sad. It also helped me keep in mind the ephemeral nature of what I do for a living.

Years ago I gave a speech to the librarians of Arizona, and called for libraries to cooperate in saving, in digital form, all the books that were still in existence in the world. Every book. Not just the best. All of them.

Maybe because I'm an author, I'm fanatical about not wanting anyone's work extinguished. All writings are artifacts of their time, and in some ways the worst art of a civilization may be the most interesting to future students.

Even those books in The Library.

Well, nobody listened to me (like that's new), and nobody has the budget to even attempt such a project.

But a more limited organization with a similar aim is already hard at work preserving books that someone, at least, values. Project Gutenberg is a serious effort by many volunteers to put clean, accurate copies of (mostly) public domain books online where anyone can download them for free.

For years I have been slowly acquiring copies of some books I really valued as a child, Joseph Altsheler. When I was eight years old, it was Altsheler's Civil War novels that first interested me in that period, and through a rather direct path led me to a lifelong interest in history, particularly military history. I owe this man.

But he died in 1919 and his books have been out of print for years. The copies in the Santa Clara CA public library where I read them were already old and beaten up in 1959.

Yet today I downloaded every one of the books I had loved as a child -- and some in the same series that I didn't realize existed. Altsheler was definitely not a modern novelist; his prose leans more toward history than fiction.

But what he offered still has value, and obviously not just to me. For transcribers have carefully typed in or scanned his books and noted every single correction they made, so that someone who wants to reconstruct the first edition exactly as it was printed could easily do so.

Project Gutenberg includes, in every file, all kinds of additional information, and if you duplicate and distribute them as Project Gutenberg Ebooks, they require that you keep all that extra data with the file.

However, you also have the option -- which they openly state -- of stripping all that information out of the file. After they, they don't care what you do with it. The books are public domain, after all.

The result is a cooperative venture of great value -- but which you can respect or not, as you wish.

Give them a look at www.gutenberg.org. Who knows. Maybe you'll find a book you once cared about.


Speaking of military history, I realized a while ago that I knew absolutely nothing about the three Punic Wars except that they were fought between Rome and Carthage, the Carthaginian Hannibal was a great general, and Rome won in the end.

The Punic Wars, by Adrian Goldsworthy (Cassell & Co., 2000, 412 pp.) turned out to be the solution for my ignorance. This is an extraordinarily clear and fair-minded history of battles, strategies, and political struggles so remote in time that everything has to be pieced together from ancient sources that are often fragmentary. And the fragments we have are often unreliable, since the ancient writers had their own agendas.

As Rome expanded through central Italy, it was probably inevitable that it would collide with Carthage. The then-rich island of Sicily, divided among many city-states, lay right between the two nascent empires.

So the first war was essentially a contest for control of Sicily. Carthage was a sea-faring nation and Rome was not, so you'd think that the Carthaginians would have won handily in a struggle over an island.

But they were dealing with the Romans, and the thing about Romans was: They never gave up. Even though they had democratic institutions, the ruling class was deeply imbued with a stubborn sense of honor and entitlement that would not bend.

In other words, they didn't get a year into a war, hold some polls, and cancel the fight. Which may be one reason why Rome created an empire that dominated the Mediterranean world from the Punic Wars until Byzantium finally fell to the Turks in the fifteenth century.

Rome didn't have any ships? They built them. No trained sailors? They trained them as best they could, and the survivors of the first battles were certified as fully trained.

The first war ended with a Roman victory, but only because the Carthaginians decided it was cheaper to declare peace and pay tribute. That was their way of waging war -- a Levantine way. They fought their wars with money. Their armies were mostly hired mercenaries, and they constantly weighed the cost. If surrender was cheaper than victory and left them free to continue making money, then they didn't mind "losing."

The Romans, however, had a very different view. When an enemy surrendered, the Romans regarded their surrender as permanent. From then on they were expected to behave like "allies," which to Rome meant "subject states."

The Carthaginians didn't act that way. In fact, as they carved out a new empire in Spain, under the leadership of Hannibal Barco and his relatives, the Carthaginians actually became shockingly disobedient to the Romans. Well, it was shocking to the Romans, anyway.

The result was the last war that came close to extinguishing Rome for many years. Hannibal crossed the Alps and promptly destroyed every Roman army sent against him. To the Carthaginians, it seemed obvious: Rome was defeated, so Rome should surrender, pay tribute, and everybody could go home and make money again.

Only Rome didn't know how to surrender. Or if they did, they had no intention of doing it. They kept raising new armies -- of proud Roman citizens -- along with troops from allied states. Unable to defeat Hannibal, they kept him busy, taking back whatever cities he had seized almost as soon as he left them. Hannibal, meanwhile, was baffled by the fact that he kept winning and yet the overall victory kept slipping out of his hands.

Finally the Romans under Scipio Africanus took the war home to Carthage in Africa, and even though Hannibal came home to try to defend his homeland, the Romans won.

The third Punic War was simply naked Roman aggression. Carthage was subservient now, but it irritated some Romans that their former enemy was rich again. So the found a ridiculous pretext for war, and despite almost desperate attempts by the Carthaginians to placate and obey Rome, it finally came to war, which Carthage lost so thoroughly that the city was utterly destroyed.

The side that refuses to lose is often the one that wins; the side that has no stomach for a longterm war, fought by its own citizens, is at a decisive disadvantage against a determined enemy. There are lessons to be learned, even from ancient times.

We may think we don't want to be Rome -- after all, we're not in the empire business, and these days we obviously get bored with wars, even wars we're winning. But it's good to remember that it was the city that didn't take its wars all that seriously, the city that was willing to surrender, that eventually was destroyed. Just a thought.


I heard from a couple of people involved in film projection, most notably Marvin Thomas Veto of Greensboro, that my disdain for the boom mikes that kept showing up in a recent movie may not have been a sign of bad filmmaking.

Apparently, in order to keep the mikes close to the actors, filmmakers routinely allow microphones to appear near the top edge of a shot, counting on masking in the projectors in the moviehouses to conceal the offending microphones from the audience. So it would have been the local projectionist, not the filmmaker, who violated respectable industry practice.

It still seems like a sloppy habit to me, but then, if I knew anything I'd have had some movies made by now, wouldn't I?


I made a big point in class this semester that I don't respond well to overtly "funny" novels. I admitted that this was probably a shortcoming on my part, but I still had one student who, bless her heart, was grimly determined that I would develop an acceptable sense of humor or she was going to die trying.

So I ended up with a copy of Terry Pratchett's Thud, which she swears I'll like when I find time to read it. And on the airplane this week I carried the other book she recommended, Jasper Fforde's first novel about an investigator namd Thursday Next, The Eyre Affair.

Guess what? The book is genuinely witty, but the story is also a quirky, wonderful mystery in one of the most bizarre alternate realities I've seen in fiction.

It takes place in 1985, but it's nothing like the 1985 I lived through. Thursday Next is in the British Special Ops detective force -- the division that deals with literary crime. For in her world, literature is taken so seriously that thousands of people have renamed themselves John Milton -- so many, in fact, that they have to have a number as well as a name, for simple identification purposes.

Much of the plot has a comic-book extravagance about it -- but no comic book I've heard of could possibly depend so much on its readers getting literary allusions. Every time you get one of the literary gags, you feel like you should be awarded another master's degree in literature.

This book could have been wretchedly desperate for a laugh. But Fforde is true to the weird reality he has created for the book, and you can continue to care about Thursday, her ex-boyfriend, her nemesis, and the world they all inhabit.

I was disappointed, in a book that was so dependent on fluency in literary culture, that some howlingly bad mistakes crept through. On page 45 of the trade paperback, Fforde uses the word "flaunting" when he means "flouting." Admittedly, the words are starting to merge in the public mind, which means the distinction is probably doomed. But in a book like this, there's no excuse for not getting it right.

And then, on page 117, there's actually a paragraph that says, "The conversation had taken a turn for the worse. It was time to bale out."

This conjures up the unfortunate image of Thursday Next jumping from an airplane wrapped in straw and baling wire. (You don't bale out of a plane, you bail out.)

But I forgive Fforde -- and his incompetent editors -- for such mistakes, because so much else about the book is just right.

I mean, you have to love a book in which an apparently airheaded receptionist, upon the mention of Milton, says, "To tell you the truth, Miss Next, I hate Milton. His early stuff is okay, I suppose, but he disappeared up his own arse after Charlie got his head lopped off. Goes to show what too much republicanism does for you."

I don't know that I agree with the sentiment, but I love the writer for putting it in this character's mouth.

And when Thursday visits with her uncle, an inventor of fabulously bizarre machines, she asks him:

"Did the memory erasure device work, Uncle?"

"The what?"

"The memory erasure device. You were testing it when I last saw you."

"Don't know what you're talking about, dear girl."

I'm sorry, but that's just wonderful. Especially because it's a throwaway -- the dialogue goes right on as if something hilarious had not been said.

Hilarious to me, anyway. And apparently to Fforde. And to hundreds of thousands of readers who are buying his latest novel even as you read this. Unless you're reading it at night. And even then, somebody's probably ordering it on Amazon.

It's a foolish teacher who refuses to learn from his students. Thanks, Elizabeth. I'll give Pratchett a try. Real soon now. I promise.


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