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What I've Finished Reading

"Wrong! Wrong! A diary is the last place to go if you wish to seek the truth about a person. Nobody dares to make the final confession to themselves on paper: or at least, not about love."

Balthazar by Lawerence Durrell. It's ok! I don't know. At first I thought it was going to be more down-to-earth than Justine and then it got hopelessly tangled up in its own lyricism again. Which is excellent lyricism most of the time. But you still get the feeling that Alexandria, Durrell's Alexandria, is a beautiful paragraph but never quite a city. I am a great believer in paragraphs, but sometimes you have to buy groceries. I'm not sure if this is an actual flaw. It's not really a story about living in a city, but about how difficult it is to write about a city and about other people, not necessarily an impossible task but maybe one requiring more uncertainty than the narrator, Definitely Not Lawrence Durrell, is comfortable with. Only the totally fictional can be fully understood, and since these fictional people are "real" in their own world (in the real city made unreal by an inch-thick patina of philosophical quipping about itself) they are never going to understand each other, and can only pace anxiously around the border fences of the mystery by writing letters about each other and/or having a lot of sex in sad rooms and dismal weather. That's fair! I mean, I can't really argue with the difficulty.

The balance of narrators is different, technically (here Balthazar, a minor character in Justine, has read Justine and shows up on D. N. L. Durrell's island with his own bundle of manuscripts to undermine and amend it), but the rhythms of the prose are similar to Justine, and there are the familiar aphorisms about women ("Truth is a woman," for example; "That is why it is enigmatic," while a walk-on character is "so clever that she hardly seemed to be a woman at all") and a chapped, gritty sensuality - gritty like a lot of cold sand in your bra, not gritty like a gritty crime drama; everyone is constantly being disappointed by the persistence of their bodies as solid objects. Honestly, I think they all need to relax, but there's about as much chance of that as there was of Mark Antony winning a boat fight.

Clea is my favorite character - the artist who falls in love with Justine (like everyone, unhappily, like everyone). She manages to seem like a character, despite everyone else rhapsodizing about her goodness all the time, which is either an achievement or a lucky accident depending on how cynical you are feeling about Lawrence Durrell today. Let's call it an achievement! I am feeling ok about Lawrence Durrell today.

"There is so little time; with the news from Europe becoming worse every day I feel an autumnal quality in the days -- as if they were settling towards an unpredictable future."

It's all distant guns all the time here in 99 Novels.

Also: Hospital Station, the first novel - really five short stories strung together - in the Sector General series by James White. New doctor Conway, an Earth native, learns the ropes at the SG: this includes getting used to working with colleagues who are ten feet tall or winged and brittle, and dealing with communication and diagnostic problems: how can you tell, in a first contact situation, whether your patient is dying of cancer or undergoing normal metamorphosis? Let's hope you can figure it out in time! This is comfort reading in much the same way All Creatures Great and Small is comfort watching - not just because the diagnostic problems are imaginative and interesting, but because of the way the attention of the story is always being focused on the immediate. Whatever else is happening in the galaxy or in Conway's personal life, there's a patient right now who needs sorting out. It's pleasant to watch people zero in on their jobs and do them. The aliens are really alien - White clearly loves thinking up alternative metabolisms and psychologies and then figuring out how they could go horribly wrong - which makes this vision of a transgalactic Doctors Without Borders all the more charming.

What I'm Reading Now

Mountolive is the third book in Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, and surprise! It's a traditional novel, more or less, which is kind of a relief. I mean, I think it's a better showcase for Durrell's strengths in language and image, that the novel isn't leaning so hard on language all the time. I mean it is leaning hard on language, but it's not noisily calling your attention to the fact every three paragraphs, which just makes everything feel like an asthma attack, or what I imagine an asthma attack feels like from reading Proust. David Mountolive has an affair with Nessim's mother Leila as a very young man, and later returns to Egypt with the Foreign Office. What will happen next? Probably the Not Durrells will descend on him with their epigrams, like a flock of pigeons. I'm enjoying it so far.

Star Surgeon, the next Sector General novel, is also more traditionally structured than its predecessor - that is, it appears to have a single long story arc instead of being stitched together from stories originally published in Analog (or equivalent). A patient from a species unknown to the hospital appears to have killed and eaten his fellow crew members. Conway asks his new colleagues from the next galaxy over to help identify it, and it turns out to be one of their gods. Surprise! Trouble is almost certainly around the corner, if it isn't already here.

And The Count of Monte Cristo of course. Is there anyone on earth, past, present, or future, who loves shouting "Surprise!" at his readers more than Alexandre Dumas? I hope not. I have almost caught up to osprey_archer: [SPOILERS through about Chapter 81!]

There have been too many shenanigans to adequately sum up, but let's give it a try. In Chapter 61 or so, the Count decides to go have a look at a "telegraph":

"Yes, a telegraph. I had often seen one placed at the end of a road on a hillock, and in the light of the sun its black arms, bending in every direction, always reminded me of the claws of an immense beetle, and I assure you it was never without emotion that I gazed on it, for I could not help thinking how wonderful it was that these various signs should be made to cleave the air with such precision as to convey to the distance of three hundred leagues the ideas and wishes of a man sitting at a table at one end of the line to another man similarly placed at the opposite extremity, and all this effected by a simple act of volition on the part of the sender of the message."

I thought, "Is that what a telegraph looks like? What is a telegraph?" Wikipedia brought me the good news that what I think of when I hear the word "telegraph" is not the first time something has been called a telegraph. There is also the optical telegraph, which was invented in 1792 and used giant arms and a semaphore alphabet to send messages across long distances. Thanks, Alexandre Dumas!

Thanks to Wikipedia, I also learned that there is a real Chateau d'If (you can go and be a tourist there) and, more surprisingly, a real Abbe Faria, a Goan Catholic, who may or may not have been imprisoned at the Chateau d'If but in any case came back to Paris later and made a name for himself as a hypnotist.

Anyway, there's a hidden motive in this sudden enthusiasm for telegraphy. Maybe the old Dantes might have just thought it was cool that technology allows people to communicate across long distances, but this is the new Dantes, and the new Dantes bribes telegraph operators to pass on false news reports so that Danglars will lose money on the stock market. I don't know, Dantes, this is kind of a weak revenge plan, if you ask me. I mean, Danglars does lose a ton of money and then his new friend the Count gets to gloat about it a lot and give him advice, but it lacks a certain panache, doesn't it? But maybe the best revenge plan is the one that nobody realizes is a revenge plan. I liked the telegraph guy. He is just a guy who loves his little garden, and now he can have a big garden because being bribed has set him up for life.

What else has happened? Valentine is being pressured to marry Franz, Maximilian threatened to kill himself if she married Franz, and Valentine's paralyzed grandfather, M. de Noirtier., in a scene of breathtakingly suspenseful blinking-to-communicate, has revealed to Franz that he, Noirtier, was the man who killed Franz's father!!! (thus removing Franz's enthusiasm for marrying into the Villefort family).

That's not sarcasm! The blinking really is suspenseful.

Meanwhile, Albert - remember Albert? doesn't want to marry Mlle Danglars, and Mlle Danglars doesn't want to marry anybody. Oh, and Villefort opened up an investigation into the Count's mysterious past. He thought he was finally getting somewhere, but actually he just ended up interviewing both of Dante's non-Count alter egos (who are in strong disagreement about the Count's character, of course). Shenanigans, thy name is Edmond Dantes! Or was, once. :( And - and there's an amazing scene at Mercedes' ball, when the Count very pointedly won't eat any of her food, and she tries to get him to eat something, anything, even grapes from her garden, and he just won't. SO MUCH TENSION YOU COULD BUILD A BRIDGE OUT OF IT. PROBABLY. I'M NOT AN ENGINEER.

Albert has gotten himself into trouble over an anonymous "slander" about his father, even though he's the only one who knows it refers to his father. It was probably planted by the Count, who also knows but isn't letting on. Albert wants to fight a duel about it, a terrible idea that will do no good to anyone. Please, impetuous nineteenth-century youths, stop trying to duel one another! There are more than enough things to die of as it is. And SOMEONE in the Villefort household is poisoning people, but who? Valentine? This seems unlikely. Maybe it's Villefort's wife? Oh, and Dantes has found the secret not-really-dead son of Villefort and Mme Danglars and encouraged him to come to Paris under a false identity; that's probably important somehow.

Who knows where all of this is heading? Is there a master plan, or does the Count just want to make everyone really uncomfortable? Either way, it's a fabulous pre-locomotive crazy train (no steam power, just a team of drama llamas) and I'm glad to be back on board.

What I Plan to Read Next

The library is closed over winter break, so I think I'm going to focus on books I already have in the house until mid-January - except for Proust; I took the rest of Proust out just in case. It's very important to have Proust!


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 7th, 2016 02:34 pm (UTC)
I was so worried that the bribed telegraphist would end up going to jail, BUT FORTUNATELY he escaped and is presumably building his dream garden somewhere in the south of France. All the nectarines anyone could want!

Also YES, I don't know how Dumas manages to make blinking suspenseful but he TOTALLY DOES. I love how Noirtier manages to save Valentine from her projected marriage to Franz despite the fact that he's totally paralyzed aside from his blinking abilities. Lucky he happened to have that confession sealed away in his desk!

But now I am VERY WORRIED that Valentine is going to be officially accused of the poisonings. My money is on Mme. de Villefort as the real culprit, because there's no way sweet cinnamon roll Valentine could have done it and also Mme. de Villefort keeps getting suspiciously bright-eyed looks on her face when the deaths occur. I'm not sure what her dastardly plan is - poison all of Valentine's grandparents, then poison Valentine herself so that Valentine's money reverts to the family and Mme. de Villefort can shower it on her own son?

But surely she will be stopped before she manages to poison Valentine or even Noirtier. I thought the Count just wanted her to kill Villefort, but is his master plan truly to have him kill everyone around Villefort first? This seems like an awful lot of innocent people dying for Dantes' vengeance.

ALSO MERCEDES TRYING SO HARD TO CONVINCE DANTES TO EAT HER FOOD. Oh Mercedes. Do you think she knows for sure he's Dantes? Or is she just pretty sure, and another part of her is all "Or maybe I'm just going crazy, Dantes has been dead for decades so it can't possibly be him"?
Dec. 8th, 2016 02:00 am (UTC)
I THINK Mercedes recognized him right away, when they first met, and has since then been trying to convince herself that he can't really be who she thinks he is because who she thinks he is is impossible. I'm not sure, but she was definitely disconcerted when he showed up and no one else was, so that's my guess.

What Mme de Villefort's game is, WHO KNOWS. It would be the worst ever if Valentine went to prison for poisonings that she obviously did not do. I want a MINIMUM of innocent people dying for Dantes' vengeance and if Dantes wants to just reconsider the whole thing and hand out big bags of cash instead, I am fine with that, too.

ALSO, I can't believe I forgot to mention the MOST IMPORTANT character, the true hero of the book, Caderousse! When he came back and started blackmailing Benedetto, I was like, "That's my Caderousse!" I know he's probably not getting that redemption at this point (BUT I CAN HOPE) but I'm just happy to see his unscrupulous face again. GET THOSE FRANCS, Caderousse! <3

One thing I love about this book is that practically everyone in the older generation (and Benedetto!) is a reinvention, not just the Count. They're all living these precarious dream-lives, the kind they might have imagined back when they were clerks and fishermen.

I am so glad the telegraph guy is going to have more nectarines than he can handle.
Dec. 8th, 2016 01:20 pm (UTC)
VALENTINE + MORREL FOREVER, and not separated by the bitterness of prison but actually getting married and stuff. I feel like they are a reflection of Dantes and Mercedes (with Valentine playing the Dantes role of having everyone unjustly against her), and they deserve their happy ending.

The nectarine guy was such an Eeyore, it was great. He manages to coax one nectarine from his stunted little tree and then the dormice eat half of it.
Dec. 9th, 2016 01:04 am (UTC)
I COULD NOT AGREE MORE. Valentine and Morrel definitely need to get actually married and enjoy the total lack of bitterness that should have been the lot of Mercedes and Dantes in the first place. I hope Dantes realizes that his new life goal should be to help them out: you can't restore your own lost life, but you can give these adorable young people a chance to have what was stolen from you! That's so much better than just chipping away at Danglar's fortune all day, isn't it?

It's a hard life for the poor fruit farmer. But soon nectarine guy is going to be singing another song, a song of too many nectarines! What is he going to do with them all? He'll have to take up canning (does canning exist yet?) or dry them on the windowsill or something. Maybe one of Dantes' alter egos can order a crate of fresh nectarines for the Villefort/Morrel wedding. That would be true poetic justice! (or at least a crate of delicious nectarines).

Now I want a nectarine of my own. All those peach-like fruits are ridiculously delicious, no wonder the dormice want to eat as much as they can.
Dec. 9th, 2016 01:39 am (UTC)
Helping other people live well is the best revenge! Or something like that.

I'm not sure canning exists yet in the 18whenever this book is set, but he could totally preserve his nectarines in honey, thus making them even more delicious AND an even more suitable wedding present.
Dec. 9th, 2016 09:41 am (UTC)
Okay, I got curious about that, because I thought canning might exist - and yes, early canning efforts were around and also they started in France! So the nectarine guy should be able to can or bottle his nectarines, no problem!

ETA: He should probably stick to bottling, though, if he wants to avoid lead-poisoning!

/edges back out of thread.

Edited at 2016-12-09 09:44 am (UTC)
Dec. 7th, 2016 05:34 pm (UTC)
I love the idea of a series about a space doctor! I'd never heard of anything like it before and it's such an obviously good idea. (I love even more the idea of it essentially being Space James Herriot, though. Is there a Tristan and a Siegfriend, though? Would space survive?)

And, ahaha. I still can't speak about the Count, but it is just such an amazingly fun novel, isn't it? It's so fab to see you enjoying it much as I did (and Osprey Archer too). I didn't have anyone to cmpare notes with, such it's very vicariously satisfying! Even if I keep having to clamp my hands over my mouth to avoid spoiling anything. (The bit with Mercedes and the food and Noirtier blinking stick in even my forgetful mind vividly now, so I attest to the tension!)

Edited at 2016-12-07 05:34 pm (UTC)
Dec. 8th, 2016 02:16 am (UTC)
It's so great! Space James Herriot has to establish the trust of the space community, while making difficult calls on limited information, just like Earth James Herriot. I don't think there's a well-defined Space Tristan so far, but everyone has to be a little bit Space Siegfried at times. It's the kind of thing I always wish Star Trek would have a little more of: workplace problem-solving, only in space!

SO MUCH FUN. I'm going miss the Count and his World of Coincidence such a lot when it's over. I'm glad to be part this multigenerational, centuries-spanning community of people who have been spellbound by intense blinking drama.
Dec. 8th, 2016 09:28 am (UTC)
Hee, I'm amused at the idea of multiple space-Siegfrieds! It's probably as well you don't have a Tristan. Practical jokes are all very well until you've accidentally messed with the air supply or something.

When I was reading it, I was so sad at coming to the end! I don't know how Dumas does it, but it's a delight. :-)
Dec. 7th, 2016 07:40 pm (UTC)
i really adore the hospital books - they're so comforting! there was a special word for this genre in soviet literature, of all things - industrial (production) novel, something primarily dealing with the details of how something works (think arthur hailey, hotel et al), and it's just so SOOTHING. and besides these books are full of such bright-eyed humanistic hope.

i'm really enjoying your dumas readthroughs, too! monte-cristo is one of my favorite pageturners.
Dec. 8th, 2016 02:28 am (UTC)
I love reading about how things work, even when the details aren't made up. And I think ever since I saw the movie Alien. . . was it last year? I've been hungry for things that are kind of a corrective to Alien, the assurance that intelligent life forms can learn to get along, or at least to refrain from laying eggs in each other, even if other life forms are (as you might expect them to be) unimaginably more different from us than we are from one another. I love that White's characters are just like, "Yeah, some of us have eighteen legs, some of us are gelatinous blobs or semi-independent virus colonies. You just have to suck it up and learn to work together, because this is a hospital." That's what I want from my sci-fi. And yes, the attention to work and how it gets done - very soothing!

I'm glad you're enjoying my Dumas readthrough, because I am enjoying it a lot. This book is ridiculous in all the best ways.

Edited at 2016-12-08 02:30 am (UTC)
Dec. 8th, 2016 09:24 am (UTC)
I've been hungry for things that are kind of a corrective to Alien, the assurance that intelligent life forms can learn to get along, or at least to refrain from laying eggs in each other

I realise that I am the worst person for reccing TV series, but have you already watched Babylon 5? It does also have some scary aliens, but it is mainly humans and aliens on a space station working out cultural differences (while Earth starts to go totalitarian thanks to Plot). And there is a doctor who has to treat sometimes completely unknown alien patients and negotiate their taboos (not always well, because he wants to cure people dammit).
Dec. 9th, 2016 12:42 am (UTC)
It's no problem! If every day were twice as long, I would watch all the TV I want to watch. I've seen all of Babylon 5 and I love it. Dr. Franklin would be right at home in the Sector General.

(also, hi G'Kar! <3)
Dec. 9th, 2016 09:43 am (UTC)
:-D Well, it saves much time with recs if you've already watched and liked things! (G'kar is my favourite).
Dec. 7th, 2016 09:03 pm (UTC)
Ahhh, I have missed reading these!! Hopefully you have loads of books to sustain you over the library being closed!

Dec. 8th, 2016 02:32 am (UTC)
Don't worry for a second! There are so many books in my apartment. I will always have something to read, even if I can't run to the library and get things on impulse like I'm used to. I will never run out of books.
Dec. 8th, 2016 12:07 am (UTC)
I have been to the Chateau d'If! It's really beautiful, and the tourist displays about the Count of Monte Cristo alternate with the tourist displays about the famous rhinoceros immortalized in Durer's print.
Dec. 8th, 2016 02:40 am (UTC)
I'm glad you got to visit! I'll have to add it to my list of important book-related places to see if I ever make it back to France (along with that ugly house Balzac spent too much money on, if it still exists)!

Edited at 2016-12-08 02:45 am (UTC)
Dec. 8th, 2016 04:20 am (UTC)
I've never heard of the Sector General series before, but your descriptions make it sound so wonderfully charming!
Dec. 9th, 2016 12:50 am (UTC)
It really is! Some things, like the obligatory doctor/nurse romance, are very Space Sixties, but I don't mind the Space Sixties (really they are as much a comfort zone for me as People Doing Jobs). I hadn't heard of it myself until very recently, when someone brought it in to the bookstore. I'm glad I took it home with me!
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )


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