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Fearfully and Wonderfully Wednesday

What I've Finished Reading

In Star Surgeon, war comes to the Sector General when the team stumbles across an Imperial charity racket and the local Empire, fearful of exposure, launches a vicious propaganda (and later, bombing) campaign against the hospital. This is bad for the hospital but ideal for the reader, who is treated to a long and detailed account of evacuation logistics, plus plenty of self-sacrificing heroism from the medical staff and a satisfying conclusion. I was overjoyed when the translator mechanism broke down – it had to happen sometime! and the staff had to cobble together a difficult and time-consuming workaround using the “learning tapes” – a sort of portable temporary mind-meld that allows doctors to access the memories of accomplished physicians of alien species. Major Operation, the last novel in the omnibus, Conway and the staff try to understand and accommodate a wonderfully strange new planet and its peculiar forms of intelligence and interdependence. James White’s meticulous imagination continues to be a joy to read.

”But one point which we must keep in mind when we try to talk to it,” Conway ended seriously, “is that the patient is not only blind, deaf, and dumb, it has never had another of its own kind to talk to. Our problem isn’t simply learning a peculiar and difficult e-t language, we have to communicate with something which does not even know the meaning of the word communicate.”

“If you’re trying to raise my morale,” said Murchison dryly, “you aren’t.”

No one ever said being a space doctor would be easy! How do you open communications with a solitary, functionally immortal being the size of a continent? With great difficulty!

Last week, I said I didn’t mind the Space Sixties and even found them cozy. This is still the case! I don’t mind things like the assumption that married women will go on automatically taking their husband’s names hundreds of years into the future, in fact, they give me a warm feeling toward the writer more often than not: who can tell which of the fringe eccentricities of the present are going to be the norm in fifty years? The really observant, sometimes, but it’s a crapshoot. So I was surprised by how genuinely disappointed I was when curmudgeonly space psychologist O’Mara vetoed the idea of letting some of the “girls” volunteer to take on a learning tape. “Earth-human females,” it turns out, are categorically unsuitable for space doctoring, due to “a deep, sex-based mental fastidiousness. No matter what they say they will not, repeat not, allow alien beings to apparently take over their pretty little brains.” This may be just O’Mara’s opinion, but the future is sufficiently sexist that no one really bothers to argue with it. Aliens are colleagues, but women are still alien. Come on, buddy, don’t be like that.


Still great reading on the whole. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next three books in the series.

I enjoyed Mountolive a lot, even if I still feel oddly glassed-off from the Alexandria Quartet. There’s a lot to recommend about this way of writing a novel in layers, like the overlapping paintings in cell animation – at least, it’s fun in a distant way to see everything come into focus, or whatever exactly is happening here. Justine gave us Not Lawrence Durrell’s anguished, circular memoir; Balthazar corrected and added to and undermined NLD’s scratchings in more or less the same register (I think with a little more [intentional] humor, though maybe that’s just me adjusting to Durrell). In Mountolive, which is mostly a normal novel about a sad English diplomat and his divided loyalties, we get a clearer picture of the political activities of the Hosnani brothers, Nessim and Narouz, and a stronger sense of how all the murmuring aphorists from Justine and Balthazar are connected with one another.

I think even the unreal as-seen-through-motorcade-glass quality of the city descriptions begins to be justified, though I still don’t know how I feel about it.

We also get much-appreciated commentary on the previous two books: for example, Nessim and Justine smile knowingly about how naive and unobservant NLD is, how little he’s guessed of their true motives. It keeps things interesting. It’s not a very “warm” novel (I mean the Quartet as a whole, so far); everything is constantly being dissected and burrowed into and it’s hard to feel very much dislike or sympathy for any of the characters. This is on purpose but it’s not my favorite purpose. I like to gasp and clutch my chest and have opinions about characters’ personal lives. In the Alexandria Quartet you are meant to be overwhelmed by the sense that all this has already happened and is immutable, and all we can do is poke at it until we give up the hope of understanding. Which is all well and good.

(I ran across an edition of Mountolive this weekend at a used bookstore, whose cover was a painting of Mountolive looking at Pursewarden’s death mask; I was surprised to have an emotional reaction to the painting when I’d read the corresponding scene with no particular feeling but the usual “gee, Lawrence Durrell loves his metaphors.” It had become part of my memory landscape just the same).

Clea is still my favorite and the last book is called Clea. Does that mean that Clea will be my favorite book of the Quartet? If I have a favorite book, will it mean that I’ve failed to understand Durrell’s purpose? We’ll find out! (maybe).

What I’m Reading Now

The Count of Monte Cristo is still a cyclone of pure drama, only more so. [SPOILERS through Chapter 90]

Caderousse, my disappointing favorite, is now dead. :( After blackmailing his fellow ex-inmate Benedetto by threatening to reveal his real past to the people who believe him to be his fake father’s long-lost son, he allows himself to be tempted into robbing the Monte Cristo House, not realizing that Benedetto plans to kill him if it goes at all badly, along with the Count (Benedetto believes that the Count is his secret father and this business with his fake father is a means of acknowledging him without social consequences, which would be very clever if it were true, but alas. He thinks that if the Count is murdered by burglars, he, Benedetto, will inherit the fortune). Caderousse sneaks into the house, but of course the Count is waiting for him, in disguise as the Abbe Busoni. When Benedetto double-crosses and murders Caderousse outside, the Count takes the opportunity to revive him with a potion so he can make a speech about justice and vengeance before revealing his true name.

So poor Caderousse doesn’t get a redemption after all, despite, as Dantes points out, having had a lot of perfectly good chances and throwing them away. Instead, he is rewarded for his Caderoussery by being the first to get the big Dantes reveal. Unfortunately, it happens a split second before he dies, so he can’t tell everyone and be disbelieved. Or do anything at all, poor guy. :( Goodnight, sweet rat prince. We’ll miss you and your cowardly poorly thought-out ways! Or I will, anyway.

Then an item appears in the paper, accusing one Fernand of treachery in Yanina. Albert immediately recognizes it as a reference to his father, and flies off the handle, challenging the publisher of the paper – his friend Beauchamp – to a duel. Beauchamp (and the Count, whom Albert goes to for advice) points out that there isn’t nearly enough information to connect this Fernand with Albert’s dad, and by making a fuss about it Albert is only stirring up suspicion where there was none before. But Albert insists that either the item has to be refuted, or Beauchamp has to fight him. Albert, no.

Beauchamp goes on a fact-finding mission and returns with the bad news: it totally was Albert’s father, and as far as anyone can determine, the story is true. But because he loves Albert and doesn’t want to hurt him, he burns the evidence he found. It’s all for nothing, though: a few days later, another item appears in a different paper, this time with full names. There is a dramatic courthouse scene in which Haidee appears to testify (the only way she knows how, dramatically), and poor Fernand can only flee the building in disgrace. But who is behind this untimely investigation? Albert does some digging of his own and discovers, to his horror, that it was the Count of Monte Cristo, whom he thought was his great friend, who told Danglars to poke around in Fernand’s past! He must have known all along who Albert’s father was and what he had done! Why? Poor Albert is devastated. He storms into the Count’s box at the opera and challenges him to a duel! ALBERT NO. Duels are a terrible idea! The Count has gone out of his way to show you his ridiculously superhuman marksmanship! There are so many other things you can die of! Dantes, don’t kill Albert! PLEASE SOMEBODY MAKE THIS NOT HAPPEN.

THEN. THEN, in Chapter 90, who should show up at Monte Cristo Central but MERCEDES. She’s come to plead for the life of her son! She calls him Edmond – she’s recognized him all along, because of course she has! He tries to play it cold, saying “Mercedes is dead,” but SHE IS RIGHT HERE. He knows it isn’t true. He shows her the letter with which Fernand and Danglars betrayed him – the little window into the other life opens and shuts, the real life that was stolen. They aren’t really here, in this absurd brightly colored adventure novel, throwing barbs at one another in this Hollywood drawing room; this is a prison daydream, a pre-wedding nightmare, a fantasy of revenge gone bad, dream upon dream upon dream. Remember a thousand pages ago when we were so happy and worried for poor Dantes and his sweet dad and his smart, likable fiancée? This is all wrong. It’s always been wrong. Can’t you wake up?

”Have you known what it is to have your father starve to death in your absence?” cried Monte Cristo, thrusting his hands into his hair; “have you seen the woman you loved giving her hand to your rival, while you were perishing at the bottom of a dungeon?”

“No,” interrupted Mercedes, “but I have seen him whom I loved on the point of murdering my son.”

THIS SCENE. It’s magnificent. I mean, the entire book is a magnificent drama-storm but in Chapter 90 Dumas is running on all cylinders, or whatever the era-appropriate metaphor is. Is it as great as the return of the Pharaon? NOTHING IS AS GREAT AS THE PHARAON but maybe. Maybe! Thank goodness Dantes isn’t going to kill Albert – at least he says he isn’t and I believe him. He’s all mopey about the loss of his big vengeance plan, but isn’t it better to remember the taste of cinnamon? Dantes and Mercedes! You were just people once, before you were fires. Maybe you still are! Maybe?

I love the intense full-strength drama of this scene, but I also love that I have hope again for Dantes! Do the right thing, Dantes! You know you know how! Don’t steal my hope and replace it with sadness, Alexandre Dumas! I’ll probably still love you but I will also be UPSET.

THIS BOOK, you guys. I AM DEAD.

What I Plan to Read Next

Clea! Even though I already had a copy from the library, I couldn't resist buying a vintage paperback edition from the used bookstore when I saw it. Also up next: How Dear is Life, by Henry Williamson! And then maybe The Golden Notebook? It's on the list for 99 Novels, and it's already in my house. Or maybe something else! I'm not sure.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 14th, 2016 05:06 pm (UTC)

I read Count of Monte Cristo as a kid, maybe 10 years old. I don't remember a lot of details, except escape from the tower, for some reason. But from your very dramatic recap I feel I should definitely reread it at some point.

Dec. 15th, 2016 01:20 am (UTC)
Escape from the tower is very dramatic, but there's so much more! 1000% worth it, in my opinion. I mean, at this point even if the ending is history's greatest letdown, I will still have gotten more than my money's worth in entertainment. I vote for a reread!
Dec. 14th, 2016 05:13 pm (UTC)
Your Monte Cristo recaps are almost like reliving the reading experience. It's glorious. :-D (And I don't even have to read 1000 pages! Not that I begrudged them. Usually I very much begrudge pages, but in Monte Cristo's case, they were not ENOUGH.)

I hope you continue to enjoy. :-)
Dec. 15th, 2016 01:32 am (UTC)
I think there will be just enough pages in the end, neither too many or too few. I've already decided to buy this book (in audiobook form) for my parents, who I think will love it as much as I do.
Dec. 14th, 2016 07:21 pm (UTC)
OH MY GOD THE CHAPTER WITH EDMOND AND MERCEDES WAS THE BEST CHAPTER IN ANYTHING EVER, well maybe that is an exaggeration?, BUT CERTAINLY UP THERE WITH THE GREAT CHAPTERS OF WORLD LITERATURE. Her dramatic entrance in her veil! The way that she calls him Edmond - the first person do to do for the last eight hundred pages! THE INCREDIBLE DRAMA OF IT ALL, OH MY GOD.

Albert clearly inherited 100% of his drama llama tendencies from his mother, only he doesn't do them nearly as effectively as she does. Slapping the count in the box at the opera is amateur stuff, Albert! Why you gotta be like that?

Although I think Albert's most magnificent moment of dumbassery was the time he stormed into Beauchamp's newspaper office to challenge him to a duel. Absolutely no one would connect that first newspaper snippet to your father if it weren't for you, Albert!

The Count is all "Well if I can't shoot Albert, then I'm going to die tomorrow," but there are still two hundred or so pages left so he can't die yet. I hope that doesn't mean that Cruel Fate is going to force him to kill Albert after all, despite the fact that he promised Mercedes he wouldn't.

But hopefully that won't happen and the last two hundred pages will be about Dantes rediscovering the whorls of cinnamon on his heart again. (Also about Eugenie becoming a Runaway Lesbian with her BFF/probable lover Louise the singer. I believe in you, Eugenie!)
Dec. 15th, 2016 01:41 am (UTC)
Eugenie will not let us down. There's no way Dumas would give us all this foreshadowing for nothing (random references to "the armor of Sappho"?) besides which it's the only thing in this book I was spoiled for at the beginning. We got our hashish! I have complete faith in the Runaway Lesbians.

albert Albert ALBERT ALBERT Albert, you are just a little baby drama llama, not yet sure-footed enough to pick your way over the forbidding drama mountain pass that is Monte Cristo. Also, you are an idiot, Albert. An adorable idiot, but an idiot just the same. Beauchamp EXPLAINED it to him, and he was still all, "but I need satisfaction IN MY HEART." Be careful what you wish for, Albert! :(
Dec. 14th, 2016 08:57 pm (UTC)
“Earth-human females,” it turns out, are categorically unsuitable for space doctoring, due to “a deep, sex-based mental fastidiousness. No matter what they say they will not, repeat not, allow alien beings to apparently take over their pretty little brains.”

I have to admit, I do have an aversion to allowing an alien being to take over my brain! Maybe the women here are in the right of it, and all the men have been secretly hypnotized to obey their new mental overlords.
Dec. 15th, 2016 01:24 am (UTC)
It could be! Probably a woman has already invented a less-invasive version of the tapes, but they haven't been widely adopted because of pervasive space machismo -- if you don't have a splitting headache and intense disorientation, you can't be really retaining information.

Space sexism hurts everyone!
Dec. 15th, 2016 01:59 am (UTC)
Haha, excellent. I like this new piece of world-building.
Dec. 15th, 2016 02:07 am (UTC)
Even in future space - women shall be inferior!!! *insert headdesk here*


Dec. 15th, 2016 12:51 pm (UTC)
What can you do? Murchison (Conway's girlfriend, who started as a nurse) has been moving up the e-t certifications ladder, so who knows? Maybe O'Mara will be proven wrong one of these books.
Dec. 15th, 2016 10:23 am (UTC)
I really love your Count of Monte Cristo reactions. :)
Dec. 15th, 2016 12:58 pm (UTC)
Thank you! <3 The Count of Monte Cristo has been so much fun; I'll be sad when it's over.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )


blase ev

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