Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Reviewing "The Swoop!" by P.G. Wodehouse

First edition cover. Source: Wikipedia
“It will be news to the Man in the Street to learn that, with the possible exception of the Black Hand, the Scouts are perhaps the most carefully-organised secret society in the world.”

The Swoop is one of the few PG Wodehouse stories that does not involve:
     a) A love-stricken chap
     b) A beautiful girl
     c) An overbearing aunt
     d) Theft or attempted theft at a stereotypical country house

In fact, it is very unlike most PG Wodehouse books I’ve read, in that it doesn’t include a lot of the twists and turns and mistaken identities and broken engagements and other convoluted situations from which Jeeves is ever extricating Bertie Wooster.

Instead, this story is about Clarence Chugwater and his fellow Boy Scouts as they oust an invasion on England from…well, everyone. Despite being different from the other books I’ve read by Wodehouse, there are still the hijinks, the lightning-quick wordplay, and the over-the-top characters.

“‘England, my England!” cried Clarence his face shining with a holy patriotism. “England, thou art free! Thou hast risen from the ashes of the dead self. Let the nations learn from this that is it when apparently crushed that the Briton is to more than every be feared.’
            ‘Thad’s bad grabbar,’ said the Prince [Otto of Saxe-Pfennig, of Germany, who by this point has a horrible cold] critically.
            ‘It isn’t,’ said Clarence with warmth.
            ‘It is, I tell you. Id’s a splid idfididive.’”

The only thing I didn’t like about the characters were that they were flat and stereotypical, and never fleshed out as the book went forward. One could argue the same thing about Bertie and Jeeves and Wodehouse’s other faithful standbys. But the real reason I think it stands out in The Swoop was because it’s missing a romance, and in Wodehouse’s romances there tends to be some character growth between the hero and heroine as they get over misunderstandings and preconceptions and learn to accept each other’s flaws.

“‘The wise man,’ said the Russian, still determined on evasion, ‘never takes sides, unless they are sides of bacon.’”

What I liked best about this book was the Hardy Boys + Home Alone + The Goonies sort of vibe. It turns out that England is not run from the throne or parliament, or even by adults. It’s run by the Boy Scouts. And their main method of fighting the invasion throughout the book is organization, self-assuredness, and (of course!) being prepared. That, and very disapproving looks.

“There is nothing so terrible to the highly-strung foreigner as the cold, contemptuous, patronizing gaze of the Englishman. It gave the invaders a perpetual feeling of doing the wrong thing.”

This side of two world wars the whole concept of invasion-as-humor seems strange. But neither of those had happened in 1909 when Wodehouse wrote this, when as far as international politics were concerned Britain was fairly stable since Queen Victoria had ensured her family intermarried with a ton of other royal families. Still, it will strike modern readers as portentous that, as some countries bow out of the invasion (The UK is a rather small place to split amongst themselves, after all), two of the longest holders-on are Germany and Russia.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Reviewing "Tarzan of the Apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs

First Edition dust jacket. Source: Goodreads
It was one of the best authorial finds when I downloaded my first Edgar Rice Burroughs novel on Kindle. Frankly I did it for the reason of his novels being free rather than having heard anything good about them. But I was rewarded for my ignorant adventurousness with tons of action, adventure, strange characters and even stranger worlds. I sucked up the Barsoom series and The Land that Time Forgot and some of the Pellucidar books in a short period of time. Then, feeling I had found an author who could be consistently relied upon to turn out dime-novel adventure fare when I had the craving for it, I downloaded the Tarzan novels and saved them for just such an emergency.

I’ve never been a huge Tarzan fan from the movie adaptations I’ve seen (particularly the Disney animated one). But I figured I’d follow the standard rule of “Never judge a book by its movie,” and expected better things as I embarked on the first installment, Tarzan of the Apes.

According to Burrough’s biographical page on Wikipedia,* “His most enduring creation—the jungle hero Tarzan—is fit to stand with d’Artagnan, Jeeves, Sherlock Holmes, and Superman as an archetype of the modern hero.”

That certainly sounds promising, doesn’t it? Tarzan is in good company, right?

Unfortunately, though, I have to admit I disliked Tarzan of the Apes enough to delete all the sequels from my Kindle and be uncharacteristically okay with not finishing what I had started. A visit to any reviewer forum such as one might find on Amazon or Goodreads reassured me that my misgivings were shared by many modern readers.

Even if you have never read the book, watching a movie or television adaptation gives you a fair idea as to the plot of the first book. A boy’s parents are marooned in the African jungle, killed, and the baby is adopted by an ape and raised as one of them. Like The Jungle Book’s Mowgli, living a feral life gives Tarzan a special connection with the natural world. Also like Mowgli, Tarzan never quite belongs among the animals, and has to use his human intellect and tool-making to compensate for his physical weaknesses.

However, if Tarzan is a weakling in comparison to his ape “brethren,” Burroughs makes him so much stronger than his fellow humans as to be ridiculous at times. Burroughs also makes it so that Tarzan isn’t just strong physically: he’s a genius mentally, able to learn to read just from finding some of his parents’ old books (though, oddly, he only has an easy time reading English; French is just too strange for him to comprehend).

He also happens to be a chick magnet. All he has to do in the iconic moment when “Tarzan Meet Jane” is kiss her, and she reciprocates and realizes she’s in love with him.

While superhuman strength, unrealistic mental ability, and primal hotness are staples of Burroughs’ heroes in other works as well (especially John Carter of the Barsoom novels), the thing that really put me over the edge was the racist undertones. Some might say the racism is more overt than “undertone” suggests, but to me it seemed like Burroughs couldn’t decide which way to go in a story about a jungle man.

Tarzan is better than the other (white) humans characters in the book because he is closer to his primal self, without societal constraints or the “atrophy” of human nature that civilization has forced on us as a species. But this doesn’t mean that any other “savage” humans (the native African tribes, for example) are similarly superior to their white counterparts. In fact, Tarzan terrorizes the nearby tribes and kills a great many of them without any moral qualms and without even the narrator or other characters intimating that this is wrong.

(By pure coincidence I read Tarzan of the Apes right before The Crime of the Congo; making for a stark contrast between the fictitious “adventure” and the brutal reality of how native peoples were treated around the same time.)

Tarzan is also better than everyone in the book because—unbeknownst to him—he is Lord John Clayon III, Viscount Greystroke. It is because of this good breeding, we’re told, that he is able to survive, to figure out how to read and write, and how he carries such authority to kill or subordinate all other creatures.

Anyone reading this book for the Disneyfied “Two hearts, one family” vibe of living in coexistence with animals will be sorely disappointed, too. Tarzan may have been raised by apes, but he lives in constant struggle with them. These apes, by the way, are not necessarily gorillas as they are usually portrayed on-screen, and Burroughs’ descriptions of them don’t match that of other apes like orangutans. This could be a mere matter of Burroughs not doing his zoological research (he makes other factual error such as transplanting lions from the savannah to the jungle), or he may have meant to create an undiscovered species of ape (which would not be much of a stretch after his other imaginative creations of Martians and cave-men).

In any case, the message I ultimately took away from Tarzan of the Apes was not one that sat well with my worldview. That message was that the natural world—not civilization or social norms—is the rightful place of white humans, but this does not mean they should to coexist or seek equality with either animals or other ethnic groups. The jungle is not to be lived in as it is; it is to be conquered.

*As of today, November 12, 2017—I specify since Wikipedia might undergo edits on this page that alter this quotation.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A List of Recommended Winter Reads

In my previous post I explained the why Winter Reads are—or should be—different from the usual Summer Reading fare. Winter Reads should take advantage of the fact that (if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere like me) you are cooped up inside during long nights and cold days, and finally turn to those books that require a bit more focus and patience to appreciate. In this post I’ll present some books I’ve read in winters past. Without further ado, and in no particular order, my recommended winter readings include: