Monday, February 8, 2016

Surprises and Disappointments: "The Birds of Pandemonium" and "Drood"

After the pleasant surprise of my previous audiobook What If? (which I briefly reviewed last week) I almost though it would be pressing luck to immediately get another random audiobook from my long library queue. However, I’d already clicked “Place Hold” so there was no going back, and before I knew it The Birds of Pandemonium: Life Among the Exotic and Endangered was waiting for me at the checkout counter.

When getting nonfiction books, I often stumble across little pockets of our world heretofore unknown to me. I didn’t know the blog xkcd existed until I read the book What If?, and even now I’m not sure I know how to spell it. 
The same thing happened with Pandemonium. The Pandemonium Aviaries is a nonprofit bird sanctuary that started out as a woman taking in unwanted birds, then developed into a breeding program for endangered species. The main characters are the birds themselves, of course, along with the humans who love them. 

I have a soft spot for animals, so this book was at times heartbreaking, overwhelming in how much there is to be done for conservation as well as rescuing animals that have been mistreated or abandoned. This is exactly why I would never be able to volunteer at my local humane society. Just as author Michele Raffin became a crazy bird lady, I know I’d be surrounded by ferrets, hedgehogs, dogs, and countless cats after mere weeks. Even visiting any pet adoption website (which I only did because I was helping a friend find a pet to adopt) pulls at my heartstrings. So this was a difficult book to read.  It’s sad to think of species going extinct, or pets being abandoned. We think of animals as being resilient, but to hear about companion birds like parrots continuing to mourn departed—or worse, neglectful—owners would seem to prove these creatures do have some sort of seat of emotions or soul. 

While the book was very emotional, it was also fascinating and had a sense of humor. For an impulse checkout I was pleasantly surprised, and only wish I had thought to check out the hardcopy book itself instead of the audiobook—as it was sure to have brilliant color photographs of the different species and the aviaries they call home.
Not so satisfying was the hardcover novel I impulse-borrowed a few months ago.  Once in awhile I get the urge to roam the stacks of my local library and carry home a good hefty armload for my reading enjoyment. I usually stay out of the general fiction section, keeping mostly to classics, mysteries, and nonfiction. On one such occasion I checked out the pleasantly thick Drood by Dan Simmons, with its promising Historical Fiction sticker on its spine and mysterious ambience of a top-hatted silhouette on the cover. 

Little did I know it at the time as I blissfully carried the weighty tome home that day, but thus began two months of my reading life I would never get back. As the book’s title suggests, the book is concerned with Charles Dickens’ notoriously unfinished final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  More specifically it is about the real-life events that might have inspired Dickens to write this novel, narrated through the eyes of fellow novelist Wilkie Collins. There’s a lot of fantastical events, including Dicken’s’ surviving a train accident, his talent for mesmerism (hypnotism),  all of which are actually historically accurate. The character-Wilkie Collins’ narrative voice is noticeably different from the real Collins voice from The Moonstone, but that is understandable, and at least his narrative was rife with contradictions and unreliability which I would expect from a laudanum addict and opium eater (which is again historically accurate).

I was beginning to wonder if the author had accidentally marketed this as fiction while writing a biography, when suddenly the mysterious character Drood shows up in an Ancient Egyptian cult, puts a magical mind-control scarab in Wilkie Collins’ head, and scary, nasty stuff begins to happen. Seems there’s some sort of mystical plot going on under the fa├žade of Victorian British respectability, and Collins finds himself—and Dickens—in the thick of murders, slums, opium dens, mausoleums, and lime pits…and everything points to Drood, a mysterious figure that leaves death and soullessness in his wake. Although Drood is possibly immortal, and definitely fiendish, his main evil plot is to…make Charles Dickens write his biography(?). Yeah, I never did figure out the actual evil plot. 

I hate to admit it, because I really did pay attention and think hard over the puzzles in this book, but I never did figure out the point, and closed the book feeling as if a trapdoor had been opened underneath my chair, and not in the good "Luke I am Your Father" way, either.  Did Drood win?  Did he even exist, or was he a part of Collins' drug-addled hallucinations?  What was the point of the mesmerism subplot, or any of Collins' personal life details, or the reference to an Other Wilkie-doppleganger character that is never sufficiently explained? And does no one else in Victorian England even care that there are Ancient Egyptian Vampire Gangs going around killing people and shaving off their eyebrows? Where is Abraham van Helsing when you need him?  

All questions aside, in order to understand the plot remotely, the reader must have completed the following prerequisites:

  1. Thorough knowledge of The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, obviously. Spoilers: we don’t know who did it.  Or even what they did.  If they did it. 
  2. Also Great Expectations, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend, and Bleak House. Particularly Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House are of interest because they both have mystery elements such as hidden identities, crimes, and detectives.
  3. Read The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, as well as Armadale, The Woman in White, No Name, and Man and Wife. I’ve only read The Moonstone, which kept me from understanding most of the references to his other works, but from my reading of that one novel I wasn’t really a Collins fan, especially since he wrote a character who constantly referred to one of my least-favorite novels, Moby Dick.
  4. Have a basic knowledge of The Frozen Deep and Dickens’ periodical All the Year Round,
  5. Have read Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders of the Rue Morgue. Maybe not strictly the first work of the mystery genre ever written, but it sure is the earliest one that was memorable.
  6. Have read Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas de Quincey. I read this in college for a Brit Lit course and have thoroughly forgotten it, but at least I have read it once in my life.
  7. Have read all of the Sherlock Holmes novels by Arthur Conan Doyle, or else some of the tongue-in-cheek references to the history of mystery writing will be completely lost on you. None of these references were lost on me, of course, who have multiple copies of almost every one of the Holmes stories (A lovely leather-bound omnibus, a wonderful Strand reproduction omnibus with original illustrations and typeface, and individual volumes of almost all of the novels and short story collections, should an emergency arise where I must take one of these with me and need to pack light). But, as is usual with me when it comes to talking about Sherlock Holmes, I digress.
  8. Know who William Makepeace Thackeray is, and preferably have read some of his works. Not strictly necessary, but since I loved Vanity Fair I figure I might as well jump at any excuse to make someone read Thackeray.
  9. Know who Mark Twain is and have read enough of his works to know that when Collins dismisses his writing style he doesn’t know what he’s talking about because Mark Twain is awesome.
  10. Have a basic understanding of Egyptian mythology. Actually scratch that.  I personally have a basic knowledge of Egyptology and this only made those supposedly-horrific scenes of ancient Egyptian mysticism seem like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Also, do not see any Mummy movies. Or Young Sherlock Holmes
  11. Understand Victorian culture and social expectations. Unless you want to actually like Wilkie Collins, who seems to hate all of that stuff. Come to think of it, Collins pretty much hates everything in this book, even the people he loves. 
  12. Have read a few actual biographies of Dickens and Collins in order to keep their relatives straight—there are too many Charleses in this book.
  13. After you have accomplished all of this, you will probably be fairly Drooded out. But you will have made excellent headway into earning a Masters Degree in Victorian Literature, so I suggest skipping this ultimately disappointing novel and moving on to Middlemarch.  

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