Monday, March 23, 2009

Kidnapped--The Limerick Reprise

For a reason that cannot now be reconstructed, I was discussing limericks about books with a friend who has a fondness for the form. We agreed to do one apiece. Life has been a little hairy for her of late, but not so much for me. Accordingly, I did one on the last book I had actually finished:

There once was a nice lad named Davie
Whose uncle would have him a slave be
But after high seas and Highlands
And desolate islands,
In the end, Davie's life was all gravy.

True, it doesn't begin to capture the friendship with Alan Breck Stewart, which is sort of the main point of the book in my opinion, but we do what we can. Also there are spoiler elements, but I think they are forgettable.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

I thought I would continue with last month's experiment of posting a brief well, not review, exactly, but more meandering rumination on the book I'll be discussing with my book group shortly. One of the pitfalls of book groups is that the consensus opinion of something may not shift your point of view, but it may profoundly color your unfiltered reaction.

As for tonight's book, Kidnapped,the two members reactions that I've heard so far make me think this may be a tough sell. One said that she was maybe just not in the right mood for buccaneering--which means she's still pretty early in the story as buccaneering isn't really the focus of the book for long. Actually, I don't know if technically there is any real buccaneering going on, but that's because I realize that I don't really know what a buccaneer is...

Another member said he found it depressing. Depressing? I asked, because frankly that response surprised me. But he said that the number of traps and perils our hero David Balfour falls into are so unrelenting that he didn't understand why David didn't just give up and end it all at some point.

Well, it's a point of view, and frankly, it's the path that I might have considered strongly myself. But in a way, I think that this is because, unlike so many of our action adventure stories today, which probably sport at least the same number of dangers, this book makes the costs seem physically, emotionally and spiritually real.

There are two story structures that have come to mind a few times as I read this book. One is the fairy tale. Not in the sense that this is fantasy, but in following a fairytale motif. In the beginning, David leaves his home and sets out on the road, little knowing where he is going, but eager to see a bit more of the world now that his parents have died. He immediately comes across an old friend of the family, who not only gives him three gifts, a classic fairytale motif, but also a letter that he is to carry somewhere to seek his fortune. He is told that he not the lowly swineherd (figuratively) that he thought he was at all, but in fact a member of a great house.

It's interesting to me, having reached the end of the book (and I promise to give nothing away that's worth saving, unlike Stevenson himself, who apparently gave away several major plot points in the subtitle) it is all really a simple trajectory of a young man seeking his rightful portion and how that all resolves. But there is a sense that the detour that his adventures represent also test his worthiness to be the recipient of that fortune. An inherited right also becomes an earned right, and the ordeals he goes through are again of a sort of mythic nature to reveal the one true king or whatever.

I've also kept thinking that this would make a great computer game. Not like one of those multiplayer games, but something simpler, like Pokemon on Gameboy, which, due to my nephew's childhood is the only one I really know anything about. You would by default be David Balfour and each level would be the next level he has to endure. It might even be good for literacy, as Kidnappedthe book could be a kind of cheat sheet for Kidnapped the game.

Of course these structures leave so much out. You could play the game and even learn to master it quickly and still not have the experience that we have of being with David Balfour as he leaves 'the comfort zone' and sets off on ever widening and ever more difficult adventures.

The thing that you could not hope to replicate in a computer game is his friendship with Alan Breck Stewart. It's interesting that Stevenson chose this historical person to befriend his entirely fictional David. And it is so interesting to watch what begins as relationship of braggadocio on Alan's part and bemusement on David's turn into something much more real and lasting.

I think what my friend got wrong in finding it so depressing,and what I too get wrong in thinking about it as a game, is that we're seeing this as just an endless series of ordeals, to no real purpose. But the ordeals reveal the character of the two men to each other, which binds them to each other in a real and not merely 'code of honor' sort of stylized way. The point of the book is not really the rightful inheritance at all, and because of that it has a curiously anti-climactic ending, which is apt, but not conventional.

Well, headed out now to see what other reactions there were. And will report on them if they're interesting.

Thanks to Adrian McKinty for suggesting this reread. The truth is, I never really care what the others think of the books I recommend us trying. It's just an incentive for me to get around to them myself.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Friends in High Places--a mystery by Donna Leon

Sometimes, in the case of a long running series, it can be intimidating to make a beginning. The Venetian mysteries of Donna Leon, featuring Detective Guido Brunetti, have been recommended to me for years and years, by more people than I care to say. But I could never get into what I think is the first one, A Death at La Fenice, so didn't start them. I was like a horse that balked time and again at the same jump.(Sorry--I was watching National Velvet with my four-year-old friend the other night, and I expect this is going to creep into my metaphors.)

A week or so ago, I happened to open a mystery that had been sitting on my desk at work for longer than I care to say. (If I tell you that I would have no problem admitting that it had been sitting there for a year, you may begin to have some sense of the layers of time we're talking about here.) It was the abovementioned Friends in High Places, and it begins with Detective Brunetti in his study, reading Xenophon as he lounges on the couch while he waits for his wife to come home with soft-shelled crabs for lunch. Apparently this image was all it took to woo me, even though I'm not a man, have never read Xenophon, and if I wait for a wife to come home with lunch fixings, I wait in vain. It doesn't matter--I share a similar enough vision of Edenic bliss for this to work for me.

Of course, being a mystery, this bliss is abruptly shattered by the arrival of a young man from the Ufficio Ustato, a bureaucrat named Rossi who has arrived to inform Brunetti of a slight problem, namely that, ahem, his apartment does not exist.

And that's all I'm going to tell you about the plot. Here's what I think is masterful about the book, though. Within a few pages, and despite Brunetti's astonishment and irritation, we get a feel for the quiet, earnest and yet essentially decent Rossi, which lends a kind of dignity or gravity to all that happens after. The title, too, has many 'levels', which is an unintentional pun on my part. Leon's pun, on the other hand, is relevant to the themes of the book as a whole. She gives, as I expect is her trademark, a penetrating dissection of Venetian society, not wholly favorable by any means. It perhaps is slightly askew from our normal tourist's perception of the city, yet not far off from Rebecca West's analysis of it in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, in which, many years ago, she described it as a city of traders and diplomats and dealmakers--beautiful but flawed by corruption.

I am already on to another, A Noble Radiance, and of course, as is the way with all good mystery series, I want to read them all. I'm sure that, given the time, I'll even read the one I couldn't manage to begin.