Thursday, April 2, 2015

William Hardy, Lady Killer (1956)

Hardy, William, Lady Killer, NY: Dodd, Mead & Company; London: Hamish Hamilton, 1957
______, Lady Killer, Dell [299], November 1958 (my edition, pictured)
______, Lady Killer, Penguin, 1961

Lady Killer at Goodreads
Lady Killer at IBList

Rating: 5/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

The 22 November 1957 edition of The Spectator blurbs that Lady Killer is a "readable" crime novel featuring "yet another mild-mannered man" in a work that adds "little to what Mr. Iles did, once and for all, in Malice Aforethought." I'm not familiar with Francis Iles's novel, though it appears to hold up well, while William Hardy's Lady Killer seems to have been immortalized in lukewarm a Spectator review blurb. In fact, I had to manually add the novel to Goodreads where it did not yet exist, though a small number of little-read Hardy works do (intermingling, incidentally, with other books written by other William Hardies).

In Lady Killer, mild-mannered Earl Borstleman decides, on his fortieth birthday to kill his wife. As a mathematician he feels he can, via the supreme logic afforded by his intellect, produce a perfect crime. With some pondering, both patient and impatient, he settles on a plan to confuse the crime amid others, to essentially kill five unrelated women in his college town, and insert wife into victim slot number three. Conveniently, a bright student, a recent returnee from the Korean War, would fit in nicely to take the fall for the crimes, and Prof. Borstleman could live happily in his little OCD world.

The flaws in the novel are numerous, yet as the reviewer of The Spectator pointed out over half a century ago, it is readable. Quick, somewhat enjoyable, somewhat interesting. Utterly flawed.

"It was a beautiful day, and the fear and ugliness back there had nothing to do with her or with Bob or with the world they lived in." (49) Korean War vet Bob Adams is haunted by his experiences in battle and harbours much anger toward the world. Evidently he witnessed the killing of a superior standing beside him, and is having difficulty coping. (Though he performs well in class and manages to date a pretty young classmate.) Unfortunately for him ugliness exists even in a small American college town (and this could have been a nice sidelong theme throughout the work), as he is soon to become the prime suspect in a series of killings. With the avowed logician Borstleman acting less than logical, you'd think Bob would have little to worry about, but author Hardy weaves the plot in such a way that the ugliness of this world is one made up of coincidence.

The problem with Borstleman's logic is plentiful. Though it is understood eventually that the killing is driving him loopy, his careful planning of the first murder is less than careful. He tells himself he mustn't do anything out of the ordinary, yet the night of the murder he invites two students to his home for coffee, which he hasn't done in many years. He tells himself to select five unrelated women to be his victims, and then chooses the department's secretary Emily Joyner as victim number one; though perhaps Joyner hasn't actually met Sarah Borstleman, the two are immediately linked to Earl himself. He tells himself to space out the murders, to commit one a month, and then kills landlady Nancy Miller a mere two weeks following the killing of Joyner, and then is impatient to do away with wife Sarah.

The greatest flaw, however, is believing that a man as obsessive compulsive, as neat and clean, as orderly as Borstleman would ever marry a woman such as Sarah. She smokes, is untidy, wears appalling house dresses, and overall grates on Earl for countless reasons. This topic is never approached.

And yet the novel does manage to be readable and somewhat enjoyable. The locale is well constructed and the scenes are quite visual. There is even some suspense in various parts. The novel begins well enough as we follow Borstleman planning and committing the first murder. Then the point of view shifts from a limited third person to complete omniscience, which is jarring just as we were made comfortable in Borstelman's skin. Moreover, with the shifts in point of view we experience shifts in tone, and Hardy includes some humour with the bumbling local police, which does not work one bit.

Readable, but there are enough readable works out there that I would not recommend it, and allow Lady Killer to live in two obscure reviews: The Spectator and at Casual Debris.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The 4400: The Gospel According to Collier

The Gospel According to Collier (episode 3.10)
Directed by Frederick E.O. Toye (Fred Toye)
Written by Ian Steven Behr & Craig Sweeny, story by Adam Levy
Guest starring Brennan Elliott, Tom McBeath
First aired 13 August 2006
Rating 5/10

Previous episode: The Starzl Mutation
Next episode: Terrible Swift Sword

The much anticipated return of Jordan Collier is highlighted by a lackluster episode. The previous entry ended with the exciting appearance of Collier at the dreaded Isabelle/Shawn nuptials, only to be followed up with standard fare. The episode plays out as though it was laid out on a belt line and moved along mechanically, picking up the requisite plot points along the way.

One problem is that the episode crams encyclopedic forty-four hundred mythos elements into forty-four minutes, important elements that could have better suited two episodes, or to have been initially developed over earlier episodes. Or over forty-four hundred minutes. Collier is here firmly established as a prophet helping to bring about Armageddon.

I've previously discussed Collier's association with Jesus Christ, as alluded to by his name. His connection to biblical prophets is distinctly clear via this episode's title, "The Gospel According to Collier," and the journey laid out for Collier. According to Matthew's gospel (and incidentally we'll recall that Isabelle killed Collier's Matthew), Christ spent forty nights in the wilderness, and we learn that Collier's death sent him on a journey throughout the urban U.S. wilderness spewing his prophesies and gaining loyal followers. His congregation was made up of the homeless and destitute, yet they believed so much in the man that they called him "The Prophet," and artists painted massive murals of the man all across the country. Rather than cramming all these details alongside his actual return and the ensuing ripple effect, his appearances could have at least been alluded to earlier so that the episode needn't devote so much time to this line of investigation, and focus more on the effects of his return. I understand a summer show with only thirteen episodes is limited in content compared to year-long shows, but we really didn't need the episode "Graduation Day."

A problem with the wandering prophet account is that the vast likenesses of a man as renowned as Collier would no doubt have come to the attention of NTAC of the 4400 Centre. Regardless that his following was restricted to the destitute, the frequently ignored, all those paintings of him all across the country and stored on an online database should have alerted either national security or the talents of the 4400.

Now he has returned to the 4400 Centre, and soon to visit his killer Kyle Baldwin in prison in an attempt to know who he is. The logic here is unfortunately lacking. He does not recall who he is and yet appears at Isabelle and Shawn's wedding calling out to Shawn Farrell. While it is possible he came across a link between himself and Shawn, the way he seemed to stumble upon an old news article linking himself to Kyle, why does he flee as soon as he calls out to Shawn if he visits the centre to discover his identity, or confirm it is JC? I place particular emphasis on the confirming JC detail since he must suspect he is Jordan Collier as he hides out in one of Collier's own empty houses (an important plot detail to bring NTAC to his nutty vision-filled journal). Moreover, why does he not simply wait for the sought-after confirmation from Shawn and instead make his way to prison for an interview with Kyle? When there, since he has already linked himself back to his life as Jordan Collier, living in his house and crashing the wedding of the century at his own centre, why would he ask an unknowing guard when Kyle yells out his name, "Is that who I am?" And would prison security allow a man who looks such as mess as Collier does into the government facility to chat with a convicted assassin?

Yet it is the ease along which everything transpires that leads me to the word lackluster, as in lacking in vitality (not in brightness). Rather than surging forth with tension and anticipation, everything pieces itself together so easily and so conveniently you'd think NTAC was trapped in an episode of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? Tom manages to get Alana back as her help is invaluable (so we're led to believe, though her involvement is kind of neat), and Kyle is released from prison seemingly overnight, though he committed crimes other than murder, such as bearing illegal firearms, discharging them in public, and intent to kill. Even Isabelle forgives Shawn so simply when he flees their wedding, though it was the only purpose she seemed to have aside from producing promicen for Ryland.

And finally, to cap off the lack of luster, Isabelle apologizes to Collier for her involvement in his death, and he tells her no one wants her so she should leave, and she leaves. (Had I known that was all it took to get rid of her, I would have told her to go when she was still a baby.)

Though Alana has returned, seemingly for good, while appearing to have left the more interesting Gary Navaro behind, Kyle's return is welcome, as he was among my favourite characters in the show's initial season; hopefully he will be well utilized and not just tossed aside with an occasional cameo.

Another returned 4400 character, though she never left but has lately been unfortunately under-utilized, is Maia. With the re-appearance of Diana's sister April comes sensitive yet studly photographer Ben Saunders (finely played by Albertan Brennan Elliott). Surprisingly, Diana has a love interest, and more surprisingly, it is the more interestingly developed plot of the episode. April re-appears unexpectedly with Ben, and Maia dutifully informs her mother that she will be marrying her sister's boyfriend. Things develop nicely, with affection quickly growing between the two, and as expected the two hook up, and Diana hides their developing relationship as April cries heartbroken in her apartment. The story-line works as the chemistry between the two actors is solid, and Jacqueline McKenzie as Diana plays the falling in love part quite nicely.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The 4400: The Starzl Mutation

The Starzl Mutation (episode 3.9)
Directed by Allison Liddi-Brown
Written by Amy Berg and Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Brian George,
First aired 6 August 2006
Rating 7/10

Previous episode: The Ballad of Kevin and Tess
Next episode: The Gospel According to Collier

When a male hustler is lured to his death, FBI agents Mulder and Scully are brought in to investigate. Confused at being called in for a random homicide, they are soon struck by the state of the corpse: this is definitely a case for The X-Files.

No wait. I made a slight error. Please allow me a re-take.

When a male hustler is lured to his death, NTAC agents Baldwin and Skouris are brought in to investigate. Confused at being called in for a random homicide, they are soon struck by the state of the corpse: this is definitely a case related to The 4400.

As season three of The 4400 progresses, we find ourselves firmly embedded in X-Files formulae. The opening of episode nine is mysterious as well as creepy, featuring some nice make-up effects. The victim seems to have decomposed overnight. It turns out [spoilers galore] after two more corpses are discovered, that someone is targeting the innocent carriers of the Starzl Mutation. This mutation is extremely rare, isolated to Seattle when it formed as the result of a flawed radiation machine that affected a number of patients at a Seattle hospital, who in turn passed it down to their offspring. The mutation was named after the company that manufactured the radiation machine.

Moreover, we learn that Ryland's new company is developing a branch of military with 4400 abilities via the promicen harvested from Isabelle. The soldier targetting the Starzl victims is hoping to eliminate them since it is believed that if someone with the mutation were to copulate with a 4400 and produce offspring, those children would be, in every instance, promicen-positive. This is a neat way of tying the 4400 to Seattle and to the importance of 2004, when the mutation is in its second generation.

The creating of abilities, however, pretty much ruins my attempt to keep track of the number of remaining 4400s, since they can be produced quite efficiently. Hitman Darren adds one, though his death then removes one. I suppose I can continue with the original members alone, though I'd also continue to include Dr. Burkhoff and Isabelle in the total, since they are more "natural" 4400s.

Along with all this drama the agents are getting closer to discovering that Isabelle is working with Ryland, and he even gives Tom a nice little clue: "Enjoy your nephew's wedding."

The story-line does have a major flaw. What leads our agents to discovering that there is something fishy about the death of Lieutenant Darren Piersahl is fishy itself. The soldier's father tells them that Darren was killed in a helicopter crash that killed six, yet the helicopter that was shot down could only hold a maximum of four. I believe that with so much being invested in such a major secret government plot, the players would have concocted a better story.

The secondary story-line featured is the escalation of the Isabelle threat, and in this episode it's well presented as we examine her union with Shawn from a different angle, removing Isabelle's bratty behaviour in the process. Thanks to the talents of 4400 member Claudio Borghi, who has laced a cigar with his unique ability to allow others to see the future, or at least a possible future, Shawn catches a glimpse of the world if he marries Isabelle, and this short vision transforms him to a daemon-looking Shawn as he strangles father-in-law Richard Tyler to death. (Why Richard doesn't telekinetically toss an object at Shawn is not explained--he cannot toss Shawn as we're informed in the previous episode that his ability only works on inorganic objects.) Yet when he attempts to walk away from the marriage, the future envisioned is one of apocalyptic chaos, and in the previewed moment, he fails to save the life uncle Tommy Baldwin. He confides these visions to Richard, and the two men continue to be deadlocked in their dealings with daughter-fiancee.

Yet a wrench is thrown in with the wonderful final moment: the return of Jordan Collier! I've been waiting for the moment of JC's return, and the show does well in bringing him in at such a fundamental moment. How does his re-appearance help shape the seemingly inescapable bleak future visions? Unfortunately we won't know since, conveniently, Shawn has finished the cigar. I'm certain a call to Borghi would produce another, but I'm also the series won't consider that fact as it might just end the built-up suspense.

"Do you know who I am?"
As in the previous episode, there is a nice Marco moment when he asks Diane about Maia, who responds that she asks about him a lot. A few seconds delivers good character consistency and series continuity.

Borghi is played by familiar character actor Brian George, who is perhaps best recognized as the restaurateur Baby Bhatt in Seinfeld, but also plays Dr. Koothrappali, Raj's father, in Bing Bang Theory, Dr, Bashir's father in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, another doctor in The X-Files, and numerous other projects since the mid-1980s. He's also done a good deal of voice acting, from various DC Comics and diverse video game projects, to Bob Fish in the highly entertaining Bob and Margaret.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The 4400: The Ballad of Kevin and Tess

The 4400: The Ballad of Kevin and Tess (Episode 3.8)
Directed by Scott Peters
Written by Ira Steven Behr and Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Summer Glau, Jeffrey Combs, Neil Hopkins
First aired 30 July 2006
Rating: 8/10

Previous episode: Blink
Next episode: The Starzl Mutation

"My mind is not compromised."

A lengthy abstinence from The 4400 has led me to re-read my latest episode reviews in order to remember what was going on. Surprisingly only a few smaller details had slipped my mind, and impatiently I passed over much of my text (but I did look at the pictures). What surprised me most was that I was actually keeping track of the 4400 numbers, and at last count we were at 4,363 after learning in episode 3.6 that Gary Navarro had killed eight.

So far this third season we had a strong beginning followed by a couple of weak episodes which were highlighted by the welcome exile of human holodeck Alana. I am still most interested in nutty professor Kevin Burkhoff and his promicen experiments, and least interested in Isabelle's bratty whining. In this episode we get more of the former and thankfully very little of the latter.

The Re-animator returns in full misshapen form as the series decides to focus on its more interesting characters. The opening sequence once again recalls X-Files formula, as Burkhoff is kidnapped by shady government types, men in black, and mercilessly shot to death. Of course we'll recall that his fabricated promicen ability is instant healing (though according to him it doesn't always work), so we aren't surprised that his corpse disappears from the back of they shady van. Later we see the bullet holes healing quickly on their own, which presents a problem: the bullets are still inside him. You would think that being shot at such close range would cause the slugs to travel right through the good doctor's body, but there was no evidence whatsoever of this. So perhaps his body simply consumed the bullets altogether.

Along with the return of Kevin B, we are treated with the return of Tess Doerner, the schizophrenic girl from episode "Wake-Up Call" (2.1). There is genuine affection between this two and its nice to see them reunited. However, they shed their innocence from their time at the psychiatric ward and become a powerful pair of renegades, which is a great transformation. The two are experimenting on Diana Skouris, convinced that it is for the betterment of humanity, yet this is glossed over since we never learn by Burkhoff is so convinced of his research (whatever that is) to believe Diana would be among humanity's saviours. Whether brilliant and foresighted or downright mad, I found myself rooting for the pair. Overshadowed by their goals is the union of their abilities. The idea that a brilliant-minded man is nearly invincible with his Wolverine self-healing powers is travelling renegade with a woman with unbelievable hypnotic abilities is a threat of its own. The show did well in revealing Tess's ability by not telling us straight out as it normally does ("my power is..."; "John is a returnee who has the ability to..."), but by simply letting the story unfold and allowing us to catch on as we watch. Still we can wonder at the extent or limitations of her hypnotic ability. This achievement is one of the episode's strength. Believable also in that the unique beauty of Summer Glau is hypnotic on its own.

It's great that such a powerful pairing is kept distant from both the good guys and the bad. Schizophrenics cannot function within the boundaries of constructed society, so it's also appropriate that they are on the lam, Bruce Banner style.

An interesting side-note to Diana's unwilling inclusion in Burkhoff's promicen-injecting experiments is that Maia present Diana with a drawing of her as a monster that visited her in her dreams. It's not just a clue to Burkhoff injecting her with promicen, one of many until the reveal, but also innately suggests that Maia believes members of the 4400 are monsters, and by extension that she herself is a monster. I doubt this was intentional but it is nonetheless there, and would have been an interesting angle to explore, yet I don't believe the show was interested in this idea. At least not at this point.

And in another corner of the 4400 universe... Richard's telekinesis is finally being explored, and it is undoubtedly clear that his special ability was not just his sperm. The neatest moment in this thread is the shot of Richard graduating his target practice from crumpled pieces of paper to kitchen knives, and that moment when a knife is thrown to reveal a photo of Isabelle, followed by a concerned look from daddy Richard. Is this a challenge? A consideration that he might need to end Isabelle's life? The notion that morally straight father Richard Tyler is the one who must take down daemon daughter Isabelle is a great detail, and hopefully we'll be taken down this path. With a romance potentially brewing between Richard and confidante Heather Toby, perhaps she and her ability will play a role in this hoped-for sequence.

Isabelle in the meanwhile is becoming increasingly annoying, though thankfully her presence in this episode is brief and well handled. Yet here too it is with Richard that our sympathies lie, and his response, verbal and gestures, are indicative of the talent of Mr. Mahershala Ali.

The episode's final sequence unites Isabelle with the shady X-Files characters, and ends with a distinct imitation of an X-Files moment: the reveal of a high security freezer stories a multitude of vials of promicen, all sucked out of Isabelle.

Maybe they sent you back to keep me alive so I can...
finish me album
There is a minor and unnecessary though nonetheless interesting thread involving Shawn and famous bad boy rocker Nick Crowley (quite well played by Neil Hopkins). The scene involves a drugged-out rock star that fanboy Shawn inadvertently saves, and who expects him and his healing hands to be around every time he overdoses. The final moment and Crowley's angry disappointment are a great character-revealing finish. Perhaps the story-line was needed to keep Shawn in the episode, or perhaps simply as filler. I do like the contrast between a story of a man needing a healer to constantly save him from peril, and the story of Dr. Burkhoff who requires no external hands as he is an instant self-healer. Possibly the intention of this side narrative is to illustrate how truly powerful Burkhoff now is; a greater asset in some respects as Shawn, due to the implication that while Shawn is vulnerable, especially with his ties to Isabelle, while Burkhoff is potentially immortal.

Finally, to cap off this lengthy article, there is a nice moment between Diana and Marco. We haven't yet seen them together since Diana broke off their relationship, and the moment they first do make contact, at Dr. Burkhoff's apartment, the awkward moment and Marco's "Hi" are all a nice testament to continuity. Marco's ongoing concern for Diana is appropriate and accurate to both the situation and the character.

Among the many episodes co-scripted by Ira Steven Behr and Craig Sweeny, "The Ballad of Kevin and Tess" is directed by The 4400 co-creator Scott Peters.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Casual Shorts: Robert Bloch, "Talent" (1960)

Robert Bloch, "Talent"
  • If, July 1960
  • Atoms & Evil, Fawcett Gold Medal, August 1962
  • The Best Science Fiction from If, ed. Frederik Pohl, Galaxy Publishing, 1964
  • The Oddballs, ed. Vic Ghidalia, Manor Books, 1973
  • Christopher Lee's "X" Certificate, eds. Christopher Lee & Michel Parry, W.H. Allen, 1975
  • From the Archives of Evil, eds. Christopher Lee & Michel Parry, Warner Books, January 1976 (reprint of above)
  • Such Stuff as Screams Are Made of, Del Rey, February 1979
  • Bug-Eyed Monsters, eds. Bill Pronzini & Barry N. Maltzberg, Harvest, March 1980
  • Last Rites, Underwood-Miller, 1987
  • The Complete Stories of Robert Bloch, Volume 3: Last Rites, Citadel Twilight, May 1991
  • The Baen Big Book of Monsters, ed. Hank Davis, Baen, October 2014

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Evan Lewis's blog.

"It is perhaps a pity that nothing is known of Andrew Benson's parents."

The publication of The Baen Big Book of Monsters a few months back, a new anthology featuring reprints along with a couple of new stories (including one from editor Hank Davis), brought Robert Bloch's highly entertaining short story "Talent" back into print after a quarter century absence from the anthology scene. (The Mammoth anthologies had covered the monster genre with its 2007 anthology The Mammoth Book of Monsters, though it contained more original pieces and ignored Bloch entirely, while only digging as far back as 1973 for its reprints.) This is the second time the short story has appeared in a monster-themed anthology, having been included in the Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg edited work Bug-Eyed Monsters from 1979.

Yet the story can easily be included in a number of different theme-related groups, such as genre comedy, sci-fi/horror, movies, orphans, psychopaths and oddball characters (which it has been). among its many strengths, "Talent" encompasses a variety of aspects of genre fiction, including its approach.

The story deals with orphan Andrew Benson, a reclusive boy who awakens from a perpetual daze only when he performs mimicry. He is in fact so good at mimicry that people watching him perform are convinced he even looks exactly like the individual he is aping. When Benson discovers Hollywood movies, his penchant for imitation proves boundless. aside from his mimicry and dramatics, Benson has absolutely no interest in any other aspect of life, and his motivation becomes the story's final, surprising reveal.

"Talent" is structured like an informal investigative report. A hack journalism tries to piece together the life of Andrew Benson through little information and lot of hearsay, clipping together portions of interviews and the few facts surrounding Benson's life. Such a structure creates a specific character in the narrator: an unimaginative and strikingly unaware investigative reporter; an oxymoron in itself. This character is necessary to help build up to the ending otherwise the piece would would begin with the final line. The technique also allows Bloch to employ his gift of ironic storytelling.

Bloch's irony is present throughout the text, and his playfulness shines through the irony as he touches upon the various deaths surrounding Benson, all linked to some recent movie or movie trend ("you've probably seen something just like it in the movies a dozen times"). Centering his humour around the irony is what makes "Talent" such an enjoyable read. Bloch is charming, playful and very aware of the genre in which he is working.

Of course this brings us to the overwhelming fault in the story, which is unavoidable in Bloch's approach. (I will not spoil the story and hence risk being vague with this point.) The narrator is blindly unaware of Benson's nature to the point that it doesn't even cross his mind to speculate on connections between Benson and the deaths surrounding him which are more than obvious to the reader. In fact, the narrator rejects the theories brought up by one of the victims even though he is fully aware of Benson's eventual transformation. In fact, it is that transformation that leads the narrator to attempt to piece the details, fact and hearsay, of Benson's life into some king of chronological biography. THat opening line (quoted above) taken into consideration along with the various theories of Benson's identity that are discussed is alone indicative, related to the ending, that those theories should not be so carelessly rejected.

Of course the story is meant for pure entertainment, so the flaw is forgivable and in no way detracts from the story itself. Like much of Bloch's short work, it's worth a read.

On a side note, there is a reference to Jack the Ripper as related to a murder in conjunction with the Ripper-related film Man in the Attic. Bloch was interested in various serial killers and wrote several pieces dealing with the nineteenth century murderer, including "Your Truly, Jack the Ripper" (1943), "A Most Unusual Murder" (1976), and the Star Trek script "Wolf in the Fold" (1967). Bloch's association with the killer is so evident that any mention of the Ripper is welcome.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994)

Moore, Lorrie, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? at Goodreads
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? at IBList

Rating: 5/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

As an avid radio listener throughout my teens, I first came across Lorrie Moore by accident when I heard a live reading of her famous short story "How to Become a Writer." Normally, especially at that age, I would quickly seek out other works of newly-discovered writers I enjoyed, but in the case of Moore, though I continued to stumble upon the story throughout the years, along with one or two others, I never actively searched for more of her work. About a year ago I came across a bent copy of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, and finally read the book last week.

Moore's second novel, currently bookended by Anagrams (1986) and A Gate at the Stairs (2009), is a short work that reads like a memoir, a narrator's personal guide through a specific time in her life. (Memoir, however, is simply another kind of fiction, another kind of fabrication; while there are certainly elements from Moore's own life present in the work, it does not read like autobiography.) The narrator is on vacation in Paris in the midst of a seemingly failed marriage, and interspersed with brief conversations with and thoughts of her husband, hearkens back to a summer in the 1970s during which she was obsessed with popular best friend Sils.

The work focuses on the relationship, the narrator's insecurities and very much on the decade. Though it is well written (very well written), it is lacking. The plot is incidental and awakens late in the work, which generates an uneven read. (Ironically, this is one of the threads running through Moore's "How to Become a Writer," as protagonist Francie is being criticized for her lack of plot.) The ending is rushed through, acts as an epilogue and is unnecessary. I would have liked to have been left in the uncertainty of the past as mirrored by the uncertainty of the present, as the two narratives should coincide. Or perhaps the present should have also had its own epilogue? But not really.

While I did not care much for the work as a novel, it is a fast read and worthy of a read for Ms. Moore's writing skills are impressive. The characters are solid and real, and the small town universe they live in is constructed with great care.

Now to seek out more of those fine short stories...

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (1604)

Marlowe, Christopher, The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus, 1604

Doctor Faustus at Goodreads
Doctor Faustus at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

This past year, 2014, marked the 450th birthday of Christopher Marlowe, an event overshadowed by the 450th birthday of a rival playwright, a certain William Shakespeare. While I studied the latter quite a bit in school, I managed shockingly to survive both a bachelor's and a master's in English without having read the former's important and renowned bit of theatre.

Most interesting about Marlowe's Faustus is not that an open atheist can write a work that at a glance matches the overt morals of The Summoning of Everyman and other medieval morality plays, but that critics can wonder why an atheist would write such a piece. Though on a surface level the play appears to be retelling the Faust legend with the purpose to scare Christians (and non) from practicing sin (and magic), it is the struggle and inner turmoil the play is most concerned with, and not on damnation. Granted the focus does shift, as Marlowe weaves base comedy into the work. That inclusion, however, assuming he did write or commission those particular scenes, is a reflection of stylistic conventions of the period, such as the use of a chorus narrator, rather than an attempt to illustrate the play's main ideas.

The story of a brilliant intellectual with few worthy lifelong prospects sells his soul for a handful of years of pretty much anything he wants cannot ignore either the concept of Christian salvation/damnation nor the idea of an individual's terrible sacrifice for seemingly so little. In light of this the attempt of scholars to figure out exactly who wrote which parts of the play seems to add little value to understanding the work, though it has other significance. The central ideas concern the desire for higher knowledge, so that the inclusion of works on magic are not an attempt to link the supernatural with the almighty, or to denounce medieval notions of magic, but rather part of a man's search for knowledge beyond that of the corporeal world. This idea is highlighted by Faustus's questioning Mephistophilis on astronomy, and later his continued attempts to seek truth from a science that takes us beyond the world that encases us physically.

Important to the play is understanding the controversies of astronomy at that time. For many centuries to openly theorize about new ideas of the solar system and beyond was challenging to the point that the theorist was risking his life. How humans viewed the solar system and the Earth's place within could easily contradict the doctrine set forth by the Vatican. Was Marlowe using astronomy to illustrate that his protagonist was seeking ideas beyond the realm of the known physical world, or subtly commenting on the different views, Catholic or otherwise, of man's place in the greater universe?

Faustus's greatest sin from a Catholic perspective is perhaps denying that God will forgive him his sins if he were to repent and embrace the Lord. If he were clear on Catholic teachings, and at the time any literate scholar such as he would undoubtedly be clear on all the major Catholic points, just as Marlowe himself was certainly aware. Questioning the idea is therefore an important point in the play, particularly since he seems to be rejecting not God but the earthly teachings related to God. Moreover, assuming he is aware of Catholic doctrine, he nonetheless believes his own sins are beyond the power of God's forgiveness, which is perhaps, in a Christian world, the vilest form of hubris possible.

At this time I would argue that Marlowe is presenting the idea that man is moving away not from God, necessarily, but from the church. His exploration of astronomy and questioning of one set of contemporary beliefs, along with his act of incredible hubris, takes Faustus and his struggle away from the church.

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