Sunday, 18 October 2015

Penguin no. 2308: Cat's Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut

Cover design by Robert Hollingsworth, using 
La Course de Taureaux by Joan Miró.
     'Newt remained curled in the chair. He held out his painty hands as though a cat's cradle were strung between them. 'No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat's cradle is nothing but a bunch of X's between somebody's hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X's...'
     'No damn cat, and no damn cradle.'

Felix Hoenikker was one of the (fictional) fathers of the atomic bomb - he excelled at finding ingenious solutions to difficult problems but he hadn't the slightest idea about how to relate to others, including the members of his own family; puzzles interested him, people did not.

As a Nobel prize-winning scientist, Hoenikker had been free to arrange his life to suit himself, but this had implications for those around him: his wife led a lonely existence up until her premature death, and his children grew up to be a little bizarre. And then, after his death, almost all humanity suffers on account of his indifference, for Hoenikker cared about solving problems but not about the implications of the solutions; he was tinkering in an ethical vacuum, and this explains why he created ice-nine.

Ice-nine - a crystallisation of water with a high melting point - is a clever but potentially catastrophic solution to a comparatively trivial problem which faces the army: given a choice, soldiers would prefer to undertake combat on hard terrain and a single crystal of ice nine can render mud solid. But it will also render any substance containing water solid, and this includes animals, people, rivers, lakes and oceans; one crystal of ice-nine could make the Earth uninhabitable in seconds.

Hoenikker delivers his gift to the world on Christmas Eve, and spends the last night of his life playing with his crystal - and toying with the fate of billions - by freezing and unfreezing saucepans full of water. His children divide up the all the unmelted ice-nine when they find him dead, and then each does a deal with the devil. With no concern for the implications, they trade some of their shares of ice-nine for the things they most desire.

The narrator sets out initially to tell the story of the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, intending to title his book The Day the World Ended and to tell the story of what the scientists were doing when the first atomic bomb was dropped. In researching his book, he travels to the despotic island nation of San Lorenzo in search of Hoenikker's eldest son, and there by chance meets all the Hoenikker children and learns of their ice-nine. He also discovers Bokononism which is the principle religion of the island - but it is a religion practised covertly; adhering to Bokononism is punishable by torture and death.

Cat's Cradle is a satire about science as a false religion, and it questions the idea that the pursuits of truth and knowledge necessarily deliver positive outcomes for society and enhance the quality of life. The flaw inherent in the concept of progress is human frailty; the scientists may be discovering more about the world but they are also creating means for its destruction, and they have no way of controlling the use which anyone might make of their inventions. Bokononism, an unquestionably false religion which doesn't pretend to be anything but, is offered as a contrast to scientific research; in the first sentence of The Books of Bokonon it is made clear that nothing described is true. Bokononism, although based on a collection of acknowledged fictions, works: it is the only thing which offers the citizens of the impoverished island of San Lorenzo solace.

Cat's Cradle tells a story which is ludicrous and filled with improbable coincidences, but which is also wonderfully clever and funny. It argues against strict rationalism, for here the truth is destructive or dispiriting, and delusion is constructive.

First published in the U.S.A. 1963. Published in Great Britain by Gollancz 1963. Published in Penguin Books 1965.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Penguin no. 571: The Island of Dr. Moreau
by H.G. Wells

Though I do not expect that the terror of the island will ever altogether leave me, at most times it lies far in the back of my mind, a mere distant cloud, a memory and a faint distrust; but there are times when the little cloud spreads until it obscures the whole sky. Then I look about me at my fellow-men. And I go in fear. I see faces keen and bright, others dull or dangerous, others unsteady, insincere; none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal were surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale.

It was generally believed that Edward Prendrick had been drowned when the Lady Vain sank after its collision with an abandoned vessel, but he turned up adrift in a life boat, still alive, eleven months later. No one could believe the account he gave of his adventures during those intervening months, and it was widely suspected that his mental faculties had been addled by his term of solitude. He therefore decided to keep quiet, committing his story to paper but telling no one else about it. The Island of Dr. Moreau purports to be the account of those missing months, apparently found amongst his papers after his death, and brought to the awareness of the public by his nephew.

Of those who had taken to the dinghy after the wreck, Prendrick alone survives long enough to be rescued after his companions fall overboard during a tussle. He is rescued by a ship which chances to pass, and a messenger with some medical training, who chances to be aboard, saves his life by nursing him back to health. Prendrick then finds himself abandoned a few days later by the enraged captain of the rescuing vessel, and adrift once more, this time without any means of manoeuvering his craft or any provisions to sustain his life. He is saved a second time, albeit reluctantly, by Dr. Moreau who is moved by the desperateness of his situation, and who allows Prendrick the sanctuary of his island. This act of compassion is to bring about Moreau's downfall, along with that of his companion Montgomery.

The idea that a person's fate is entirely subject to the vagaries of chance events is a recurring theme in The Island of Dr. Moreau. It is through a series of unlikely events that Prendrick survives the ship wreck and the predations of his companions in the dinghy, and that he is nursed back to health and rescued a second time. It is through happenings no less likely that he is in time able to leave Moreau's island and return to London to commit his tale to paper.  But the randomness of fortune is presented as an oppressive and bleak reality, for when the course of all lives, and the existence of humanity itself, is simply a matter of chance, nothing has any meaning.

It takes some time for Prendrick to work out the secret of Moreau's island, and the explanation for the bizarre human-like creatures which reside upon it. In time he learns that Moreau is an unashamed vivisectionist whose life's work has been focused on perfecting various surgical and psychological techniques which can be used to transform animals from their natural state into something which simulates human form, in an accelerated mimicry of evolution. Moreau is forced to undertake his research far from civilised society, because the concept is an outrage to his contemporaries.

And in this there seems a critique of the contemporary scientist, for Moreau - just like the process of evolution - is indifferent to the fate of those upon whom he experiments. Nothing matters but the pursuits of his research, and this includes the suffering endured by the inadvertent victims of the process he is attempting to perfect, and the difficulties they face in living with the altered conditions. For Moreau, every failure is an abhorrence, and something he turns his mind from: he has no compassion for them, and no concern for what becomes of them, but his island is there to provide a home to the rejected outcomes of his interventions.

In The Island of Dr. Moreau Wells explores the implications of the concepts which underpin the theory of evolution, both the idea of chance as an indifferent driver, and what it means if no distinct boundary exists between animals and humans. It is a well-told and fast-paced story, but also a bleak one, and Prendrick's obtuseness in working out what is going on can be frustrating.

First published by Heinemann in 1896. A film version by Paramount Pictures appeared in 1932. First published as a Penguin Book in 1946.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 151: The Invisible Man
Penguin no. 335: Kipps
Penguin no. 572: Love and Mr. Lewisham

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Penguin no. 1620: The D.A. Draws a Circle
by Erle Stanley Gardner

Morning found Doug Selby lying in that condition of delicious drowsiness which is half sleeping and half waking, a warm, lazy languor. Birds were hopping through the eucalyptus tree which shaded his window. Down the slope were the fronds of palm trees, and below them Madison City, glinting in the early morning sunlight, seeming fresh washed and sparkling in its cleanliness. Overhead the blue-black of the California sky showed as a vast depth of cloudless azure. The morning sunlight, splashing through the window to glint on the counterpane of Selby's bed, made crime seem distant and remote, a hideous man-made nightmare superimposed upon a universe which was attuned to the singing of birds and the rustling of leaves.

A resident of Orange Heights, one of the better residential areas in Madison County, calls the police late at night to report the sighting of a naked man running along the edge of the deep canyon which separates her property from her neighbour's. Not long after, and just as the police arrive, a pistol shot is heard. Three young boys find an unclothed body the next day in a cleft of the barranca, and there is no doubt that the victim has been murdered. Perplexingly, he has been shot twice, with both bullets following almost the same trajectory and passing through the same bullet hole. More perplexingly, one bullet has been shot directly into the victim's naked flesh, and the other has been shot through fabric.

The chances of convicting anyone of the murder seem remote, as the forensic science of the time has no way of determining which of the two bullets was responsible for the man's death. It seems to everyone in rural Madison County that a clever subterfuge of this kind has all the hallmarks of the intervention of a big-city lawyer, one with a brilliant mind, a good understanding of the law and an affinity with criminals. A.B. Carr is just such a lawyer and he has recently taken up an unwelcomed residence in Orange Heights. His lavish and spacious property abuts the barranca in which the victim's body was found.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Penguin no. 464: Death on the Borough Council
by Josephine Bell

There are a great many ladies present in this room, many of whom have brought up, or are bringing up, young families. These ladies will not need to be reminded that the first years of their children's lives were the most anxious ones...Now consider the case of the less fortunate of our residents. They are hampered by lack of means and lack of knowledge. They are hampered most of all by tradition, by obsolete, and often obnoxious ideas, handed down one generation to the next, and given to young mothers with all a grandmother's weight of authority.

For a crime novel, there seemed to be an unusual focus on pregnancy and motherhood in Death on the Borough Council. Two characters are heavily pregnant, and another is a new mother, though a reluctant one. There is also a long passage in the middle of the story - with little relevance to the plot - in which the Councillors of Stepping Borough, excepting the one recently murdered, interview candidates for the position of assistant medical officer in their soon-to-be-opened child welfare and maternity clinic. One candidate is eliminated immediately for being male; another is aware she has little chance of securing the position because she is married.

Josephine Bell was a medical practitioner, and she seems to use this novel to make a point about what she must have considered inappropriate attitudes to prospective motherhood among the working classes. A comparison is being made across classes: the middle-class mother does nothing but rest in the final weeks of her pregnancy and is delivered of a healthy child; the working class mother works herself to exhaustion keeping her house spotless, and risks opprobrium if she fails to do so, and the health of her newborn suffers as a result.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Penguin no. 1323: The Content Assignment
by Holly Roth

In the course of that afternoon I learned a good deal about that particular black line. You could walk Seventy-seventh Street's few miles, from river to river, in not much over an hour. Its east portion - from the East River Drive to Fifth Avenue - was largely elegance. First came beautiful town houses with polished brass, old shady trees, quiet and peace. Around Park Avenue I encountered vast but still quiet apartment houses, equipped with canopies and doormen. Near Fifth Avenue the town houses came again - more formidable now, magnificent stone structures that spoke of wealth.

The Content Assignment features the most enticing summary I have come across in an old Penguin. The synopsis writer would have you convinced that the story is going to be tense and compelling, and it may of been on account of that, or perhaps because the other Holly Roth novel I have read was such a well-written thriller, that my expectations were high when I first took this down from the shelf. But I couldn't take The Content Assignment  seriously, and couldn't believe that an author expected any reader to do so. I kept waiting for it to improve, but it read all the way through as something that had simply been churned out.

John Terrant is a free lance journalist who develops the habit of reading every newspaper he buys from its first word to its last, often a few days after publication. He has little interest in the information he is reading, and only the slight justification that hidden in the text might be something he can use as the basis of an article. He recognises that this habit is a form of procrastination he is using to divert his mind from thoughts of Ellen Content, a young woman he had met in Berlin two years previously and who had since disappeared.

But his newspaper reading is a very convenient obsession from the perspective of the plot, because it means that he reads the list of passengers recently embarked on an ocean liner travelling to New York, and so finds Ellen's name; it is the first clue he has found in solving the mystery of her disappearance. It seemed a bit of a long shot from the perspective of Ellen, however, because she cannot have known of his recently-developed obsession when she used her only opportunity to get a message to the outside world to set in place the series of events which brought about the newspaper item.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Penguin no. 1102: Speak No Evil
by M.G. Eberhart

    'Now listen, Elizabeth. There'll be time for talk later. All I want to say now is this. I heard this noon; there's a boat tomorrow, I've got to take it, Elizabeth - the world is wide. And war changes things. So the real things - love and time - are so terribly important. Elizabeth, I want you...'
     But he stopped then and took her in his arms.
     It didn't matter about the world being wide. She wanted it only as wide as the circumference of his arms. War. She would not think of that, then. She moved closer within his arms.

There were many things I disliked about Speak No Evil, including the paragraph I've quoted above, but I thought the story's main flaw was that its premise made such little sense.

It is clear that the reader is not intended to feel much pity for Robert Dakin, the first murder victim, as he is a violent and abusive man. He frequently drinks to excess, and his wife and a valet live in constant fear of his temper. He punches his butler without provocation a few hours before he is murdered, and the poor man is rendered unconscious and remains that way for days. Robert Dakin liked to make threats and was quite willing to use his wealth, his bulk and his connections to ensure that he always got his own way. There are probably plenty of people who wanted him dead, though there are only a few who could have been guilty of the crime on the night he died. And there is one woman - and not his wife - who does regret his death; the possession of wealth and power can be alluring.

The murderer takes an enormous risk but succeeds in killing Dakin, and in the process leaves ample circumstantial evidence which focuses the police's attention very firmly on someone else. The police seem well-meaning but lacking in imagination, so circumstantial evidence is enough to satisfy them that they have identified the guilty party, although they dally in making an arrest.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Penguin no. 1009: Aphrodite Means Death
by John Appleby

For us in Germany, who had a continent at our feet, the war was a much greater opportunity than it was for you, cooped in your crowded islands. To Hersfield and me Greece, of course, was no strange country, but never before had we been able to work so thoroughly and unhampered. With the co-operation of the German army we had no trouble in acquiring manpower for our digging, and the peasants who worked for us, though unskilled, were not expensive. Nor was there any of that tedious negotiation with the Greek authorities about the ownership of what we discovered. You may say it was an archaeologist's paradise.

Aphrodite Means Death has an unusual structure so that reading it could be likened to watching as a blurred image is brought slowly into focus. Everything begins in disarray and confusion, with none of the three characters introduced in the first section having a clear idea about what is going on or about whom they can trust. They form a triangle of suspicion, each trying to construct an understanding of the complete picture from the small sample of things they have seen and heard, but inevitably misinterpreting the events and reactions to which they have been witness.

We meet these characters through the eyes of Jane Arden, an Englishwoman living and working in Athens a few years after the Occupation. She goes for a walk in a pine wood on the last morning of a quiet holiday on an Aegean island, and in doing so she leaves behind the predictability and safety of a formerly uneventful life. One unanticipated event follows another in quick succession - bullets fly far too close to her for comfort in the morning, she is temporarily taken prisoner in a barricaded house in the afternoon, and in the evening she notices that her hotel room and luggage have been searched during her absence. This series of adventures seems to be triggered by having met a fellow compatriot during her morning walk. She is only slightly perturbed by the unusual events, however, believing that she will leave the excitement behind when she returns to the mainland in the morning.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

A collection of Penguins

I seem to have reached have reached yet another Sunday without managing to find the time to read a vintage Penguin and prepare a review, and so I am instead posting a photo of the project which has been diverting me of late.

I recently bought a house and my first priority was the bookshelves. The greater part of all recent weekends has been spent boxing, sorting and transporting books, shopping at Ikea and assembling flat-pack furniture - particularly bookcases.

Many of these books have been in storage for years, and others have been left in random piles while I waited for the opportunity to sort them properly. My daughter and I are still slowly working through them to make sure they are in order and that my lists of what I own and what I don't are up-to-date.

And there are still more bookcases to be built, as I have quite a few boxes of Pelicans and non-Penguins books which are yet to find a home.

Hopefully, I will be back on track by next weekend and in a position to resume posting on a vintage Penguin each week.

My Penguins in 2011:

My Penguins in 2012:

Monday, 20 April 2015

Penguin no. 362: Time Will Knit
by Fred Urquhart

He was terribly ambitious when you got married. But his ideas were greater than his deeds. He didn't try to put any of his plans into action. By the time he had finished dreaming and planning he had got tired of the plan and another idea had crowded it out of his head. He never did anything. He was nearly fifty before he really started to try to do things and then it was too late. He was too old and tired. Rearing a family and working for them had sapped all his strength and courage. Wattie should never have got married at all, really. Men like him, who want to help their fellow-men, shouldn't get married and have obligations. They should keep themselves free so that they'll be able to give all their attention to what they feel is their life's work.

Time Will Knit is about many things, but the idea expressed in the paragraph above - that it is the responsibilities which come with marriage and family life which undermine an individual's ability to achieve anything substantial - could be considered its main theme.  'Having bairns' would seem to be the explanation for virtually every ambition forsaken, and the reason why the working-class never make their way. I know little about Fred Urquhart, but I suspect I could surmise much - I have never read a novel published this early which was so sympathetic towards homosexuals, nor one that was so scathing about women distributing white feathers during the First World War.

Time Will Knit begins in 1929 with Grace's young son Spike leaving Kansas and setting out for Edinburgh to meet his mother's family for the first time. Grace had left Edinburgh when she herself was young and she has no expectation of seeing her parents again, but she wants them to meet Spike before they die. And Spike is keen to go, as he has dreams of being a sailor - like his mother's grandfather - and Edinburgh is where he intends to find a vessel to join. It is through his young American eyes that we see the familiar landmarks of Waverley Station and Princes Street, and that we learn of the idiosyncrasies of his Scottish relations.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Penguin no. 865: The Cambridge Murders
by Glyn Daniel/Dilwyn Rees


'We exist, this University exists, to educate young men, make them take an interest in passing their examinations, make them not want to climb into College, make them less interested in shop-girls with nothing but a pair of legs and pretty face and fair hair and no conversation or brains. Damn it,' he said again as he walked back to College, 'I must have a word with the Dean - a very sharp word. This is all wrong.'

Professor Glyn Daniel was an archaeologist who taught at Cambridge University and published mystery fiction under the pseudonym Dilwyn Rees. My early copy of The Cambridge Murders bears his pseudonym; the later issue bears his name. Here he creates an amateur sleuth somewhat in his own mould: Sir Richard Cherrington is an academic and an archaeologist, and Vice-President of Fisher College. His enthusiasm for detective work seems to derive from its similarities with scientific enquiry; he cares more about the puzzle than the people, and he never doubts that his profession is ideal for developing the skills essential and sufficient for murder investigation.

There are many people whose animosity towards Dr Landon could be considered entirely reasonable simply on account of the treatment he is renowned for meting out. It means that when his corpse turns up, stuffed in an undergraduate's trunk, there are so many plausible motives that the county police find themselves baffled by all the possibilities. It seemed to me a flaw of this story that the police and Sir Richard between them seem intent on examining every one, so that the account of their investigations becomes interminable: the two investigations canvass an exhaustive series of hypotheses and virtually every permutation of the characters as interested parties, until it seems that a case could conceivably be made out against anyone and everyone associated at that time with the fictional Fisher College.


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