Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (100 down, 0 to go)

"Space is big. Really big."

Don’t Panic 
(large friendly letters)

Before I record my thoughts on this book, I feel I should mention that I have now completed my Quest to read the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. I imagine some who read this may want to congratulate me, ask for interviews, negotiate the movie rights, nominate me for the Peace Prize…all that. Of course, you may do so, but you may also wait for my Quest Wrap up that I will post in a few days. Up to you, either way, I’m easy. (though you may want to get the Nobel Peace Prize thing rolling; I understand it is a lengthy process.)

So, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (HHG2tG), is a magnificent farce. It’s rather like Monty Python meets Doctor Who. In fact, it’s more than rather like that – Douglas Adams wrote for both at one point in his career.

It is mostly the story of Arthur Dent, a very normal bloke from England who, befriends Ford Prefect, who, unbeknownst to Arthur is actually an alien assigned to research Planet Earth, and write a bit about it for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – which is exactly what the name implies.(actually, it doesn’t imply – it’s pretty explicit). It has all sorts of helpful advice for those traveling the galaxy on a budget. Things like…
“Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
Regarding Earth, the Hitchhiker’s guide says…
Mostly Harmless
The cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide is inscribed with large friendly letters simply admonishing…
Don’t Panic
Ford rescues Arthur moments before Earth is destroyed by hitching a ride on a passing spaceship. What follows are the bizarre adventures of poor dull Arthur who slowly comes to grips with the realization, that we are not alone – or, that we weren’t, but now he is, as he is the sole surviving Earth man. All things considered, he takes this rather well. When Ford cavalierly mentions that Earth was just boiled away into space, Arthur responds:
Look, I’m a bit upset about that.
Fortunately for Arthur, there is also a sole surviving Earth woman, which makes it all a bit easier to bear. There is also time travel, alternate dimensions, all that stuff, which means Arthur is not entirely cut off from home.

Most importantly, during the course of his adventures in space, Arthur and company learn the meaning to life, the universe, and everything. The answer is stunningly simple – and rather disappointing.

There is also a manically depressed robot, a sentient bowl of petunias, and a whale.

And although this is a farcical romp, Adams’ prose is not without elegance. Arthur and company encounter a world that is enveloped in an atmosphere thick with dust and particulates, so much so, they have never seen the stars or imagined any world beyond their own. Adams describes their reaction when they finally ascend to space and observe the vast cosmos for the first time:
They saw the staggering jewels of the night in their infinite dust and their minds sang with fear.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second time I’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the only thing I’ve read by Douglas Adams. My first read was officially titled: The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts. That non-sequitur title is typical of the delightful absurdity of the entire work. Additional material was compiled after Adams’ death. The version I read this time is: The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide: Five Complete Novels and One Story

"The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy"
"The Restaurant at the End of the Universe"
"Life, the Universe and Everything"
"So long, and thanks for all the Fish"
"Mostly Harmless"
"Young Zaphod Plays it Safe"

To be honest, it was a slight let down as a reread. I loved it the first time, probably because it was so different, quirky, and silly. It suffered a bit on reread due to high expectations. Nonetheless, it is a thoroughly enjoyable diversion. 

This inspiration for HHG2tG came to Douglas Adams when he was trekking Europe, literally using the Hitchhikers Guide to Europe. He was nearly broke, slightly drunk, lying in a field in Austria, and gazing at the stars when he thought – Somebody ought to write the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 

Originally a radio series, the story was so popular Adams was offered a book deal.


“Ford!” he said, “there’s an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out.” (Oh, I loved this bit! Read my post HERE to find out why.)

Arthur was grappling with his consciousness the way one grapples with a lost bar of soap in the bath.

One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem involved in becoming your own father or mother that a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can’t cope with. There is no problem about changing the course of history – the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end. The major problem is quite simply one of grammar,…

If you’ve done six impossible things this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

The reason they are not universes is that any given universe is not actually a thing as such, but is just a way of looking at what is technically known as the WSOGMM, or Whole Sort of General Mish Mash.

Film Renditions: I didn’t care for the 2005 film that took a good deal of liberty with the story, though I thought Martin Freeman was perfect as Arthur. The 1981 BBC TV series is terribly campy, appropriately so, and pretty good as far as it goes, but it only depicts the first of the five books.


Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Saddest Book EVER! - NOVA this week

Observations from my weekly wanderings, usually in Northern Virginia (NOVA).

I’ve read some depressing tales over the years – Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Blood Meridian, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, others – but the most heartbreaking story I’ve EVER read is…

My First Counting Book, by NAME Lillian Moore, illustrated Garth Williams.

Don't let the adorable cover fool you (I seem to remember some pithy adage about judging books by cover art). It's a classic bait and switch.

The dismal tone of this book hits you full force, first page...

One little puppy, a roly poly puppy, alone as he can be. Isn’t there a boy or girl who wants to play with me?

And if that narrative isn’t enough to tear your heart out, there is the poignant illustration. I admire Williams' talent, but the illustration is too painful for words. (and copyrighted)

I remember a morbid fascination with this book as a child. It ALWAYS broke my heart, but somehow, I kept returning to it – hoping a boy or girl would show up somehow.

I’m sure some of you remember this book – it’s a classic after all, and some might argue that the plot gets more cheerful as it goes along; there are fluffy lambs and cute kittens, other animals I’ve forgotten, but these happy circumstances didn’t cheer me up at all. They only serve to highlight the dismal condition of the roly poly puppy. 

I won’t be reading this to my grandchildren, and I hope they never make a movie rendition.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Adventure of the Second Stain by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventure of the Second Stain by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle      

     A SherlockHolmes short story

The Adventure of the Second Stain is part of The Return of Sherlock Holmes collection. It is Holmes seventh case chronologically. It was one of Doyle’s favorites (#8 to be precise), and Watson describes it as
…the most important international case which he has ever been called upon to handle…

The case is put to Holmes by the Prime Minister himself and the Secretary of European Affairs.

The honorable gentlemen impress upon Holmes the need for secrecy and discretion. The police are not even notified. They also stress that should Holmes fail to recover the stolen secret communiqué…the consequence could well be war.

Watson was not exaggerating.

Not surprisingly, the honor of a beautiful women is also at stake.

Bit of Doyle’s subtle humor here. Holmes, well known for his own lofty surmise of his powers of observation, defers to Watson
Now Watson, the fair sex is your department.

In the end of course, Holmes averts international calamity, while also protecting the honor of the virtuous lady – but not without some uncharacteristic duplicity.

I can see why Doyle liked this one. I did too.


Friday, June 1, 2018

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (99 down, 1 to go)

…literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. ~ Nick Jenkins


A few more thoughts from Nick…


Yet love, for all the escape it offers, is closely linked with everyday things…


One hears about life, all the time, from different people, with very different narrative gifts. Accordingly, not only are many episodes, in which you may even have played a part yourself, hard enough to assess; a lot more must be judged from haphazard accounts given by others. Even if reported in good faith, some choose one aspect on which to concentrate, some another.


The title of this novel is taken from a painting by 17thCentury artist, Nicolas Poussin. The painting has numerous mythological elements: Apollos, Aurora, Time himself playing music, and four dancers (pictured on the book bindings) who probably represent different stages in life.


Poussin is not known to have revealed the exact meaning of his dancers; Powell however, leaves a bit more material from which to infer what he thought. He wrote A Dance to the Music of Time in four volumes – that he called movements – each undoubtedly represents one of the dancers. The main character and narrator, Nick Jenkins, considers Poussin’s dancers, concluding that they are:


…unable to control the melody, unable perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.


As the author’s alter ego, Nick thus reveals a distinct fatalism in Powell’s world view.


I can’t say for certain what Powell might have labelled the four dancers, but I infer something like:  

Coming of age (ambitiously, awkwardly, recklessly, naively)

Setting course (success, failure, course-correction)

Fates and follies (drudge, disillusionment, despair)



"First Movement" – opens on Nick and a few schoolmates, unnamed college, England, late 1920s, early 1930s.


"Second Movement" – follows their diverging, and re-converging careers and relationships, presages of looming war.


"Third Movement" – their roles in WWII, mostly uninspired and bureaucratic, several fatalities.


"Fourth Movement" – Conclusion of the many lives portrayed in this tome, but also…


Time dances on. Like the figures in the painting – dancing in a circle – Powell brings the fourth volume full circle, with the aged narrator in a scene very similar to his opening scene of volume one. (Though I'd nearly forgotten the opening scene by this point.)


I thought it an impressive work, but not very enjoyable. I wasn’t invested in any of the characters. Nick is a likeable chap, but too dispassionate to be very interesting.


To give Powell proper credit, I have to admit, that it was only the first 2,500 pages or so that I didn’t enjoy. The final pages of the final movement, finally got interesting. That might sound like I’m being sarcastic – I’m not. If you dare to start this work – you need to stick it out.


I can’t help but compare A Dance to the Music of Time to In Search of Lost Time. Both are roughly 3000 pages, both cover the lifetime of the main character, even the titles are reminiscent – and both were rather a chore to read. I doubt he intended it, but I felt as if Powell’s work is the British answer to the earlier French novel by Proust. I was already making this comparison in my thoughts, when Nick began reading and commenting on Proust’s magnum opus in the second half of Powell’s classic.


My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars


This novel satisfies – “A Classic that scares you” category of the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.



Excerpts – This first is one of my favorites taking place during a calm moment of Nick’s army days, and is a casual conversation between Nick and his commanding General. The general, knew that Nick was an author, and literary critic.


‘Book reader, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘What do you think of Trollope?’

‘Never found him easy to read, sir.’

‘You never found Trollope easy to read?’

‘No, sir.’

He was clearly unable to credit my words. This was an unhappy situation. There was a long pause while he glared at me.


‘Whom do you like, if you don’t like Trollope?’

‘There’s Balzac, sir.’


General Liddament roared the name. It was impossible to know whether Balzac had been a very good answer or a very bad one. 


And although Nick was uncertain, he must have made some points as the general then recommends Nick for a better position.


Other Excerpts: Mostly narrative by Nick


That illusion – as such a point of view was, in due course, to appear – was closely related to another belief:  that existence fans out indefinitely into new areas of experience, and that almost every additional acquaintance offers some supplementary world with its own hazards and enchantments. As time goes on, of course, these supposedly different worlds, in fact, draw closer, if not to each other, then to some pattern common to all; so that, at last, diversity between them, in truth existent, seems to be almost imperceptible except in a few crude and exterior ways:  unthinkable as formerly appeared any single consummation of cause and effect. In other words, nearly all turn out at last to be tenaciously inter-related; love and hate, friendship and enmity, too, becoming themselves much less clearly defined, more often than not showing signs of possessing characteristics that could claim, to say the least, not a little in common; while work and play merge indistinguishably into a complex tissue of pleasure and tedium.


…the persons we see most clearly are not necessarily those we know best.


Yet love, for all the escape it offers, is closely linked with everyday things, even with the affairs of others.


‘Look here,’ said Stringham, ‘I must be allowed to get in and out of my own bed. That is a fundamental human right. Other people’s beds may be another matter. In them, another party is concerned, but ingress and egress of one’s own bed is unassailable.’


‘It seems to me,’ said the General, ‘that he is a typical intuitive extrovert – classical case…’


War is not an exact science, but a terrible and passionate drama ~ quoting Foch


‘The god, Mars, approaches the earth to lay waste. Moreover, the future is ever the consequence of the past.’


‘Adventures only happen to adventurers.’


‘The war seems to have altered some people out of recognition and made others more than ever like themselves.’ ~ Isobel (Nick’s wife)


…literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity.


Friendship, popularly represented as something simple and straightforward – in contrast with love – is perhaps no less complicated, requiring equally mysterious nourishment…


You know growing old’s like being increasingly penalized for a crime you haven’t committed.


Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them…


When people speak of a subject close to them, they can look transformed.


One hears about life, all the time, from different people, with very different narrative gifts. Accordingly, not only are many episodes, in which you may even have played a part yourself, hard enough to assess; a lot more must be judged from haphazard accounts given by others. Even if reported in good faith, some choose one aspect on which to concentrate, some another.


…a restless soul wandering the vast surfaces of the Earth ~ Nick’s description of his Uncle Giles


A Dance to the Remembrance of Time is FILLED with references to classic literature. Nick, being a literary person (and as I said Powell’s alter ego), sometimes referenced an author, a title, or merely a character from some prominent work. These are the ones I caught. There were undoubtedly more.


Les Misérables

A Doll’s House

Jude the Obscure

Joseph Conrad

J.M. Barrie

H.G. Wells


Anna Karenina


John Milton

The Idiot

Henry James

Sherlock Holmes

William Thackeray

The Waste Land


D.H. Lawrence


The Brothers Karamazov, and "The Grand Inquisitor"


Ernest Hemingway

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Franz Kafka

Anthony Trollope

Alice in Wonderland

George Orwell

Edgar Allan Poe


Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Molly Bloom

Dr. Zhivago

Pilgrim’s Progress

Charles Dickens: Mrs. Nickleby, Mr. MicawberGreat ExpectationsOliver TwistBleak HouseThe Old Curiosity Shop, Bob Cratchit


A favorite reference: a character concocts their own cocktail and calls it Death Comes for the Archbishop


And of course

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust


A Dance to the Music of Time is officially 12 novels, published 3 at a time in four volumes/movements. Personally, I don’t think the 12 novels are truly novels, but more like rather long chapters. I don’t believe any of the novels, nor any of the volumes stand very well on their own. But of course, to get the full effect, you must commit to nearly 3000 pages.


1st Movement

- A Question of Upbringing

- A Buyer’s Market

- The Acceptance World

2nd Movement

- At Lady Molly’s

- Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant

- The Kindly Ones

3rd Movement

- The Valley of Bones

- The Soldier’s Art

- The Military Philosophers

4th Movement

- Books Do Furnish a Room

- Temporary Kings

- Hearing Secret Harmonies