October 13th, 2014

Dead Dog Cat

(no subject)

Several months back, my wife and I went to see the play, The Mouse That Roared, based on the book by the same name written by Leonard Wibberley, back in the 50s, about a tiny country way up in the Alps, surrounded by France and Switzerland. The author's intent, IIRC, was to skewer the geopolitics of the era. It was reasonably popular as a book, and I read The Mouse That Roared, The Mouse on the Moon and The Mouse on Wall Street when I was in elementary school.

Having seen the show, (showcasing friends of ours), I was stimulated to look back at the books, and see if I'd missed any other books in the series, and it turns out that my school's library hadn't purchased a couple. I'll be getting to one later this year, apparently written in the 80s, and easy to come by on Amazon.com, but I had missed the second book of the saga, written in 1958! Beware of the Mouse was out-of-print, and available on Amazon for sale, but at approximately $300!!! After I finished the two really large books that had slowed my reading down so much lately, I tried searching the book in the local library systems. The Los Angeles County Library System showed that they had a couple of copies, and I ordered it to be delivered locally...and it arrived in just two days!

It's set in the 1400s, and dealt with the citizens response to advancing technologies in the world around their land of Grand Fenwick. I hate to spoiler this; let it be written that this chronicle of the land deals with how a technologically inferior people can still bloody the nose of a larger and more savvy land, and make it not worth their time and effort to invade. It's a good story, and probably one that certain politicians should ponder well.

I enjoyed it very much; the whole series are quick reads, funny, and intelligent. They're worth hunting down, even if they aren't in print.


I had a few books along for sleepless flights or rainy train rides on the Continent, and picked up a few more (including several with a European social-democrat perspective on political economy) for additional travel or quiet moments.  Those reviews will come.  I'll return to the Fifty Book Challenge with a rail-related Book Review No. 9, acquired from Ian Allan hard by Waterloo Station.  Andrew Martin grew up in a railway family, hard by the steam-powered North Eastern Region of British Railways, in York. Belles & Whistles: Five Journeys Through Time on Britain's Trains, is his comparison - and - contrast of today's British passenger trains with what used to be.  Let's say he's no fan of Lord Beeching, or of the unsuccessful Demsetz auctions by which passenger train franchises change hands today.  He expresses his preferences early on, see page 12.

A nation's railway ought to be too important to privatise.  Gladstone, Lloyd-George and Churchill were all sympathetic to state ownership.  It has been argued that we are only able to contemplate having a fragmented railway because we never had a standing army, and so lacked the sense of strategic imperative.

Anyone attempting to write a book about modern railways soon finds out about fragmentation.  You never know whether to speak to a train operator, the association of operators, Network Rail or perhaps something called the Office of Rail Regulation.  It is hard to warm to a railway that has no voice; and it has been said we no longer have a 'railway mind'.

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Before I continue with the substance: a mystery.  That's a North American upper-quadrant semaphore displaying "Diverging Approach" and a North American pole line alongside the tracks.  The cover art is properly British, and there's a colour section of promotional posters from the Grouping era private companies (a business model that might have made more sense than fragmentation once the failures of nationalisation became clear.)

There are two other journeys, where the E-T-T-S dimension of ferroequinology comes out.  Once there was a Brighton Belle, an all-Pullman (meaning only parlor car seating in North America) electric train on a memory schedule between London Victoria and Brighton.  There's now a fast electric multiple unit working at approximately the same time, but patrons have to bring their own booze.  And recapturing the Golden Arrow is like asking for directions in Vermont.  You can't retrace the Golden Arrow route from Victoria, although you can get to Dover, but to retrace the Golden Arrow outside London, you start at Charing Cross.  Fortunately, a foot passenger can still buy a ferry ticket on the Dover side.  On the French side, c'est impossible.  (And to replicate the arrival time of the Arrow at Paris, you have to start before dawn in London.  The Eurostar schedule, however, is jet-competitive.)

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)


Book #47: The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis

This book is the sixth in the chronological order of the Narnia books, but was the fourth to be written.

Eustace Scrubb, introduced in the previous instalment, reappears, this time without his cousins, as he teams up with Jill Pole, who is being bullied at school. Jill almost right away notices that Eustace, who started off as an obnoxious brat, has changed considerably.

After Eustace tells her of his visit to Narnia, the two children find their own way to Narnia, escaping the bullies. Eustace almost immediately falls off a cliff, but is saved by Aslan, who tasks Jill with remembering four signs as part of their quest to rescue the kidnapped Prince Rilian.

Rilian is also the son of King Caspian, who was one of the main characters in previous books. Last seen as a young man, he is now elderly, due to the fact that time in Narnia passes a lot faster than in our world.

This sets off a standard adventure story, with the children joined by Puddleglum, the marsh wiggle (basically, a race of people with webbed hands and feet who live in the marhses); Puddleglum provides some comic relief, mostly through being interminably pessimistic (he's similar in character to Marvin from the HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy Books).

Like the other Narnia books, this contains a lot of Christian symbolism, and this book has a lot of significance to avoiding distractions or forgetting your true purpose, as Jill constantly fails to spot the signs, and they fall way to temptation by staying with a race of giants instead of getting on with their quest. The Bible has a lot of light and dark metaphors (basically, the idea that Jesus is the light of the world and the fact that the light reveals things, but lots of people are metaphorically "in the dark". This seems to be the symbolism that occurs in the latter part of the book, with a journey underground where a race of gnome-like people live.

Also, while the main villain of the book hardly appears, she is shown to be quite powerful and has the power to cloud peoples' minds; she is also said to be related in some way to the White Witch, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In 1990, when the BBC dramatised this book, they made it more obvious by casting the same actress who had played the White Witch two years earlier. They also cast Tom Baker (famous from Doctor Who) as Puddleglum, Warwick Davis as Glimfeather the owl and while the underground sequences could have been off a cheesy 1970s science fiction show, they managed to feature gnomes that were creepier than the way the book described them.

This was also the only time that I watched a Narnia adaptation before reading the book that it is based on, so I was surprised when I noticed that the pacing was a bit different from the book - most notably, they made more things out of the climactic scenes, and took out a lot of stuff from the last few chapters.

I love the fact that this book has a neat twist; it is also the only moment in the story that features the silver chair - spoilers ahead:

[Spoiler (click to open)]

The journey underground takes the children and Puddleglum to an encounter with a knight, who is married to "The Lady of the Green Kirtle", and says he can't remember how he got there, just that he and his lady are going to invade Narnia.

You might guess the twist before it happens, but it turns out that this is Prince Rilian; I loved the irony of how the main characters meet him about half way through the book but have no idea who he is as he is in a suit of armour with the visor down. It turns out he's been brainwashed by "his lady".

Where the silver chair comes in is the fact that Prince Rilian is tied to it every night because this is when he remembers who he is.

Reading the book did clarify a few things that weren't made clear in the TV adaption, such as the fact that the Green Lady was in cahoots with the giants (who also intend to eat the travellers). Also, the TV version had a sequence at the end where the goblins started diving into a pit of fire for no reason that was clear. The book makes clear that the Green Lady took them out of their own land further below the surface to work for her, and they are returning to where they came from. This leads to some comic relief when they reveal that this dark world is too light and too close to the surface for them.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I like the fact that they hint at things to come, including one of Aslan's lines close to the end, and also a scene involving "Old Father Time", who will awake when the world ends. It seems to be a throwaway moment that has no relevance in this book, but it does become significant later in the series.

Another moment I spotted reading through again was a reference to "The Horse and His Boy", which was the book written subsequent to this one. Here, it is told as a Narnian legend, and I liked the fact the CS Lewis expanded on it as a full length book.

Personally I think this is one of the better titles in the Narnia series, and the ending is one of the most hilarious, dramatic and satisfying of all.

Next book: City of Thieves (Cyrus Moore)