The Lizard of Oz: Rachel Ingalls’ “Mrs. Caliban”

Ingalls, Rachel (1983), Mrs. Caliban, Harvard Common
ISBN 0-87645-112-1

There is a risk to this: burdening a book or poem with the weight of a classic work of literature, especially if the work is as iconic as Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The shorter the book, the more frivolous, usually, the reference, in my experience. None of this is applicable to this novel, which wears the reference lightly and plays with it, with ease and joy. Rachel Ingalls is a writer unjustly neglected by the reading public, her work is largely out of print, including this novel, probably her most famous book. Mrs. Caliban was published in 1983, but not a single phrase or scene in it feels dated. Having just finished it, I find it hard to contain my enthusiasm, to put my pure and utter delight at reading this novel into words. Everything about this book fits, every word, every image seems perfectly calibrated. It’s intellectually rich, it’s use of intertextuality is fascinating and challenging, but above all else, it is a great read that races through a fantastic spiral of events, dragging the engrossed reader along. The book is frequently very funny, often rather sensual, but, au fond, as when we hear the protagonist say to her 6-foot lover, “Larry, you’re all I have”, it is a profoundly sad novel, a sadness that, lucky for us, never turns to bitterness.

As is to be expected, no one in the novel is actually called Mrs. Caliban. The protagonist is called Dorothy, which naturally recalls the Wizard of Oz. She is a housewife, whose life feels empty to her. Her husband, Fred, is frequently claiming to be working late, but Dorothy suspects him of actually having an affair; Fred has had affairs before and currently he is distancing himself again from his wife, not touching her more than necessary, moving the beds apart. This last distancing happened after, after an accident and a miscarriage, the pair suddenly found themselves childless. The accident had brought them together for a short period, but the miscarriage had driven them apart. As in so many cases, the husband, irrationally blamed the wife for what happened. Marriage is portrayed as an imbalanced relationship, where the wife is more of a servant than a sensual human being. It’s not just Fred. Estelle, Dorothy’s best friend, finds out that two men are proposing to her in order to acquire a housemaid, already seeking sexual satisfaction on the side with other, younger women. This strange piece of dialog illustrates Dorothy’s need well:

“Oh, Jesus Christ, Dot. You would go get some useless toy dog like that. Fat lot of good that would be if you turn the corner and bump into a gang of roughs who’d beat you up and rape you.”
“With my luck,” she had screamed, “they’d tie me to the railings and rape the dog instead.”

Up to now, Mrs. Caliban has intermittently shown signs of curiousness: the radio seems, for instance, at times to interact with Dorothy, when the radio program is interrupted by a speaker who imparts, sotto voce, soothing messages for her. One day, however, a strange (even stranger?) message, in a loud voice announces breaking news. A giant green sea monster, called “Aquarius the Monsterman”, has escaped from the “Jefferson Institute for Oceanographic Research”. Since her special messages so far had all been delivered in the same tone of voice, Dorothy decides that this has really happened. This broadcast starts off a novel which is preoccupied with a constant flickering of fantasy and reality, and Ingalls displays no interest in telling us what’s real and what isn’t. The fantastic events become more pronounced when “Aquarius the Monsterman” suddenly arrives on her doorstep, turns out to be called Larry and to speak English. Both name and language have been forced on him by the researchers at the Institute, who performed gruesome experiments on him, torturing the poor guy and even abusing him sexually. For the rest of the novel, however, we’ll only know him as Larry.

Larry is something of an antithesis to the world around Dorothy. In contrast to our pop-cultural expectations he does not have an unpronounceable foreign name, which the savvy researchers have shortened to Larry. He was given his name because in his home culture:

“We don’t give names… Everyone knows. We recognize each other.”

The whole culture seems far more intuitive, people do “the same things” and look the same., it seems less like a humanoid society and more like a tender, well-oiled machine, such as nature may appear to be at times. Larry is very tender, careful. Apart from webbed toes and frog eyes he appears to look like any (good looking) man. The fact that he is stark naked quickly awakens Dorothy’s desires, which lay dormant for a long time:

He sat down beside her. He said, looking at her, “I’ve never seen. Men, but not someone like you.”
“A woman,” she whispered, her throat beginning to close up.
He asked, “Are you frightened?”
“Of course.”
“I’m not. I feel good. But it’s very strange.”
A lot more than strange, she thought. And then: no, it’s just the same. They rolled backwards together on the bed.
“Wait. Not like that,” she said.
“Show me.”
“I’m a bit embarrassed.”
“What does that mean?”

She proceeds to have sex with him quite often, everywhere in the house. The novel never describes the sexual act, but shows its reflection in the changes in Dorothy, who becomes happy, relaxed, who suddenly starts to take an interest in life again. She learns what Larry is prepared to eat and what not, she learns about the way he was treated in the Institute. Automatically she assumes multiple roles. She is protective, as of a child, she caters to him as she caters to her husband and, most importantly, of course, she has taken him as her lover. At night he hides in the guest room or drives around town (she teaches him), and whenever her husband is gone, Larry comes out. Events spiral out of control when he kills five louts in self-defense, who attacked him with knives and broken bottles. The media immediately points to the dreaded monster; clearly, he’s no longer safe in her house, people will notice and tell on her. She must get him back to sea, which attempt leads to the cataclysmic finale.

Many of the references to “The Tempest” are obvious, I’d think, but there is a twist to it all. Larry is both Prospero, the man who comes over the sea and leaves again at the end, and Caliban, the native ‘alien’, who is taught the ‘civilized’ culture, who is perceived to be in need of teaching (incidentally, he does not only learn language. He watches a lot of TV and starts, suddenly, to imitate a dancer in a commercial. After learning the performance he asks Dorothy what it means. She replies that it’s just a dance performance and considers telling him about the cultural moorings of dance, but thinks better of it. After a while, twoscore pages later, Larry proclaims to have understood what it means. We are never told what Larry’s groundbreaking insight is, but clearly, using his limbs in the semiotically fraught way of dance is a language, as well, and Larry recognizes this immediately, and learns). Since Larry is, as I mentioned, a representative of the forces of nature (He seems, at times, as naïve and helpless as Prince Myshkin, but their naivety is rooted in completely different circumstances; indeed, it’s rather Dorothy who is a weathered, numbed descendant to the Prince, I think), one may see the world where humans built their cities as the island where Prospero’s rule has wrought many changes. Dorothy, the best candidate for ‘Mrs. Caliban’, supports such a reading. The very name “Mrs. Caliban” is ambiguous. Fred, her husband, is clearly in no shape to be the noble savage, but at the end, Larry and Fred, somehow, have merged in her racked mind: asked about her husband’s name, she produces the name “Larry”. This suggests that it is only at the end of the novel that she has become Mrs. Caliban.

This issue of naming and reference is fickle. Ingalls interrogates two large constructs, both concerned with power and disenfranchisement. There is gender and its intricacies, the relationships between men and women, the roles both automatically assume and the difficulties of breaking out of such a role. Both Dorothy and her best friend Estelle try, and both, in a way, fail at it and both are tragic failures, because we can see it coming. The depressing, claustrophobic domestic situation of Dorothy is emblematic for the world and society she lives in and it takes Larry for us to see that. I say: “for us”, because all the characters are restricted to their world, they are never afforded the opportunity to actually reflect upon their roles and relations. The second large construct is only hinted at, and it concerns the idea of enlightenment and progress. Larry and the Institute are two factors in this discourse, but the criticism does not only strike at blind belief in scientific progress: when a news report about the five dead teenagers moves Fred to rant about the ugly, giant monster, we get more than a whiff of the amount of prejudice and racism that is part of this society’s structure. The fact that the community appears to be completely ‘white’ only adds to the claustrophobia. In order to to this in the brevity she has chosen, however, Ingalls is forced to project very conventional, strangely unproblematic sense of corporeality. It questions many conventions, but bodies just exist and are all functional human bodies. I said ‘strangely unproblematic’ because, after all, we encounter a 6 foot sea monster which has never lived with humans, which doesn’t speak normally, which is irritated by the movements of dance, but this is all taken in stride. The strangest part about this is sexuality.

While emphasizing the needs of sexuality for Dorothy, the novel is less explicit about the effect this has on Larry, who has never had sexual intercourse before. In a way, Dorothy makes him into a man, but we never learn whether this effects any change in Larry. After all, we aren’t even sure Larry exists at all. The uncanny messages that we learn about on the very first page, introduce a sense of surreality. In the sense of Brian McHale’s excellent explication of postmodernism, this is a highly postmodern novel which at no point expresses an interest in finding out what’s real and what’s not. There are parts of the story that conform more to what we conventionally perceive to constitute ‘reality’ and parts that conform less to that, but Ingalls is constantly mixing up her elements. Certainty is not for us, and it’s neither for Dorothy who, in the final chapter, scrambles to hold everything together even as life and fantasy fall apart. In a way, Dorothy is caught up in a Cyclone but she can neither return to Kansas nor land in Oz, so she’s in a state of limbo. Thinking about this I was reminded of Salman Rushdie’s famous essay on the Wizard of Oz where he points out the difference between the Kansas of the book and the Kansas of the movie version. If I do not misremember him, he emphasizes the fact that the Kansas of the Wizard of Oz movie is not a realistic Kansas, as the one in L. Frank Baum’s book is. It is a curiously warped version. In Mrs. Caliban, Dorothy may be living in a country which is the dark twin of that Kansas.

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John Ashbery reading

John Ashbery, together with Paul Muldoon and Geoffrey Hill, is quite possibly my favorite living poet. Here he is, reading his poem “Interesting People of Newfoundland”. My professor used to say that seeing Ashbery read or speak made one want to protect the fragile man from harm, although he does not look fragile.

(via)

Short Circuit: Ilija Trojanow’s “Autopol”

Trojanow, Ilija (1997), Autopol, dtv
ISBN 3-423-24114-4

While not conceiving or constructing it first, the Autobahnen, the German highway system, is still considered to be one of Adolf Hitler’s lasting achievements by many Germans, not just revisionists. In his second novel, “Autopol”, Ilija Trojanow digs deeply into the tar to excavate a horrific dystopia, published in 1997, on the heels of his widely praised debut novel “Die Welt ist groß und Rettung lauert überall” (1996), as part of an Internet project, as a “novel in progress”, published in small, hyper-linked installments. Since then he has been traveling the world and went on to published multiple travel accounts of India, Bulgaria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Mecca, he has also been writing essays, managing his own small publishing house (all of his books, incidentally, were published elsewhere). With all that, it took him 9 years to finish his third novel, “Der Weltensammler”, which I’ve reviewed here. “Der Weltensammler” is, as I said then, a masterpiece, frightfully aware and complex, a mature work in every way, a warm, full-bodied read. “Autopol”, in contrast, is short and very lean, almost angular; it’s also considerably less complex, serving its ideas up hot from Trojanow’s excellent mind.

When it was finished and, finally, published in book form, for a while readers had the choice to read the paper copy of it or the hypertext online version. All I had was the book itself, and while I can see how the novel would have worked as a hypertext, I do not have the option of reading it as such any more, since the online version has disappeared. Contrary to my expectations, ordering all the bits and pieces and binding them into a single book may have rendered the whole enterprise less interesting, rather than more, but that’s purely speculative, of course. The actual book on my desk is certainly worth reading and recommended. It’s a science fiction thriller, told in very small chapters. There are dialogs, conventional narratives, photographs, copies of press clippings, and an official memorandum. The plot is rather conventional, but cutting up the narrative and offering several voices the opportunity to tell the story makes for a quick and varied read. The novel consists of three sections; while the basic mixture of formal genres within each section stays roughly the same, the headings change. This may appear to be an inconsequential change, something that could be seen as simple trickery, but “Autopol” not only relies heavily on such changes but it also draws much strength and insight from them. It’s power is not, after all, derived from the writing itself, but from other elements: scenario, ideas, and formal tricks. The writing, I’m sorry to say, is weak, though it is never actually bad: somehow Trojanow always manages to be at least functional. He conveys what he has to in a decent style without the stylistic embarrassments that plague so much of current German fiction.

The basic idea is simple: a political dissident, Sten Rasin, is imprisoned in a huge prison colony, the eponymous Autopol, where criminals are dropped into to disappear; Rasin subsequently stages a large-scale prison escape attempt, in the course of which hostages are taken and people are killed. In Autopol, there is no rehabilitation, it’s a place where those end up whom the society wishes gone. Thus far, nothing new. The structure of the prison, however, is novel. It’s not a region or a place or, God forbid, one of those prison planets so ubiquitous in SF movies. It is a system of highways, a closed circuit that is cut up into four sectors, each of which has four rest stops. In between the rest stops, cars ceaselessly circulate. These cars are the prisons, and their drivers are called pilots, since the cars are apparently meant to be a mix of high tech buses and modern trains. The rest stops are solely meant for the drivers. Prisoners only get off the buses when they are sick or dead. They eat, sleep and live on the road. This system, closed off the the world bustling on outside, has developed a dynamic of its own. It is not run by the government, it is run by a company; the judiciary has almost unchecked powers to drop people into the abyss that is the Autopol and neither the company nor the people outside care. As it turns out, by now, even if they did care, the system cannot be effectively supervised by the people. Criminals are not just abandoned in the prison; by dropping them into the closed system of the Autopol, they are dropped out of the “open” system of the society outside.

This scenario will evoke several unpleasant historical and cultural associations in most readers. There are roughly three layers of significance. The first, and most unpleasant, is the most obvious one. In my first sentence I mentioned the Führer, and the Third Reich is a central reference here. One of the most salient associations, I think, are the cattle wagons used to move Jews through Europe to their fatal destination. As with the Autopol, the railways were a kind of closed system, with most onlookers pursuing a don’t ask, don’t tell policy in regard to the prisoners. The context here is different, of course, but Trojanow is concerned with the frightening ability of a society to cast out its members without looking twice and asks how this ties into our notions of narrative. “Autopol” dwells quite extensively upon the intricacies of speech and discourse, partly by using different genres, as mentioned, partly by the inclusion of an undercover journalist, who is determined to ‘get the truth’. This is the second major reference, equal parts Natural Born Killers and Katharina Blum. Journalistic ethos and narrative truth are both important parameters here, and questions arise as to how the media shapes our understanding of the world etc. If this sounds unspectacular, it is.

This part of “Autopol” is tedious and repetitive. Much of the resulting boredom is due to Trojanow’s decision to set the novel in a world very similar to the one he lived in then (1997 Germany). He restricts the SF elements to the Autopol. This, of course, makes some of the novel’s predecessors such as Böll all the more obvious, and severely restricts the scope of its criticism. That’s something that we often find in fiction writers who turn to the tools of SF for inspiration, but shy away from going all the way. So ’tis with “Autopol” as well: by restricting the amount of SF elements, Trojanow loses many advantages the genre offers. This restriction is clearly intended to generate immediacy, to make the criticism more directly relevant to today’s readers, and, in this, the novel definitely succeeds. Trojanow is a very good writer, too good not to make this book work at least at one level. His decisions, i.e. opting for sound bites rather than longer prose sequences, and for immediacy rather than complexity, mar the novel, I think. As it is, it is highly readable, well executed, but never rises beyond “good”. Good, but, I fear, forgettable, like a good, strong drink.

A drink, that only speaker/readers of German are able to enjoy, so far. As of today, only three of Trojanow’s books have been translated into English. Adding “Autopol” (or his debut novel!) would not be the worst of ideas. Get to it.

How To Be An Idiot

Haruki Murakami, possibly the world’s most overrated writer, received the Jerusalem Prize and proceeded to spit in his hosts’ face with a hate- and spiteful speech that starts badly:

Any number of times after receiving notice of the award, I asked myself whether traveling to Israel at a time like this and accepting a literary prize was the proper thing to do, whether this would create the impression that I supported one side in the conflict, that I endorsed the policies of a nation that chose to unleash its overwhelming military power.

and gets worse with each paragraph that passes. Read it and cringe.

Wild at Art: Gottfried Keller’s “Der Grüne Heinrich”

Keller, Gottfried (2007), Der Grüne Heinrich (Erste Fassung), Deutscher Klassiker Verlag
ISBN 978-3-618-68023-9

This extraordinary novel, translated into English as “Green Henry”, is generally acknowledged to be one of the great novels of World Literature (we’re not getting into Canonization etc. here, a’ight?), and while I find ranking literature difficult, especially over a large period of time, after finishing “Green Henry” I could not but concede the justness of such a categorization. Please take heed: there are two editions of “Green Henry”, one published in 1854/55, with Gottfried Keller, at 33, still a young, energetic man. The second edition was published 25 years later, its author a settled, paunchy old man, almost as old as me. I read both editions a dozen years ago, this time I only reread the first edition. There are significant changes between the two editions and much of what distinguishes the first edition has been changed in the second, especially the dark ending, “dark as a cypress”, as Keller himself put it. I advise anyone who considers reading this book against reading the second edition first. Alas, I have not been able to find out which edition the English translation is based on.

“Green Henry” is not a perfect novel, far from it. Compared to perfect novels such as “The Good Solder”, this one is almost a formless, youthful, overcooked piece of prose. Keller was writing and drafting the novel while the presses were running, his publisher taking the drafts straight off his hands. Immediately after publication Keller expressed his distaste with the outcome of his work. He planned and drafted this novel for over ten years, assembling odds and ends, shifting parts to and fro. The only thing that stayed constant over all these years was the basic idea and the ending. When explaining why he did not discard the novel instead of trying to revise it into a bearable edition, Keller said that there are parts of the novel which he cannot explain, which he cannot reproduce. There are parts of the novel that “one can only have once, and only give once”, as he wrote. After finishing the novel, the reader will feel himself able to point to phrases, chapters, scenes the writer may have meant. I think this says a lot about the book and the impression it makes on its readers.

The plot is not particularly noteworthy, per se. As a classic Bildungsroman it follows the general rules of the genre. It follows Heinrich Lee, a young man from Zürich, through the first stages of his education, academical and sentimental, up to the dark last pages. One of many remarkable aspects is the structure. After twoscore pages Keller inserts an autobiographical récit. It is referred to as a “Youth history” (Jugendgeschichte) in the novel and makes up roughly half of the length of the complete novel. This section is written in the first person singular; the narrator is Heinrich himself and throughout the rest of the novel he carries the manuscript of the Jugendgeschichte everywhere with him. When he, in the later stages of the book, travels back to Zürich, poor and disgraced, he owns nought but the clothes on his back and the manuscript that contains his Jugendgeschichte. The beginning and the rest of the novel is narrated by an omniscient third person narrator, who is, true to the time, quite judgmental, but he is just judgmental enough to balance the cocky voice of Heinrich which has accompanied us for such a long time. The novel as a whole sometimes feels like one of the long, elaborate dreams related during its course, but it feels eerily balanced. Characters move in and out of it; the Jugendgeschichte starts at the beginning of one volume and ends in the middle of another; the third person narrator is sometimes annoyingly interested in Heinrich’s thoughts and feelings and sometimes he barely registers the existence of these things in Heinrich, but it all, miraculously, seems to cohere. And it’s Keller’s voice and thinking that makes it cohere, not the plot, not the writing and certainly not Heinrich the self-important twat.

Heinrich is driven by an ardent wish to become an artist; he has considerable talent and finds at home in Zürich several teachers to help him on his way. When the Jugendgeschichte sets in he is without a father. His father used to be a famous and brilliant man, and his fame is both a help and a hindrance for Heinrich in his days in Zürich. Heinrich’s mother is a dear, caring, thrifty woman, one of the most endearing characters I have ever encountered in literature. She manages their household money, pays for Heinrich’s lectures and, when he’s of age, endows him with enough money to enable him to move to Munich where he intends to pursue a career as a professional artist. The Jugendgeschichte suffers from having a first person narrator, because Heinrich (the protagonist) is a typical teenager, a know-it-all, who pities himself almost as often as he envisions a golden future; the fact that Heinrich (the narrator) wrote the Jugendgeschichte shortly before leaving for Munich, casting judgment upon his younger self, is making it worse.

There are two basic concerns in the Jugendgeschichte: art and love. Heinrich is a typical teenage boy who vacillates between pining for girls, which includes writing poems and drawing pictures of and for the loved one, and acting cool, in order not appear vulnerable towards the girl who obviously cannot feel anything for him. Granted, my own youth may have been a particularly pathetic specimen (which I still hesitate to turn to for in my writing, no matter how much I’d like to tap that source) but not much appears to have changed, once you subtract obvious (positive) changes in a society’s mores, such as teenage sexuality and the influence of Christian thought on your average thinking teenager. In this, we never see Heinrich grow up. In his infatuations and affairs with girls in Munich, he never stops being his teenage self. If a Bildungsroman charts a maturing of the main character, not just an education, “Green Henry”, I think, violates that rule. His behavior towards the first girl in his life and his behavior towards the last girl are strangely similar. Heinrich, called nicknamed ‘green’ because of the green clothes his mother sews for him, remains green for all his emotional life. He’d rather evade confrontations than talk or sit through them. If he has the opportunity to not open himself up to hurt, he will take it. As someone who can understand the logic of that, I could have told him that hurt is not easily put off one’s tracks; someday, it will catch up with you. Heinrich has this lesson driven home to him again and again yet he doesn’t learn, he remains green Henry.

It is completely different with art. Art, for Heinrich, is a continuous learning process. First he learns from teachers, then, upon visiting relatives in the country, he starts to learn from nature. The Jugendgeschichte is crammed with Heinrich’s ruminations about what real art should and should not do, it discusses the relation between art and nature, between copying a picture and creating one oneself. Time and again we see Heinrich torn between the easy solution of drawing an idea, a cliché ridden image, with no connection to the natural world, and what he sees as the ethos of art, trying to provide as truthful a picture of nature as possible. We find that his relatives in the country, even his peasant uncle who has not seen much art in his life, can easily spot the artifice, the ‘wrong’, the dishonest kind of art. All this is spread heavily throughout the Jugendgeschichte, and it’s tedious. As mentioned, we have two Heinrich’s in the Jugendgeschichte, Heinrich the protagonist and Heinrich the narrator, one more self-important than the other, and their combined odds and ends of education add up to this huge amount of vapid lecturing. The tediousness, however, has a function in the novel. We’re supposed to feel the stupendous amount of youth that lords over all of Heinrich’s actions so as to feel him growing in the second half of the book.

And, in contrast to Heinrich’s emotional life, his understanding of his own creativity and his art really matures and grows. His career as an artist never takes off because Heinrich isn’t willing to make it work, but at the same time, cut off from his home, cut off from nature, he digs deep into his creative urge and instincts. He understands, what works for him and what doesn’t. In a clear contrast to the Jugendgeschichte we barely see him drawing, painting, reflecting. What we get are dreams, where the cultural history of his country and the angsty swamps of his unconscious play out, we see him try to wake up after a year of doing nothing, try to tap into his creativity again, breathe into himself. In a pivotal scene he sits down to draw but he produces an abstract painting. His friends ridicule him, but neither they nor Heinrich himself can help being affected, if only for a moment, by the power of the painting, which is subsequently discarded. It does not fit the idea of good art, and good art, then and now, is equal parts accomplishment and market value. Heinrich admires crassly commercial artists, who are able to make any idea or sujet work with little effort: they just put their usual spin on it and it sells and sells and sells. Heinrich, on the contrary, is still searching for the perfect means to express himself.

Much of this novel seems run-of-the-mill, after all, it’s 1854, some of the most important and well known Bildungsromane have been written and provide a subtext for the novel: Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, Wieland’s Agathon or Jean Paul’s Siebenkäs. Keller clearly has no ambition to better them or to innovate. This novel turns, to look not at the world or literature or things like that, it turns inward. The way that the Jugendgeschichte is strewn over the 4 volumes in which the novel was published originally is significant: Heinrich’s quest is clearly also a formal imperative for this novel, which doesn’t present one long, convoluted plot as a series of skirmishes or battles with Heinrich’s art or himself, and he loses all of them. How ironic that, midway through the novel, he is to win the only actual fight he is in. Heinrich’s character makes us doubt his accounts in the Jugendgeschichte, too often Heinrich appears to exonerate himself from tougher charges; so while we read about his youth, we are constantly doubting the veracity of the Heinrich’s reports of the events relayed to us through his voice and when we watch him bumble through Munich, we are armed with the discussion of nature and artifice, shaken by the long dream sections which sometimes appear to be seamlessly blending into reality, and we start to doubt the evidence of our own ears, which makes for fascinating reading, although you don’t HAVE to read the novel that way. It doesn’t force any reading on you; you are perfectly free to read it as an example of the Bürgerlicher Realismus (bourgeois realism, a genre that dominated especially German 19th century novels in the second half of that century (Same time next week this blog will feature a review of another famous specimen of that genre, Wilhelm Raabe’s popular novel “Der Hungerpastor”)). Fact is, it drew me right in and especially the first and last third just flew by. Highly recommended (but only the first edition, remember!).