The Riddle of The Riddle of the Sands

This has long been on my list of things to read one day, a classic, one of the first spy novels, but now I’ve read it, I’m not sure what to say.   Or rather, the things I want to say are mostly spoilers.    So, I’ll put all the spoilers below the picture and give a brief un-spoilery review first.   I did not love this book.   It starts off well enough — young Carruthers, a bit of a social butterfly has missed his holiday because he had to stay in the Foreign Office while Society went to the country.   In September he’s almost free, but no invitations are awaiting him.   Out of the blue an acquaintance from college writes and invites him to come sailing on the German coast.   Not the best, but it is an invitation, so Carruthers accepts.   Davies hasn’t been entirely straight with him — the boat is not a beautiful, crewed yacht where they can sip drinks on deck while sailing past picturesque little towns.   It is a plain little boat and they do all the crewing themselves and Davies — Davies is amusing to read about at first — has no more interest in scenery than a fish.   His joy is pure sailing and charting a very shallow, sandy, unpicturesque area of the Northern coast of Germany.   It emerges that Davies got Carruthers over to help him investigate what he believes is a plot.

There are enjoyable parts to this book.   Carruthers and Davies getting to know each other.   Carruthers turning into a real sailor.   I did keep wondering what the riddle was to the end.   But it is a nautical book.   A very nautical book.  If you enjoy reading about trying to navigate with a compass and dead reckoning though a fog in great detail, this is the book for you.  It is also quite realistic in parts which doesn’t serve too well when you’re trying to overhear a plot being discussed and can only get one word in 20.  And there is a lot of pondering over very little evidence. The book can get tedious and this is largely, I think, because it was not so much an adventure story as it is propaganda.   Also, apparently, sections of it were used unedited from Childer’s logbook of similar voyages.   There you have it.   If you want to read a classic ship’s log, get your copy today and if yours doesn’t have the maps, which mine didn’t, you can find them online.


Spoilery part:   I actually pretty much said what bugged me above.   It is a lot like reading a ship’s log.  But my real beef was with the evidence or lack of it.   At first, it’s all right, there was an attempt on Davies’ life, that’s good enough to investigate, but then after much investigation, they don’t really find anything more.   And then finally what they do find is a reason Dollman might have had for attempting to kill Davies that has nothing to do with any possible plot by Germany.   They keep going, two Brits, standing out like sore thumbs in Frisia charting channels which could be used in time of war, could be developed to be commercially viable.  And there’s nothing wrong with Germany developing her own channels for commercial viability.   The whole plot they are investigating is pure speculation.   Sound enough for the British to consider and take precautions against, which they did, and interesting historically for that reason, but as a story?   Sucks.    All the evidence they have they get at the very end and only because Dollmann turns into a dope.  All he had to do was not let them in his house and they would have had nothing.

And the whole scene where they’re rowing 16 miles each way to listen in on a secret meeting which should have been over long before they even got close, but was conveniently still going on, only Carruthers couldn’t hear enough of it.   Too much realism sinks the story right there for me.   All he got was gibberish.   And blisters.   My hands ache just thinking of the blisters.

Also, if you’ve been at sea a few weeks and then shave off your moustache, it’s going to be pretty obvious by the moustache-shaped pallor that that’s what you did.

And spending two days traipsing all over Frisia to discover almost nothing.   I was totally ready for them to find him and throw him overboard.

Give him his due, Childers was right that Germany posed a threat and that the North Sea coast needed protection, I just wish he wrote a better story.


I guess this counts as  20th century Classic, if I didn’t already count a 20th century classic.   Too many reviews on goodreads to count as forgotten.

Villette in March Readalong

So, I’m horning in on this readalong despite the fact that I don’t do GIFs and they can all feel free to ignore my unGIFfed reports, but see, while I enjoy a good gif as much as the next person, I can only do it for like 5-10 seconds before I have to scroll away.  The repetition just bugs the heck out of me and I can’t look at them for long.  So, seeking them out and posting them — not gonna happen,  But I’ve never read Villette and I like a good readalong and I hope they can forgive my gif handicap and let me play along.

Eighty Days

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman is a book that I read mostly in 2013 and then got distracted by something — possibly this blog.   Pay no attention to the gap between my beginning and finishing it.   It’s an excellent book, very well written and if you don’t know much about Nellie Bly and nothing about Elizabeth Bisland, which is probably most people, it tells a very interesting story about two young women who a la Jules Verne, traveled around the world as fast as they could.  It was Nellie’s idea:  she was a newspaper woman of the kind who was always going undercover and investigating, exposing the poor treatment of women, etc.   Her paper, The World, sponsored her trip and a contest to guess how long it would take her.   A rival publication The Cosmopolitan decided to send their female reporter in a race against Bly.   Bisland took this in stride.  She was a game gal, if there ever was one.   Also refined.  She was a published poet and hosted literary salons.  Goodman made every aspect of their trip interesting to me.


I would like to say more, it’s all interesting – their backgrounds, their journeys, their lives afterward, but every place I read that says more gives away what happens and if you don’t know, why spoil it for you?   Also, probably reading most of it a year and a half ago doesn’t help.   All I can say at this point is:  highly recommended.

The Plague

There I was having finished A Coffin for Dimitrios and wondering what to read next and Cleo was reading The Plague with a friend of hers, so I thought well, that’s a 20th century classic, and I’ve only read the Stranger and while I had no interest in reading Camus ever again, that didn’t exactly remove him from my list, so I bought the Plague, started it, and promptly wanted to read anything else.   That’s where Agatha came in.   But strangely, I came back to the Plague and kept coming back to it, so there must be something in it, but forgive me if I can’t tell you what.   It is the portrait of an Algerian town (an actual town where Camus lived), but the plague that takes it over is fictional.  Or perhaps I should say this encounter of plague, which is real, and town, which is real, is fictional.   In many ways I think it’s an excellent portrait of a town during plague, but then there are all these bits I don’t understand.  The central character is Dr. Rieux, a respected and busy physician whose wife leaves in the beginning for a rest cure for her tuberculosis.  Once the plague gets underway, he cannot visit her or even write her, but he soldiers on in a peculiarly emotionless way, although I think we’re meant to understand he loves her and he’s not emotionless, he feels all the things others would, he just doesn’t act on them.   Ever.

I tried to read a few other reviews on this to clarify my ideas, or give me some, but there isn’t much out there and I refuse to read Cliffs Notes at this stage of my life.   But it’s hard to write about this book without spoilers as no one, from the New York Review of Books to NPR has managed to, so I, too, will write full of spoilers, but I’m warning you, if you don’t want to know what happens, just read the book, and no one else beforehand.   It will get spoilery below the pic, which I will insert.    The book shows much that you would think: people acting bravely and cravenly, trying to heal the sick and trying to make an extra buck, people despairing and people spending all their money for tomorrow we die.   The fire and brimstone priest who seems to change his mind.  I was annoyed as heck at the beginning by how long it took anyone to acknowledge this was plague.   When rats come out dying in the streets by dozens, get the heck out of Dodge, but no one did.   They all walked around, how peculiar, the rats are dying.   Then there’s a man named Tarrou who among other things observes an old man who spits on cats every morning.   What am I supposed to make of that?  I think he’s a vile and nasty old man who needs a real hobby, but Tarrou seems to be not just amused, but admiring.  It’s things like that which make no sense to me, and maybe that’s just the parts of human nature which make no sense to me, because I strongly suspect there are old men in the world who every morning spit on a cat and that it’s the center of their lives, giving them a meaning I can’t understand.


Once again, not the cover of mine.   But I think this is a great cover.

Maybe I can’t understand because what they used to think of as heroism is something different than I think of it.   No one’s more heroic than Rieux, sleeping a few hours a night, tirelessly caring for patients, trying to see that things are done sensibly and fighting this monstrous plague for months without ever giving way.   Rieux’s view of this seems to be that this is just what people should do and is not remotely heroic.   And perhaps that’s how it should be, but it ignores the fact that gazillions of people aren’t, which in my view puts him in the hero category.

The priest is another question mark.  At first he’s all – you deserve this, God is punishing you, and then later he mellows and makes some very significant changes in his view one of which is saying we, not you.   He no longer separates himself from the rest of humanity, which I would say is a great leap forward.   But then he also develops a theory that a priest should not call a doctor.   I guess this is like – is it Christian Scientists?   God will heal you or He won’t, it’s entirely up to him, and you should not muck about in this decision-making process by getting any inoculations or things like that.   Well, I tend to think, and clearly most people are with me on this, that just takes it all a bit too far and you should try to take care of yourself, whether you’re a priest or not.   God can kill you if He likes regardless of inoculations.   But whether or not that’s Camus’ take on the priest, I don’t know.

Now, there are those who take the plague as the Nazis and it certainly can be read that way.   Other people took exception because the Nazis were not a nameless, faceless, unstoppable evil like disease, they all had names and faces, but collectively they are very much like a plague.  In fact, if we someday discover that there’s a germ that makes people evil for a while, I wouldn’t be surprised.   But I think that it’s more that Camus didn’t want to write about the nature of evil and why some people become Nazis and why others don’t.   That’s why he made the evil a plague:  because he wanted to write about the response to Evil, not the nature and causes of it.   And I think he was very successful in this:  I find the Plague a lot more sympathetic as a book, than I remember the Stranger being.   There’s still a lot of alienation.  Separation is a major theme.  But there’s also a bit of camaraderie, a bit of friendship.  There’s not a lot of time for it, but it has its moment.

One of the people Rieux and Tarrou befriend is Grand, an office worker who every night works on his secret project.  He’s been doing this for years.   It emerges that Grand is trying to write a book so great all the publishers will cry “Hats off!’ from the first sentence.   Which is as far as he’s gotten.  Is this comic relief?  It is somewhat funny.   Is it a comment on writing?  On some particular writer or group of writers he’s poking fun at?  Is this how he feels about his own work?   I don’t know and I’m not sure there’s any clue to indicate if it’s one of these, some of these, or something else entirely.  It does give Grand his entire character.   And this I think is a serious weakness in Camus’ writing.   No one’s multi-layered.  Grand is probably the most as he at one point has a breakdown, but gets over it and soldiers on.  Rambert is also a bit more interesting with his initial focus on escape and then a complete change.  But really, none of these people are distinguishable beyond their one characteristic.   Even Rambert changes one characteristic for another.

Except I was forgetting Cottard.   Cottard is definitely more of a character.   The opposite of everyone else, he’s suicidal in the beginning, but then cheers up considerably during the plague.   Apparently because he’s always felt under sentence and now everyone else is in the same boat.   Really pretty reprehensible, but I didn’t find myself condemning Cottard.   Maybe because I didn’t take him seriously?    And what’s up with the guy with the dried peas?  There’s the rub.  I just don’t get Camus.   Again are we looking at comic relief?  The absurdity of man?  Of Man’s situation in the universe?   Life is quite absurd, and that’s the final word?   But surely if that’s all there is what are men like Rieux doing there?    I don’t think Camus equates them, I think Rieux is held up as how we should be.   Tarrou is admirable, Cottard is not.   Life is like that.  Sometimes there are plagues and you fight the plague.  You should fight the plague, even when it seems hopeless and pointless and useless.   And that seems the furthest thing from absurdity I can think of.