Monday, February 27, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (28 February)

The last teaser of February? Time flies!

"Anthropologically speaking it was only yesterday that men ceased to club and ravish on the spot any female that attracted their passing whim."
"Yes, I suppose, Doctor", I said, "Life must have been one merry chase in those relaxed and informal old times. 'Nice day, madam. I love you madly. CONK! Oops-a-daisy, my little penguin.'"

p. 337, Anatomy of a Murder. Robert Traver

"No!" was the word that awakened us, "No!" being shouted in a man's loud voice from every house on the block. It can't be. No.

p. 16, The Plot Against America; Philip Roth

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Sharpe's Regiment

Sharpe's Regiment
©  1986 Bernard Cornwell
416 pages

The year is 1813, and the Allied army stands upon the Pyrenees awaiting the invasion of France and victory. Napoleon's empire is shrinking: he once stood as master of Europe, but Wellington's army and shrew diplomacy have stripped the Iberian peninsula from his influence, and the eastern members of the allied Coalition are increasingly restive. Now even Austria seems ready to enter the war against Napoleon.  For Richard Sharpe, this should be a proud, happy moment. Wherever Wellington has triumphed in this campaign, Sharpe and his chosen men have been nearby -- in the thick of the fight, perhaps, storming a fortress, or perhaps engaged in a bit of quiet skulduggery.  These triumphs have come at a price, the ever-increasing butcher's bill of casualties. The South Essex has suffered dearly, and needs reinforcements -- reinforcements that are long overdue. Sharpe, temporarily commanding the regiment while awaiting a new superior officer to be appointed, is dismayed to learn that the brass is considering breaking up his regiment, dividing his men up to strengthen other units. To Sharpe, this is a tragedy and an outrage. His men, who fought together throughout Portugal and Spain, who have seen their colors flying through the worst battles of the war, deserve to invade France at one another's side.  Taking advantage of a temporary armistice, Sharpe and Harper decide to undertake a mission in Britain -- to find their lost reinforcements and save their regiment. They find that the unit is imperiled not by administrative bungling, but subtle malice: the South Essex is the victim of a racket, its soldiers being sold to other regiments -- and like any racket, danger awaits those who seek to expose it.

I appreciate Sharpe's series most for its variety; though military action predominates, Cornwell often treats readers to smaller-scale action -- sending Sharpe on little missions into cities, in the interests of diplomacy or espionage. Regiment is in this vein, although Sharpe isn't sneaking through a foreign city but his homeland, and those interested in killing him wear his own uniform. It reminds me in part of Gallows Thief, as Sharpe is stealing through the land attempting to solve a mystery: where are his reinforcements? They exist on paper; they draw rations, but they seem to be nowhere at all. Sharpe and his faithful sergeant (now a Regimental Sergeant Major) decide to track the path of new recruits by following it: by assuming false names and joining up.  Thus we get  to experience through Sharpe the mustering-in process for young soldiers, something we missed earlier given that the series starts with Sharpe as a veteran soldier (both in Sharpe's Tiger and in Sharpe's Eagle).

As ever, humor and plot twists abound, and a romantic thread from the past is finally plucked up and will become part of future stories...though sadly, there aren't too many more left. From the Pyrenees,Waterloo isn't far distance. Between there and here, though, adventures await!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Age of Louis XIV

The Age of Louis XIV
© 1963 Will and Ariel Durant
816 pages

To read Will Durant is to feast from the smorgasbord of human history. Before the reader lies the full scope of human concern, frailty, and accomplishment, like so many varied dishes. The chef is a master: Durant's supple use of the English language seasons even the most mundane of subjects to the point that they sound exotic and entertaining. After positively binging myself by reading The Age of Faith, The Renaissance, The Reformation,  and The Age of Reason Begins during the summer and fall,  I was absolutely stuffed with the heritage of the west. Now after a wintry break, I'm looking forward to digging in again...and did so with The Age of Louis XIV, a tome covering the bloody retreat of religion and the rise of some of Europe's most famous or infamous leaders -- the Sun King in France, Peter the Great in Russia, and Cromwell in England.

Durant opens on France and England, as France emerges as Europe's cultural leader. The bloody religious wars are not over: religion is still quite relevant to the European mind, but happily its desperately violent attempts to hold on to power continue to ruin its credibility among the peoples of the continent. As the power of the church declines, those of the state rise, and no autocrat epitomizes this more than the Sun King, who built Versailles as a monument to the State and himself, and whose example was an inspiration to every other king in the continent. The growing strength of mechanized industry and commerce allow for the consolidation of power: the king's traditional enemy is not his people, but the rest of the aristocracy, and these men who base their strength on agricultural potency are being out-spent by the growing middle class, who for the moment see the king as their route to power. England proves an exception, beheading one king and attempting to institute a commonwealth...only to find itself enduring the regime of a miserable Puritan dictator, then returning to monarchy -- but this time, of a decidedly limited sort. In this work, the English king is losing influence -- and the House of Commons is gaining it. Soon, I suspect, I will be reading not of the Hanoverians but of prime ministers, of Tories and Whigs.

Although religious persecution is alive and well, religious thought is increasingly impotent. Durant is an author generally kind to religion in general, seeing it as an essential part of the fabric that holds societies together, but here the philosophy of the hour is concerned not with theology, but of humanity. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke's works receive the attention formerly given to religious treatises, and Isaac Newton merits his own chapter. Durant curiously underplays Newton, whose work constituted a veritable revolution in the mental landscape,  introducing the idea that the universe is a rational place knit together by laws which can be understood. This is his legacy, not the beliefs of the man himself -- Newton wrote extensively on theology and even dabbled in quackery like alchemy.  For scientifically-minded readers, Louis XIV is a welcome relief from the constant religious debate of previous books.  Like the rest of this series, the book is a comprehensive history which covers not only politics, science, and philosophy, but literature, the arts, and trade as well. Economics doesn't seem to be very well represented here, but Durant may be saving full elaboration  on early industrial economies until the arrival of Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations.

The Enlightenment is on its way, and I for one am looking forward to what lies ahead. As Alexander Pope wrote in his An Essay on Man -- "Go, wondrous creature; mount where science guides!"

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

This Week at the Library (22 February)

Pending Reviews: The Age of Louis XIV, Will Durant; Sharpe's Regiment, Bernard Cornwell; If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley. The latter is badly overdue, but I've been waiting until the publishment date drew closer. I also didn't want to post it so soon following after Bill Bryson's At Home.
Currently Reading: At the moment I'm nibbling on a variety of books but I haven't gotten into any of them. I'm re-reading John Grisham's A Time to Kill: I probably haven't read it in ten years. I had high hopes for Steam, but it focuses exclusively on the race to build the first functioning steamboat and is not a history of steamboat traffic in general, and it does not touch on railroads.
Potentials:  I have a stack of potentials: The Age of Voltaire, Will and Ariel Durant; The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Sharpe's Siege, Bernard Cornwell;  Energy Victory by Robert Zubrin; and The Twentieth Century by Howard Zinn, which I've owned for two years now but which has just inexplicably caught my interest. (It's one of my reserve books, unread titles which I like to have in case I go into a dry spell at the library.)


‎"I need these men, otherwise a Regiment dies. I have to do something," he paused, looking for the right word, "dramatic." 
"He means foolish, Miss," Harper said helpfully.

Sharpe's Regiment, p. 252. Bernard Cornwell.

‎"'The application of science to nature', said Fontenelle in 1702, 'will constantly grow in scope and intensity, and we shall go on from one marvel to another. The day will come when man will be able to fly by fitting on wings to keep him in the air; the art will increase, ....till one day we shall be able to fly to the moon."

From "The Scientific Quest", The Age of Louis XIV, Will Durant.

‎"History is a fragment of biology -- the human moment in the pageant of species. It is also a child of geography -- the operation of land and sea and air, and of their forms and products, upon human desire and destiny."

Durant, "The Struggle for the Baltic".

‎"Like the French dramatists, Milton indulges a passion for oratory; everyone from God to Eve makes speeches, and Satan finds hellfire no impediment to rhetoric. It is disturbing to learn that even in hell we shall have to listen to lectures."

Durant, commenting on Milton's 'Paradise Lost'.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Lucifer's Hammer

Lucifer's Hammer
© 1977 Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
629 pages

The chances that Lucifer's Hammer would hit Earth head-on were one in a million.
Then one in a thousand.
Then one in a hundred.
And then...

The eeriest part of the story of the dinosaurs is its sudden, abrupt, and once-mysterious ending. After nearly 200 million years of domination, the dinosaurs vanished in a startlingly moment.  Although the source of this mass extinction was debated hotly for years, today a general consensus of scientists believes asteroid impact to have been the culprit. The force of the impact shockwave would have been disastrous by itself, vaporizing everything in a wide radius...but the widespread ecological disruption and climate change which followed doomed the survivors, especially those who were adapted for certain ecological niches. Imagine, then, the fate of hyperspecialized humans following a similar impact. What becomes of us, a species most of whose members are far removed from the production of food, who are utterly dependent on an evermore fragile castle of cards called civilization, when that structure collapses?   Such is the setup of the terrifying disaster thriller Lucifer's Hammer, easily the best of its genre I have ever read...or can imagine.

The year is 1977, and the Cold War is about to end...for the participants are doomed. The discovery of a new comet delights the astronomical community and general public, especially seeing as it will pass near enough to the Earth to provide a fantastic light show but not too close as to pose a threat. But no one's data is perfect, and the comet -- dubbed The Hammer of Lucifer -- does fall. Multiple impact points vaporize land and ocean alike, and the force of the hit triggers massive earthquakes and global volcanic activity. Tsunamis and torrential rains follow, and the astronauts orbiting Earth can only watch in horror as chaos engulfs the globe, civilization goes dark, and the Earth itself becomes clouded over -- no longer a 'pale blue dot', the planet is swathed in stormclouds which will deliver a harvest-killing rain of destruction.

On the ground, beneath those clouds,  there are survivors. Those who live through Hammerfall race toward the high ground like rats fleeing a sinking ship. Once they were civilized, and their shoulders bore a thousand petty burdens -- what to wear, which car to purchase next?  -- but now they were reduced to scrounging for food and shelter. Rich and poor, powerful and weak, black and white -- no one is spared from the basic struggle of survival.  As the weeks pass and the immediate damages are over, the scattered survivors form groups and learn that their greatest enemy may be one another, for the disaster's fallout has allowed some of the most base and savage instincts of humanity to express themselves in full. Although readers get hints of what is happening around the world, most of the action is confined to the San Joaquin Valley of California. As in Stephen King's The Stand, the survivors coalesce into two groups, and their interests collide in the fate of a nuclear power plant which somehow survived the catastrophe and may represent humanity's best hope for recovery.

Virtually every natural disaster known to us is unleashed by the Hammer, but I was less interested in the race for immediate survival during the fall itself than by the aftermath. How do people survive the coming winter, let alone the coming ice age? Lucifer's Hammer abounds in characters, and  watching them struggle to regain civilization -- and collapse into depravity -- is utterly gripping. People are forced to assume leadership, to find a place for themselves in this newly devastated world. Death is all around them, and their futures are utterly uncertain. It's an ideal foundation for a novel in which human beings struggle against the elements and the worst of themselves, seeking to overcome it all.

This is one SF thriller I highly recommend; this makes the Mayan doomsday hype look pale by comparison.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Asphalt Nation

Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back
© 1997 Jane Holtz Kay
418 pages

Lord, Mister Ford, I just wish you could see what your simple horseless carriage has become!
It seems your contribution to man has to say the least gotten a little out of hand --
Well, lord, Mister Ford, what have you done?
("Lord, Mister Ford", Jerry Reed)

The United States is in ways a nation without a history. Relatively young, it came of age in the early industrial period, where access to profoundly powerful technologies shaped its growth in a way not seen in Europe or Asia, where new influences worked against what was already there. This is most obviously seen in a comparison of dense, almost compact European cities, and their American counterparts, which sprawl out for mile after dreary mile and -- with some exceptions for cities which date to the 18th century --  often lack a distinctive center. This radically different urban landscape is the mark of the automobile: while Europe's cities were built for people, America's cities and now its sprawl are made for cars. Americans embraced the automobile like no other nation, and now after a century of giving it dominion, are slowly waking up to the price. No green and pleasant land, we are a nation covered in asphalt and mired in traffic. In Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Kay examines the consequences of the United States' self-made dependency on the car,  explains how it came to be that way, and offers ways for recovering a sensible approach to urbanism.

Although some of the costs of the automobile are obvious -- pollution; the economic drain of cars on private households to pay for insurance, maintenance, and gas;  and thousands of lives each year -- the greatest harm is more subtle, in deforming the urban landscape. The automobile's effect on American urbanism has been marked by purposeful decentralization and the rise of sprawl, a disaster for the nation. Not only does sprawl create manifestly hideous cityscapes, but it drives cities into bankruptcy as they attempt to cover greater areas with less efficiency. Public transportation becomes especially inefficient. As jobs move away from city centers, those who can't afford transportation to get there are stuck living in areas with few opportunities for work, leading to inner city decay. Once vibrant city centers become home to nothing but poverty and despair.

It didn't have to be this way. After cataloguing the damage, Hay launches into a history of American car use and the rise of a "car-ridden" society.  Although the automobile matched the United States' strong individualistic tendencies nicely, the success of the automobile is far from a triumph of the free market.Cars and the roads they require have always been heavily subsidized by the government: in the 1930s, building the infrastructure for automobile transportation was seen as a way to put people to work. The car companies themselves were proactive about ensuring their dominance, as General Motors eagerly bought up trolley lines and promptly closed them down, allowing its line of buses to flourish. Holtz's history section  can be depressing, as it catalogs the slow decline of American urbanism and the rise of congestion, but it must be read. Every chapter is a lesson in where we went wrong, one that might allow us to find our way back. Interestingly, the rise of the automobile fits into the pattern Neil Postman identified regarding technology;  at first, it was merely a tool to be used, then one with a central role in our lives...and now, for Americans, one our society has become fundamentally dependent on.

The final chapters devote themselves on recovery. Reining in the automobile will be a difficult task, and may prove to be a long term challenge for the 21st century, just as establishing the car's preeminence marked the 20th. First, we stop the ever-increasing expansion of roads, reexamine zoning policies that encourage sprawl and the destruction of our cities; begin restoring transit like trolleys and trains; begin rolling sprawl back and restoring our urban centers; and finally, begin "depaving America",  beginning with the elevated highways that cut cities apart.  The car should also be put in its proper place by no longer being so heavily supported by the official policies of the government.

There's never been a timelier moment for this book, except for perhaps in the 1970s when the oil crisis offered Americans a chance to reconsider their relationship with the automobile. Today the United States is facing a prolonged recession and a difficult century ahead. The infrastructure required for our asphalt nation is an enormous economic liability, one we would do well to shed ourselves of. Ending sprawl and restoring life to the cities will allow government to function efficiently and restore that sense of community that Robert Putnam mentioned in his Bowling Alone. Asphalt Nation is thorough, its author never shrill. I not only recommend it: I think it a must-read.


Teaser Tuesday (14 Valentine)

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly event in which participants share a tidbit from their current reads; play along at Should Be Reading.

It did something to the watchers. The power of the thundering rocket, the knowledge that had gone into it; to the older watchers it was something impossible, a comic-book incident from their childhood. To the younger ones it was inevitable and to be expected, and they couldn't understand why the older people were so excited. Space ships were real and of course they worked....

p. 131, Lucifer's Hammer. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Ingredients

The Ingredients: A Guided Tour of the Elements
© Phillip Ball 2002
216 pages

There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium,
And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium [...]
(Tom Lehrer, "The Elements").

Chemistry is not an arcane subject solely practiced in a lab with flasks of mysterious looking fluids. It is nothing less than the study of what everything is made of, and how the elements work together. In The Ingredients, Nature editor Phillip Ball introduces readers to the human story of chemistry -- its history, importance, and some fundamental concepts.

The title is partially misleading;  Ball's work isn't a comprehensive catalogue of the elements, but an introduction to appreciating the field. He begins with the Greeks,, then uses the discovery of oxygen to cover the birth of modern chemistry. A following chapter on gold illustrates the fact that attempts at chemistry have been  pervasive throughout human history. Subsequent chapters introduce the periodic table, and thus our modern understanding of chemistry, and establishes its basis in physics by examining the basic parts and how they came to be discovered. "The Chemical Brothers" covers isotopes -- different 'flavors' of particular elements, like Carbon-14 and Uranium-236 -- which have practical uses, from dating to nuclear energy.  The final section ("For All Practical Purposes") examines the role of various sundry elements, many of which are not commonly known by the public, as parts of products we use every day.  Ball accomplishes the same thing here that Spangenburg and Moser did in their "On the Shoulders of Giants" series: he imparts to the reader an understanding of the fundamentals of chemistry and the personalities that shaped it, while never coming off like a lecturer.  The result is a breezily fun but thorough grounding in the subject, and one worth your while in the interests of general scientific literacy.

[...] these are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard,
And there may be many others, but they haven't been discovered!
(Tom Lehrer, "The Elements")

Friday, February 10, 2012

Desert Solitaire

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
© 1968 Edward Abbey
269 pages

Journey to the expansive southwestern American desert and take it in -- the vast stretches of open ground, bounded by mountains and broken by marvelously intriguing rock formations that catch the imagination. Tarry there with Edward Abbey,  seeking shelter from the blazing sun under his homemade ramada, and listen to him talk a while about the fragile beauty of these lands, the importance of preserving them, and of human life in general. Such is the promise of Desert Solitaire, an immensely satisfying collection of meditations on the wilderness.

I was introduced to Edward Abbey a few weeks ago via a comment on a blog; the author's listed quotations seemed compelling, and so I decided to sample his works at my local library. It carries only one of Abbey's works, his first nonfiction piece. He spent two years working as a park ranger in the Arches National Park, and offers Desert Solitaire as a memorial of that time spent. He writes not only about the beauties of the park itself, but shares a collection of meditative essays.  Abbey describes himself as an 'earthist';  he finds profound meaning in nature,  and the wilderness a sanctuary from the noisy busy-ness of of modernity -- soulless jobs, endless petty responsibilities, an ugly and neverending cycle of meaningless tasks. Wilderness' place as a refuge from this is one of the reasons he champions its preservation; not only from development, but from attempts to commodify the experience through "industrial tourism", a destructive approach that turns nature from an experience that must be earned into an attraction that is merely seen..and then passed on.  Although a work of prose, Abbey's writing often waxes poetic. The chapter "Water", in which he describes the life of a summer storm in the desert, is worth reading itself alone.

The clouds multiply and merge, cumuli-nimbi piling up like whipped cream, like mashed potatoes, like sea foam, building upon one another into a second mountain range greater in magnitude than the terrestial range below.
The massive forms jostle and grate, ions collide, and the sound of thunder is heard over the sun-drenched land. More clouds emerge from the empty sky, anvil-headed giants with glints of lightening in their depths. An armada assembles and advances, floating on a plane of air that makes it appear, from below, as a fleet of ships must look to the fish in the sea.

Abbey passion and style enraptured me. It reminds me of nothing so much as Henry David Thoreau's Walden; only instead of living deliberately in a lush forest beside Walden Pond, Abbey spends his in the wild, untamed west, spending his nights under the stars and writing of vast canyons and cowboys. The authors share a common spirit; both are ill at ease and disgusted with society's mindless norms and find respite from the intrusiveness in the wild.  As with Walden, I found Desert Solitaire inspiring and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Famous at Last

Today a patron at the library told me that I was famous -- and so I walked downstairs to find myself on the corner of the front page of the Selma Times-Journal.  I don't think I've ever posted my picture here (those that are curious can look me up on Google+, so I'm not hiding), but this was a fun discovery.

Teaser Tuesday (7 February)

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly event in which people share tidbits from their current reads, hosted by Should Be Reading.

Down at the beginning of the new road, at park headquarters, is the new entrance station and visitor center, where admission fees are collected and where the rangers are going quietly nuts answering the same three basic questions five hundred times a day: (1) Where's the john? (2) How long's it take to see this place? (3) Where's the Coke machine?  Progress has come at last to the Arches, after a million years of regret. Industrial Tourism has arrived.

p. 45, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, Edward Abbey

Monday, February 6, 2012

Outbound Flight

Star Wars: Outbound Flight
© 2006 Timothy Zahn
464 pages

Five years after his ascendacy to leadership of the Republic, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine endorsed an extraordinary project: the launching of a flotilla of ships into the far expanses of space, on a journey to explore a distant galaxy. Headed by a tempermental Jedi, the bold project promised to invigorate the spirit of the galactic body-politic in an era of increasing corruption and declining faith in the government...but faith had something else in mind for this Outbound Flight.

Though Obi-Wan Kenobi and his adolescent apprentice Anakin Skywalker play minor parts in this story of political mystery and thrilling action at the galaxy's edge, the lead characters are a handful of smugglers whose malfunctioning hyperdrive delivers them into the hands of a mysterious commander from the "Chiss Ascendancy". The urbane military genius has a passion for understanding the personalities and nations he is put into contact with, and a gift for winnowing out the details from subtle clues. Those wits come into demand when a skulking agent of Lord Sideous causes his path to collide violently with those of Outbound Flight's. The story serves as an ominous prelude to the Yuuzhan Vong arc, as well as giving a full and proper introduction to one of Timothy Zahn's most admired characters -- Thrawn.

Thrawn never fails to delight when he appears. The character himself is utterly fascinating -- a "good" villain who is often more likable than than the heroes of the book who he opposes. Outbound Flight is the kind of a mystery-action thriller that Thrawn thrives in, impressing readers with his cunning, audacity, and ability to work steps ahead of his foes. He's as though he's a chess master playing in deep space: here, he goes against alien fleets, a covert agent, and his own people in attempting to strike the best effective blow for the Chiss. Although I've read previous mentions of the Outbound Flight 'disaster' and assumed the project wouldn't end well,  Zahn kept me on my toes; the role played by Sideous is especially interesting; the character is so duplicitous, manipulating even his closest allies, that his ultimate motives remain in the shadows.

As usual for Zahn, this is a fantastic thriller, and an especially exciting one for fans of Thrawn.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Journey to the Center of the Earth

A Journey to the Center of the Earth
© 1864 Jules Verne
291 pages

"Is the Master out of his mind?" she asked me.
I nodded.
"And he's taking you with him?"
I nodded again.
"Where?" she asked.
I pointed towards the center of the Earth.
"Into the cellar?" exclaimed the old servant.
"No," I said. "Further down than that."
p. 47
A forgotten piece of parchment in an ancient book leads an eccentric professor and his longsuffering and ever-perplexed nephew on a journey across the wastes of Iceland and into the bowels of a volcano, where they attempt to find a path to the very center of the Earth.  Young Axel really had no stomach for the adventure of a lifetime his uncle (Professor Otto von Lidenbrock) set them on; he would have much rather stayed home and wooed fair Grauben, whom he expected to marry. As incautious as Axel was, he couldnt't escape his uncle's passion: the man's zeal spurs them ever deeper into the earth where they discover an extraordinary underground sea populated by creatures which have been extinct on the surface for millions of years.

I have dim memories of reading this as a child, and most of them involve the 'lost world' that the Lidenbrocks stumble upon, wonderfully illustrated in the children's version I owned. Having been spoiled on the climax, I paid more attention to the journey. Verne published this in 1864, when geology was in its infancy. Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, which introduced the 19th century to the idea that the Earth is far older than most humans suspected, was only thirty years old at this point -- and the modern understanding of plate tectonics was a century away! As Axel and his uncle creep through the Earth's interior,  Axel's fear and trepediation are often erased by the wonder of what he's seeing buried in the rocks; eons pass with every footfall.  Although the book is badly dated by this point -- Lidenbrock's understanding of the natural world seems to have one foot in mythology, and the theory of 'central heat' which he takes pleasure in refuting  is no longer uncertain --  for Verne's original readers, this book would have an eye-opening voyage into natural history, and an introduction to the study of the Earth. The wonders of the  subterranean world are just icing on the cake.

While I'd expected an intriguing lecture-adventure (and wasn't disappointed), the characterazation of Axel and the professor took me by surprise. I don't recall finding either so entertaining in my youth: Axel in particular has  a tendency to be over dramatic when describing what will happen to them, going on for whole paragraphs in descriptive, scientifically-specific prose. He's a 19th-century C-3PO.

A Journey to the Center of the Earth doesn't rival Around the World in 80 Days or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for entertainment value, but it's still a fairly enjoyable look at what geology was like in its early days.