The Corsican Brothers

The Corsican Brothers, by Alexander Dumas, is a relatively short story for Dumas, but this does not detract from the quality of the story. This latest edition is published by the excellent Hesperus Press, and it has to be said that it is a fine presentation.

The story is told through the eyes of Dumas, as he travels to Corsica and enjoys the hospitality of a high-standing local family. There he learns that the heir of the house has a twin living in Paris, and that there exists a spiritual bond between the two brothers to such a degree that one will feel the others pain. Lucien, the brother in Corsica, has been bothered by a nagging feeling about his brother Louis, and writes a letter for Dumas to give to him upon his return to Paris. Before he departs however, Lucien shares with Dumas a family tradition that later comes into play.

Upon his return to Paris, Louis is sought out and given the letter. The two twins are chalk and cheese to some regards, Lucien a true Corsican, highly skilled with weapons and accepting to continue 400 year old vendettas where families attempt to kill off every living relative of the other. Louis is the refined educated brother, never even having fired a weapon. All is going well, until Louis is challenged to a duel by a nobleman, and he asks Dumas to be one of his seconds. The morning of the duel, Louis is calm but certain that he is to die, having been visited by his father in the night. He gives Dumas a letter to send to his brother and mother, in which he says he died of brain fever, to prevent his brother's Corsican lust for a vendetta to occur. He dies as he predicts, and the letter is duly sent. A short time after, around when the letter was due to be received by the family, Lucien appears at Dumas' residence. He felt the shot that killed his brother, and apparently Louis repented his desire for no vendetta as he appeared to Lucien and told what had occurred. Lucien then sends for his brother's vanquisher, determined and confident that he will win, due to another vision that he has had. The story then concludes at the end of the duel.

As with all Dumas stories, The Corsican Brothers is masterfully told, with great imagery and characters throughout. Although little over 100 pages, it fits in an energetic tale that starts off in the forested slopes of Corsica, and then suddenly jumps into elegant streets of Paris. It is a tale of revenge and of the sanctity of tradition. It is telling when a third of the way into the book, Lucien remarks that "Men can patch up their differences and make peace, they can take communion from the same blessed host, but dogs will never eat from the same bowl" as by the end of the tale, he is transformed into one of those dogs, out for nothing more than to avenge the death of his brother in the only way he knows how: as a Corsican.

The Pessimist's Guide to History

The Pessimist's Guide to History (third edition, 2008), by Doris Flexner and Stuart Berg Flexner, seeks to catalogue the worst disasters from history, and in the main it achieves this goal. The reader can learn about countless incidents that have occurred which really do add to the adage that "life isn't fair", as well as gather some ideas about places more susceptible to disasters than others. In Europe, Italy seems most affected by earthquakes and volcanoes, with Turkey also falling prey to the earthquake menace. Elsewhere around the world, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India are subject to major earthquakes, as is China (also the scene of calamatious flooding and ensuing famines), Bangladesh has been home to many of the worst cyclones, and Peru is another place to avoid if you don't like earthquakes.

Despite achieving its aims of cataloguing disasters, there are two things that stand out negatively for this book. The first is the silly comments that follow many of the descriptions of a disaster, which do little to add anything of interest to preceding text. For example, for an entry regarding the eruption of Taal in the Philippines in 1591, we are met with "Mother Nature burps again". A second example relates to the 1864 Calcutta Cyclone - "Another washout in India". These comments are unfortunate, as they are ultimately pointless and distract from, and sometimes cheapen, the tale they relate to.

The second negative mark against The Pessimist's... is the poor job at proof-reading that would seem to have occurred. Given that the book is in its third updated edition, this really is inexcusable. Several noticeable examples include "An A-4E Skyraider fighter plane preparing for lunch", "the fire probably burned from within their suits as well as without", "one of the worst disasters of modem times", "plans were made to demolish the bridge and replace it by a four-story structure" and "Almost all victims who remained inside where consumed in the flames of asphyxiated by the smoke".

If these marks against do not grate too much, this is a very interesting book to read, easy to pick up and browse through for ten minutes or equally to sit down and plough through for an hour. Hopefully, the fourth edition, when updated and published, will at least correct the grammatical and spelling errors. In summary: Worth a read, but don't expect a masterpiece.

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