Friday, November 13, 2015

*Blake, or the Huts of America, by Martin R. Delany

Beacon Press, 1971
originally published in serialized form 1861-1862
321 pp


"Stand still and see the salvation." 

Chances are highly likely that on considering African-American anti-slavery novels from the antebellum period, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, of 1852 would be the first one to pop into someone's head.  I almost decided to reread Uncle Tom's Cabin or one I haven't yet read -- her Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (which I'm still  planning to read sometime down the road) for this project --  but the more I researched, the more Delany's Blake or The Huts of America appealed, and despite some flaws in the actual writing, I was absolutely floored by this book. No Uncle Tom philosophy here -- this book is radical and deserves a much wider readership.

But why this book?  First of all, it's not hugely popular -- it seems that with a couple of exceptions, my little survey of  American literature has led me down my usual path of books that not a whole lot of people have read (which is okay by me, Joe)  and Delany's novel sort of  keeps that momentum going.  The second reason I decided on this rather obscure title is that while researching which book to read, I came across an article by Theodore Draper (March 12, 1970) about Delany called "The Father of American Black Nationalism"   in the New York Review of Books. I was wowed -- I had no idea Delany (1812 - 1885) even existed. Let's just say that in all of my American history classes (and I majored in the field of history 3 times so I have done a LOT of reading), the name of Martin Delany never once appeared. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the man was actually a sort of predecessor to Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X.   Furthermore, as I continued my search to find more about this man, I again turned to  the New York Review of Books  issue of May 21, 1970, where I discovered letters in response to Draper's article. [ Just as an aside, apologies if you can't get to the NYRB through my links -- I have a subscription that allows access to archives.]  One of the letters is from Floyd J. Miller, who wrote the introduction to my edition of  Delany's novel -- and this is the part that sold me:
"To an extent greater than perhaps any significant black leader, Delany combined a wide variety of responses to the racism of the white majority. Thus, he serves as a “father” of several black nationalisms—not merely emigrationism. In his novel, Blake, for example, he conceived of unified slave rebellions and spoke as a revolutionary nationalist. "
then later,
"Delany’s realization of the intensity and persistence of white racism and his call for racial unity are as relevant today as they were during his own time. This, then, was his legacy to such men as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X."
That part cinched the deal -- I bought this book immediately after reading those articles -- I absolutely had to know more about this rather obscure figure who was actually quite important to African-American history but who seems to have been forgotten in the American mainstream.

Just a wee bit about plot here -- not much, just enough perhaps to whet someone's appetite enough to make them want to explore either Blake or Delany himself.   The main character of the novel is Henry Holland, a slave in Louisiana.  His real name is Henrico Blacus, and he was "decoyed" into slavery while he was serving on a ship in the West Indies.  Henry, who was very well educated before he was sold into slavery and ended up at the plantation of Colonel Franks, is married to Maggie, a slave who was a product of the union of Franks and another slave serving at his home.   Franks sells Maggie who, with her new mistress, ends up in Cuba, and Henry vows that he will do what it takes to find her.  But before that can happen, Henry decides to escape Franks and sojourn through the American South and hold "seclusions," secret meetings with plantation slaves, to convince them to participate in a "unified rebellion" against their masters.  Part Two finds Henry in Cuba, where he continues to stir seeds of rebellion against Americans and Cubans who wanted the US to annex Cuba, among other things.

Floyd J. Miller in the intro (1971)  notes that Blake is in part a "socio-historical account of Southern slavery and Cuban society in the 1850s," but even moreso, it
" the vehicle for the expression of a a racial philosophy as radical today as it was when originally conceived. Central to the novel is a racial consciousness which is expressed in a variety of ways."
So while the book may not be the best ever written, and while it may be perceived as being didactic in nature,  there is so much going on in here that any serious student or reader of African-American history or literature should definitely not miss it.  I plan to spend some time in further research of Delany; luckily there are a few academic treatments of this man and his work out there to afford a starting place. If you're at all interested, here's one from African Diaspora Archaeology Newletter 10:1, 2007 by Traore Mussa, which is quite good.

I will just add that sometimes there is great merit in stepping off of the beaten path in terms of reading ... and this book is just one incredible find I've made as I've been going through American literature so far this year.  Definitely recommended.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Hunters in the Dark, by Lawrence Osborne

Hogarth, 2015
339 pp

hardcover (UK)

"Karma swirled around all things, lending them destinies over which mere desire had no control. It made one's little calculations irrelevant." 

I was recently given a copy of the American release of this book by the publisher, and after picking it up and starting to read, it dawned on me that oopsie, I had already bought a copy from the UK.  

So here's the info on the American release of this novel, which is actually quite good, very well written, and one I'm highly recommending:

Hogarth, 2016 (January)

I have to laugh at the difference in blurbs for this novel between the American release and the British release.  The UK blurb calls it a "taut tale reminiscent of the nightmares of Patricia Highsmith..." and the US blurb says that book is "Filled with Hitchcockian twists and turns."  Neither blurb is quite accurate, and I had originally thought that Hunters in the Dark was a crime novel but that isn't exactly correct either.  In fact, it's rather a difficult book to pigeonhole, but as it turns out, it is one I happened to like very much.  

The main character in this novel is Robert Grieve, a young (not quite 30) British schoolteacher from a small village who realizes that his life is pretty much a dead end.  In a bit of despair he travels to Thailand, wondering if he'll actually ever go back.  While he has some sporadic contact with his parents (in whose eyes he doesn't measure up), he is contented with being alone, drifting along with the flow.  The opening of this book finds him in a casino in Cambodia, where he parlays his leftover savings into a couple of thousand in winnings.  Winning such a large amount of cash is just the first, but very important link in a chain of complex events that befall him and others on his periphery, beginning with an introduction to American expat Simon Beaucamp.  Robert's driver Ouksa warns him against Simon, saying that he has a bad feeling about the guy, but Robert fails to heed his advice and winds up in a bit of trouble. I won't go any further than that re his time with the American, because it is the beginning of everything that's going to happen next and some things are just better left unsaid.  Eventually though, Robert ends up in the capital of Phnom Penh, where he decides he should give English lessons to make money, and meets the beautiful Sophal, whose wealthy, upper-class father hires him to be her tutor. A stroke of fate (or perhaps more appropriately given the theme of this  novel, karma) puts Robert in the path of a policeman named Davuth, who was an executioner and a torturer during Pol Pot's horrific regime, and who now seems to have some urgent business involving Robert, who fails to heed yet another warning (this from Sophal) because he's so "beautifully ignorant."

Karma, fate, and luck/chance are the foundation of this novel, and being in Cambodia thrusts young, unbelieving, logical-thinking Robert into a world where ghosts, spirits, omens and signs are as much part of the landscape as are the ruins at Angkor Wat. To further underscore that point, the author occasionally brings into our view things like bats taking off into the air as one huge colony, prayer flags moving in the wind, fear in a roll of thunder and trees that house spirits.  And Although Pol Pot's genocidal regime had ended nearly thirty-five years earlier, the Cambodian setting allows the author to examine how this particular past still hasn't been forgotten in this country -- it continues to have an effect on people like Davuth, for example, who has been troubled by ghosts ever since he was a kamabhipal under Pol Pot. But most importantly, it is a place where people believe that
 "karma swirled around all things, lending them destinies over which mere desire had no control. It made one's little calculations irrelevant."  
This one statement says so very much about what is happening in this book, but I will leave it to others to discover exactly how. I could so easily go on and talk about other things, for example, the "devastating spectacle" of the dominance of "Western ideas and moods" in Cambodia and the horrific impact they had on Cambodia's future, but I really think I've said enough at this juncture. 

 Getting into the story does take some time, but my advice is to relax. There is a great payoff awaiting patient readers -- not so much in terms of plot, but moreso it's all about what's happening  around the action in this novel.  I suppose you could read it just for plot but that would be such a waste -- this is an incredibly beautiful, haunting book, and now I am eager to hunt down others by this author.  My advice -- as soon as it comes out in the US in January, get yourself a copy.  It will be one of the best buys you've ever made.  

November: back from vacation, and it's catch-up time. Let's start with Landfalls, by Naomi J. Williams

I was already way behind on my American novel reading project before October came along and brought creepy reads into my purview, then, of course there was our 2-week vacation where internet minutes were ridiculously expensive, so the long and short of things is that I'm still way behind.

But my reader hat never came off except for snorkeling interruptions, and I managed to squeeze in one novel that was neither crime nor strange fiction -- Landfalls, by Naomi J. Williams.

Here's part of the blurb:
"In her wildly inventive debut novel, Naomi J. Williams reimagines the historical Lapérouse expedition, a voyage of exploration that left Brest in 1785 with two frigates, more than two hundred men, and overblown Enlightenment ideals and expectations, in a brave attempt to circumnavigate the globe for science and the glory of France."
I didn't actually choose this book for myself; it was the choice for October from Book Passage's signed first editions club. However, when I read that very same paragraph, I was immediately hooked and into the vacation book bag it went. I have this strange fascination with all things seafaring explorers, and I figured this was going to be great. And for a time, I was well into it.  Landfalls begins with a visit to England by a French naval engineer who's come in disguise to pick up needed things for the voyage of two ships, the Boussole and the Astrolabe, both of which are under the command of Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de Lapérouse.  The expedition (thankfully there's a great map of Lapérouse's travels in the front of the book) went from 1785 to 1788, at which time no more word was ever heard from le Comte or from anyone else still with him.  I say "still with him," because like many other voyages of the time, a number of the explorers/crew on this expedition didn't survive some of the ever-present dangers of contact with other cultures.  In real life, according to Wikipedia, Lapérouse vanished from the face of the earth somewhere in "Oceania;" Williams puts his last sighting somewhere in the Solomon Islands.

Louis XVI giving Lapérouse his instructions (from Wikipedia)
But back to the book.  It is labeled as a novel, but to me it read much more like a collection of vignettes that occur before, during and after the expedition. Once the expedition begins, the author's major focus here is not life on the sea but rather the "landfalls" the ship makes.  For example, in Alaska, a young Tlingit girl witnesses her first Europeans and a major tragedy, which she tries to relate from her own cultural point of view; as another example, in Monterey California, the story switches to a series of letters back and forth in which Spanish missionary contact with the French explorers is related. Another episode is related in Concepción, Chile, where Laperouse finds himself in a bit of competition with an expedition member for the wife of his host, wrestling with his conscience because of the wife he'd left behind.

The best chapter in this entire book is "The Report," in which an officer is commanded to produce a report after a horrific tragedy, and as he works his way through it, the reader is made privy to a terrible revelation. Indeed, there are many moments in this book where the reader is right there at some major event, feeling what the characters feel (the scene in Concepción with the hot-air balloons, in Monterey where the good Catholic priests beat their religion into the indigenous people, or a much later scene where the character watches in despair as the hope of rescue disappears on the horizon).    Sometimes this approach works, sometimes it doesn't quite do it.  On the whole,  I came away feeling like my job as a reader here was to put a series of disjointed stories together to cohere as a novel, and that didn't always work either.

 However, there is much to enjoy about this book, especially in how Ms. Williams reimagines and interprets an expedition that most people have never heard of.  But it's not just the expedition itself that captured my interest. She goes big and bold, for example, in the chapter "Lamanon at Sea," where she imagines a scientist's return to France in the midst of the Terror, offering her readers a look at the sort of society in which Enlightenment ideals have gone wildly astray leading to social and political upheaval of the worst sort. The way she writes this part of the chapter is just unbelievably good and I found myself at various points in this book unable to put it down.

So far readers are loving this book.  The Historical Novel Society rates it positively, as does Katherine A. Powers at The Christian Science Monitor.  I have to agree that Landfalls is a highly intelligent work; had it not felt so disjointed and jarring, I probably would have enjoyed it much more than I did.  Still, I would most definitely recommend it to anyone who likes quality historical fiction.  I will also say that it is very, very obvious that Ms. Williams has spent a LOT of time researching her material, something that the history person inside of me greatly appreciates.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Marlon James wins the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings

My favorite book of the year just won the Man Booker Prize for 2015.  I am ecstatic.  James definitely deserves this award.  My thoughts on the book soon.

not that he'll read this, but 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

It's October, and Halloween is in the air

which means that I will be setting aside most of my normal reading in favor of books that send shivers up and down my spine and leave me with a nice case of the willies.

To catch up, I've read Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt (my thoughts coming soon) and Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (more on that book soon as well).  I'll also come back shortly with how much I loved A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.

For now, though, it's on to the book-lined road to Halloween and  things that go bump in the night....

Monday, September 28, 2015

freebie, anyone? In America, that is...

Once again, Book Passage signed first editions club has crossed wires with Powell's Indiespensable and they are offering the same book.  I certainly don't need two, so if anyone would like my extra copy, and you live here in the US, you can have it. Free. I'll pay postage. Please give my book a home!!!

* The Quaker City or, The Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery and Crime by George Lippard

University of Massachusetts Press, 1995
originally published 1845
582 pp


"I Vonders how that’ll work"

I've been nibbling away at this novel for a while now and finished it just late last night. The Quaker City follows on the reading heels of Thompson's Venus in Boston of my reading lineup because I wanted to read another example of "city mysteries" that were so popular in their day.  Lippard's novel (according to David S. Reynolds in his Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the age of Emerson and Melville) sold
 "60,000 copies in its first year and an average of 30,000 a year for the next five years, becoming the best-selling novel written by an American before Uncle Tom's Cabin." (207)
Reynolds also calls it the "quintessential American Subversive text," and I'd add that it's probably the funniest work of early American fiction I've read so far this year.  It's also a twisted, sordid novel filled with debauchery, corruption,  sensationalism and some of the most vile characters you'd never want to meet. It is rather a mishmash of genres, and ranks high in the melodrama department.  Lippard got a chance to have his novel presented on the stage, but his hopes were quashed when, as Jamie Bridges notes in the Victorians Institute Journal Annex, the advertising started raising complaints:
"members of the public, some of whom were featured in the play, began to protest against its performance. It was one thing to read an exposé in the privacy of one’s home and something altogether different to have the characters brought to live (sic) in a public forum such as the Chestnut Street Theatre."
Evidently art too closely imitated life here -- parts of the story were based on a real-life case of 1843 in which a man seduced a sixteen year-old girl,"under false pretenses and allegedly lured her into a brothel and raped her." The girl's brother then killed him, went to court, and was acquitted due to reasons of insanity.  When the advertisements for the play based on The Quaker City went out, the brother (Singleton Mercer)  tried to buy two hundred tickets and threatened a riot if the show went on. According to Reynolds in the introduction to this novel, "threats were heard that the theater would be sacked or burned." (xiii).   The protest went as far as the mayor, who refused to let the play happen.

But enough of all that. Monk's Hall is a
"queer old house down town, kept by a reputable old lady, and supported by the purses of goodly citizens, whose names you never hear without the addition of 'respectable,' 'celebrated' or--ha--ha--'pious'..."
These are not the "outcasts of society," but rather "Here were lawyers from the court, doctors from the school and judges from the bench," one of the "vilest rookeries in the world."  It is run by a deformed pimp  who goes by the moniker of Devil-Bug, and to get into this hidden/secret establishment, you either have to come with a friend or know the secret password, which changes every day. It's sort of reminiscent of the old Hellfire clubs, but here there are trap doors in the floors, bodies in the cellar, and all sorts of devilment going on in the rooms upstairs.  The titular "monks" are made up of the above-mentioned pillars of society and while some are busy satisfying their physical lusts, gambling, or taking opium,  others spend their time drinking, "flinging their glasses on high, while the room echoed with their oaths and drunken shouts."

I'm not going to go into plot -- there are three major ones, a number of smaller ones and some subplots stemming from the three big ones so it would be nearly impossible in the amount of space & time that I have.  Suffice it to say that the book takes on several segments of Philadelphia society to expose the city's hidden hypocrisies, and Lippard really outdoes himself in lambasting Philadelphia's religious leaders as well as its media institutions,  financial institutions and wealthy merchants.

I said earlier that the book is also funny in parts -- and despite the sort of sleazy, gothic and often bewildering melodrama that's going on here, there are moments where I found myself actually giggling.  Just as one example, there is a wonderful little set piece that takes place in the lecture room of the True Believers and True Repenters, where the corpulent Parson F.A.T. Pyne (who to me has the distinction of being the most hypocritical person in this novel and who will later become the ultimate sleaziest, most disgusting and grossest  character therein) stands in his pulpit.  The subject is the True Believers' anti-Papist stance and old Syllaybub Scissors is recounting a story about the 10 crew members and twenty passengers of an American ship who'd decided to go and visit the pope after a visit to Naples.  All of them had tracts from the Patent-Gospellers association in their pockets. At their papal visit, they were "called upon to kiss the Pope's toe," refused, and were never heard of again, that is until some time later, an American stopped at the Bologna sausage factory that just happens to be next door to the Vatican.  There, upon ordering a large amount of sausage to be sent back home, he had one cut open and discovered "fragments" of Patent-Gospeller tracts within.  Then later, as a committee of Missionaries is selected to "go abroad to the Pope of Rome," to "allow the Pagan no peace," they are asked as a group
"Are you willing to defy the Inquisition in such a cause?  Are you willing to defy death -- are you willing to be made up in sausages, in such in a cause?" 
It's one of those things where you probably had to have been there, but it is actually laughworthy in its context, as are a number of different little episodes in this novel.  At the same time, there are scenes that are particularly loathsome, and none so more than Pyne's lusting after a woman raised as a child by Pyne and his wife.  Egad. Even there, once he's drugged her and is waiting for time to elapse while the drug has its effect, he's planning his next sermon.

The Quaker City is difficult to get into at first, but once I was past the first couple of chapters and caught on to how to read this book, it's actually quite fun. It's a dark novel filled with gothic elements including the secret mansion where members dress up in monk's cowls, take on different names,  and convene for debauchery. It is filled with secret rooms, trap doors, secret burial vaults, fallen women and those brought there to face ruination.   My guess is that this is another one that doesn't make it onto a majority of course syllabi for studying American writers, and that's a shame. For one thing, it is interesting that it was such a bestseller, offering a glimpse into what people were reading at the time; for another, it's Lippard's examination of a corrupt society and what makes it thus.  A lot of the issues he uncovers -- the buying of justice in the courts, the double standard between men and women, the hypocrisy of religion and religious leaders, and the corrupt power of financial institutions to name just a few, are still with us today. Funny how some things don't change over time, while others make leaps and bounds -- i.e., the roles and status of women, to be specific here.

I certainly wouldn't recommend this novel to everyone -- I read a LOT of weird stuff and this is among the strangest -- but for those who are at all interested in rather off the beaten path antebellum fiction, it just might provide a few hours of entertainment.  It will also provide an eye-opening look at what lies under the surface of the pillars of Philadelphia pre-Civil War society as seen through the eyes of this author, "an espouser of radical causes"  who "waged holy war against all kinds of social oppressors."  I will say, if you're in it solely for the sleaze value you'd be better off with Thompson's "City Crimes" in my edition of his Venus in Boston. Otherwise, it's another very welcome addition to my growing library of early American fiction.