Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Alienist, by Machado de Assis




9781612191072
Melville House, 2012
translated by William L Grossman
originally serialized 1881 in A Estação as "O Alienista"
published 1882 as part of  Papéis Avulsos 
86 pp

paperback
(read earlier this month)

"I know nothing about science, but if so many men whom we considered sane are locked up as madmen, how do we know that the real madman is not the alienist himself?"

The Alienist is part of Melville House's lovely Art of the Novella series; books are available individually or as part of a subscription service, and they're well worth every penny.  I certainly got my money's worth with this book, which is true satire in every sense of the word.

We discover right away that the titular Alienist, Doctor Simão Bacamarte, "one of the greatest doctors in all Brazil, Portugal, and the Spains" is driven by science and rationalism.  As he replies when offered two very high offices by the King of Portugal who tried to prevent his return to Brazil, "Science...is my only office..."  And for sure, he makes scientific studies of everything. When he married his wife, for example, he chose her because she
"enjoyed perfect digestion, excellent eyesight, and normal blood pressure; she had had no serious illnesses and her urinalysis was negative."
She was also "neither beautiful nor charming," another point in her favor, since Bacamarte wouldn't be "tempted to sacrifice his scientific pursuits" contemplating her "attractions."  When she couldn't conceive, he even started on an "exhaustive study of sterility,"  as we're told, reading the "work of all authorities."  When his prescribed "special diet" didn't work, he "cured himself of his disappointment by plunging even deeper into his work."  As a result, he finds himself studying psychopathology, a "field, indeed, in which little responsible work had been done anywhere in the world."  In his town of Itaguai, the mentally ill have been neglected; eventually Bacamarte is able to persuade the Council to build a "madhouse," which comes to be known as the Green House.  It is there that the doctor plans to
"study insanity in depth, to learn its various gradations, to classify the various cases, and finally to discover the cause of the phenomenon and its remedy."
The trouble is, however, that there is no true scientific definition of what exactly constitutes mental illness, and as Bacamarte develops new theories, his ideas begin to change and so do his candidates for those to be sent to the Green House, to the point where "one no longer knew who was sane and who was insane."   Needless to say, there are people in Itaguai who don't necessarily agree.

 That's a very quick summary of the plot, but in this book there's much more than merely plot to consider as is usually the case in satire;  aside from the focus on the changing definitions of insanity by a self-professed authority  (a commentary, I think, on the folly of relying solely on science-based reason), ideas,  society and politics of the time are put squarely under the microscope here as well.  I don't want to say any more than that because it certainly is a story not only worth reading, but also worth spending time pondering to pick up what's actually going on here.  I loved this little book.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

finally out of obscurity: True Love: A Story of English Domestic Life, by Sarah E. Farro

9780243399505
Forgotten Books, 2017
originally published 1891
121 pp

paperback

I don't even remember what I was looking up when I came across an article in The Independent (1 June, 2016) about the author of this book, an African-American woman named Sarah E. Farro.  Once again, it was the title that caught my eye:

"Sarah E Farro: Why was one of only four African-Americans to publish a novel in the 19th century forgotten?"

Having never heard of her before, I was beyond intrigued.  As Professor Gretchen Gerzina notes in the Independent article, Farro wrote only this one novel, which seems to have
"disappeared from the historical record."
She also tells us that Farro was born in 1859, had two sisters, and that her parents had moved to Illinois from the South, information she gained from census reports from 1880.  We also learn that True Love was among 58 books by women writers from Illinois to be on exhibit at the World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893 and that it was "heralded" in contemporary newspapers, both here and in the UK.  And finally, we know that in 1937
"Farro was feted at a celebration of Chicago's 'outstanding race pioneers."
 I can only imagine Professor Gerzina's excitement on rediscovering Sarah Farro and her book; heck, I was excited to learn that it existed myself!   And now, thanks to her discovery, Farro's True Love has not only been digitized, but it also appears in Penguin's  The Portable Nineteenth Century African American Writers (2017), bringing this woman and her work out of obscurity for modern readers.



my photo -- title page

The story begins with the Brewster family, consisting of a mom and her two daughters.  While the outside world thought highly of Janey, "with her sweet countenance and her merry heart," Mrs. Brewster is much more attached to Mary Ann, a "pale, sickly, fretful girl, giving trouble to everybody about her."  Janey is engaged to Charles Taylor, "a quiet refined gentleman, the son of a wealthy capitalist," which doesn't sit well with her mother.  Mom believes that "If Charles Taylor had not been blind his choice would have fallen upon Mary Ann."  As the novel opens, the "fever" is making its way through the area, and Mary Ann has had the bad fortune to have succumbed.  Charles wants to take Janey away, to get her "far from the fever," but that is not to be. Aside from worries about what people will say, Mrs. Brewster needs Janey there to help her out while Mary Ann is ill.  As it turns out, Charles is away when he gets word that death has come to the Brewster home, but as he learns to his horror, it's not Mary Ann who is dead.  The novel follows Charles and various members of the Taylor family after this tragedy which has clearly taken its toll on the poor man.

You'll note that I haven't said a thing about slavery or about race;  this book, as Farro notes in her preface, is written
"to give to the public a sketch of her ideas on the effect of 'true love.' " 
She wants us to "sympathize" with her characters, whose "language and conduct may be appreciable or reprehensible according to circumstances." And certainly, as the novel unfolds, we come to realize that with the Taylor family and their set of friends and acquaintances, we're looking into the lives of a very well-to-do group of people who, in many ways, are bound by the confines of social convention in true Victorian fashion.    Race has no place here, and as Professor Gerzina states in the article cited above, Farro''s novel of "domestic romance that tends toward melodrama," doesn't "fit the mold" of other  "revived and 'rediscovered' " works of other African-American women who have been "noticed and celebrated not just because of their race, but because they all "wrote about race."  I'll turn once again to Professor Gerzina to relate why Sarah E. Farro and her work are significant:
"Today we assume that early African-American writers inevitably wrote about race, that 19th-century writers necessarily referred to experiences of slavery and struggle and that their access to literacy -- let alone the Victorian literary canon -- must have been limited.  Finding Farro's novel changes that. Because we didn't realize that authors like Farro existed, we had limited perspective on their work."
I'll quite frankly admit that the book isn't as polished as it could be, and frankly, neither the story nor the writing is all that good, but that's not why I chose to read it: I was absolutely delighted with the prospect of reading the work of a previously-unknown African-American female author who wrote during the 19th century.  I mean, a lot of books I read are from obscure authors, but I rarely get the opportunity to discover one which itself has only recently been discovered.  It was well worth every second of my time and even though I wasn't fond of the story, I feel great just having the ability to read Sarah Farro's work.  I feel privileged, actually.



Monday, March 5, 2018

A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley

9780385413909
Anchor Books, 1990
originally published 1962
240 pp

paperback


William Melvin Kelley is an author I discovered while reading the January 29, 2018 issue of The New Yorker.  Before that, I'd never even heard of this man, although after finishing this book I'll be looking to read more of his work.  Two things caught my eye in the New Yorker article: first, the title: "The Lost Giant of American Literature," and then the question that immediately follows:
"A major black novelist made a remarkable debut. How did he disappear?"
Always intrigued by a mystery -- in this case three: who was William Melvin Kelley, why had I never heard of him if he was a "major black novelist," and finally, the question of how he disappeared -- I combed through the article and became even more intrigued when Kathryn Schulz started to describe Kelley's A Different Drummer.  This part was really all I needed to read before hitting the "add to cart" button on Amazon:
"Kelley turned his considerable intellect and imagination to the question of what it is like to be white in this country, and what it is like, for all Americans, to live under the conditions of white supremacy -- not just the dramatic cross-burning, neo-Nazi manifestations of it common to his time and our own but also the everyday forms endemic to our own national culture." 
I hadn't even finished the article and the book was on its way to my house.


William Melvin Kelley in 2012; from The New York Times


While I'm not going to divulge many details here, what is most stunning about this book is that given the theme, the story is revealed through the eyes of the white residents of this fictional town, set in a fictional Southern state.  Their narratives try to account for the reasons why one day Tucker Caliban (as revealed on the back cover blurb)
"... a quiet, determined descendant of a magnificent African chief brought to America in chains...for no apparent reason ... salts his fields, burns down his house, kills his livestock, and heads, with his wife and child, for parts unknown -- an act that sets off an unexpected mass exodus of the state's entire black population."
These narratives from the white residents of the town also uncover their thinking on how they process the behavior of the African-Americans in this book, and more importantly, how their own relationships with African-Americans reflect their own needs at different times.  It is both heartbreaking and haunting; but on the other hand, Tucker Caliban is one of the most courageous literary figures I've encountered in some time; he is the epitome of dignity and pride, a silent leader whose actions speak much louder than words ever could.

This book could likely be the focus of a graduate seminar, and there is so much to be found in here that I can't begin to scratch its surface in just words and there is a lot which even after two reads I'm sure I've missed. I won't kid you -- this is not an easy book to read and answers are not simply handed to readers on a plate.  However, it is one of the most thought-provoking novels I've had in my hands recently; it also, although written in the early 1960s, remains extremely relevant.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Mefisto, by John Banville

9781567920970
David R. Godine, 1999
(originally published 1986)
233 pp

paperback


In the long run, Mefisto is a sad and depressing novel, a book in which it seems that all of the characters are just plain lost.   I'm not surprised -- I've  spent a lot of time with the people in Banville's crime novels written under the name of Benjamin Black (the Quirke series),  in which all and sundry are lost in some fashion. 

This is one of the most challenging books I've ever read, to be sure.  I spent tons of time online and in my own library tracking down the numerous references to mythology, art, literature, philosophy etc that appear in this novel; even after a second reading I'm still not sure I will ever be fully comfortable with it in any sort of comprehensive way.  I've read a number of reviews that cite its "intertextuality," and I've come to this conclusion: since I'm merely a casual reader sort of person and  not a walking encyclopedia who is gifted with perfect knowledge of all things literary, philosophical, artistic and mythological, I'm sure I missed a lot of what lies underneath this novel.

In Mefisto the main character is Gabriel Swan, whose account of his life is what we're reading here.  He  was born a twin but his twin brother did not survive the birth.   He does, however, note that as a boy he "had something always beside me... not a presence but a momentous absence," and that he was burdened with "emptiness."  At the same time, as he writes,
"It seemed to me that I was not all my own, that I was being shared. If I fell, say, and cut my knee, I would be aware immediately of an echo, a kind of chime, as of a wine-glass shattering somewhere out of sight, and I would feel a soft shock like that when the dreamer on the brink of blackness puts a foot on a step which is not there."
Gabriel also had "a gift for numbers," and was "obsessed with the mystery of the unit."  We learn right away that for Gabriel, it's all about the "sense of order...the harmony, of symmetry and completeness."  It is this idea that sets the stage for what's going to happen next, as we continue through Gabriel's childhood of no friends except "figures," and a strange relationship with his family.  One day while out walking he notices a man with a "pigeon-toed gait" that he will encounter again accompanied by a young girl.  It is on this second encounter that he notices he is being watched by still another person, a man with a "narrow foxy face and high cheekbones and a long, tapering jaw."  This is Felix, who introduces the other man as Kasperl. The girl is Sophie, and all three are living together in a decaying home on the old Ashburn estate.   At first Gabriel makes sporadic visits to Ashburn, but then he becomes a regular visitor.  It is there, he believes, "the horizon is limitless" and that he
"moved in a new medium there, a dense silvery stuff that flashed and shimmered, not like air at all, but a pure fluid that held things fixed and trembling, like water in a brimming jet of a fountain."
As the blurb on the back cover of my book says, in this "abandoned mansion" the "changing relations" between Gabriel and these three people will ultimately end up with Gabriel "in his own private season in Hell." 

The story continues in part two, and it took me a while but I realized not too far into this second part that the author has done something very clever here in the telling itself.  I don't think it's a spoiler to say that even as the story goes on, it starts again.  This time, however, it's as if Gabriel has been reborn, and with the exception of Felix, his fellow characters reappear as darker mirror images to those in part one.

Challenging, for sure, and it's definitely another one of those books that could be the subject of study of a graduate literary course, so to say I came through it with some sort of detailed understanding of it all  is not even close to accurate.  I do think, though, that what I get from the book is just genius and that Mr. Banville's writing is superb.  The last forty pages of part one are so beautifully written that while reading them I was absolutely spellbound and could not have put this book down for anything.   After the second reading, I was taken in directions I hadn't even contemplated during the first time through -- focusing much more on the idea of consciousness, twins and most of all the dualities that are present throughout this story.  I also found myself drawn to and appreciating on an entirely different level  Gabriel's brief flashes of insight that seemed to me to show him the truth of things, even during his search for some sort of knowledge that might order his world.    It really is a stunning novel even if I didn't come anywhere close to a full appreciation.


Friday, January 26, 2018

Smile, by Roddy Doyle -- one of the most ironic titles ever


9780735224445
Viking, 2017
214 pp

hardcover


If there was one word to describe how I felt after finishing this novel, I think I would have to say  "shocked."  I just sat here thinking about the last page, and continued to think about it for hours.   It really is the kind of ending that will stay with you for a long, long time; you might also want to consider following it with something light, if just for your own sanity. 

Smile begins with the return of Victor Forde to his hometown decades after he'd left it. He's just moved into a new apartment, is very lonely, and he decides that maybe he'll scout out a new local.  Sitting in the pub looking at his iPad, his quiet time is interrupted by Eddie Fitzpatrick, who insists that they were schoolmates together back in the days when they attended the Christian Brothers School.  Victor can't place him, but Eddie continues talking and bringing up things that seem familiar to Victor.  Although Victor is quite lonely at this stage of his life,  he has no desire to be friendly toward Fitzpatrick, taking an instant loathing to him and hoping he'll never see him again.  Alas. That is not to be. 

The thing is though, that those few moments spent in Donnelly's in Fitzpatrick's company prompt Victor to start spinning through his memories of his school years; as  he starts to relive those days,  certain things start to come back to him that take us back into his childhood in a working-class home, moving forward through his adolescence, his exit from the old neighborhood, and on into his adult life where he meets and falls in love with Rachel and begins to enjoy a fleeting sort of fame.   We also learn that Victor is a failed writer who had wanted to write a book about Ireland's history; he has all the best intentions, taps out a few pages here and there, but he just can't quite get it together enough to actually produce anything.   Interspersed with his past is his present, in which Fitzpatrick and Victor continue to bump into each other at the pub, and as their relationship begins to unfold, we watch as things begin to take a strange, dark turn with these two men.  

It's so difficult to discuss the book in any sort of depth because I don't want to give away anything at all that would ruin things for potential readers. Anything I say past what I've already said here will do just that so let's leave it at this:  it is, as the cover blurb says,  a tale of memory and contending with the past, and I think I'll leave it there.  I would strongly advise not reading any reviews that give away the show; I noticed on Amazon that many readers went ahead and blew the ending for others in what they had to say so avoid reading those at all costs.  

For me, Smile was a brilliant novel; I have only read Doyle's Barrytown books (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van and The Guts) which I absolutely loved, but that leaves several other novels of his on my shelves remaining to be read.  Smile goes into deeper, darker territory than those four, although I have to admit that there were quite a few humorous moments here that actually made me laugh before the story began to take the turn toward the dark that culminates in those final, mind-shattering pages.

I can't recommend it highly enough.  Don't buzz through it, and don't be surprised if after the last page you want to immediately read it again.  It's just that kind of book.  

Thursday, December 28, 2017

bye-bye, 2017



In the midst of it all, it's reading that has kept me sane this year.  

The last days of this year are sneaking up on us, and I've already been thinking about what I'm going to read in 2018.  But before I get that far, it seems appropriate to acknowledge 2017, since it's been a hell of a reading year, in a good way, of course!  For nearly 365 days,  with some exceptions,  I pretty much went off the mainstream grid and started exploring older books, discovering forgotten authors along with their obscure titles, and generally had a right jolly old time looking back on the past, or I've focused on translated works that appealed to me.  Truth be told,   I actually came to a sort of crisis point this year -- after going through a few contemporary novels this year that made me want to send them flying across the room (I'm not naming names), and especially after two DNF novels that got raves from other readers even though the writing was so poor,   I started making choices based more on personal satisfaction rather than on what's new or on books that critics deemed as buzzworthy.   It's been a liberating experience.

So how the reading year shakes out comes next, with a grand total of 118 books.  How is that possible, one may wonder; the answer is that I don't sleep a lot, I only watch 2 to 3 hours of tv at night, and I would rather read than eat. And I'm a fast reader.

From this page of my reading journal (contemporary, translated, and other literature) I have 23 under the label of 2017; I'll wait for January to discuss the books I've read but haven't yet posted about, but these two bring the total up to 25:
  • Raise the Red Lantern by Su Tong 
  • Malacqua: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event , by Nicola Pugliese 
Beyond praiseworthy in this category:  The Beguiled, by Thomas Cullinan, Huck Out West, by Robert Coover, Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry.  The last three: contemporary yes, but beyond outstanding, by writers who know their craft well. 



from The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

from the crime page
 I believe I got the most joy from  reading in this genre in 2017, mainly because I did a quick look over the year at the history of crime fiction/mystery fiction.  Using different reference sources, along with input from reading friends, I had the time of my life stepping into the wayback machine to find a number of different early examples of the genre. I'd planned to take this year through the onset of World War I, but there were too many good books from the 1860s and I got sidetracked and only made it to the publication in 1887 of A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes novel.  Combined with more modern novels,  there are whopping 49 that I've posted about with two others sitting here just finished, bringing that total to 51:
  • The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume 
  • A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan-Doyle
I also managed to prevent myself from being a one-trick pony in this genre with a few newer novels, but it was definitely books like Devlin the Barber, by Benjamin L. Farjeon,  The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, The Mystery of the Sintra Road, by Jose Maria Eça de Queiróz and Ramalho Ortigão, The Leavenworth Case, by Anna Katherine Green, and Ellen Davitt's Force and Fraud: A Tale of the Bush that kept me the most entertained.  I'll be picking up my project again in 2018, starting in the 1890s.  


the as yet unread Valancourt Books shelf of dark fiction/horror/pulp/gothic novels

from the dark fiction page
Oh, people ... this year I discovered French dark literature from the Romantics to the Symbolists to the Decadents.  Oh my -- pure reading pleasure!   I also picked up decadent titles from Germany and they make the French look tame.  There are 32 posts on that page for 2017 but I have yet to discuss 
  • The Scaffold and Other Cruel Tales, by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam
  • Devil's Day, by Andrew Michael Hurley
bringing the total to 34.  I also indulged in quite a lot of old pulpy goodness this year, as well as older, lesser-known ghost stories, and a cult novel or two, including the excellent Twenty Days of Turin, by Giorgio de Maria, which after thinking about it for some time, chilled me to the bones albeit not in a horror-story sort of way. In the horror zone, Adam Nevill's Hasty for the Dark just plain knocked my socks off with its excellence.    And then, of course, I have to give a huge amount of reading entertainment credit to Valancourt Books, who seem to publish what I want to read without fail.  The photo directly above is the books I've bought that they've published that I haven't yet read,  and here are the ones I've enjoyed so far (a few have been moved to other shelves like crime fiction and literature but you get the idea): 



And now to nonfiction, which adds a total of seven books for 2017.  The most well-loved of these books:
  • The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, by Marjorie Worthington, which  came to me by way of Spurl Editions, a small but very cool publisher.  
  • Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767,by Thorkild Hansen, NYRB.
  • Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, Vols. I & II, by John Lloyd Stephens
  • Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Vols. I and II, by John Lloyd Stephens
  • Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood and the The Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya, by William Carlsen



Last but not least, I've started a new journal page, mostly for the Victorian reading I plan to do this year, but there will be other, older British books there as well by the time I'm finished.   That's got a total of 1 book for the year listed, a silly adventure by H. Rider Haggard called Mr. Meeson's Will.   


So that's it, happy new year, great reading to all in 2018, and wishes for inner peace and happiness.  

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Stones Cry Out, by Hikaru Okuizumi

9780156011839
Harvest/Harcourt, 1999
originally published as Ishi no Raireki, 1993
translated by James Westerhoven
138 pp

paperback

"They would all die in this dark cave. They were dead already." 

Another random choice and another winner -- my lucky streak continues.  I'm sure that one of these days I'll go to my shelves, pick a book completely arbitrarily and find one that not's so hot, but for now, the good luck continues.

The author of this book won Japan's prestigious Akutagwa Prize for this novel, and after reading it, I can see why.  Its short 138-page length might tempt people into thinking it's an easy, breezy read, but really, it is anything but.  In this short space, as the review blurb from The Detroit Free Press says, the author has managed to
 "create the most vivid of fictional realms, the inner world of an Everyman battered by the cruel and seemingly random hand of fate..." 
and has effectively "magnified" the horror of this "Everyman's" story in "the quietness of its telling."  If I could organize words around my thoughts like this reviewer, I would be saying the same thing.

The Stones Cry Out recounts the story of Tsuyoshi Manase, who, as we learn at the outset had become a "fanatic collector of stones."  Before realizing what would become his passion,  Manase had been a soldier during World War II, and had found himself wandering through the jungle before finding a remote cave in Northern Leyte.   When we first meet Manase, we are told that he remembers very little about his experiences in that cave or about how he came to find himself in a POW camp after having been captured.  After a year and a half Manase was repatriated and had started on the road to becoming a successful businessman, during which time his "recollections of war began to fade."   He began to view his war memories as a " brief glance into a dark hole through a window."  But what he does not forget  is a terrible fear of isolation, and more importantly,  the words once spoken by a lance corporal who had been in the cave with him, telling Manase that the "tiny pebble you pick up during a walk is a cross-section of a drama that began some five billion years ago." What stuck with Manase was what the lance corporal had said next:
"That little pebble is a condensed history of the universe that keeps the eternal cycle of matter locked in its ephemeral form." 
 It will be these words, which "lodged themselves in his heart," that will drive Manase to begin collecting stones.  As the years go by he marries, becomes very successful and has two sons; however, he finds himself becoming more isolated and more detached from his wife and children because of his passion for collecting. He also begins to find himself in situations that sort of trigger nightmares and memories and in this way, we learn little by little what actually happened to him in that cave.  When tragedy strikes his family, Manase will have to come to terms with the fact that not only does the darkness of his own personal trauma often return "like phantoms to the surface of his memory" but that it also has the potential to be passed on to take root in the physical  present, sort of infecting all of those around him in different ways.   Consider this idea in human terms and it makes for one hell of tragic story.

 Obviously I'm just sort of outlining basic plot here,  but what happens in The Stones Cry Out is best experienced rather than simply read about. This book moves well beyond simply plot to explore how memories of trauma are never really "frozen" or "locked," but rather like the crystals in the rocks that Manase studies so intently, seem to have  "an inner urge to grow," even though the "urge had been forcibly repressed by some sort of magic keeping them locked inside this narrow space."   The question is this: "if that spell was somehow broken, would not the minerals burst into movement?"  How that plays out I won't reveal, but if ever there was a book to read that highlights the human psychological costs of war, it's this one.

It's a sad but beautiful book and one I recommend.