Thursday, May 14, 2015

*in which we move away from New England and head south: Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers, by Johnson Jones Hooper

University of Alabama Press, 1993
(originally published 1844)
201 pp
and speaking of Edgar Allan Poe, he actually read and wrote a brief blurb about The Life and Adventures of Captain Suggs (as it was called in Poe's time) in the journal Aristidean (1845) saying the following:

"We sat down to this book quietly; read, laughed — read, and laughed again. There is more true, indigenous humor in this, than anything we have yet seen, from the American press...Captain SUGGS is a man of metal — "yea! an honest, incorruptible — very jewel of a fellow." 

This "jewel of a fellow" went by the motto of "It is good to be shifty in a  new country," meaning, as the author explains, that "it is right and proper that one should live as merrily and as comfortably as possible at the expense of others."  And this is precisely what Captain Simon Suggs does throughout his life, from his teen years on.  In fact, this con artist pulled his first major scam against his own dad, a Baptist preacher.   Adventures of Captain Suggs is a chronicle of Suggs' adventures along the Tallapoosa in Alabama, and we read along as Suggs gets into predicament after predicament, always getting the better of someone and making a dollar or two in the process.  But we're not here just to see how much trouble Suggs can stir up for himself or others.

 The introduction to this book states that this book "flagrantly satirizes the Democrats, and especially former President Andrew Jackson, a lightning rod for the formation of the Whig party."  The entire collection of Suggs stories in this volume is framed as a "campaign biography," in which the editor appeals to the "Men of Tallapoosa" at the end:
"...we have done! Suggs is before you! We have endeavoured to give the prominent events of his life with accuracy and impartiality. If you deem that he has "done the state some service," remember that he seeks the Sheriffalty of your county. He waxes old. He needs an office, the emoluments of which shall be sufficient to enable him to relax his intellectual exertions. His military services; his numerous family; his long residence among you; his gray hairs -- all plead for him! Remember him at the polls!"
Trust me. After reading this book, Suggs would be the last man on earth to get my vote for the "Sheriffalty" of my county.

 His creator, Jefferson Jones Hooper, started writing his Suggs stories in 1844, publishing them first in the East Alabamian, where he served as editor.  The motto of Jones' newspaper was " We stand upon the broad platform of Whig principles," so with that as a clue, it's not too difficult to figure out as you start to wade into the book that Adventures of Captain Suggs is meant to be a flat-out satire. But even (as in my case)  if you know little to nothing about Jacksonian democracy, you may still find yourself mildly chuckling while reading  these little stories, although quite honestly they were probably much funnier in their day.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

*Poe's only novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

Broadview Press, 2010
[originally published 1838]
294 pp


While very  unlike the other American novels I've read so far, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is Poe's only novel, and while I should probably post about it at my oddly weird fiction section of my online journal, it is an example of  a 19th-century  American novel so the post is also appropriate here. The first time through it some years ago, I was downright incensed with the elements of racism that appear here; this time through (while having read a lot of scholarly works about this book in the meantime)  it became a totally different book.

the story:
Disguised as a genuine narrative, the story begins in earnest when young Pym's friend Augustus Barnard urges him to travel on the Grampus, a ship captained by Barnard's father. Pym's mother and grandfather are opposed to him going, with the granddad threatening to cut him off financially if he even brought up the topic again. So, typical teenagers that they are (despite what happens later), Pym and Augustus set up a scheme to fool Pym's parents to explain away his absence -- and Arthur stows away in the ship's hold in a clever set up designed to provide him access to Arthur's cabin once the ship is underway. After quite some time of hiding out alone in the dark, he comes to realize that things have taken an unfortunate turn on the Grampus in the form of a mutiny.  This is when things really get going here.  The mutiny sparks another mutiny, as the crew takes sides and set the captain adrift on the seas; fortunately for our narrator, Augustus is spared and at a timely moment, Pym reveals himself and  things start to settle down. However, the fate of the Grampus and those remaining is far from settled -- starvation, storms, sharks, and even a visit from the Flying Dutchman all help to contribute to the ship's ultimate demise.  The two who remain are picked up join the crew of the Jane Guy, starting another entire series of adventures which take our erstwhile narrator and his companion down into the Antarctic, going further south than any other expedition in history.  There, along with other wonders the crew has never seen, they discover the tropical island (yes, I did say tropical) of Tsalal, along with its very black native population, who have a strange fear of anything white.  

Since the first time I read this book some years ago,  I've done a lot of reading about it and I've discovered that even Poe scholars can't agree on what to make of it. Dana D. Nelson in her The Word in Black and White: Reading "Race" in American Literature, 1638-1867 notes that

"Readings of Pym range widely, from psychoanalytic exploration to social satire, from self-referential commentary on writing (or reading) to a metacritical demonstration of utter absence of meaning. Those commenting on the text apparently cannot reach any consensus or 'thrust toward uniformity,'..."
Depending on which/whose critique/analysis you read, Poe's Pym is either a seagoing take on the American push for frontier expansion, an interior journey into the self, a quest novel (vis-a-vis Harold Bloom's definition, mentioned in this edition's introduction, [27])  a "jeremiad of the evils of slavery" or "covert statement of Southern racist ideology" [29], and it has even been noted as  (in part) a story of thwarted colonialism (from Mat Johnson's hilarious novel Pym ).  Author Toni Morrison  also argues re Poe's work that "no early American writer is more important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe because of the focus on the symbolism of black and white in Poe's novel." 

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is a strange but interesting little book. According to that online font of knowledge called Wikipedia, Poe himself called this "a silly little book," and in some ways he's definitely right. It is way over the top and as one goodreads reviewer puts it, the "elephant in the room" of racism is definitely there. [as an aside, whether Poe was/was not a racist is still a matter of debate in scholarly circles.] After having read it, I can see why there are so many different interpretations of this novel (you can also add in bildungsroman), but in my opinion, no matter how you read it, it is much like many of Poe's other works, largely concerned with confronting the self in terms of other (if nothing else, the scene where he is disguised as a a dead man and can't recognize himself in the mirror is a huge clue), and ultimately destabilization of the self that follows as a result. In the end, though I believe it's a novel best appreciated on an individual basis -- I mean, seriously, if vast numbers of scholars over the last 100-plus years can't agree about the nature of Pym, how can there be any definitive interpretation? 

A brief word about this book: for anyone remotely interested in further studies of Poe's Pym, this particular edition from Broadview Press is a good place to start.  The narrative is extensively footnoted, and there are three appendices -- "Sources for the Novel", "Contemporary Reviews," and "Other Writers' Responses to Pym"  (Melville, Beaudelaire, Jules Verne, and Henry James).  There's even a map of Pym's travels (which is reproduced here in a bit of blur but you get the gist) as well as an extensive research bibliography.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is definitely very different in terms of American novels, but definitely worth a read and then a reread.  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

May: in which I continue to press on; April wrap-up

Around my house, April has been the month from hell with bad news coming from every quarter, it seems, but finally I'm sensing a change in the wind.  The bad stuff sent me into my books -- no surprise there. Ever since I was a kid I would hole up with a good (or bad) book to help bad times pass quickly, so it seems that old habits don't die so easily.

I got a bit sidetracked this month from early America, but I'm still laying in a big supply of novels. I did manage to finish Poe's only novel,  The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a title which lends itself very nicely to a limerick --  but sadly I couldn't come up with one.  I also read Hope Leslie, which I really liked, and then there was Cooper's The Pioneers which drove me insane and hurt my brain while I read it.   In terms of contemporary reading, I finished two from 2015:  Song For an Approaching Storm, a novel about Cambodia in 1955 from three different points of view , and Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, both of which were very satisfying.

In the crime/mystery world,  Cafe Europa by Ed Ifkovic comes out in May via Mysterious Press. It's not my usual cup of tea, but as it turns out, it was pretty good.  Joyce Carol Oates also has a new one called Jack of Spades  which I haven't yet posted about but well,  imo she's written better.  Mary Kelly's A Cold Coming of 1956 came first in my ongoing obscure women crime novelists project, followed by two by Marie Belloc Lowndes: first, The Lodger, which is quite famous, but to find something more obscure that she'd written, I read her Letty Lynton, which is a re-imagining  of the 1857 Madeleine Smith case. And since I got so wrapped up in Madeleine Smith, I also picked up Alas For Her That Met Me! by Mary Anne Ashe, who is really Christianna Brand, who's given us yet another take on the story.  The dark zone was occupied this month first by  Simenon's The Engagement and then Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, both of which are beyond excellent. 

In terms of strange fiction, two haunted house novels occupied my time, first The Feast of Bacchus by Ernest G. Henham. Written in 1907, it's been brought back to life by Valancourt Books, and it is by no means your standard haunted house tale. Far from it, in fact.  The second one was The Uninhabited House, by Charlotte Riddell, originally published in 1875. This one falls more along the lines of what most people would consider a more typical haunted house story, although it's more what it says about the time that caught my eye.   My online group finished The Golem by Gustav Meyrink, which took me two full weeks to get through but which was well worth all the time and brain pain in the long run.  

And last, but by no means least, Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse by Stanley Meisner was this month's nonfiction read, coming from Palgrave MacMillan. Everyone thinks of Montmartre as the Paris art hub but an upstart group of outsiders changed all that. This book is quite interesting, tracing this group of people through just after the Nazi occupation of France, and it's a title I can definitely recommend.


and now for all of the

--- other stuff

  • the book group read Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier.  Even there the old movie starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier came up more than a few times ("but in the movie ...."), a trend I'm noticing more as I go backward and read a lot of these older novels.  I'm starting to realize that people know all about the movies but pretty much nothing about the books on which they're based. Gresham's Nightmare Alley is another example.  At the moment I'm working on titles for next year's book group, for after our summer hiatus which starts in July. 
  • I'm quite embarrassed to say how many books were delivered this month. My favorite title (which I haven't yet read): Kitten With a Whip, by Wade Miller, written in 1959.  I only hope the book is as cool as the title. The woman on the cover looks positively femme fatale-ish. 
  • currently reading The Day of the Arrow, by Philip Loraine. Speaking of movies based on books, this one spawned a movie called "Eye of the Devil" from 1966. I haven't seen it, but I'll be watching it as soon as I've finished the novel.  
back to my book now...the main character has just discovered the family history in some dusty "old tomes" in the castle's library....

Monday, April 27, 2015

Contemporary Interlude #2: The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Knopf, 2015
314 pp


 Promise to keep what you feel for me this moment always in your heart, no matter what you see once the mist's gone." 

In a very different approach to how I normally make these posts, the first thing I'm going to do here is to link to what I feel is an excellent literary review since  it says what I would say if I could actually write a literary review. For balance, I'm also linking to the not so positive  The New Yorker's take on it; there are many others floating around out there available for the reading, both positive and negative.

 Simply speaking, it's a book I will never forget, which is appropriate, since The Buried Giant is actually a story that directs the reader to the question of memory and its opposite, that of forgetting.

Beatrice and Axl are an elderly couple who live in a dark-ages Britain during a time of a rather uncertain peace between enemies. War has come and gone, peace has been established, but no one can seem to remember how this came to be. Beatrice and Axl live in a warren without light (shades of Plato's cave here) in a  community where "the past was rarely discussed," not "taboo," but as our narrator reveals,

 "it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes."  

They decide to go and see their son, whom Beatrice can remember "clear enough" some days, while at other times, "it's as if a veil's fallen over his memory." Neither one of them can remember why their son is no longer with them, but Beatrice believes  that "he longs for us to leave this place and be living with him under his protection," so off they go to find his village. Beatrice also suffers from pain, and hopes that on the way to visit their son she can find someone to help her with it.  They are not the only ones on a quest, however; they meet up with others who are also seeking something in their own right.  The "mist" hovers over the land, causing everyone everywhere to suffer a sort of amnesia -- here and there small flashes of the past may seep through, but for the most part, these are just small blips, since the mist prevents everyone from fully remembering either their own individual pasts or any sort of collective history.  Axl and Beatrice set off on their journey and have to move through a land where they encounter knights, ogres, pixies, dragons, a mysterious monastery and much more. And then of course, there's the buried giant, who people take great care to avoid when crossing where he sleeps. For if he wakes...

This book may have all of the elements of a typical fantasy novel, and it very obviously borrows heavily from Arthurian legend, but read closer -- it is a story that uses  standard fantasy/mythological elements to lead the reader to explore the idea of memories of the past that have been obscured in the present.  In an interview, the author says that the question of  "when is it better to just forget things and keep them forgotten?" comes up time and again among the characters.  While there is great food for thought here,  in the context of this rather skittish postwar time of peace, it is a question that  I found most appropriate and well illustrated in the story of Beatrice and Axl.

 I absolutely loved the political implications of this novel, but even more so,  it was the story of this elderly couple that had me grabbing for a kleenex or two at the end. It started earlier with the story of the boatman, whose job it is to ferry a couple over to an island where they can be together always.   His duty, before doing his job, is to "discover if their bond of love is such to allow them to dwell together" there by asking them to recall to him "their most cherished memories."  Later, Beatrice will recall a conversation she once had with a woman who asked her
"How can you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can't remember the past you've shared?"
Without those memories, Beatrice worries that their love will "fade and die," something she greatly fears.

 When I finished the book, even though I'm not a fan of love stories, I was floored more by their story than by anything else in this novel, and it spoke volumes. The novel became much more satisfying once I got past the first 100 pages or so (up to then I remember describing it as a "slogfest"), and I ended up wanting to read it again as soon as I'd turned the last page. When a book I started out not liking can actually end up making  me cry, it's a very good one indeed.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

rant ahead - be warned. The Amazon seller who wins the WTF award for April is


This Amazon seller has the dubious honor of sending me the wrong book TWICE in a row.  I ordered a reference set of books (2 volumes) called Crime Fiction II, which I wanted for my permanent collection in my crime fiction/mystery library.  The first time I was sent a mass market paperback book by Brett Halliday.  Here's what  I actually ordered looks like (bought from an entirely different seller after the friendlybooksforyou debacle); as you can see, they are big, hefty tomes and definitely not mass-market paperbacks:

I get that a mistake was made, so giving them the benefit of the doubt,  I waited and lo and behold, I went back to the same seller, who claimed they had my book in stock and that they would sell it to me for right around $15.  Well, crap ... when it sells for $435 otherwise, $15 is a great deal, right?  I figured the first time was a fluke so I ordered it again.  The second time, I received a book by an author I've never even heard of, which wasn't even close!  Check out the label at the bottom of this book by Caroline Crane, which I received instead of the book I ordered:

 At this point, I'm like screw this. After sending an email (this time not so nice) -- I left the following feedback:

How freakin' hard is it to actually take a look at the cover?????????? I ask you!!! 


After all is said and done, I went to get the book by Caroline Crane packaged to return to these people, and this morning inside the book I found this:

So my intuition about friendlybooksforyou was correct: they had ordered a book they didn't even have in stock and it was sent to me.  I never ordered this book (I've never heard of it before).  So I do a little digging and discover that friendlybooksforyou is really one of several seller names under the auspices of Winter Ventures --


Value Promenade
Quality Bargain Mall
Slategray Books
(and whoever else) 

-- all of whom apparently use the exact same warehouse.  Wow.  Talk about misrepresentation. Well, there are four "booksellers" who will not get my business.  

today's update: 04/17/2015

Email received from friendlybooksforyou re a book I never even ordered. To be fair, and in case I'd forgotten, I did a search on all of my Amazon orders and sure enough, I was right.  This made me laugh.

"Dear Nancy,

Your order for these books should have arrived:

 - Caught Dead

We thank you for your Amazon order.

Your order number: 110-8468824-2236253

We sent you this email to see if you had received the book and were totally happy with your purchase. If you have any concerns or issues with this order please reply to this email and allow us the opportunity to resolve it with you.

If you have not done so, we ask that you please leave us positive feedback.

If you have already done so, we thank you!"

Monday, April 13, 2015

contemporary interlude: Song for an Approaching Storm, by Peter Fröberg Idling

Pushkin Press, 2015
(originally published 2012 as Sång till den storm som ska komma)
translated by Peter Graves
328 pp


I don't actually remember why I bought this novel but I'm certainly happy  that I did. It is a book that reminds me why I love small presses like Pushkin --  they don't have to take a mass-market approach and so have the space and flexibility to publish some excellent fiction. And when I say excellent, I mean it - considering that this is the author's debut novel, he's done a great job here. For people like myself, who are always on the lookout for intelligent historical fiction that rises above much of what's available on the mass market these days,   Song for an Approaching Storm is perfect -- it's intelligent, interweaves real historical events, and captures only a tiny, but extremely important slice of time on the world stage. 
 The novel transports the reader to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, just prior to, during and after the country' first election in 1955.  It is an uneasy time; it hasn't been too long since Cambodia became an independent nation and political tensions are at an all-time high. The novel is related from three different points of view: first, from Saloth Sar, who will later go on to become the notorious Pol Pot ; Cambodia's deputy prime minister Sam Sary  takes the second part, while the woman who intersects both of their lives, Somaly (based on the real-life Soeung Son Maly)   gets the final say.  While I'm not going to go into this book in any great detail, I think the way Idling structured this novel was brilliant, affording more of a three-dimensional approach from three very different people.  Each helps to underline the issues that existed in this recently-independent nation -- for example, Sar's narrative opens onto a clandestine meeting with a small circle of fellow Communists who are stuck between party rhetoric and actual practice.  Each of the three points of view have to do with the future -- as Sary notes, 
"After having been fixated on the past -- the golden age, injustices and so on -- the nation is now suddenly ready to turn and face what is to come." 
For all three of these people, "what is to come" is of paramount importance, both personally and in the context of a Cambodia free of its former masters.

The writing is absolutely beautiful, and the book is very easy to read &  understand. Even if you know absolutely nothing about Cambodia's history, there's no way you can fail to pick up the nuances of this tumultuous period of time since the author makes things very clear. On my part, reading Song for An Approaching Storm led me to Philip Short's so-far most excellent Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, in which he uncovers the idealist Saloth Sar and slowly but thoroughly maps his eventual change as he becomes the genocidal  Pol Pot.  I'm not saying this will happen to everyone, but, well, I'm kind of a nerd so I was interested enough to buy a copy.

All I can say is that Song for An Approaching Storm is a most excellent novel, but honestly, it's probably not one of those books that's going to find its way to the general public. I can certainly recommend it to readers of serious historical fiction and to people who may be interested in the topic; I think it's one of the most intelligent novels I've read in a very long time.  To reuse the cliché, I simply couldn't put it down. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

*The Pioneers, by James Fenimore Cooper

Penguin, 1998
460 pp
[originally published 1823]


I'm of two minds about this novel and my ambiguity has to do with Cooper's writing style.  First, let me say that I'm no stranger to older works with long, drawn-out phrasing or archaic writing styles -- I figure it's a given that these are books from the past and they certainly weren't designed with our more modern, streamlined reading styles in mind.  That's not the issue here. Instead, it's more like the main threads of the narratives in this book are sort of buried under a barrage of description that tends to go on and on and on before you get back to the storylines that you're reading the book for in the first place. There is an asterisked author's footnote on p. 233 that made me think that even he seems to understand that he has a tendency to go overboard:
"The author has no better apology for interrupting the interest of a work of fiction by these desultory dialogues, than that they have reference to facts. In reviewing his work, after so many years, he is compelled to confess it is injured by too many allusions to incidents that are not at all suited to satisfy the just expectations of the general reader." 
 On the other hand, The Pioneers is very much worth reading as a novel strongly concerned with (among other things) environmental stewardship;  it is also a book that Cooper wrote, in my opinion, to offer his readers a look at the American wilderness as people began to settle there, much as in his own life, his father had played a major role in the settlement of Cooperstown. As Cooper himself notes in a preface:
"In 1785, the author's father, who had an interest in extensive tracts of land in this wilderness, arrived with a party of Surveyors.  The manner in which the scene met his eye is described by Judge Temple. At the commencement of the following year, the settlement began, and from that time to this, the country has continued to flourish. It is a singular feature in American life, that, at the beginning of this century, when the proprietor of the estate, had occasion for settlers, on a new settlement and in a remote county, he was enabled to draw them from among the increase of the former colony...the author was brought an infant into this valley and all his first impressions were here obtained. He has inhabited it, ever since, at intervals, and he thinks he can answer for the faithfulness of the picture he has drawn." (8)
 Of course, now Cooperstown is linked to baseball; few people probably know or care about how this town got started, so The Pioneers'  Templeton affords a glimpse into exactly what life may have been like in settlements such as the one Cooper grew up in.

Another thing I was struck by was Cooper's description of the law as civilization encroaches into the wilderness -- Natty Bumppo, "the Leatherstocking" has lived in the forests and in nature for most of his life before civilization had even arrived there, and he has his own ideas about the value of laws.  And for those readers who are entertained by plot and aren't really into the messages/history  woven into novels, there's also a storyline complete with  love interest that centers around a mysterious young man who is accidentally shot by Judge Marmaduke Temple in his efforts to shoot a deer.

I won't go into plot here because this book is very well known and is very well covered by scholars all over the internet and in books and other publications.  The bottom line for me is that it was a tough novel to read because in our 21st-century parlance the writing itself tends to be all over the map with long interludes of description that seem to take forever before the author returns to the narrative, but when all is said and done, the environmental issues that are brought up in this book are more than relevant to modern concerns. So back to being of two minds -- if you can make it through the laborious writing style, there's a really good story or two or three hidden in this novel.  I'm happy I read it, although now I'm thinking that maybe I'll pass on the others for the moment.