Sunday, May 31, 2015

June: playing catch up; May wrap up

Hester Prynne on trial

At the rate I'm currently reading, I won't finish my stack of American novels for years so I'll be spending June mainly in the 19th century trying to catch up. No excuses. May -- things are in great shape once again as they should be, and my husband's making me laugh most days as he continues his quest to fully automate our house Jetsons style.  Yesterday he managed a successful voice command that turned the front door lights on and off.  When he said "Computer" it answered "Yes, Sire?" ... I hope it doesn't go to his head.

On with the show. Most recently, it was Gabriel Urza's All That Followed (Holt) that gave me hours of reading pleasure. Not out until August, I was lucky enough to have received copy through LibraryThing. I'll be writing about this one soon; in the meantime it's a big fat yes, go get a copy. Urza is a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and it shows in this book.  More pertinent to this year's American-novel plan though, The Adventures of Captain Suggs took me down into the South for a nice change of pace.

Mystery and crime sucked up most of my reading energy in a very good way. Highsmith's Strangers on a Train gave me an entirely new perspective on this book; funny how that happens after returning after x number of years.  In my obscure women crime novelists project,  the letter "M" was represented by Merlda Mace, an extremely-unknown American crime novelist who published Motto For Murder in 1943.  My usual country-house murder preference is for novels written in interwar Britain, but this time the action takes place in the Adirondacks during a blizzard.   Moving along, in May the world lost the great Ruth Rendell,  and in a sort of homage I decided to read five books labeled by The Guardian as her "key works" :  From Doon With Death, A Judgement in Stone (my favorite as Rendell), A Dark-Adapted Eye (my favorite as Vine), Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, and Not in the Flesh.  I changed tack midstream and read a true-crime history called Square Mile of Murder by Jack House, which explores four horrific murders in Victorian Glasgow which took place all within one square mile. Helene Tursten's The Beige Man, Christopher Brookmyre's Dead Girl Walking and The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins filled up the remainder of my crime reading.  A word about Girl on the Train: feel free to disagree, but I thought this book was just awful. Oy.  If this is the new face of crime fiction, then no wonder I prefer the old stuff.

I haven't written about any of these books yet, but in the realm of the strange, E.M. Forster's The Celestial Omnibus came out on top this month. If you haven't read it, do yourself a favor and grab a copy. Jeez -- talk about being lost in a book! I hadn't planned on reading it, but I had picked up The Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood to read with my online group and one of the stories in this collection came up during the conversation. Three Valancourt books  kept me entertained in May: The Day of the Arrow, by Philip Lorraine,  Benighted, by J.B. Priestley (the source of James Whale's 1932 movie "The Old Dark House") and The Moorstone Sickness,  which is from the 1980s and may seem a bit old hat to modern readers, but the ending of that book was a big OMG.

Finally, coinciding with the release (and my reading of) a new book from Soho called Innocence; or Murder on Steep Street, by Heda Margolius Kovaly, I read the author's memoir Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968.  I'll be posting about Innocence this week; Under a Cruel Star offered a lot of insight into Kovaly's novel.

and now 

--- the other stuff

  • the book group read The Bookman's Tale, by Charlie Lovett. While most of us loved the mystery of the historical provenance of a work in this novel, and we were impressed by the love that goes into book repair etc., the way the author decided to structure his crime elements left us sort of cold. As one of my friends said, all the book was missing was Ned and a roadster, and you'd have a perfect Nancy Drew mystery.  Maybe the comment was a bit harsh, but it made us laugh.  Oops. Bad choice on that one!  
  • Once again a large number of books were delivered this month, mainly Valancourt titles (I should buy stock in this company, I swear), but others as well, including two more collections of Forster's short stories. I normally don't even like short stories, but his are just amazing.
  • currently reading: The Sleepless Men, a novel written by obscure American crime novelist E.H. Nisot (an original Crime Club first edition) , and Aickman's Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas, new from Undertow Publications. 
I have to go see what his majesty is automating now, so  happy reading!

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.