Wednesday, April 27, 2016

just think...all of this for a dime: The Ghost of Hurricane Hills, by Mary E. Bryan


 The Ghost of Hurricane Hills is yet another book in what started out as my plan to read American literature written since the 18th century.  I figured I'd be reading the greats, but I'm having way more fun following the less-traveled path of little-known, more obscure novels.  Author Mary E. Bryan (1838-1913) evidently killed it as a writer of dime novels; clicking here leads to a list of her work. I don't have the later, softcover edition pictured; mine is a 1933 leather-bound pebbled cover from Economy Book League of Cleveland. 

Just a note about dime novels:  according to this page at the University of South Florida's Special Collections website, 
"From the mid 19th to the early 20th century, the fiction genres known as dime novels, penny dreadfuls, and story papers flourished in England and America. The increasing mechanization of the printing process, more efficient distribution methods, and a rising literacy rate all contributed to this publishing phenomenon. Printed on the cheapest of paper, with lurid cover illustrations, dime novels (which found a name in their ten cent price tag) and story papers were considered ephemeral, to be read, often in secret, passed on to friends, or discarded. These delightful items, ancestors of the ubiquitous mass-market paperbacks of today, reveal the reading tastes of a population often neglected in historical studies.... Dime novels and story papers targeted a youthful working class audience with their thrilling, stereotyped tales of Wild West adventures, master criminals, detective stories, historical romances, and working girls and boys in which virtue was rewarded and preserved."  
I love finding these old books -- as the librarian at the USF page goes on to say, they were  "once the bane of the middle class," and they "were considered the corrupters of youth and stepping stones on the path to perdition."  My book even has a disclaimer in the front that it is "not recommended for children."  Funny how times have changed; reading them now it's often hard not to laugh at what was considered too mature for kids.  These books are also quite tame in comparison with what's out today; however, I love discovering new old books and the dime novel speaks to the  "reading tastes of an increasingly literate working-class audience," so I also get the benefit of immersing myself in what large numbers of people were reading at the time.  I get that not a lot of people likely share my enthusiasm about these old, forgotten and obscure novels,  but well, it is what it is. I love this stuff. 

Mary Edwards Bryan, from Wikipedia. 

In The Ghost of Hurricane Hills, we have a story that  just oozes Gothic; there's no castle here to speak of, but there is a "haunted house," a lost treasure, a journey to the underground and definitely a heroine.  It begins with the dying wishes of an elderly man named Colonel Charnley.  Evidently, he had built his fortune "on the ruins" of another man who had married the only woman Charnley ever loved.  Now that Charnley is at his end, he has left his vast fortune to the daughter of that woman, who is now an orphan living in Florida.  He plans to send her to school, and not reveal that she is worth a fortune until her education is finished.  This doesn't make his protégé very happy at all; young Frank Norman had banked on having that money all to himself.  Charnley, though, realizes that making Norman his heir would have made him "indolent and purse-proud," and leaves him only five grand.  As Charnley draws his last  breath, he calls for his lawyer, Barclay Hampden,  telling him quietly that Norman is not to marry the girl, ever.   Eventually, Charnley and Norman find young Amy, share the plans to get her set up in school, and she's thrilled at the prospect.  On the way home, the trio makes a brief stop for Norman's benefit, as he wants to visit his boyhood home. It seems that he has some sort of "possible wealth" hidden there, and intends to search for it.  This detour is the start of a terrifying adventure for young Amy, who while visiting the run-down house that has a reputation for being haunted by a ghostly "woman in gray," is visited by an apparition that she follows into the woods.  Her pursuit ends up with her being lost; although a major search effort is made, Norman and a heartbroken Hampden have to eventually admit that she has simply vanished.  So pretty much right away the reader is presented with several mysteries, which only deepen as years go by.   

While I won't give away what actually happens in this book, the subtexts run on several different levels. Justice for wronged women is one biggie, while another line explores how women had to be hidden away rather than be out in the world because of some past misdeed.  Then there's the question of marriage for love or for suitability among the upper classes which also comes into play, as does good old upper-class materialism and greed.   In telling her story, it also seems to me that the author also makes great use of the Eurydice myth here, especially in having her Eurydice emerge as is explained here, "as a shadow, waiting to come to light to become a full woman again."   Sadly, I can't divulge exactly how or why this comes about, but it is about as obvious to me as the steam rising off of my coffee at the moment.  There is much, much more, but it's time to move on.

For me, these books are fun, and I love knowing what the working classes of the time were reading, especially women. This sort of gothic-ish, romance-ish dime novel was likely the choice of "young working-class women in particular," even though these women were sometimes encouraged to read better books.  Just as an interesting aside,  Felicia Carr, who runs the American Women's Dime Novel Project (1870-1920) website notes that 
"Dorothy Richardson, a middle-class reformer and journalist who wrote about the working women's experiences in the factories in 1905 also provides a valuable clue about readership. In her book The Long Day she chronicled occupations open to young working-class women. She herself held various jobs around New York City, partaking in the work and meeting the young women who held these jobs.  She often asked them what their tastes were in reading and when she learned they read Laura Jean Libbey, Charlotte Brame, and Effie Rowlands she called it 'trashy fiction' and encouraged them to read middle-class favorites such as Little Women or works by Charles Dickens. Readers apparently did not take kindly to her efforts to improve their taste. She reported that they rebuffed her attempts to 'elevate' their reading habits and told her not to put on airs with them."
For me, it's kind of cool to be off track and to be bypassing what's generally considered the best American novels;  this book may not be great literature but it and others like it are definitely part of American literary/reading heritage and history. It is also a part of American women's history, and just because it will probably never end up on a course syllabus somewhere doesn't mean it's not worth reading.  It is. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

now this one I really like: Man Tiger, by Eka Kurniawan

Verso, 2015
originally published as Lelaki Harimau, 2004
translated by Labodalih Sembiring
172 pp

read in March

There is a parallelism between me and Margio…In Indonesia we keep our anger, we repress our anger, but in the end…the tiger comes out, and we don’t know how to handle this tiger.”
                             -- Eka Kurniawan, as quoted in The Economist 

Man Tiger is just flat-out amazing, which is probably one reason it's been listed for the Man Booker International Prize for 2016.  I'm not someone who buys or reads a novel simply because it's turned up on some list (some prize nominees have actually turned out to be not my particular cup of tea),  but I was intrigued by the synopsis and I knew I had to read it.  I was not disappointed -- au contraire -- I became the embodiment of the cliché about being glued to the story.  Not only does this story move back and forth through time to get to the core of this tale, it also incorporates local folklore and mythology to help in doing so.  It's a novel a person can read not just as the story of a crime, but also as a story about Indonesia  viewed through a number of different perspectives, one that may help explain the author's quotation that begins this post. What is behind much of this anger is there in the novel, something I'll leave for others to discover. The book is also an incredible example of storytelling -- I am not exaggerating when I say that  this is a novel that I could not put down.

Intriguingly, Man Tiger begins with a vicious crime, about which the news spreads quickly throughout the small Indonesian coastal town where this book is set.  It comes as a shock that Margio (20), has killed Anwar Sadat (the older victim).  Margio was well known to everyone in this small Indonesian coastal town, and  no one had pegged him as a particularly violent person.  In fact, the only bad thing anyone could come up with about him was that he had been known to steal chickens.  Even these, though, belonged to his father, and it was widely known that the theft was done "out of spite." But Margio had indeed murdered Sadat in a most vicious and brutal manner,  by biting through his jugular.  While it's true that "People attacked with their teeth, particularly when women fought each other," death by biting just didn't happen.  Machetes, swords, yes -- but not teeth.  The crime itself was not premeditated; Margio says that
"The idea came to him all of a sudden, as a burst of light in his brain."
and that
"He spoke of hosting something inside his body, something other guts and entrails. It poured out  and steered him, encouraging him to kill." 
In his cell, Margio makes a statement "calmly and without guilt" that it wasn't really him who had killed Anwar Sadat, but it was "a tiger inside my body."

To make the appetite-whetting very brief here, the rest of the novel goes back into time to explore exactly why Margio did what he did.  At least, that's the easy explanation of this story, which explores people tied together (and often trapped) by tragedy and by the past.  Even the tiger (which is actually a tigress - more on this in a moment), is  linked to Margio's family past through a line of patriarchs.  According to the village storyteller :
"many a man in the hamlet had a tigress of his own. Some married one, while others inherited a tigress, passed down through generations" 
It so happens that Margio's grandfather
"had one from his father,  which before had belonged to his father's father, and so on right on up to their distant ancestors."
According to the storyteller, the tigresses "lived with their owners and guarded them against all dangers."   Margio had been curious about it since childhood, but his grandfather didn't want to talk about it citing Margio's age and the fact that he "couldn't possibly tame such a savage animal." The tigress "came out of their bodies to attack," in times of great danger, but Margio's grandfather warned Margio that "If a man couldn't control his beast, it could turn so violent that nothing could restrain it once enraged."   Interestingly (and with reason, as it will turn out, but I can't really say anything here), the tigress skips a generation in Margio's family -- his father is bypassed but she came to Margio early on, "white as a swan or a cloud or cotton wool."   The question really is one of why it emerged so fully and ready to strike when it did -- and that's the key to unlocking this novel on both levels.

A few things more and I'm gone, all of which I won't expand on, but which I'll leave for others to discover.   First, in terms of  what some readers are calling "magical realism," I look at this book more as being set within a culture that lives side by side with the supernatural or with folkloric/mythological elements. There are genies, people observe specific rituals for different reasons, superstitions ("when a crow perched on a roof, it meant there would be a death in that house"), dreams, gods, goddesses everywhere. There are also the many ghosts of the past that surface throughout this book, which struck me because clearly here, the past continues to haunt these people.  Second, the author here is sympathetic toward the women and children in this book  who, because they are under the domination of the men in control of their lives, often end up trapped in situations over which they have little or no escape. Extrapolating all of that into a bigger picture might start offering a clue as to why Indonesia is still angry.  Third -- oh, never mind, just go buy the book, because it is just downright fantastic.