Monday, December 28, 2015

Don't read these books if you suffer from insomnia. They'll keep you awake.

Pretty much since December 24th I've been going to bed at a decent time only to discover that when I turn off my reading light, I'm actually wider awake than I was just a minute before.  Life's good so I'm not stressing, so it must be latent zombie genes or something keeping me up.  I've been up until around 4:30  a.m. pretty much for the last four or five nights.  If I lay there and think "I have to sleep" I'm even more awake so I just say screw this and pick up a book.   It's amazing how much a person can read when it's dead quiet and there are no interruptions.

My insomniac reading list for the last four days:

Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell -- bad book to read when you want to sleep.  It's so bloody bleak that the predicament of this young girl and her two little brothers would keep you awake at any normal time, so reading it during a bout of insomnia was just folly.  Good book, though.

The Blood of the Vampire, by Florence Marryat -- older, first published in 1897, but so well written that it was unputdownable. That's bad news when you feel your eyes frying from lack of rest. I couldn't  help but feel sorry for the titular vampire whose only crime was to be an independent woman of means but of questionable birth at the turn of the century, and I had to read read read to find out what happened to her.  Oy. 

The Restraint of Beasts, by Magnus Mills -- it was 12:45  a.m. when I started this one, thinking that "hey, a comedy might be a good brain relaxer," but little did I know that the ending of this book was going to result in staying awake all night trying to figure out what the author was saying here. Sheesh! Awesome novel, but definitely one not to read if you're hoping to sleep. 


I've decided that if I'm still awake tonight, I'm going to pull out an old science text that bored me to tears as a student. If that doesn't do it, well, nothing will. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

my last novel of 2015, and it's just effing jaw dropping: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Grove Press, 2015
371 pp


"The majority of Americans regarded us with ambivalence if not outright distaste, we being living reminders of their stinging defeat. We threatened the sanctity and symmetry of a white and black America whose yin and yang racial politics left no room for any other color, particularly that of pathetic little yellow-skinned people pickpocketing the American purse."

Just briefly as to plot (and very much oversimplified):   "I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces," are the words that open this novel, which for the most part, is a confession to someone known only as "the Commandant." The story is related by a nameless narrator who is a spy for the North Vietnamese communists and has managed to infiltrate the South Vietnamese Army as an aide to "the General" and a member of intelligence under the tutelage of a CIA agent.   The novel begins with the evacuation of South Vietnam and the last flights out, on one of which our narrator finds himself along with his boss, his best friend/blood brother, and a number of other people fleeing as the North Vietnamese Army is crashing the gates of Saigon.  His job, once they reach America, is to watch and to report to a comrade back in Vietnam, which he does in coded letters to his "aunt," his other best friend and blood brother who did not follow him in his escape. Our narrator  keeps a careful eye on the General and his cohorts while the refugees are busily reinventing themselves in order to adjust to life in an unglamorous Hollywood neighborhood.  As the narrator's handler thought would happen, the General has decided to organize several of his former army cohorts in an effort to retake Vietnam from the Communists, and in order to maintain his facade, the narrator must follow along with the general's plan. 

The narrator, the titular "sympathizer," is definitely a "man of two faces," and faces a number of contradictions. In fact, this thought-provoking novel is so filled with contradictions that this "two faces" idea runs throughout the book.  In the narrator's case, he is a man of mixed parentage, a fact that has helped to define his identity throughout his life, since in Vietnam, he grew up being reminded that he is a bastard, with a French father and Vietnamese mother. Metaphorically speaking then, he already understands what is implied in belonging in two different places, but the truth is that he is also not in a position to claim either as his own. This idea is repeated again and again throughout the novel, and is one of the main thematic issues explored here, as is the reinvention of the self under less-than-perfect circumstances, capturing  what I would consider the immigrant experience in any country.   This is not our hero's first visit to America; he had first come in the 1960s as an exchange student, when he first started his fondness for things American, but now he finds himself faced with a very different take on the American dream, with different and often-conflicting loyalties, and above all, haunted by ghosts.  It is truly a masterpiece of a novel that also examines not only American perceptions of the Vietnam War, but America's perception of its own role in the war and those of the Vietnamese people as well.

I read a reader response of The Sympathizer that said it should be required reading for every US politician, a sentiment I heartily endorse, especially considering what's going on in the world regarding refugees right now.  But there's so much more here, and as I noted earlier, it's a novel just filled with contradictions, which make for a great satirical look at the promises of the American dream, at America's place on the world stage, etc.; however, it also points out among other things that unlike most historical accounts, the history of the Vietnam war has been the provenance of the losers rather than the victors. It also examines the realities behind revolutions and the effects of the postwar diaspora (aka the "boat people")  from the point of view of the people who were given promises that were never intended to be kept. 

A couple of things: first, when I finished it, I sat in my chair absolutely stunned for probably about half an hour.   I noted somewhere that even after it was over my jaw was still pinned to the floor; it took me a day or two to get over that feeling. Second, I want to throttle the dustjacket blurber who says this is a "gripping spy novel" -- people who decide to read this book based on that phrase are bound to be somewhat disappointed since this book goes well beyond the boundaries of a mere spy novel. Third, The Sympathizer is one of the most original books I've read this year, well deserving of any award its author receives.    I have been very frustrated lately and at the point of despairing over  "same old, same old" in recent novels. There are exceptions, of course, including but not necessarily limited to three of my favorite books this year -- A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Buried Giant, and a book published by Pushkin by Peter Froberg Idling called Song For An Approaching Storm about Pol Pot in his pre-genocide days --  but The Sympathizer offers hope that the mental wells of writers haven't yet run dry.

Very highly recommended, one of my few favorite novels of the year. Read it slowly. Take your time with it. Savor it. It's that kind of book.


links to professional reviewers who say things in a way I never could:

from Bookforum, by Lisa Locascio (beware of spoilers)
from The New York Times, by Philip Caputo
from The Washington Post, by Ron Charles

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty, by Vendela Vida

Ecco/HarperCollins, 2015
213 pp


I'll be very frank here. The first time through this novel all I could think of was just how preposterous this story is -- the main character makes a series of choices that no sane person would ever find herself making given the circumstances.  So thinking I must have missed something here,  I went through it again,  and came out with an entirely different perspective on things. The second time through, I started to realize just how clever a book this actually is, to the point where I'm going to add it to my real-world book group's reading list next fall.  Had I read it when I received it from Indiespensable,  it would have gone on this year's lineup, but later is better than never, I suppose.

The first clue that this is not your average novel is that the entire book is written in the second person ("you").  The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty  begins on an airplane going from Miami to Morocco, and right at the outset, the reader is presented with a puzzle.  What exactly does the narrator mean when she refers to "the horror of the last two months?" And why is she trying to avoid being recognized by a fellow passenger, whom she remembers from the last time they met? And on arriving in Morocco, why is tipping the taxi driver twenty dollars her "initial mistake?"  As the novel progresses, you, the reader, come to discover that these questions are just the foundation for what's to come.

Very briefly (I'll post professional reviews that give more away than I will when I'm done here), my take on this  novel is that what follows is  a major examination into the questions of identity, role-playing, and reinvention of self. And it all begins with the theft of the narrator's passport.  She reports the theft to the police, making a huge error when asked what she does for a living.  When she says that she is a reporter for The New York Times (which she isn't), writing a travel story, and hopes she doesn't have to "include this" in her report, it isn't too long afterwards that she learns her backpack complete with contents has been found. The police chief hands her a bag that she knows is not hers, saying that she can now write "How good the police are here in Casablanca." It's a sort of unspoken game they play here, as well as a critical moment in the book, leading to the narrator becoming a sort of "stand-in" for the woman whose identity she now holds, playing a role, so to speak, as that person.  And while I won't explain why, the narrator is offered a job as a stand-in for an actress, to be used during scene blocking during the filming of a movie there.  This role of "stand-in" brings up yet another idea in this book, that of performing/performance, and  will repeat itself throughout the novel in various ways, until the initial questions the author presents are finally answered and the reader "you" comes to understand a) how identity and performance mesh here  and b) just what is at stake for the narrator in terms of reinventing herself.  There are other things here as well -- the intrusion of American culture just one more thing to watch for.   The novel's title comes from a poem by Rumi of the same name, which is reproduced within the book; the use of the second person here, as I sort of impatiently reminded the naysayers on Goodreads, reflects the style used in the poem.

As I noted earlier, I liked this book much more after the second time through, but one thing I didn't particularly care for either time was just how much the ending of this book (as I see it) depended on a huge coincidence -- and while I understand why, I'm someone who doesn't particularly like when things hinge on coincidence.   I can also understand reader reservations about this novel -- chances are that  the "you" who is reading this book would not make the same preposterous choices as the narrator did  at any juncture in this novel.  However, you are not in "your" head at any given time, but inside that of the narrator's; once you give over to that fact, it's a far less-stressful way to get through the novel.

A few professional reviews of this book are at

Monday, November 30, 2015

*and you thought she only wrote battle hymns: Julia Ward Howe -- The Hermaphrodite

University of Nebraska Press, 2004
(note: original is an unpublished manuscript, 1840s)
208 pp


Writing about this novel is not an easy thing to do, but I'll start by saying this: story very good, writing felt sloggy past the midpoint, difficult to understand sometimes but overall, very much worth the effort.  As a casual sort of reader, it was really all I could do to stay focused on this book at times, and toward the end it became even more difficult for me, even as it gained in intensity.  Now, having said that, I do think that it's an important book on many levels, considering when it was written and what was going on in the life of the author at the time.

The very basic story is this: Laurence, scion of a wealthy and important family of the time,  is sent away to school for his childhood and teen years, so that he "might become robust and manly, and haply learn to seem that which I could never be."  He had been born an intersexed person (hence the title), then  "baptized...with a masculine name" since his parents had decided to "invest" him with "the dignity and insignia of manhood..."  Throughout his school years, he rarely saw his parents; when he did, they were "cold and reserved" so that unlike most kids, he would rather have been at school than at home.  Laurence was a model student, well respected and "scrutinized" with interest by both sexes. As he notes, though,
"For man or woman, as such, I felt an entire indifference -- when I wished to trifle, I preferred the latter, when I wished to reason gravely, I chose the former. I sought sympathy from women, advice from men, but love from neither." 
It is during his later school years that an older woman, Emma P., decides that Laurence will be her conquest, but when she discovers the truth about him, she  succumbs to apoplexy (I love that word)  and becomes, in Laurence's words, "a maniac" who "lay foaming and writhing on the floor" at his feet. This only increases Laurence's own alienation and his fears of intimacy, and things get even worse for the poor guy when he returns home at the close of his school career. There, his father makes him sign over his birthright to Laurence's younger brother, who would most likely produce an heir and continue the family line.  Fleeing from home, he comes across a hermitage where he takes up residence until he's at the point of both madness and death; he is then taken to live with adolescent Ronald (who discovers him in this condition) at Ronald's family home for a while. There, he serves as Ronald's tutor.  Ronald falls in love with Laurence; then after an encounter between the two, Laurence takes off for Rome, where he comes under the tutelage of Berto.  After some trouble arises, his friend Berto convinces him that he should disguise himself as a woman and stay with Berto's sisters at the family estate. I'm not giving away either the ending or any of the high points of this story here;  anyone interested should really read it without already knowing everything.

Now, very briefly, as to its importance, there is so much going on in this book that I can't begin to cover it all.   I'll start with Gary Williams and Renee Bergland, who  note in their introduction to Philosophies of Sex: Critical Essays on The Hermaphrodite (Ohio State Press, 2012) that Howe's book
"contributes to a seismic shift in how we understand nineteenth-century gender awareness and sexuality in antebellum America."  
If I went into detail as to how this is so, I'd be writing for days, but Bethany Schneider in her contribution to this work briefly notes that Howe uses
"her ambiguously sexed character to interrogate desire and the acts that constitute sex,"
and asks
"how gender informs acts of sex and how gender is transformed through sex." (139)
In short, here Howe envisions gender as something constructed -- nowadays this isn't such an unusual idea and is covered widely in literature,  but in 1840s America, it was something very rare. The reverse was true in Europe: as noted in the novel's introduction, Gautier was writing along these lines in his Mademoiselle de Maupin (definitely NOT an American favorite of the time, an outrage to the "common sentiment of the American mind")  as was George Sand, whose Gabriel featured an intersexed character, and whose work Howe admired.

In the introduction to The Hermaphrodite, Gary Williams, who has painstakingly reconstructed the fragments of this work from Howe's originals,  notes that "Howe saved herself with this history of a strange being," which he claims is a "projection of both her husband and herself;" he also notes that "the solidly rooted in the psychological terrain" of Howe's life at the time.  Her marriage to Samuel Gridley Howe was problematic from the beginning.  According to Michael Bronski,
"When Howe was on his honeymoon with Julia Ward Howe, he received word that Charles Sumner was very upset and wrote him a passionate note saying that he wished that he was there with them. Interestingly, Sumner himself married later. They have complicated relationships. Julia Ward Howe ... wrote a novel about a hermaphrodite--a man/woman who loves both men and women--that most critics now think was her own meditation on her husband's bisexuality."
Williams notes that "the trope of the hermaphrodite seems to have offered a scaffold for trying to understand in corporeal terms why a man (or an apparent man) might wish to deflect the attentions of a beautiful and devoted woman."  (xxv)  Later he notes that
"the hermaphrodite was arguably as useful as a screen on which to project certain other aspects of her situation. Laurence may be Samuel Howe, yes, but "he" is also Julia, a being fusing culturally ascribed impulses of both genders and thereby consigned, according to the logic of American domestic ideology, to a loveless and sexless ambition."  (xxvii)
She also, according to Williams in his Hungry Heart, The Literary Emergence of Julia Ward Howe, felt constrained by "claustrophobic conditions" (marriage, motherhood, male society's expectations of women in those roles)  that hindered her desire to fulfill her intellectual ambitions. her frustrations are also explored in The Hermaphrodite, most notably in the scenes where Laurence, now Cecilia, engages with Berto's sisters, watching them move freely in their relationships and in their own intellectual pursuits.

There is so much more to talk about -- art, the spirit of true and nonsexual friendship between men and women, alienation and so on. However, there have been a large number of scholarly treatises on this book which anyone interested can find online, so there's no way I can give The Hermaphrodite its due. Suffice it to say that if you can get through the often boggy prose, it is well worth exploring, and I'm extremely happy to have read it.  Truthfully, though, it was one of the most difficult books I've ever read.


And thus ends 2015's little mini-project of looking for the Great American Novel. For the rest of this year, I'll be reading more contemporary novels, but I will pick up the Great American Novel project (post-Civil War) once the new year starts. I'm really enjoying finding these really off-the-beaten-path books and I've had a great time with them.  

The Gold Eaters, by Ronald Wright

Riverhead, 2015
367 pp

hardcover (from the publisher, thank you!!)

Ronald Wright is the author of ten books, three of which (A Scientific Romance, Henderson's Spear, and this one, The Gold Eaters) are fiction.  He also has a long list of awards to his credit, including the 1998 Sunday Times book of the year for his  A Scientific Romance.  He has traveled extensively and as far as the subject of this novel goes, he is beyond well informed, having written about Peru in his Cut Stones and Crossroads.That book was published in 1993; now he's returned with a fictional account of the Spanish conquest of Peru from the point of view of a young boy who served as interpreter between the two cultures.

Without going too much into plot, basically this novel came across to me as a sort of coming-of-age story set during the conquest of Peru. The main character is Waman renamed Felipe (who, by the way, is not an Inca). He is only a kid when he decides that he needs to see more of the world and go off on adventures of his own; by the time the book is over, he is a grown man. In the time in between he's been captured, taken to Spain, learned Spanish, returned to Peru, served as interpreter, and has lost contact with his mother and with the childhood companion he thinks about all of the time. As he moves through Peru with his captors, he watches hopelessly as at first smallpox decimates a large proportion of the population and afterwards, the Spaniards take advantage of the situation and move to subjugate the remainder. Although he has a foot in both worlds (conquerors and conquered), as he becomes older, he becomes a conflicted soul, wondering exactly who he is and trying to discover where his loyalties actually lie. Most of this story is revealed through Waman's point of view, although perspective also moves among different characters as the book progresses. 

Why a stamp was made to commemorate the slaughter of innocent people is beyond me. But here it is.

When I was a kid I fell in love with stories about explorers -- then that bubble got burst once I moved past the crap that they feed you in your early school years. Once I realized that the conquistadores were not just explorers but that they decimated indigenous populations and forced them into Catholicism, I lost all romantic notions I might have once entertained about them. In The Gold Eaters, Wright doesn't leave much to the imagination -- there are some pretty despicable scenes in this book depicting the depth and breadth of the cruelty meted out by the Spaniards. There's a lot of action going on here, and that's all well and good, but some of the best parts of this novel for me were watching as the Peruvians (for lack of a better word) try to make sense of what's going on as their lives are completely disrupted by forces well beyond their control. While some of the people had an inkling that this was not going to be a good thing, others who were disgruntled with the reigning Incas made alliances with the Spanish, leaving the door open for Pizarro and his forces to come in and take over. The fact that there had recently been a civil war in the empire also made it possible for the conquest to happen so easily. 

My take on this book is this: considering the horrific tale Mr. Wright has to tell here, the novel could have been much more forceful in the telling. It's a compelling story, to be sure, but I found his writing style to be a bit sedate, at least for me. Considering the importance of Felipe's character here, he often comes across as a bit flat (at least I found him to be so). However, as far as I know (although I am definitely not an expert on all things books), The Gold Eaters may just be the first large-scale, fictional epic dealing with the conquest of Peru, so it is most definitely worth the read. It may not be, in my opinion " truly the gold standard to which all fiction — historical and otherwise — should aspire," as noted where ever you turn for info about this book, (originally accredited to Buzzfeed), but it does bring something new to the table. 

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.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

book three, booker prize longlist 2015: A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

Doubleday, 2015
720 pp


the blurb:
"When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.  
In rich and resplendent prose, Yanagihara has fashioned a tragic and transcendent hymn to brotherly love, a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark examination of the tyranny of memory and the limits of human endurance."
What the dust jacket blurb doesn't say is this:  If you're planning on reading this novel, do yourself a favor and keep a box of tissues at the ready.  You are seriously going to need at least half of them.

Coming down the home stretch to the finish of this novel yesterday I just sat and sobbed to the point where my poor husband was becoming distressed watching me read this novel. It is literally a case of trauma after trauma after trauma, and how anyone could possibly sit stonefaced while reading this book is beyond me.   I think Jon Michaud of The New Yorker sums up my feelings about A Little Life by saying that
"Yanagihara’s novel can also drive you mad, consume you, and take over your life."
That is certainly true in my case -- I had to put the book down a number of times just to stop from depressing myself.  Didn't always work, but I seriously had to walk away more than once.

A Little Life is another one I wouldn't have bought for myself -- I assumed it was yet another mass-appeal, sort of four-friends-and-their-lives-in-New-York-from-college-on type of thing --  but it was the Book Passage signed first editions club pick for April of this year so it came automatically.  After I got it in the mail, I shelved it. Even when it made the longlist, I remember thinking, okay, I'll read it only if/when it makes the shortlist.

There are so many excellent reviews out there with plot summaries, etc., so I'll just say this.  Hanya Yanagihara is an incredibly talented writer, and her central character Jude has had one of the most gut-wrenching lives I've ever encountered. Yanagihara doesn't give the entire show away at the beginning, but makes you wait for it to unfold sort of piecemeal in order to understand Jude's deep, inner turmoil that drives his behavior both while alone and toward everyone who loves him.  He has this very ingrained sense of his "extreme otherness" which sets him apart, one that makes him feel as he grows older that "every year, he became less and less of a person." This book is so damn sad, so chock full of pain that it is  impossible not to find yourself cheering when the very small number of good things happen  and in deep emotional anxiety when things go very, very wrong, which is the mainstay of Jude's life in this novel. It's like watching the proverbial trainwreck that's about to happen -- you know it's going to be very, very bad but you cannot look away -- and it's most definitely Jude, but even more so, it's  Jude's tortured inner self which keeps you reading.  Oh my god. This is probably the most painful novel I've ever read in my life, and I'm someone who's really into dark and bleak in my reading choices.

You can read Jon Michaud's review from The New Yorker I linked to above for a very positive review; The Atlantic Monthly says it just might be "the great gay novel;" here's a piece on how the author wrote the book.  I also discovered this review by Chris Phillips, who says that the novel is too long (a point on which I happen to agree for many of the same reasons).  However, this is definitely a book that a reader has to experience for him/herself -- while a critic can tell you how he/she feels about the novel,  it is definitely visceral enough that no matter what a reviewer says, it's a book a reader has to feel on his/her own.  I just hope you have an incredibly high threshold for pain because it just doesn't let up. I'm happy I read it, but for the sake of my own mental health, I'm happy it's over.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

book two, booker prize longlist 2015: The Moor's Account, by Laila Lalami

Pantheon, 2014
321 pp


Not only was The Moor's Account longlisted for the Booker Prize this year,  it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer prize for 2014, a double honor for the author.  Once again it's a book where my reaction is mixed, but more later.

In this book, the author takes up the story of the 1527 expedition to "La Florida," the next potential jewel in the crown of Spanish King Charles I. The mission to claim this area was given to Pánfilo de Narváez; also on the expedition was  Álvar Núňez Cabeza de Vaca whose account, Naufragios,  which you can read here in translated form.  The expedition, of course, is historical fact as is the presence of the titular "Moor," a slave named Estebanico, a Muslim African man who came to belong to expedition member Andrés Dorantes.  Hundreds of men started out on this journey and only four of them (including Estebanico)  lived to tell the tale.

 But hold on a minute here.   The fact is that in real life it was only the surviving Spanish explorers who offered narratives about their collective and individual ordeals. Although mentioned in Cabeza de Vaca's account, Estebanico did not leave any record of his own.  In this book, the author corrects that omission, much in the same way that Amitav Ghosh in his Ibis trilogy gives a voice to people whose stories never make into the realities of the historical record.   Laila Lalami does much the same here.   Estebanico's perspective and his personal story drives the entire narrative, and this fictional  account that brings the Native Americans onto the stage as strong participants holding their own against outsiders is very different than the "real" histories that have survived through time.  He leaves no holds barred -- according to Estebanico, a number of expedition members engaged in the raping of  indigenous women, in cannibalism, theft,  and some of them even married Native American women even though they already had wives back in Spain.    His narrative of sharing the often-horrendous  trials and tribulations of the conquistadores not only offers an alternative history to the "official" accounts, but also gives him status as an early Muslim-African explorer in his own right.

The Moor's Account is an incredibly interesting take on this expedition, but it is also an account of Estebanico's own interior, personal journey as a human being.  As he relates the events of the ill-fated undertaking, woven throughout is his own life story, starting with his identity as Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori.  He tells us about growing up as the son of a notary, and his father's expectations of him following in his footsteps; we learn how he eschews his father's wishes and goes on to become a merchant making lots of money (sadly, as he admits, in part by selling slaves), on to how he ended up in Spain as a slave renamed Estebanico.  I think I'll leave it there so as not to spoil anything for anyone else. I will say that when it comes down to it, aside from the novel as a work of historical fiction,  The Moor's Account can also be examined in the context of the power of storytelling -- while it's usually the conquerors whose narratives are passed on, there will  always another side to things that never gets recorded. More importantly for this book, Estabanico finds that his own story is a means of  retaining his dignity and the self that lies beneath his slave identity.

As interesting as the concept is, as involved as I was in their stories among the indigenous people, and as much fun as my history-geek self  later had researching the real expedition and the Native American tribes with whom the explorers came into contact, the book is definitely not without its flaws.  First, the fact that there was no map to offer any sort of point of reference along the expedition's journey just made me crazy and was frankly inexcusable.   I ended up finding a few, but having a guide in the book itself would have been beyond helpful. There is  a rather vague map on the author's website, which I only discovered after having read the book.  Second, I find myself totally in agreement with one reader who noted that Estebanico is pretty "uni-dimensional." It's so true -- he's really just too good, too our-time modern thinking and too squeaky clean to be believed. Another thing that really bugged me sometimes was that although we're talking about the 16th century here, the author tends to imbue some of her characters with 21st-century sensitivities, and frankly, it doesn't always come off well.

So once again I'm left with a mixed reaction. It's an interesting story that kept me turning pages, I loved the historical aspects and the author's focus on the power of storytelling,  but her (in my opinion)  somewhat flawed portrayals sort of lessened my enthusiasm for the novel as a whole.  However, I think I'm going to add this book to my real-world book group's line up for the year -- first, since we live in Florida it might bring some interesting historical perspectives to the table, and second, there's a lot of good discussion material here. I'd say if you're into historical fiction you might want to give this one a try.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

contemporary interlude #4: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Scribner, 2014
530 pp

"...mathematically, all of light is invisible"

All the Light We Cannot See is a novel I probably wouldn't have bought when out looking for something new to read, but it was an Indiespensable pick sent to me by Powells book store.  Despite all of the hype it was getting at the time, it's been sitting on my shelves for a long time now unread.  However, earlier in the year, a number of people in my book group thought they'd might like to read it, so I took it out, cleaned off the shelf dust and read it, since it's the first book-group read after our summer hiatus.  In the meantime, the book won the Pulitzer, so I was, of course, pretty eager to get to it.  Once again, I a) am torn in my reaction towards this novel, and b) find that I am once again the proverbial fish swimming upstream against the tide of readers who LOVED this book or thought it was the best novel they'd read all year.  There are spoilers below, so proceed at your own risk. 

Let's get the positives out first.  I think Mr. Doerr is a good writer, although there are a lot of issues around structure and plot points that I have with this book.  There were moments where I couldn't help but to get caught up in the story because, well, I love reading about this period in history.  Describing the panic, the uncertainty, and the realization of the French people that the Nazis were in their country to stay was very well done, and I especially enjoyed the sections describing the steps taken to safeguard national treasures in the museum of natural history. I felt Doerr was at his very best though when writing the scenes depicting Werner's time in the Hitler Youth academy -- when these scenes cut to another, I couldn't wait to get back to them. My god. I was just floored at how young children were taken into this place --  where "only the purest, only the strongest" would be admitted -- and then taught most brutally that weakness of any sort would not be tolerated.   And then, there's the story of Frederick, who refuses to become like everyone else; what happened to him just about had me in tears.  To me, if the author had written only about the Hitler Youth academy and the things that happened there combined with Frederick's story,  that would have made for beyond-excellent, gut-wrenching reading.  

On the other hand, I wasn't too far into the novel before I realized that overall, this is a YA story set in Occupied France. I'm not very fond of YA novels as a general rule, and as the whole book is playing out I'm seeing the movie running through my head with the brightest young stars of today (I don't know who they are since I don't really watch this sort of thing) playing the lead roles of Werner and Marie-Laure.  Second, and in one of the most unforgivable aspects of this novel, I knew exactly how this story was going to play out, after Marie-Laure's great-uncle Etienne revealed himself as the voice behind the radio broadcasts Werner and Jutta used to listen to as children.  Considering that that happens on page 159, there really isn't much left in the way of surprises in this book.  Third, I don't get the way the author cut his story timewise.  Normally time shifts don't bother me, but this time around I found myself having to go backwards in the novel to remember what happened in what year.  It's jagged and extremely disconcerting, but even worse, it makes absolutely NO SENSE.  

Yes, yes, I know, it's one of everyone's favorite books, but it definitely wasn't one of mine.  I also figure I'll be the only one not going gaga over it at this month's book group meeting, opening myself up to whatever scorn the rest of the women want to heap upon me.  Sorry - I just can't help it. 

Here's The New Republic's Review, a bit of a naysayer, while Amanda Vaill at the Washington Post thinks otherwise.  

Thursday, September 3, 2015

*Venus in Boston and Other Tales of Nineteenth-Century Life, by George Thompson

University of Massachusetts Press, 2002
391 pp


Now here's a book you probably won't find on your American literature course syllabus, which in my opinion, is just a shame.  Stick with your Melville; I love this stuff. Then again, I love pretty much anything off the beaten path.

This particular edition is actually three books in one volume: Venus in Boston: A Romance of City Life (1849), City Crimes: or Life in New York and Boston (1849) and My Life: or The Adventures of Geo. Thompson, Being the Auto-Biography of an Author, Written by Himself (1854).  As a whole I'd call it a mix of contemporary soft porn and sensation fiction; it also adds several elements of  gothic and of extremely lurid crime writing.  City Crimes, for example, takes its readers into secret tunnels under the streets of New York, into an entire world that is more or less what I think of when I hear the phrase "the bowels of hell."

Author George Thompson (1823-73)  among his other talents, was a writer of explicit  "pamphlet novels;" according to David Reynolds in his Beneath the American Renaissance, he "is reported to have written nearly a hundred novels, which enjoyed a lively sale in their day."  (219)  He also contributed titillating tales to a weekly newspaper of the 1850s called Venus' Miscellany, a page of which can be found here, discovered while looking at a page from the Princeton Library Website.  His books, termed "city mysteries"  were largely directed at the working class, and as Reynolds notes in the introduction to Venus in Boston, Thompson
 "catered to the antebellum public's thirst for sex and violence while exposing hypocrisy and corruption of the part of the nation's ruling class." 
After reading two of them, I'm not surprised that they "enjoyed a lively sale" ... sheesh!

 The first of these, Venus in Boston,  starts out with sweet, beautiful little orphan Fanny Aubrey selling fruit on the streets to support her younger brother and ailing grandfather who makes a small living as a basket maker.  On a slow day, she is found weeping by an older gent who takes pity on her and ultimately becomes acquainted with her family. This is Grimsby, who will also play a huge role in Fanny's life down the road.  On another day, Fanny becomes the object of pity of a young woman, who hands her "a bright gold coin." Sadly for our heroine, on her way home she has an encounter with a group of "apple girls," "usually from ten to fifteen years of age...proverbial for their vicious propensities and dishonesty."  They are also generally "brought up in vice from their infancy."  The worst of these girls is Sow Nance, a fifteen year old who pretends to feel badly for Fanny, and offers to take her to a "nice gentleman" who will buy all of the fruit in her basket.  Luckily, Fanny's virtue remains intact despite the nefarious plans of this "nice gentleman," but she becomes from then on the object of his lust.  But the real story begins after the death of Fanny's grandfather when she is sort of adopted into the family of the young girl who had earlier given her the gold coin.  That's when the reader begins to encounter one of the main themes that run throughout this book and the two others in this edition, as Thompson sets out to reveal what lies beneath the surface of both the ladies and gentlemen in his tales.  As he says in his City Crimes, 
"...we prefer to depict human nature as it is not as it should be..." 
and he has no qualms in getting right to the point.  There are the usual seducers and wolves in rich men's clothing to be found here, but there are also, as Reynolds notes in his introduction, women who are "unapologetic and open in their declarations of sexual desire."  More than once characters appear who are left sexually unsatisfied by their husbands; there are "fallen" women as well as upper-class, gentile women "whose sexual hunger is virtually insatiable." Here, women's sexuality definitely constitutes both power and danger,  but at least Thompson brings it out into the open. Women's sexual desire and their openness about it runs through both novels, but much more so in City Crimes, where Thompson lets his characters run with it. City Crimes, by the way, is the much racier of the two; Thompson really outdoes himself in that one.  

from, in Venus in Boston, by George Thompson
Reynolds points out that in these books are to be found
"a wealth of images of women and female sexuality as well as of a variety of ethnic groups, including African Americans, Jews, and Irish and German immigrants,"
which are most definitely "often sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic," but he cautions not to discount these "city mysteries," which are, as he notes, a "witch's brew of crime, eroticism and social protest."  He offers a number of reasons, of which I'll discuss three. First, in terms of scholarship, they are texts that can be viewed as a "valuable source of popular conceptions of class identity and class relations in this period." Second, many well-known authors (citing Melville, Poe and Hawthorne as just three examples) were "influenced" by this sort of thing, and finally, reading these texts reveals that there's another side to the sexism and racism in these tales -- they often add to an "understanding of social injustice" of the time.

 I do see that here, but at the same time, I can see how these books would be tough to read given modern attitudes, so I'd say give them a try and try to look at them as an example of antebellum literature, given the attitudes of the day. There were so many parts that went so over the top in terms of melodrama that you can't help but laugh or at least do the eyeroll, but I will say that I'm happy to have read it, as a) it seems to be a rather obscure book and b) it's always interesting to know what people were reading at the time.

Tread slowly -- and take into consideration the cultural/historical context of this novel if you pick it up.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

book one, booker prize longlist 2015: The Chimes, by Anna Smaill

Sceptre/Hodder & Stoughton, 2015
289 pp


"Out of dischord's ashes, harmony will rise."

If ever there was a novel that left me completely torn in my reaction to it, it's this one.  It is written in a unique style that left me floored in a good way, and there were several individual scenes that just blew me away, one in particular that I'll mention briefly.  The other side of that coin is that to me the originality of the writing doesn't really disguise the fact that the plot turned out to be a bit familiar, so much so for me that there came a time where I could already figure out what was going to happen at the end.  And that's such a shame. I was really invested in the story and in the main characters right up until the point where I thought, "well, jeez...I know how this is going to come out."  

The Chimes takes place either well into the future or in an alternative London.  Which ever you'd like to choose,  society there has come to a point where there is no written word (known as code, which can be seen here and there but not understood),  where a group known as "The Order" rules, and where an instrument called "the Carillon" is played every day on a certain schedule.  At Matins the populace hears "Onestory," which the main character understands as the "burden, the constant truth beneath everything," which musically relates how things came to be the way they are because of the "Allbreaking," or the event that created the division between the past and present. Then some time later at Vespers comes "Chimes," the purpose of which I'll leave it to others to discover.  Oh yes. One more thing.  In this London memory, both individual and collective, does not exist; people still have "bodymemory" but the past is lost.  Anything before is "blasphony;"  the Order ensures the lack of past memories so that society functions only in the present.

The Chimes is the story of a teenaged boy named Simon, who leaves his home in Essex because there's something he needs to do in London.  An orphan, he carries with him his bag of memories. Upon his arrival he makes his way to where he thinks is the place to go, but is sent away.  He makes his way to the river where he meets a group known as the Five Rover pact, who prospect for pieces of "mettle" called "The Lady."  The Lady is then sold so that the pact can purchase necessities; from the market it goes to The Order for its own purposes.  Inwardly Simon struggles to remember his past, but in a society where yesterday is totally forgotten each day, it's not easy. He does have his bag of objectmemories, giving him little bits of insight,
"that's where you keep the pictures of what happened, stored in scraps and oddments salvaged from passing days.  When I hold them, the objects, the pictures come up. My whole life is in my bag. Bits of my childhood. Pieces of the last days on the farm. Everything I ever thought important enough to keep."
but the next day starts everything over again.

  It is when he hooks up with this pact that Simon will meet Lucien, who sees something unique in Simon, and a very special friendship develops between the two that will have consequences for the future. That's all I'll say about the plot because in this case, telling is spoiling.  There is one scene that I absolutely loved that really brings the big ideas of this novel to the forefront, taking place after Simon and Lucien leave the city in search of an elderly woman living in an old house overflowing with things people have entrusted to her so that memory is not entirely lost. It turns out to be a very poignant scene, where memories are both good and bad; the woman is one of the few who can recall other people's memories through their objectmemories. 

Obviously the big idea in this novel is the importance of memory, both individually and on a larger, societal basis. In many ways, the themes of memory, harmony, and cohesion reminded me of  Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant. Unlike that book, or frankly, any other I've ever read however, the author uses a unique way to tell her story, and that is through the ingenious and original use of music as language, and her use of musical terminology. As just one example,
"Lucien is very still now, but his eyes are moving smoothly. He's looking up and down and to the sides in a way that seems like he's testing them. He blinks: lento, lento, then presto."
Music recalls the paths through the "Under," beats become important for helping to guide the way to and from places; the city itself is "talking in music." The pact has its own musical codes; music is also used by The Order for communication to all, both in terms of the regular routines mentioned above and for signaling to the public, as for example when Simon and Lucien are in hiding and being sought.  It is such an innovative touch and despite what other readers have said about taking a long time to adjust, I had no problem at all -- it was easy for me to settle in pretty much right away. Gimmicky, maybe a bit, but to me, it was a unique form of expression at work here.

If so far it's pretty obvious that this book is very different and in many ways unique, why would I be bothered by it?   It wasn't long past the midpoint of the novel where something clicked  and I realized I've been down this road before not just once, but many times before. It was sort of disappointing because while the writing style was so original, in terms of the much bigger picture the framework of the story was not.  While there's much to be said about the originality of the setting, the characters, the centrality of the emphasis on music and other aspects unique to this novel,  the fact is that as the direction of the story itself started to become clearer, I kept thinking that this was all starting to sound very familiar.   So I'm left torn here: I loved the writing, the overall atmosphere and feel of her London, and I became quite invested in her people.   At  the same time, however,  the feeling of déjà vu and the fact that I knew the barebones of what was coming  was very disconcerting and a bit offputting, to say the least.   I was left thinking that originality of the writing should be matched by an original story framework and well, in my opinion, that just wasn't the case.  

From what I can see, aside from that initial shock of getting past the author's unique, musically-focused writing style, reader responses have been generally positive.  So maybe my issues are just mine, but I walk away with the feeling of  probably not being as quite enthralled with The Chimes as I maybe might have been otherwise.