Tuesday, January 27, 2015

here's something else I never expected

I just went to see what's coming to me this time around from Powell's Indiespensable Program and was kind of, no, strike that, surprisingly shocked that they are no longer taking subscriptions for Indiespensable.  This is my favorite book subscription program -- not only do you get the scheduled signed first edition, but you also get an eclectic range of  local goodies included in the package. I've received such cool stuff as  boutique chocolate, salted caramel ice cream sauce,  a tote bag, advanced reader copies of books, tea, coffee, etc, pretty much anything locally made except Oregon or Pacific Northwest microbrews.  I guess it's become so popular that they're having to scale back on the program.  Good for Powell's, but not so good for all of the people I've told about Indiespensable.

spontaneous human combustion --

Now here's something I never thought I'd run across again after having read Bleak House -- spontaneous human combustion.  In my current novel, a man goes to pray and the next thing you know, he's spontaneously combusted.  So I went in search of other literary works where spontaneous human combustion takes place and found a few at a website called Hooting Yard:

The narrator’s father in Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown (1798)
William the Testy in Knickerbocker’s History Of New York by Washington Irving (1809)
A woman in Jacob Faithful by Captain Marryat (1834)
A blacksmith in Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842)
Sir Polloxfen Tremens in The Glenmutchkin Railway by William Edmondstoune Aytoun (1845)
The sailor Miguel Saveda in Redburn by Herman Melville (1849)
Mr Krook in Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1852-53)
The whisky-sodden and derelict Jimmy Flinn in Life On The Mississippiby Mark Twain (1883)
A character in Docteur Pascal by Emile Zola (1893)
The list does not include the female cook in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), who was merely “in a frame of mind and body threatening spontaneous combustion”.
Anyone else aware of any other works where this occurs? I'd be interested. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

if you're looking for something waaaay out of the ordinary, try this: Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, by Frances Larson

Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2014
317 pp


I discovered this book a while ago while reading the "Briefly Noted" book section in the New Yorker.  I knew I had to have it, so I bought it the same day and started reading it as soon as it arrived. 

This book deals with, as part of a back-cover blurb notes, 
"Heads as prizes, heads as art, heads as objects of instruction, heads as symbols of triumph over enemies"
but that little bit doesn't even begin to describe it.  Over the course of several chapters, the author chronicles the history of shrunken heads, of heads taken as trophies, of beheading as a spectacle and severed heads as objects of power, about the fascination of heads used in art, the heads (and other body parts) of saints used as relics, of the study of heads and pseudoscience (phrenology, etc) and in real science (as tools for medical students), and finally, in a chapter called "Living Heads," which in part, explores the scientific (and other) attempts to determine how long the head lives after being severed, as well as the fascination people have with keeping their head alive so a body can be reattached when science has advanced beyond its current capabilities.  All of this is put together to explore the significance of the head in the history of western civilization  -- including the social detachment that goes along with the physical. 

It's not only well written, but the author, who definitely has done some fine work here,  has made her history extremely reader friendly and very accessible. 

It's a weird subject, but as I'm sure you may agree, sadly relevant to our times.  

I've posted about this book on the nonfiction page -- and I definitely recommend it. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

*The Power of Sympathy, by William Hill Brown

digireads, 2011
89 pp

originally published 1789

"...Nature still presides.
And Sympathy unites, whom Fate divides."

Having now finished The Power of Sympathy, I've read what appears to be the first novel to have been published in America. Like the later The Coquette and The Boarding School, The Power of Sympathy is related through a series of letters.  Another similarity between this book and The Coquette is that the author uses a true-life "seduction" scandal as a basis for part of this work; the education of women also ties these books together.  The action in this novel occurs in Boston; the author borrowed the scandalous bits from a widely-publicized story that took place in Rhode Island.

We get a little taste of what's going to happen in the preface.  The author bemoans the fact that the novels that "have ever met with a ready reception into the libraries of the ladies" are read for amusement but that they contain no "particular idea," and "not beneficial."  He states here that his novel will counter that trend and provide something more morally meaningful -- in his book,
"the dangerous consequences of seduction are exposed, and the advantages of female education set forth and recommended." 
As things play out, the dangers of seduction are made very clear, as is the message that its consequences transcend the players and carry forth into the next generation.  But there is more, much more to be found in this book.

So here's where having no clue about earlier English literature becomes my downfall. Many of the quotations in this novel refer to Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, as does the title itself.  Oops. Never read it. Uh-oh. So I'm punting here.   While it seems to me that the "power of sympathy" alluded to in the title has a great deal to do with how the characters are called upon not to condemn but to show some measure of compassion and understanding  toward the sad fates of the  ill-fated lovers in this book (and in the case of weighing the situation before pronouncing sentence on the seducer)  it also seems  to call for a more emotionally-charged approach when one speaks of such ills as slavery in a new nation where as one of the characters puts it,
"all men are declared free and equal, and their tempers are open, generous and communicative."
It also seems to imply the need for more of a collective responsibility  in bringing about the changes in the status quo to bring about some measure of hope for the future.

While the seduction tales, which I won't go into since someone just might be interested in reading this book later,  are indeed quite prominent, they are only a part of what  is going on in this book.  One very big part of this novel has to do with the education of women.  In one notable scene (Letter XI from Mrs. Holmes  to young Myra Harrington)  Mrs. Holmes recounts a visit from a Mrs. Bourn and her daughter. Mrs. Bourn asks the gathered company which type of  books they might recommend for her fourteen year-old daughter, beginning a conversation about reading for their personal and social edification. As one might guess, the novel is not the correct choice.   As one of the older men notes,
"Most of the Novels ... with which are female libraries are overrun, are built on a foundation not always placed on strict morality, and in the pursuit of objects not always probable or praiseworthy. Novels, not regulated on the chaste principles of true friendship, rational love, and connubial duty, appear to me totally unfit to form the minds of women, of friends, or of wives."
It appears that books which will aid in forming "an estimate of the various topics discussed in company; and to bear a part in all those conversations which belong to your sex"  are the most acceptable.  As a way to make his point, the letter writer's father-in-law then goes on to illustrate the evil of having a "poetical imagination," using the case of Elizabeth Whitman, "a great reader of novels" (and the disguised subject of The Coquette) whose "airy talents, not counterpoised with judgment, or perhaps serious reflection, instead of adding to her happiness, were the cause of her ruin."   The study of history and poetry is recommended; satire is okay too as long as the female reader can be discerning.  In a later letter, young Myra is advised that women should "habituate" their minds to "remark the truth between truth and fiction," to make them "capable of deducing the most profitable lessons of instruction." In short -- it seems that the responsibility for moral instruction is to fall on the women of this new country.

Sarah Apthorp-Morton, the wronged party in the scandal that rocked Rhode Island in 1788, upon whose story this book is partially based. 
Another topic of interest that should be mentioned is the way "American" is  separated from  "British" or "European." Considering that this book was published in 1789, and that less than a month after its publication George Washington was chosen by the first electoral college, it's clear that at least to the author, there's a  sort of imperative for Americans to assert their own identity.  He touches on this in Letter XXX from Mrs. Holmes to Myra where Mrs. Holmes heaps scorn on the "ridicule" of "learned ladies," saying that it's a transatlantic idea, which must have "been imbibed from the source of some English novel or Magazine." She goes on to say quite proudly  that
"The American ladies of this class, who come within our knowledge, we know to be justly celebrated as ornaments to our society, and an honour to the sex."
Continuing, she makes the point that it's a pity that "American" literature boasts so few productions from the pens of the ladies. This theme of being "American" and having a decidedly American culture  is picked up here and there throughout the book.

Considering that there are only 89 pages in this book, it did take a while to read mostly due to language. I had moments where I'd sit down with a pen and paper and actually translate passages into present-day English just to make sure I'd understood what was being said.  There's an entire letter, for example, going on and on and on about a young man's joy at his objet d'amour admitting her feelings toward him when in our modern parlance he would have simply stated "Oh, she loves me! How cool is that!"  It's also interesting to me that the three books I've read so far, The Coquette, The Boarding School and now The Power of Sympathy, are novels that focus on women's education not just in the intellectual sense, but also in terms of its role in making them wiser and more discerning when difficult or otherwise untenable situations arise.

I am very sure I've missed a lot in this book since I feel hampered by a lack of familiarity with its literary antecedents, but that's okay -- I'm not a literary scholar, nor do I pretend to be. This is after all, for me a kind of exploratory project at a casual-reader level.  At the same time, despite its didactic and often melodramatic moments, I actually ended up enjoying this book. I don't know if it's the kind of novel most people would want to read nowadays because of the flowery, overblown sort of language we're not really used to, and because the whole "dangers of seduction" thing really doesn't seem very relevant to modern readers. However, if this period of American history is of interest to anyone, The Power of Sympathy might be a book someone might want to read.

next up is Wieland, a novel by Charles Brockden Brown, written in 1798.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Blood-Drenched Beard, by Daniel Galera

Penguin, 2015
374 pp
originally published as Barba Ensopada de sangue, 2012
translated by Alison Entrekin

(read December, 2014)

"... A myth contains some sort of truth, no matter how obscure, about the challenges and meanings of life."

arc from the publishers (and a beautiful finished copy as well) - my sincere thanks.

I wish I had the time to go back and read this book again because one time through just isn't enough.  There's so much here, beginning with a suicide foretold and the revelation that the main (unnamed) character's grandfather was killed quite possibly by an entire village who then may have proceeded to cover up the incident.  Aha! I said to myself, a mystery story -- right up my alley. But I was wrong. While there is an element of mystery in Blood-Drenched Beard, it's really the frame for a story that examines connections through the eyes of the main character, someone who suffers from a strange affliction called prosopagnosia, a condition in which a person cannot recognize faces.

Set in Brazil, it is during a visit to his father that the unnamed young man learns two things. The  first bit of news he receives is that his short-fused grandfather died in a small fishing village called Garopaba. The revelation is a bit of a shock, as his father had repeatedly told him he had no idea how or where he'd died. As it turns out, the grandfather had only been there for two years before "they killed him."  The young man's  father never saw the body, only an "awful stone with no name on it," leaving him "never really convinced."  The second shock he receives is his father's announcement that he's planning on killing himself the next day and that he wants his son to take care of his dog.  It isn't long afterward that the young man, along with the dog, is looking for a place to live in Garopaba, where he hopes to find out what really happened to his grandfather. There he discovers that memories run deep -- and finds himself an unwelcome visitor when he starts asking questions.  But during what starts out as a quest, so to speak, to discover the truth,  he ends up finding out more than he'd bargained for, mainly about himself.

If  the mystery behind the grandfather's death was the sum total of this novel, it would still be good, but Galera launches out into territory well beyond the expected.  One of the biggest ideas that runs throughout this entire book is the connection between  people around whom stories/myths are created and the basis of these legends that are found in the reality and ordinary challenges of  living.  This is especially true in this little seaside village, where memories of the past tend to loom larger than life for those who've been there most of their lives. But memory can have its limitations, another idea found in this novel.

The bulk of Blood-Drenched Beard is composed of events in the daily life of the  unnamed main character. Aside from the problems inherent in living with his condition, he also has family issues dogging him, complications with the women in his life, and then there's how he's perceived by the locals in Garopaba.   One of the things I enjoyed most about this book is that since he has problems recognizing faces, he can only remember people through clues like the way someone wears his or her hair, or gestures they make, ways of speaking, etc., all described to the reader so that eventually what starts to come across is a feel for the small details that separate human beings from each other.

While there are also moments where things sort of slow down and just plain lag,  the story is beyond excellent, and there's some quality of the author's style that I can't really explain that impressed me.   I was not in a hurry to get to the ending just because I was sort of loving the way he writes. I know that sounds kind of stupid, and if I saw that sentence in a professional/critical review, I'd probably roll my eyes, but in my case, it's true.  There's just something in his imagery that appeals.

Blood-Drenched Beard is not one of those books that everyone's going to fall in love with, and that's okay. I am one of those people who reads to appreciate what's inside someone's head, and this book does that and does it very well.  Frankly, I was downright impressed with this author's talent and if his other novels are anywhere close to this good, someone should be translating more of his works. I can't thank Brooke at Penguin enough for asking me if I might be interested in reading this book.

 Just one more thing.  Early on in the novel the main character's father advises him to read Borges' short story "The South," and after finishing this novel, I did just that. I advise anyone who is a Borges fan to do the same.

Friday, January 16, 2015

*kicking off the search for the great american novel: The Coquette and The Boarding School, by Hannah Webster Foster (ed. Jennifer Harris, Bryan Waterman)

W.W. Norton, 2013
435 pp

The Coquette -- 1797
The Boarding School -- 1798


first things first -- the author:

Hannah Webster Foster was born in 1758 and lost her mother at the age of seven. Very little of Foster's life is known, but in a nutshell, after completing her education, she became a part of Boston's literary scene.  In 1785 she married Reverend John Foster, and then moved to Brighton, Massachusetts. She had six children and did her duties as mother and the wife of a minister, but still somehow found time to write.  She kept literary ties with Boston, but after her husband's death in 1829, she moved to Montreal, and died at the age of 81 in 1840. Foster served as an inspiration to a number of women writers, including her own daughters.

the book:

In this edition, 263 pages belong to Foster's actual works The Coquette and The Boarding School.   These are followed by a section that puts The Coquette into better perspective by examining the real-life woman (Elizabeth Whitman) upon whom Foster's main character (Eliza Wharton)  is based: first, through her actual letters, then there is an account of the newspaper articles that covered this woman's death. These are followed by a small excerpt from an earlier work called The Power of Sympathy, by William Hill Brown (which I'm planning to read next)  that includes a mention of Elizabeth Whitman, and a poem by "the late unfortunate Miss Whitman" herself.  A third section explores Foster's "Nineteeth-Century Legacy," and finally, section four explores various scholarly works of commentary on and criticism of the two books contained in this volume.


Told in epistolary format and from multiple points of view that allows for a much more candid perspective from the letter writers, on the surface The Coquette reads like a story about a girl from a good family in Boston, someone from a high level of society, who falls for a bad boy who is known to use women then toss them aside.  The titular "coquette" is Eliza Wharton, who, as the story opens suddenly finds herself with some measure of independence after the man she was to marry dies. Mr. Haly, her intended, was not Eliza's choice as husband, instead, their would-be union was decided for her and because of her "nature and education," it had been "instilled" in her mind that she should be obedient "to the will and desires" of her parents.  Eliza goes to New Haven where she is introduced to Mr. Boyer, another reverend who soon starts wooing her, to the delight of the friends with whom she's staying.  But Eliza's mind is on having fun and enjoying her independence.  When she receives an invitation to a ball from a Major Sanford, she accepts.  While Boyer has marriage on his mind, Sanford is thinking something entirely different; Eliza keeps Boyer at arm's length  Eliza's family and friends all try to warn her off and to promote the virtues of Mr. Boyer as a potential husband; she however isn't ready to settle and has other ideas about her exploring her newly-found freedom. 

As I said, there's the story on the surface and then there's what lies underneath. Since this book has been studied, analyzed and re-analyzed by scholars, I'll just offer a few themes I picked up on here.  First, there's the concept of freedom and independence, timely in a Colonial America that by the time of The Coquette's publication had only won its freedom a decade or so earlier -- what does those terms mean exactly, especially given one's gender and social status? Does one need to set limits on freedom?  Another message that comes through loud and clear is the often-oppressive expectations  of society vis a vis women's roles, and the standards that differ between men and women.  For example, while Eliza slowly comes to be known as a "coquette" -- in modern parlance, a flirt, which she is most definitely not but rather  a woman who wants to take her time before making any sort of commitment --   she finds herself being chastised by her friends, by Boyer, by her own mother; on the other hand, Sanford, who is referred to as a "rake" or "libertine"  may be looked down upon in some circles, but he's still invited to parties, to dinners, and able to court the daughter of a wealthy man whom he eventually marries for her money.  The scholars at the end of the volume do an excellent job in pointing out even more thematic material regarding this book, and there are entire websites dedicated to Hannah Foster Webster and her writing. 

the original gravestone and the more modern one for the real-life Eliza Wharton, Elizabeth Whitman

The use of letters here highlights  the closeness and long-standing strong friendships between females, allowing for them to be much more candid and straightforward with each other in their thoughts via the written word, which is one of the precepts taught by the headmistress in The Boarding School, the second story in this volume.  Not nearly as enjoyable as The Coquette, it is, however, its perfect companion.  Actually, in many ways, I felt like The Boarding School should have been presented first; by the time I got to The Boarding School, in many ways it felt like a bit of a rehash of many of the ideas presented in The Coquette.  The basic premise is that a group of young ladies are have finished their education at a school run by a Mrs. Williams which they've named Harmony Grove,  and are now called to attend several talks 
"more especially designed to polish the mental part, to call forth the dormant virtues, to unite and arrange the charms of person and mind, to inspire a due sense of decorum and property, and to instil (sic) such principles of piety, morality, benevolence, prudence and economy, as might be useful through life."  
In short, whatever Mrs. Williams felt "tended to enlarge, inform, improve, or amuse, she supposed worthy their attention."

Mrs. Williams would meet with these young ladies over the course of a week, and would provide discourse on several topics:  reading (where she expounded upon the specific dangers of reading novels), writing and arithmetic (and how it is beneficial to society for a young woman to have these skills), music and dancing,  miscellaneous directions for the government of the temper and manners, dress, politeness, amusements, filial and fraternal affection, friendship, love, and finally, religion.  During each and every one of these talks, she would provide advice, and then provide a parable about  someone who went against the grain of these teachings, then contrast that person's woes with someone who did as advised and went on to have a happy, fulfilling life.  The goal, it seems, is that these girls would remember her advice and when back home, would find themselves (or, as shown in the second part of this little book) or others in a particular situation where Mrs. Williams' words would come to mind and act accordingly. After leaving the school, the girls send letters to each other, describing this very thing, recalling what they'd learned at school and how the advice they'd received served them well.  

Harmony Grove is an interesting place designed to foster not only the intellectual, but to also bolster the bonds between the girls who attended.  Reading it only at the surface  seems to yield nothing but advice on how to conduct oneself in the real world to which the girls will be returning.  However, looking a little more deeply, it seems that  these girls are learning how to depend on themselves and on each other as women who can turn to each other for support after their school days are over, in effect, allowing them to learn to become ever so slightly independent of men to a certain degree.  Again, the author promotes letter writing as the perfect vehicle of expression of their views. 

The Coquette and The Boarding School  is my first true foray into the world of the writing of Colonial America, and I have to say that I was surprised that I enjoyed it so much. The Coquette is much more like a novel, and while modern readers may find it quite tame and wonder what's the big deal in terms of subject matter, it is  definitely worth reading for reasons mentioned above.  The epistolary format was actually a perfect way to get inside the characters' heads and although written some 200-plus years ago, it is very easy to read. The Boarding School is also worthwhile reading, although I wasn't nearly as fond of it as I was of The Coquette.     I have to say I was telling someone about this book to someone last week and they told me my face actually lit up while talking about it.  If I had the time, I'd spend a lot of hours thoroughly researching and reading about each of these works, but time is a valuable commodity right now, and I need to be moving on. The Power of Sympathy by William Hill Brown is next on deck, and I hope it's even half as enjoyable as this book. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

Island Fog, by John Vanderslice

Lavender Ink
288 p


[fyi: this is not one of the books I've pegged in my search for the great American novel this year, but it's definitely one I won't forget.]

I'm going to do something I never do here which is to start with what others have said about this book.  I've seen reviews where people have stated that this collection of short stories reminds them of the writings of Poe, Conan-Doyle, Steinbeck, Hitchcock(?), Faulkner, Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson, none of which I found to be the case. The author, John Vanderslice, has a unique voice of his own, something that becomes evident while reading the first story.  I don't often read short stories except for in dark fiction/horror (which I think is the perfect vehicle for that genre), but when I do, if I can't get past the opener, I put the book down & think about maybe coming back to it sometime in the future.  That didn't happen here. And with only a few bumpy spots along the way, the strong start to this collection was reinforced by the terrific writing that continued over the course of the book.  It's a book that still haunts me after having finished it. 

There are eleven stories in this book that are united by the virtue of being set on the island of Nantucket, where  history moves from 1795 to the present. Another binding element is that the main characters in each and every story come to some sort of personal and yet disturbing revelations that leave the reader feeling just a bit off kilter afterwards, and this tone establishes itself in the first story and doesn't let up for a moment. It's also a book that is tinged with more than hints of sadness and despair.    I won't go into each and every story, but the first tale, "Guilty Look," sets that tone in a  tale about an investigation into a bank robbery, one  based on a true event (btw, don't click that link until after you've read the story),  and one that should end up leaving you with hackles raised on your neck as you realize exactly what's happening here.  My personal  favorite is "Taste,"  the story of an ex-whaling ship captain who, when faced with death on the high seas, has done what many a sailor has done in his place. Think Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea  or Owen Chase's firsthand account called The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex,  and you get the drift. Years later in 1846,  he still hasn't gotten over the incident, suffering from the equivalent of PTSD for years  and leaving his emotional trauma to manifest itself in a very bizarre, horrific and ultimately heartbreaking way. 

Five of these stories are definitely more historical in nature:  "Guilty Look" deals with a real robbery but it also incorporates the irony of the slow-building Quaker domination over all aspects of society; "King Philip's War" relives the clashes between Native Americans and white settlers in its own way; "On Cherry Street" and "Taste" center around Nantucket's whaling industry, and  "How Long Will You Tarry" raises the ugly specter of racism. The others have a more personal, less-historical flavor but are as well written as the first group of stories, although my favorites were most definitely among the first five. All of these stories manage to get into the heads of the characters -- and it is never pretty. Who would have thought that an island where the beautiful people go for pleasure would hide so much darkness? 

I'm become very leery at taking on works from a press I've never heard of, but in this case it was a gamble won. More than anything,  I loved the disturbing tone of these tales that often (especially in the last story, "Island Fog") move into the realm of the strange; the historical aspect of  this collection also appealed to me in a big way. It's definitely a book that will stay with me for a very long while. 


I read this for and would like to thank TLC book tours,  and my thanks to the author for my copy. 

I'm the first of many readers, so if you'd care to follow this book as it makes the rounds, click here for  the schedule.