Tuesday, March 31, 2015

April: still hovering in America of the 19th century; March wrap-up

Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables

I suppose I sort of lost track of my main reading objective for March, which is still 19th century American novels, but I spent the month with some incredible books, so it's okay.  Now I'm going to get serious again and get back into Hope Leslie, by Catherine Maria Sedgwick, which I've barely touched.  So far, it's pretty good, and takes the reader away from the main colonial cities and off into what was considered the frontier at the time, complete with Native Americans and personal hardship.  What got in the way of my goal, one might ask? Well, here's the rundown.

*Kelroy, by Rebecca Rush
The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion 
Song for an Approaching Storm, by Peter Fröberg Idling (thoughts coming soon - in the meantime, I felt it was an excellent novel. Kudos to Pushkin Press for publishing it.)

A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes
The House of Wolfe, by James Carlos Blake
Swimming in the Dark, by Paddy Richardson
Harriet, by Elizabeth Jenkins (obscure crime writer project)
The Big Clock, by Kenneth Fearing
The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy

strange/weird/horror fiction:
Nazareth Hill, by Ramsey Campbell 
The Feast of Bacchus, by Ernest Henham ( haven't posted about this book yet, but it's exceptionally good)
The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink (another not discussed -- coming soon)

Currently reading:
nf: Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse, by Stanley Meisler
crime: A Cold Coming, by Mary Kelly
literature: Hope Leslie, by Catherine Maria Sedgwick

--- other stuff

  • the book group read The Rosie Project, which is something I normally wouldn't have read on my own, but I felt the group deserved an easy, light read after last month's The Night Guest. One of the group even said "this definitely isn't a Nancy book." To me, it read like a romantic screwball chick-lit comedy that was hoping to become a movie. And it did. Not my cuppa.
  • ...and the books keep coming to the door, thanks largely to Valancourt Books, whose work in bringing back old novels is beyond outstanding.  Every time they post about a new book they've published, I cringe because I just know I'll have to buy it.  They're that good. I now have a dedicated Valancourt shelf in my dark fiction/horror/weird fiction shelves. 
  • I gave away a TON of novels this month due to lack of shelf space.  My house is mostly huge windows and wall space, therefore shelf space, is at a premium, so there will be plenty more to come. Right now: I have a hardcover copy of The Rosie Project  that needs a home. Anyone in the US who wants this one, it's yours.  Maybe you want to read it ahead of the movie release -- just leave a comment and it will be on its way to your home - free.
that's my March - looking forward to getting back on track in April. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

*Kelroy, by Rebecca Rush

Oxford University Press, 1992
originally published 1812
194 pp


This story may have just been the Mommie Dearest of its day.  Forget evil stepmothers -- the mother in this book is about as nasty as they come. If ever there was a time when I wanted to reach into the pages of a book and slap someone, it was while reading Kelroy, by Rebecca Rush.  The truly awful thing is that I can actually understand why she did what she did, given the context of the time.

Kelroy is set in Philadelphia, and begins with a woman (Mrs. Hammond) who finds herself in bad financial straits when her  husband dies. Emigrating earlier from England to America, he had become quite successful and tended to live well beyond his means, having more of a reputation for wealth than actual wealth. After his death, his wife took stock, and paid off the debts he'd left behind (no more than "two thirds of the property which she held,"), paid off what she owed and found herself left with six thousand pounds and the house she lived in. Mrs. Hammond was all about appearances, and feared poverty more than anything else in life.She rented out the house and moved to the country, where she bought a "small, but elegant residence," seemingly overwrought with grief, but in reality, she was cutting back on expenses to use her money to realize a plan designed to marry off her daughters to wealthy, upper-class husbands who will provide for them (and for herself) in an upper-class lifestyle. Her daughters' looks were her insurance policy against poverty --  and everything she did from her husband's death onward had one single purpose -- to make the best, most advantageous matches for  daughters Lucy and Emily.  She has them educated at home by a governess and "masters" from the city, but she also has her own lessons to deliver:

  1. the "pleasures of wealth,"  offer "deference" to those who have it,
  2. romantic attachments --  "involuntary love" -- are an "unpardonable folly," and 
  3. last but not least, and probably most importantly, unfortunate people were in that situation because they'd brought it upon themselves and so "deserved" to be "universally shunned and forgotten."  

After four years, Mrs. Hammond makes the great "sacrifice" for her daughters and moves back to the city, where they move about  in upper-class circles.  Elder daughter Lucy by now is vain, very much into the idea of money, and thinks little of anyone but herself.  Her dear Mamma has circulated rumors here and there of her great fortune, although the expenses involved in getting her daughters ready to be married off to suitable husbands (elegant parties, dinners, dresses, the best of everything more designed for appearances sake)  has left her little ready cash to her name.  Lucy is chosen by a young English Lord Walsingham, and finding him beyond suitable, a marriage is arranged.  Emily, on the other hand, falls for one of Walsingham's friends, a young poet named Kelroy, definitely not the kind of man Mrs. Hammond believes she can profit from through marriage to her daughter.  After Emily falls hard for Kelroy, the rest of the novel follows our Mommie Dearest,  who refuses to stand idly by and watch her own plans go awry.

To me, Kelroy serves in large part as a commentary on social class and on class pretensions. For example, there's one very nicely-composed scene depicting an interaction between Emily and her friends and a nouveau-riche, formerly working-class family named Gurnet.  The Gurnets have absolutely no concept of gentility, yet when Emily and friends come to visit, they try to impress upon Emily's party that they too know their manners, are educated in the arts, respect nice things -- and in doing so accomplish exactly the opposite.  Mrs. Hammond herself has a place among the upper class simply because of her dead husband's fortune, but because of his debts, finds herself in a position where she has to fight to keep her status.  Her daughters are her investments and are treated as such by her.  All of the money she's put into the girls and,  more importantly to her, into  keeping up the appearance that she actually belongs in this class, has led her into debt and a decline in her cash situation and the shopkeepers are literally knocking at her door. In all fairness, after giving this book some consideration, considering how limited her prospects and those of her daughters would have been if she had not gone to such great lengths, I can sort of understand her reasoning.  On the other hand, one would think that Lucy's marriage to an English lord, and a later change in her own fortune would have relaxed Mrs. H's  grip on Emily's future, but it does not turn out that way -- and this is what makes her truly a greedy and beyond-hypocritical villain in my eyes.

I loved this book and I am grateful that it's been reprinted and made available.  My copy is a part of a series of publications called Early American Women Writers from Oxford University Press and there are many others in this series I want to get my greedy little hands on. Of all of the books in my American novel survey so far, this one has been by far the easiest to read and to understand, and even though it was published in 1812, there's so much going on in here which, in my opinion, has some relevance for our own time.  Definitely recommended.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

March: moving into the 19th century; February wrap-up

With Alonzo and Melissa, I got pushed into the 19th century and I'm staying here for a very, very long time. I am sort of getting tired of women protecting their virtue against rakes and libertines, but  I'm enjoying the Gothics even though by today's standards they're pretty tame.  The current read is Rebecca Rush's Kelroy -- and this is a little different than the previous Gothics I've read -- where before the one person a woman could turn to for support and guidance was her mother or female guardian, in Kelroy, it's the social-climbing mother who uses her daughters as tools to maintain her own self interest.  I've just barely started and I'm totally hooked.

Looking back over the month, here's how things played out:

*Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist, by Charles  Brockden Brown
*Julia and the Illuminated Baron, by Sally Sayward Wood
*Alonzo and Melissa, by Daniel Jackson Jr.
Wolf Winter, by Cecilia Eckback

Pop. 1820, by Jim Thompson 
The Punt Murder, by Aceituna Griffin (obscure women crime writers project)

Miasma, by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (obscure women crime writers project)
The Girl Who Wasn't There, by Ferdinand von Schirach
The Long-Legged Fly, by James Sallis

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson

strange/weird/horror fiction:
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson -- if you have not read this yet, go get a copy. NOW.          -- I've earmarked this one for the book group for October 2015 .--  
At Crichton Abbey and Other Horror Stories, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Currently reading:
The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink
Kelroy, by Rebecca Rush
A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes

--- other stuff

  • the book group read The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane. Everyone was depressed by the time we finished discussing it, but without exception, it was a winner with the group.  Next up is The Rosie Project, which I haven't read, but since it's funny I chose it as a needed antidote to The Night Guest.  I'm more looking forward to April when we read Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier.  Yowza!
  • Next Saturday I get to meet Hampton Sides, who wrote one of my favorite books from last year, In the Kingdom of Ice. I hope it's a good crowd so whoever's behind this will realize that contrary to  popular belief,  here in Florida there are a few of us who don't limit our reading to  Carl Hiassen or the latest Southern romance novels. Mr. Sides will speaking about his book and doing a signing -- I'm there. Early. Like an hour early. With coffee. Front row. Eyes ears glued. First in line to get book signed. All that nerdy stuff.