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.