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(note: original is an unpublished manuscript, 1840s)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.