Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

Riverhead Books, 2002
511 pp


It's not often I read a 500-plus page novel and manage to finish it over the course of a weekend, but Fingersmith is just the sort of book that enables that to happen.  I picked it up late Friday night and suddenly it was Sunday afternoon and I'd turned the last page.  Then I ran upstairs and grabbed my dvd of the BBC adaptation, because I wasn't quite ready to call it a day with this story.

And what a story it is! I really can't go into much detail because this is such a twisty novel that to tell would be to spoil.  It's so twisty, in fact, that I got to the first major surprise and did a huge gasp nearly making me choke on the almonds I was eating at the time.  I remember at the time thinking "that's f***ing brilliant!" but as it turns out, there were more twists to come.  The plot is about as nefarious as it gets and quite frankly, while it's not my favorite Waters novel (that's a tie between Tipping the Velvet and The Little Stranger), it had this way of lifting me from where I was back into Victorian England and to shut out the rest of the modern world while taking me there.  Okay - that's majorly cliché, but well, it is what it is.

Dustjacket material:  Fingersmith begins in the locksmith's shop at Lant Street, "in the Borough, near to the Thames." It's a poor part of London populated by thieves.  As Sue Trinder says, "We were all more or less thieves, at Lant Street," and Lant Street has been her entire world since she was a baby. She had been raised there  by a Mrs. Sucksby who was a "baby farmer," and Mrs. Sucksby was the only mother she'd ever known.  She is totally devoted to Mrs. Sucksby -- as Sue notes, "She had been paid to keep me a month; she kept me seventeen years. What's love, if that ain't?"  Sue is seventeen when one day a visitor, Dick Rivers aka "Gentleman" arrives at Lant Street with a proposition that will involve Sue in a big way.  It seems that Rivers has made the acquaintance of young and naive Maud Lilly who lives in the country with her uncle, for whom Rivers is doing a bit of a work on the uncle's collection of books. Rivers has learned that Maud stands to inherit a huge fortune when she marries.  The plan is for Sue to go to Maud as her personal maid, gain Maud's trust, and to help convince Maud to marry Rivers.  He will then get rid of Maud by stashing her safely into an insane asylum, and once Rivers has control of Maud's fortune, Sue gets a big chunk of the cash for her troubles. Sue, who's never been away from Mrs. Sucksby, isn't sure, but since the money will be a good way for her to repay Mrs. S's kindness, she decides she'll do it.

That's absolutely all I'll say about the plot because the joy of this novel is in the many twists and turns this story takes once Sue arrives at the Lilly home to help set Rivers' plan in motion.  It is an absolutely, beyond-delightful novel that as I said earlier, totally engulfed me from the beginning.  Yes, there is a ton of detail here, some of which could have been left out or pared down and yes, some of the material verges on Victorian-novel cliché, but in this case, I was too deeply wrapped up in the story itself to care, reflecting back on these issues only afterwards.  It's a page-turning novel done in Victorian style  (Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu and Dickens all came to mind immediately), and while the plot is so twisted, it's really the people here that are the main focus. And oh my gosh - Sarah Waters can write people so very well.  She can also channel Dickens very nicely in her descriptions of London streets and slums, making it no wonder to me at all that Fingersmith was nominated for the Booker Prize in its day -- seriously, I would have voted for it had I been a judge that year.

Lovely book -- my advice: forget anything critical, go into it just for the story, have fun with it, and stay away from any spoilers.  Readers like myself who are very much into older works will love it for the atmosphere; readers like myself who love Sarah Waters' novels will definitely want to read  it for her ability to lift you out of where you are while reading it. It took me long enough, but I'm so happy I finally decided to take it off my shelves and  read it!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

from the Caribbean: Shadows Move Among Them, by Edgar Mittleholzer

Peepal Tree Press, 2010
originally published 1951
350 pp


"Berkelhoost teems with passionate, residual spirits."  

Having recently discovered Mittelholzer's work (in My Bones and My Flute), I couldn't wait to revisit him again.  Luckily, Peepal Tree Press has published a few of his books, including this one.  The blurb for Shadows Move Among Them says that while reading this book it is "impossible" not to make comparisons to "the fate of the People's Temple commune at Jonestown in Guyana in 1978."  I can sort of see it -- you have in this novel the establishment of  a "utopian" community of Berkelhoost where people are free to express themselves in many different ways, but it's a place where the emphasis on "discipline" comes before everything else.  It's a good book with a story that takes time to develop but once you're in, you're hooked.

Set on the banks of the Berbice River back when this country was still known as British Guiana, the leader of this community, Reverend Harmston, has developed a  philosophy centering on taking life with "a pinch of salt," without having to "nail ourselves down to any set philosophy or flat conventions."  Newcomer Gregory Hawke, the nephew of Mrs. Harmston, has come to Berkelhoost seeking a rest -- he's burned out by the war, he may or may not have killed his wife, and he's looking to heal his nerves and seek peace in nature. When he gets there, Harmston's precocious daughter Olivia realizes that the real Gregory hasn't yet appeared, that it's "only his shadow" that is with them.  As Gregory becomes more familiar with the family and the way of life at Berkelhoost, he finds himself having to take stock of the meaning of "civilization" (the world he's just left) and "barbarism" as he's confronted with an entirely new set of values here, constructed in such a way as to be a sort of antidote to the problems of the outside world.  There's much more of course -- sex, nature, religion,  and of course, Guyanese history all have major roles  in this novel.

There's a lot of subtle humor in this novel, as well as a growing awareness that even in this utopian oasis,  all may not be as bright as it seems.  Berkelhoost is a not only a place of phantoms and shadows, but it is also a place where contradictions abound.  I found it to be an incredibly thought-provoking novel once I started noticing said contradictions and to me this was the big payoff here.

Shadows Move Among Them may not be everyone's cup of tea, but so far, I haven't been disappointed with either of the Mittelholzer novels I've read and there are more winging their way to my house as we speak.  I appreciate Peepal Tree Press taking the time to publish his work; there are still some books that haven't yet been brought back into print, but I'm hoping the Peepal folks will consider doing so. His books are definitely worth reading.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

And Other Stories: Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies, by Yuri Herrera

I'm beyond impressed with these two short books:  Signs Preceding the End of the World runs to 114 pages, while The Transmigration of Bodies comes in at 101, but don't let their brevity fool you -- they are amazing.  If I was someone thinking about becoming a writer, I'd read everything Yuri Herrera has written, scan his library shelves for his literary influences, and learn everything I possibly could from this man -- to me, his work is just plain genius. Both novels are beautifully written despite their sparse prose style, which actually makes his work all the more powerful.  A huge part of what makes his writing so appealing  is that he does not have to elaborate in any way to get his messages across to the reader; his unique use of language here conveys all it needs to. They're both absolutely brilliant and highly original; it's like the author takes elements of different genres to create something that transcends genre.  Both novels sink the reader into atmosphere from the first paragraph, and both stories work through characters whose lives land them smack in the middle of other people's lives and in certain situations that arise within the spaces they occupy.  In Signs Preceding the End of the World,

And Other Stories, 2015
originally published as Señales que precederán al fin del mundo, 2009
translated by Lisa Dillman
114 pp

we view a nearly mythical journey taken by Makina, who works as her small town's switchboard operator, and who is asked by her mother to deliver a message to her brother necessitating a journey across the border. In The Transmigration of Bodies, a man known as The Redeemer

And Other Stories, 2016
originally published as La Transmigración de los cuerpos, 2013
translated by Lisa Dillman
101 pp
acts a go-between to ensure the safe exchange of the bodies of two young people to return them to their families.  He has gathered a reputation as someone who fixes people's situations, someone whose handling of matters allowed his clients to have "kept their hands clean of certain matters" earning him their gratitude and respect in return.  

Signs begins with the literal exposure of the underworld,  as a sinkhole opens and swallows a man, a car and a dog in a town that is "riddled with bullet holes and tunnels bored by five centuries of voracious silver dust."  As Makina watches, we watch her moving ever so slowly away from the edge of the hole.  Her journey to find her brother is covered in nine chapters, bringing to my mind Virgil guiding Dante through the nine circles.  As she moves from point to point we are brought into a story of immigration and its uncertainties, crime and violence, borders, and more, all so nicely done in such a short space.  This book doesn't need to be any longer to get its messages across; the same is true with The Transmigration of Bodies.  Once again, in this book the opening is significant -- the inhabitants of an unnamed town find themselves in the middle of a plague, a perfect opening for a book that examines the ongoing violence, crime and death in Mexico.   The focus on the "bodies" of the title is also interesting, but in the interest of time I'll leave it for others to see how.  There is so much more to glean from these little books, but above all, they are books that highlight an amazing writer's art. 

There are all manner of reviews and synopses online for both books so I'd look at those for deep insight. I'd like to mention the translator, Lisa Dillman here:   I was trying to find information on Yuri Herrera and came across an article from that offers some incredible insight not only into her process, but into Herrera's own stunning use of language as well.  

And Other Stories has done it again, and I can't wait to read Herrera's third book in this trilogy when it's translated.  Highly, highly recommended.  

Monday, July 4, 2016

Oh, those Martian Women!!! Unveiling a Parallel, by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant (1893)

Dodo Press, 2008
[originally published 1893]
133 pp

(read earlier; still playing catch-up with posting)

A few nights back my friend and I were having a conversation about what we've been reading lately, so I brought out this book to share.   Her first reaction: "there were feminists in Cedar Rapids back then?"

Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant actually published this novel under the pseudonym of "Two Women From the West." The first publication of this book was by Arena Publishing Company, an outfit that published "books on political and economic reform," as well as a number of Utopian novels, a genre that was quite popular at the time. Arena also published speculative and science fiction by authors who have long since faded into obscurity.  The owner and editor of Arena, Benjamin O. Flower, liked Jones & Merchant's book, which saw two editions before going out of print.

As Carol Kolmerten in the introduction to the 1991 edition of this novel (Syracuse University) states, Unveiling a Parallel is
"one of over two hundred utopian novels published from 1888 through 1918 that envisions a better world -- the largest single body of utopian writing in history." (xxiv)
Perhaps that time frame can be pushed back a bit.  After a bit of research, I thought that the earliest example of feminist utopian novels in the U.S. came from Mary E. Bradley Lane in 1881, with her Mizora (which I just bought), but there was one that came along even earlier (1870) --  Man's Rights, or How Would You Like It, by Annie Denton Cridge.  Moving forward, perhaps one of the most famous books in this genre of writing is Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, published later in 1915.  The point is that feminist utopian novels were quite popular through the turn of the century, although the utopian novel in general  was largely the provenance of authors, who according to Kolmerten, were "unknown middle-aged, male ... Protestant, middle class, and white."    For further reading on the topic, a good place to start is The Utopian Novel in America, by Jean Pfaelzer; now on to Unveiling a Parallel. 

To keep things short and sweet, the male narrator of this story climbs in his "aeroplane" and takes a nice trip to Mars. He first arrives in Thursia, which surprisingly is very much the same as the 19th-century America our traveler has just left.  He quickly learns the language of his host, so as to better communicate with the woman he's fallen for, Elodia, his host's sister.  Elodia is a highly-successful banker and businesswoman, as well as a natural leader in her own social set.  The narrator is smitten, until sometime later, when certain other things about this woman are revealed, at which point he loses his interest because she's not the woman he thought she was, nor, he realizes,  would she be willing to become so for any man. In fact, Thursia itself holds a number of surprises for this man, including but not limited to, women vaping a potentially-lethal mix of valerian and alcohol, and a place called "Cupid's Gardens," where  powerful women like Elodia go to meet lovers or pick up prostitutes for their sexual pleasure. It seems that there is just too much for him to overlook in terms of the women of Thursia. The narrator moves on to Caskia, where he finds a more enlightened, more utopian society, one where people are able to enjoy some measure of leisure thanks to technology.  This is a place where everyone works for together the greater good, one where the notion of universal love is a true reality,  where material possessions are of no value, and where our narrator meets and falls for a woman as unlike Elodia as possible.

original 1893 cover; from Wikipedia

There is a huge amount of great satire to be found here, most especially in the dialogue between the narrator and the Martian people with whom he speaks.  As he asks a ton of questions about the women there, what ends up happening is that we actually get a great contrast between more enlightened ideas about Martian women and the attitudes toward women back home.  This book seems to reflect more than anything Jones' and Merchant's ideas about who women are and who they could be if equality could be attained.   Sadly, while the narrator in this book can begrudgingly admit to some positives in terms of how women are perceived and treated on Mars, he never fully comes around, noting that his own views are just "too thoroughly ingrained" in his nature.

 I won't really say more about this novel, except that while it is fun to read, it can also become  polemical in nature, and sometimes a definite chore to get through. There are also a number of contradictions spread throughout the story.   But it is also informative and I have to credit the authors with being so futuristic in their thinking. Writing this book in a time where literature pretty much stressed the patriarchal was also gutsy and something different. I'd say that anyone at all interested in American pre-20th century feminist writers will definitely want to pick up a copy of this novel for his/her library.  For me -- while it was a bit tough to get through at times, it is a great find and a wonderful addition to my slowly-growing collection of works by lesser-known American women writers.