Pacific view

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Little, Big - John Crowley

I'm going to try to review Little, Big, and I hope I don't get tangled up, but it may be unavoidable because it's that kind of book.  I really liked this book but I can see that I'm going to have a difficult time explaining why others would enjoy it. It's a modern fantasy but it's also a sad and moving saga about several generations of the Drinkwater clan, whose members have always had a rather unique connection to the realm of Faerie.  They are not of Faerie themselves, but they believe themselves to be of special interest--both "protected", as well as privy to certain knowledge that ordinary people lack. 
The book jumps back and forth chronologically across space and time, and it is sometimes useful to refer to the family tree in the front of the book, especially since characters of different generations sometimes share the same name. There are certain constants that anchor the story, one of these being the family home--Edgewood-- a spectacular but now-crumbling edifice that was built around the turn of the century by architect and family patriarch, John Drinkwater. Edgewood is an amalgam of many houses, or several houses that overlap each other. Think of a drawing by M.C. Escher...corridors with odd turnings that don't follow the laws of physics, staircases leading nowhere, etc. Edgewood is a character in its own right, from its lintels to its floorboards, including the mice nesting inside its walls. It is set in a bucolic landscape on the outskirts of a large city, which is referred to as The City, or sometimes the Apple, but it's not really the NYC that we all know; instead it's some dystopian version of it.
The book opens with Smoky Barnable setting out on a journey that will culminate in his marriage to Daily Alice, his beloved. However, his mode of travel has to meet certain conditions: he has to walk rather than ride, and must beg or find a place to sleep, but not pay for it with money. Smoky goes along willingly with this, because he's been told that that he is part of the Tale, as is everyone in the Drinkwater clan. But what the Tale is, nobody knows. 
There is no use trying to summarize the plot, since plot seems to be the least of the author's concerns, and is almost incidental to the fun to be had from reading this 500+ page tome. It's the opposite of a page-turner; it meanders along in a leisurely way, and wanders off on tangents about religion, philosophy, and the weather. The atmosphere is dream-like and a lot of the action actually occurs while people are asleep or dreaming. 
The characters are interesting and memorable. First, I love their names, like Nora Cloud, George Mouse, and Violet Bramble. While their lives contain the same ratio of joy to disappointment as other people's, theirs have an added layer of tragedy due to the baleful influence of Faerie, which exerts control in ways both great and small. People fall in love at first sight without knowing why, and feel themselves being pulled in various directions according to some overarching Destiny. If they think they have any idea what or why, eventually they realize they are mistaken.
The writing and the imagery are beautiful and, what would be a good word?-- enchanting. In fact, a comment made by someone about Edgewood, the house, is an equally apt description of what reading the book is like: "You can get lost for days in there. For days."   
There is an ancient Wild Wood, an enchanted fish that dimly remembers having once been a man, and a kingfisher who grants wishes and strikes bargains (bargains in which the humans inevitably come out on short end of the stick). If hearing about all these talking animals puts you in mind of Narnia, please know that it's nothing like that at all. Because there is also frank and sensual descriptions of sex, experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, filth, poverty, and death. 

Things remind you of other things...there are many subtle allusions to Lewis Carroll, both his writings and his photographs. I've never before read a novel that deals with the well-documented Edwardian craze for spirit photography, or the taking of photographs that, once developed, revealed ghostly images that were invisible to the naked eye.

The nature of Faerie is that it is elusive; it can't be nailed down, but can only be experienced like a dream, a half-forgotten memory, or something glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. The elusiveness of "Little, Big" will either charm and delight you, or it'll annoy the heck out of you. Depends upon your nature.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Post Apocalypse SCI FI

Dear Gentle Reader,

I went 6 months without blogging at all; the reasons why are too numerous to mention. But during that time my reading hardly slackened and I even took notes for future posts. So I have lots of material at the ready. I dusted off the following from my summer reading:

If you are a devoted reader of books, you probably harbor somewhere deep inside your heart  a soft spot for science fiction. Maybe you don't confess it openly. I know I don't. Doesn't seem very elegant, or, I don't know, seemly. Especially for a dignified person of a certain age. But there it is...a life-long jones for sci-fi and fantasy. So I've been on a binge lately and meaning to post an appreciation of post-apocalypse novels. Why specifically appreciate post-apocalypse novels? This may sound strange, but despite the fact that thematically they explore my worst nightmare—AKA the end of the world--I find them oddly comforting. Since we seem hell bent on destroying ourselves anyhow, it can be kind of uplifting to imagine what kind of new world we could create out of the ashes. Of course when I embarked on my, research... into this genre, I went online and checked out other people’s lists. Whoa. I realized just how many of these books exist that I haven’t yet read yet . Now I’m left with another pile of TBRs…

On to the ones I did read...

“Alas, Babylon” by Pat Frank, published 1959. I can now understand why this classic had such a large influence on a whole generation of post-nuclear holocaust books. There is something very all-American & apple pie about this tale. I can envision the movie starring a young Tom Hanks, with George Clooney in the small but important role as the doomed older brother. Set in a small town in Florida after a nuclear attack by USSR devastates most of the US of A, the story concentrates on the survivors and their fierce determination in coping with the aftermath.
The book was written just before the Cuban missile crisis in1962, at the height of our national anti-Soviet paranoia. In the tiny town of Fort Repose, in central Florida, we meet our protagonist, a Korean War veteran named Randy Bragg. The opening scene has Randy receiving a disturbing and cryptic message from his brother Mark, an Air Force colonel who is on assignment in the “Hole”. The Hole is the SAC (Strategic Air Command) headquarters, a supposedly indestructible bunker, four stories underground, where the government is directing US military response to any potential enemy attack. Mark warns Randy that the unthinkable—a nuclear attack by the USSR-- is imminent, and asks Randy to look after his wife and two kids in case anything happens to him, a likelihood on which you can bet your bottom dollar. (What? You wanted subtlety?)
The story is told from a strictly 1950’s male perspective, which can get truly annoying at times, with the author showing off his knowledge of military and technical jargon, and waxing poetical about atomic submarines and fighter planes. Gender roles are pretty rigid: the heroes are tough, manly men who keep their heads in a crisis, and the women are sexy, competent, good at taking the children firmly in hand, yet still prone to breaking down and weeping on the men’s shoulders.
The book’s greatest strength is in the thoughtful way it examines what life would be like in the aftermath. When the major population centers of the world have been vaporized, any semblance of functioning government or infrastructure is non-existent, all power and communication has been cut off, and money is rendered worthless, how do ordinary people cope? Eschewing any maniacal back-to-the-Stone-Age, Mad Max type of scenario, Frank rationally, calmly considers what polite, civilized people actually might do when they are left without food, cars, electricity, antibiotics, and running water. This is for me where it gets interesting.
Our previously held assumptions and priorities are turned upside down. Divisions between rich and poor are erased overnight (there's no need for money, folks!). Racial and class prejudice hang on a bit more stubbornly, but those differences quickly go by the wayside. What matters most is physical strength and mental stability, and the all-important access to fuel, batteries, gasoline, kerosene, uncontaminated food and water, medicine, guns and ammunition.
Frank has some interesting ideas about what happens to different personalities when faced with a crisis. Why do some people grow in stature and become leaders, while others succumb to savagery, superstition, or magical thinking? Some can’t face reality and keep clinging to the hope that any day now, power and services will restored and things will return to normal. Some are spared by the immediate holocaust but end up dying anyway because they can't make the necessary mental adjustment. Survival of the fittest.

For a more current take on this theme, try “A World Made By Hand” by James Kunstler.  (Also, “Into the Forest” by Jean Hegland.)

Kunstler’s version is based on the premise that contained in his nonfiction book, “The Long Emergency” where he lays out his argument that as the earth depletes the supply of oil, our global infrastructure will collapse and we will need to go back in time and back to the land, returning to a way of life where people were self-sufficient and neighbors relied upon one another to survive. In “A World Made By Hand” we skip over the horrific details of the apocalypse and its immediate aftermath, and we go straight to a time about 20 years after the collapse, when the survivors have come out fitter and stronger and are in process of forging a new world. 
As Kunstler envisions this potential new society, it almost sounds kind of appealing. We’ve traded in a national highway system, power grid, and computer chips for a primitive (but sustainable!) water system powered by gravity, and medicines made from plants grown in the backyard. It’s kind of like Little House on the Prairie. People have to re-learn the practical trades of yesteryear: carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers, and shoemakers. Everyone needs to grow their own food, make their own clothing, and slaughter their own livestock. We are all locavores in the new post-industrial world. One fortunate by-product of the collapse of oil, coal, and fossil fuels, is that the formerly polluted rivers, streams, and air have returned to a state of pristine cleanliness. Horses have taken the place of automobiles and currency has been replaced by a barter system. A semi-feudal system of government seems to be cropping up in places where law and order is brutally enforced, but there are also pockets where something resembling democracy is slowly starting to re-establish, albeit on a small scale. The surrounding country is a dangerous place –there is an outlaw community composed of bikers and lowlifes who spend their time looting and pillaging, and enforcing their own brand of rough justice. There is violence and death, but it is also hopeful and humanistic. Women are subjugated, relying totally on men for sustenance and protection, and functioning as housekeepers and bedmates. And there are some confusing supernatural elements that add little of entertainment value but do much to distract.


“Lucifer’s Hammer” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pourcelle. Won both the Hugo and the Nebula award. I’m not sure why I read it except that a lot of folks loved it, and it was touted as classic of the genre. (In retrospect I wish I had read Stephen King’s “The Stand” instead.)  The book details the end of civilization as brought about by a massive comet striking the earth’s surface. The comet collides and sets off a chain of consequences, including earthquake, tidal waves, fires, flooding—the whole nine yards-- which wipe out most of mankind and plunge us into another ice age. It’s like a speeded-up version of global warming.
The novel was published in 1977 and it feels dated, and not in a good way. I usually enjoy the experience of being immersed in the politics and culture of another time, but I find the ethos of these particular times a bit unpleasant-- maybe because I lived through them the first time around.

The book divided into thirds, dealing with the Before, During and After the Impact (as the runaway comet strikes the planet-- which the characters refer to as “Hammerfall”). The first third of the book is spent introducing the large cast of characters and unfortunately it reads like a formulaic disaster-thriller. This is not good writing. You know how some people dislike books that have too much description in them? Well, this book has too much dialogue--page after page of hokey repartee, and dreary, repetitive interior monologue.  
Reading the book feels like watching a 1970's disaster movie where they did a hack job on the screenplay and blew the budget on special effects. The good guys are the science nerds: the techies, astronomers, astronauts and nuclear plant technicians, who know how to save the world but are prevented from doing so by the craven shortsightedness of…drum roll for the villains, if you please… politicians and whoever controls the purse strings. You know, those goddam bastards who cut the NASA budget and ruined the space program.

The heroes are macho survivalists who work out, know how to use firearms, drink whiskey and smoke cigars, and one sexy woman, everyone else is so weak or ethically challenged they deserved to have perished in the initial conflagration. One of the good guys is a techie nerd who is in charge of a nuclear energy plant that is so well constructed that it’s basically the only structure left standing after the asteroid strike; It suffers no loss of cooling, no radiation leakage, nuthin’! Why?  Because it’s just built so damn well… If ONLY we hadn’t listened to Al Gore and his army of gutless environmental freaks, and had built us a ton more of these, we wouldn’t have a global warming problem today!

It takes us half to two-thirds of the way through the book until we finally get to the interesting part, which is the speculative part of science fiction: just how would society remake itself after every aspect of government and industry and technology and civilization as we know it is smashed to bits, and what form would it take?

There is a definite political message here; the author must have had envisioned a society that was a cross between Ayn Rand style libertarianism and techno-survivalism-- a right wing mish-mash where the rugged individualists with a deep respect for the latest technology are morally superior to the low life scum. Here the bad guys are environmentalists, religious fanatics, urban ghetto street hoodlums, “women’s libbers”, hippies, commune dwellers, trade unionists, and Russians who still believe in communism. Feminists don't fare too well either, even though there is a token female on the space shuttle, as well as a token black astronaut. Stereotypes abound, from biker gangs to ghetto hustlers to sexy women with courageous hearts and great legs. One of the characters muses that the silver lining to Hammerfall is that it effectively puts an end to “women’s lib”. And in the scenario that’s being portrayed here, the status of women immediately devolves to that of property, a prize given to the strongest and manliest men. All power is transferred to the men with the biggest guns.
There are a couple of good points, like the media blitz that crops up around the early news reports of the comets, the excitement among people who wanted something crazy out of the ordinary to happen, something to spice up their routine, the religious fanatics who sprang up, to pray the comet away, the end of the world preachers who were making a fortune by soaking the gullible and the frightened. Also the people who see the end of the world as a way out of their own personal financial difficulties, legal troubles, unhappy marriages, or in one case, the perfect excuse for a demented rapist to commit murder and mayhem without having to worry about doing jail time.
The fact that this novel was written years before our 24-hour infotainment cycle had taken over the culture, makes it surprising in that it is so prescient. The book gets more interesting from page 200 on, which is the point of Hammerfall (as they call the moment of impact). The story is told from multiple viewpoints, as different people experience the asteroid strike and its aftermath…scarier than your-worst nightmare...fireballs in the sky, earthquakes, tidal waves, terrible electrical storms, seas boiling, Keeps dwelling on images smashing cars, collapsing bridges, bursting dams, and breaking glass, people screaming. You can just picture the TV movie that will be made from this book. Except that it never did get made into a movie. The film “Deep Impact” came closest to it. There are some memorable images, such as two archaeologists witnessing the second eruption of The Greek volcanic island Thera; a surfer riding the tsunami, (to him its just a very big wave), while knowing his death is imminent. Then there are the images that are completely -woops! - over the top: a couple throw a dead baby out of a car window, Four astronauts, two Soviet and two American, make their reentry into earth’s orbit, parachute into a cornfield, and as they emerge from the space capsule they are met by a band of hostile men with machine guns and rifles pointing at them
Apparently the authors didn’t know where to draw the line between shivery fun and creepy-disgusting.
Now I need to read Stephen King’s “The Stand”, but it’s over a thousand pages so I guess I should wait for the right time, like maybe when I am in bed for a week with the flu.

“Canticle for Liebowitz” by Walter Miller is in a class by itself. It was published in novel form in 1959, and as such it won the Hugo award in 1961. But it originated as three novellas that were published earlier in sci-fi magazines. Except for the plot device of nuclear war, fallout, mutants, and in the third part, space travel—the book is more philosophical than speculative. It poses questions rather than answers. It is ironic allegory--sardonic, ridiculous, tragic, humanistic, eloquent, darkly cynical, yet ultimately hopeful. Its topic is humankind, specifically our propensity for self-destruction and self-deception. It’s a view of Mankind from a distance, as we might be seen by our Maker: stubborn and ignorant but containing the spark of divine genius.
This is a fairly well known book so I won’t summarize the plot. The book is steeped in the rituals and traditions of the Catholic church, and most of major characters are clergy. One of the main characters is a comic fool or wandering Jew that would feel right at home in an I.B. Singer tale. Gimpel the Fool becomes a wandering holy man in the end. It posits the argument that as civilization crumbles and we are thrown back to another dark age, the church is the only organization that is capable of protecting and preserving all the knowledge of the world throughout the millenia. Eventually (a few thousand years later), we pull ourselves up out of ignorance, superstition, and barbarism, to the dawn of a new enlightened age. The gears of industrialization get humming again; we reinvent the light bulb but we can’t change our essential nature and are driven by hubris right back to the brink of destruction again. When will we ever learn? Apparently there is a God, but what does he want from us? Why does He allow suffering? What is the meaning of human suffering (see Camus--The Plague)?
Scientists and all educated people are seen as being to blame for nuclear destruction, so in the new world they burn all the books and kill all the literate people. People proudly wear the title of Simpleton (badge of ignorance) as a badge of honor. This mirrors the galloping anti-intellectualism of today.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from “LIebowitz”:

"From a distance one's adversaries seemed fiends, but with a closer view, one saw the sincerity and it was as great as one's own. Perhaps Satan was the sincerest of the lot."
"Where's the truth? What's to be believed? Or does it matter at all? When mass murder's been answered with mass murder, rape with rape, hate with hate, there's no longer much meaning in asking whose ax is the bloodier."
"Is the species congenitally insane, Brother? If we're born mad, where's the hope of Heaven?"
"It will come to pass by violence and upheaval, by flame and by fury, for no change comes calmly over the world."
"To Brother Librarian, whose task in life was the preservation of books, the principal reason for the existence of books was that they might be preserved perpetually. Usage was secondary, and to be avoided if it threatened longevity."

More of my favorite Canticles (this book is craaazy!):

His supreme Unctuousness
Albertian Order of Liebowitz
Age of Simplification
Mrs. Grales, the bicephalous tomato woman

Note: There was a fair bit of Hebrew and quite a lot of Latin in the book. (For some reason, large chunks of the Catholic Mass were quoted verbatim.) I found it helpful but not necessary to read with a Wikipedia list of Latin phrases open at my side.  


The Stand-  Stephen King
Philip K. Dick
The Female Man- Joanna Russ
Joan Vinge
Vonda McIntyre- Dreamsnake
C.J. Cherryh


The Dispossessed- Le Guin
Left Hand of Darkness- Le Guin
Lathe of Heaven- Le Guin
Octavia Butler
James Tiptree
Thomas Disch
Kelly Link
Tanith Lee (not sci fi but fantasy)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Colum McCann is not a native New Yorker. He’s an Irishman wearing an “I heart NY” shirt. And not just any New York but the filthy, broke, careening-out-of-control New York of the 1970’s, before Rudi Giuliani cleaned everything up. I remember that NYC—I lived there. Tribeca was still a slum, Central Park was too dangerous to walk in at night, CBGB’s, Sid Vicious, and “Son of Sam”. A hard place to love, but some glorify it.  This is another one of those novels (it's getting to be a cliché, this structure) made up of interlocking vignettes about disparate characters, whose lives, unbeknownst to them, are in some mysterious way connected.  The book opens with a description of a seminal event— the high-wire walk between the twin towers by Philippe Petit in 1974, which was later documented in the film “Man on Wire”.  It was a really cool and crazy stunt at the time, but post 9/11, from a distance of almost three decades, Petit’s walk has taken on a deeper, allegorical meaning. Set against the grim despair of the lives being lived down below, it is a life-affirming counterpoint: the acrobat dances on air as the angels watch, while back on earth we are a lot closer to hell than to heaven. One of the main characters is Corrigan, an Irish Catholic lay brother who is too good for this world. He befriends the prostitutes outside his Bronx walkup and lives a monastic existence.  I found him very unbelievable and somewhat pretentious. Corrigan’s brother, Ciaran, is more down-to-earth but also a cliché of sorts, as are the foul-mouthed prostitutes-- Jazzlyn and her mother, Tillie, who turn tricks together. Tillie’s character has some tragic weight to it, at least. So does Claire, a Park Ave. matron whose son has died, and she is trying very hard to make a connection with some other women in a group for grieving mothers, but they think she is a wealthy snob.
The writing was lyrical and the images poetic, but the characters were a bit cardboard-y and one-dimensional. There was a falseness to it. I just didn’t get this book. 

Sarah Waters and Margaret Atwood

“Fingersmith”; “Night Watch”; “Alias Grace”

I’m back! What a lot to catch up on.  Follow me down a winding path as one thought/ one book leads to another.
I have been reading Sarah Waters and so far I’ve plowed through 3 of her 5 books; however I’m only going to review “Night Watch” and “Fingersmith”, which are number 3 and 4, respectively, and were both short-listed for the Man Booker and the Orange Prize.  Waters’ bio says she was born in Wales in 1966, and is an associate lecturer with the Open University. But possibly this is just a sideline because I can’t see where she finds the time to teach while also writing compulsively readable books that win prizes and get made into films by the BBC. She should be better known than she is because she’s a hell of a writer. One reason why her work isn’t more widely known may be that she is categorized as a LGBT author, and I think this pigeonholes her and perhaps limits her appeal. But it’s a false distinction.
Her books are populated with gay and lesbian characters who fall in love and make each other happy or miserable as is usually the case. As a straight person I didn’t find anything about her writing that was unsettling or disturbing, or outside of my experience. On the contrary, Waters is sensitive and skilled in evoking the mysterious ways and reasons, both physical and emotional, that cause people to be drawn to one another.
Anyhow…”Night Watch” is a fast, absorbing read. I don’t usually feel drawn to World War 2 era stories, it’s just not my favorite historical period. But I was fascinated by the vivid portrayal of life in London during wartime-- the rationing, the food shortages, the bombed-out streets and buildings, the wailing sirens, blackout curtains and air raid shelters. Given the fact that incendiaries are dropping from the sky and as one person says,  “we might all be dead tomorrow”, people are driven to recklessness.  They’re ready to throw away caution and convention in exchange for honesty and the pursuit of a life-affirming passion. The story is told in reverse chronological sequence, starting in 1947 and working backwards to 1941, and the characters are explained through the gradual reveal of their history. They seem tangentially connected to one another at first, but they are linked in ways that become clearer as the plot unfolds. I grew to sympathize the most with Kay, who after the war spends her time wandering around the streets of London, dressed like a man, and searching for something indefinable. She felt most alive during wartime when driving an ambulance and pulling people out of burning buildings (an opportunity that came about due to the shortage of men). Another character, Viv, meets for secret trysts with her married boyfriend, while wondering what she can do to sort out her damaged brother, Duncan, who spent time in prison for reasons that aren’t clear until later. A fourth major character, Helen, is analytical and introspective. Even though consumed with jealousy and self-loathing, she is the narrator whose consciousness is most awake and observant.
“Fingersmith” is a tour de force, in my opinion. It’s a contemporary version of the Victorian sensational novel, ala Wilkie Collins, and it has more than a whiff of Dickens and George Elliot.  Brimming with Gothic atmosphere, it left me turning pages at 3 AM because I couldn’t stand the suspense. For such a convoluted storyline, I never had any difficulty in following it. I was totally drawn in by the multiple twists and double-crosses, the complex characters (NO one is as they seem),  and by the sheer depth of human cruelty and kindness.  As in “Night Watch”, the story is told from more than one viewpoint; events are first recounted by one character, and later retold by a different one, with missing information filled in. There are details galore to get lost in…so much research went into this book! Research about the state of the field of psychiatry and Victorian ideas about curing the insane; about ladies’ clothing—the silks and taffetas, petticoats and stays--and what a lady’s maid’s duties are; about the resentments of the servant class and the power plays among the maids and footmen in charge of running those large country estates; about the petty thieves and grifters who live in the underbelly of London.  Careful thought has gone into naming the characters: Maud is the name of a white-gloved lady, while Sue is a common servant’s name. There is an elegant but coldhearted scam artist known to all as Gentleman, and a criminal couple who run a sort of orphanage/boarding school for fencers of stolen goods and pickpockets, and go by the Dickensian monikers of Mrs. Sucksby and Mr. Ibbs.  I won’t go into any further detail because the less said the greater the fun, and this one is a treat.

Reading about the travails of the madhouse in “Fingersmith” made me want to segue right into “Alias Grace” by Margaret Atwood, which is, I believe, her first foray into historical fiction, rather than her usual contemporary realistic or futuristic speculative novels. “Alias Grace” takes as its starting point the true story of Grace Marks, a notorious Canadian woman who in 1843 was convicted of murdering her employer and his mistress. Because of her gender and her tender age (she was 16 at the time of the murders) she wasn’t hung for the crime but sentenced instead to life in prison and she spent some years in a mental asylum. She always maintained her innocence, and in fact she claimed to have total amnesia regarding the murders. Atwood tells the story through Grace’s words and memories, and also through the letters and notes of a young doctor, Simon Jordan (who I think is a fictional character). Dr. Jordan attempts to help Grace while at the same time making his own reputation as a practitioner of the brand new field of psychotherapy.  He has Grace tell him her dreams and he employs the technique of free association to try to help her remember.  If he is successful at proving her innocence, she may be able to get a pardon, so they both have something invested in the relationship.
Grace has had a lot of time to think about her situation and she has developed a strong will and some good survival skills. She isn’t a victim but she may in fact be innocent of any crime. Whether she is evil, insane, a heroine or a dupe, is something we never can quite decide. She’s an unreliable narrator at best, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to believe in her innocence. The story is beautifully written and really gives a flavor of mid-nineteenth century North America. I totally enjoyed it.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Reading for a Summer Afternoon While Lying in a Hammock Drinking a Glass of Iced Tea

Elizabeth von Arnim- The Enchanted April (published 1922)

"For those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine"--

This book is a confection-- light-hearted, romantic in the best sense, and very witty. If this appeals to you, you may find that it becomes one of those comfort books, to be indulged in when you are under the weather and need an ice cream soda for a pick-me-up. In answer to those picky people who object that the plot is too unrealistic, and the ending overly sweet…well, IMO that is the point. It’s a comfort book, after all. Four English women, each of them unhappy in her own way, meet as strangers and chip in together on a month's stay at an Italian villa. The women have precious little in common with one another other than a vague dissatisfaction with their lives. A vacation like this should have disastrous results, one would think. But San Salvadore, in this case, functions like a mythical Forest of Arden—a magical realm where everyday matters recede, people are thrown together, comical little misunderstandings occur, visitors come and go, and the unexpected happens. The forced intimacy and the inefficiencies of the Italian postal system combine with the sensual Mediterranean climate to create a hothouse atmosphere, where friendship, healing, and romance can blossom.  The book is funny, too, in that wry, ironic British style.  I especially loved the interior monologues of repressed and lovelorn Rose Arbuthnot: It was just possible that she ought to go straight into the category Hysteria, which was often only the antechamber to Lunacy, but Mrs. Arbuthnot had learned not to hurry people into their final categories, having on more than one occasion discovered with dismay that she had made a mistake; and how difficult it had been to get them out again, and how crushed she had been with the most terrible remorse.”
Mike Newell directed a film version of this book in 1991, but in my opinion the movie falls a teensy bit short. Despite richly rewarding performances from a veteran British cast—Miranda Richardson, Alfred Molina, Jim Broadbent, and Joan Plowright (who was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Mrs. Fisher), the tone of the movie is just a tad uneven. But it’s still fun to watch on a rainy afternoon.

Winifred Watson - Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Written in 1938, this lighter-than-air piece of puff pastry makes for an afternoon snack, not a substantial meal. Miss Pettigrew is a frowsy spinster governess who serendipitously stumbles right smack into the center of a glittering, high fashion, hard-drinking party scene, and suddenly she finds herself having the best time of her life. The story takes place over a 24 hour time period and chapters are organized into time segments, like “12:18 AM to 2:37 AM”. Miss Pettigrew, with a couple of drinks in her, realizes she has a heretofore hidden talent when it comes to meddling in other people’s affairs and helpfully smoothing the often rocky path to true love.  The book is like a glass of champagne—happy, sparkling, delicious. I have one quibble: There are a couple of anti-Semitic references that constitute the single jarring note in an otherwise close-to-perfect experience. I’ve experienced similar feelings of shock and dismay when reading Trollope, particularly “The Way We Live Now”. Obviously, we must consider such bigotry within the context of the times,. But for me it was still a fly in the ointment.

Booth Tarkington and Stella Gibbons

Woops, how did so much time go by? The book blog is long overdue for an update...

Booth Tarkington- The Magnificent Ambersons (published 1919)
A family epic that takes place in the early 1900’s, just as the country is undergoing vast changes resulting from the growth of industry, the automobile, and urban sprawl. Tarkington takes his time in telling the story and he spends the entire first chapter discussing the history of the town, its social structure, the fashions of the day, and how the privileged Amberson family dominates and runs the town with their money and influence. By the time he is finished, you feel like you know what it’s like to live there, too. Only then does he introduce us to George-- the spoiled, arrogant only son who runs roughshod over everyone, including his own family. George is impossibly bratty. He treats others with a rude sense of entitlement that he justifies out of a misplaced sense of pride in his family’s name; and he lives according to his conviction that there is something degrading in the notion of a gentleman “doing” rather than “being”. George is due to have his “comeuppance” one of these days, and like the townspeople, we only hope that we’re around to see it happen. What George is too blind to see is that the world is changing around him, and that his money and family position will not be enough to save him in the new world order.
This, of course, is the novel that was the basis for the classic Orson Welles film. Reading the book for me was like watching a very leisurely version of the film…I couldn’t help visualizing Agnes Moorehead as Fanny and Joseph Cotton as Eugene. The book goes into more detail about some worthwhile secondary characters, and the financial misfortunes that lead to the Amberson family’s ruin are more fully explained. George is also less of a villain in the book, his redeeming qualities being more apparent. The farewell scene between George and Lucy that takes place outside the drugstore, as he is leaving for Europe, affected me much more deeply in the book, whereas in the movie it left me cold. “The Magnificent Ambersons” was actually the second book in a trilogy by Tarkington (the other two were “The Turmoil” and “The Midlander”) that dealt with social and economic changes in America from the mid-19th century until World War 1.


Stella Gibbons - Cold Comfort Farm
Published in 1932, this fits into the category of oddball British satiric humor, in the vein of P.G. Wodehouse, but on a completely different plane of battiness
from that of Jeeves and Wooster.  Gibbons is skewering a lot of prototypes here. In these pages we make the acquaintance of witless polo-playing gentry, cigar-chomping Hollywood moguls, and sex-obsessed London intellectuals. Flora Poste, our plucky heroine, is a sophisticated London girl of the strictly modern type, who quite suddenly fins herself orphaned. She is not terribly bereaved, never having been all that close to her parents. Still, she needs a roof over her head, so she decides to move in with her hardscrabble rural relations, the Starkadder clan. Cold Comfort farm is the name of the gloomy, dilapidated ancestral home in Sussex, and Flora is told repeatedly that “There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm”, as if that explains everything. No matter. Our girl senses that this situation has intriguing possibilities.
One by one we meet the relatives: Aunt Ada Doom who once “saw something nasty in the woodshed” and has refused to come out of her room for 20 years; Amos, the paterfamilias, who loves to preach hellfire-and-brimstone sermons designed to make you feel the flames of hell licking at your feet; Cousin Judith, who desires to be left alone in her “web of solitude”, as she devotes herself to atoning for some unspecified long-ago offense; waifish Elfine who flits around the Downs in rags, spouting poetry and communing with the trees and squirrels; Seth, of the smoldering good looks and outsized sexual appetite, who secretly yearns to be in “talkies”; and Urk, who was betrothed to Elfine in infancy and calls her “my little water-vole”.  This oddball bunch are unwashed, inbred, and speak in an impenetrable Old Sussex dialect, but they are innocents for all that.  Flora feels it’s her duty to drag her unwilling relatives into the 20th century and she’s certainly not one to shy away from a challenge. She gets to work at once making “improvements” on the farm and its inhabitants, and you will find yourself looking for a good perch from which you can watch what’s going to happen, as our Flora sweetly turns everyone’s lives upside down and lets in the light.
Gibbons was a journalist and a poet, and claimed to be “not always sure whether a sentence is Literature or whether it is just sheer flapdoodle”. She has some fun in this book satirizing the style of literature exemplified by D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, and Emily Bronte—and their somewhat tortured descriptive passages. “Something earthy, something dark and rooty as the barran that thrust its tenacious way through the yeasty soil had crept into the old man’s voice with the words. He was moved. Old tides lapped his loins.”
I found myself laughing out loud at the way the Starkadders continually address Flora as “Robert Poste’s child”, in place of her name; and at Adam Lambsbreath, the 90-year old man of all work, who “cletters the dishes” with a thorny branch. When Flora buys him a dish mop and suggests he might make a better job of the washing-up if he were to use it instead, Adam is unaccountably moved, so much so that that he fetishizes the object. “I mun hang it up by its liddle red string above the dishwashin’ bowl…Aye, ‘tis prettier nor apple-blooth, my liddle mop.”  What delicious nonsense.

Something about this novel kept reminding me of Jane Austen’s “Emma” as I was reading it. Several things actually. There is the fact that the movie version of Cold Comfort Farm starred a young Kate Beckinsale, who later starred in the movie version of “Emma”. But there’s also the central theme: a bossy young girl loves to meddle in other people’s affairs and indulges in her favorite pastime as if people were playing pieces on a chessboard. Sounds like our Flora, doesn’t it? The difference is that Emma interferes where she isn’t wanted and makes a mess of things, where Flora succeeds magnificently in her meddling. Not to mention the number of marriages that occur in consequence.

It’s all kind of heartwarming and endearingly loopy. I recommend it.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Henry James - The Other House

Henry James- The Other House- published 1896
Having just read The Other House and trying to sort out my feelings about it. It is kind of perverse, and not always pleasurable, but it picked up pace toward the second half of the novel and from that point it left me breathless to know what would happen.  Most James novels center around conflicts of moral character, but this is one of the few where there is also a substantial plot involving a fortune, a deathbed promise, a love triangle (or quadrangle?) and a murder, complete with a body. I have long admired Henry James but I don’t generally consider his work as being much of a “pleasure read”. He’s legendary for constructing vast run-on sentences that go on for a page and a half. Almost as if he’s deliberately aiming not to be understood, he creates impenetrable thickets of double negatives that force the reader to  labor over passages, reading them six or seven times just to tease out what the heck he’s saying.  One possible reason for this irritating habit is that he switched in mid-career from writing in longhand to dictating to a tape recorder and having a secretary transcribe his words. Apparently this freed him from having to worry about where his sentences began and ended. Perhaps without intending to, he greatly influenced the development of the stream of consciousness technique used by Virginia Woolf and others. But even if reading James requires more effort than I’d like, nobody matches him for insight into the dark, squirrelly corners of the human heart. He is unparalleled at elucidating the intertwining, contradictory motivations of passionate people who find themselves cruelly imprisoned by Victorian standards of propriety. His books are all about proper English manners that often conceal ungovernable passions and bad intentions.

The Other House revolves around two well-to-do British families who live next door to each other. Their well-appointed, capacious country homes provide the setting for the action, with luscious gardens, manicured lawns, and servants bringing tea. The action concerns six young people and two older, wiser characters who stand aside and observe the goings-on, first with bemusement, and later with horror.  The young people comprise three couples, but everyone is in love with someone they can’t have or is promised to someone they don’t want. Their interactions are like an elaborate dance with the figures briefly meeting, clasping hands, and releasing each other in order to switch partners.
The story  begins with a young wife who thinks she's dying, but before she dies she means to extract a promise from her handsome, charming husband not to remarry during their daughter’s lifetime. Tony (even his name conveys his unselfconscious magnetism) agrees to this only as a way of humoring his wife, because he’s convinced she’s just being morbid and nobody- not even the doctor - really believes she’s going to die. But then she does die unexpectedly, from complication of childbirth.Her childhood friend, Rose, and another young woman, Jean, are both engaged to other people, but are both hopelessly in love with Tony. He is attracted to them both, but is honor bound to remain forever unavailable. The result is an uneasy stasis, where everyone attempts to maintain a friendly-brotherly-sisterly relation to one another. Underneath that, however, there is a subtle struggle of wills taking place.  Years elapse while everyone lives uncomfortably with his or her unfulfilled wishes and unspoken assumptions. The tension gradually builds as each character entertains the unspoken thought: What if the child should die? Then wouldn't Tony be free to remarry? It's understood that they have all actually considered this ghastly possibility, and everyone is so careful not to give the appearance of seeking any advantage from the situation. Creepy, isn’t it?
My favorite character, and the one in whom I most feel Henry James’ authorial presence, is Mrs. Beever, a proper Victorian dowager who wields her power of personality over everyone. She is fiercely devoted to her son Paul, and wants to see him happily married to Jean, whom she has pre-selected for him. Paul goes along with her scheme but he’s diffident and frankly doesn’t have his heart in it. Here’s a passage from the novel where she is struggling to come to grips with her disappointment in Paul: "He looked at her with an air he sometimes had, which always aggravated her impatience, an air of amused surprise, quickened to curiosity, that there should be in the world organisms capable of generating heat. She had thanked God, through life, that she was cold-blooded, but now it seemed to face her as a Nemesis that she was as a volcano compared with her son."
Rose Armiger is the most fascinating character and she is the only one Mrs. Beever can’t succeed in dominating. In fact, Rose proves to be more than her equal in strength of will and adroit maneuvering. At first I admired Rose for refusing to be cowed and for being smarter than almost everyone, but soon her cleverness starts to take on a tinge of evil. By the end of the novel her character has basically descended into madness.
The internet is a wonderful invention. A little research resulted in two nuggets that afforded me tremendous insight into this novel and its place in James’ career.  First: Lynn Sharon Schwartz wrote an article for The Threepenny Review in the fall of 2000 which takes note of the fact that this novel actually started out as a theatrical play that was never produced. Between 1890 and 1895 James all but abandoned writing novels and tried very hard to be a playwright instead. It was a disastrous move. Only two of his plays were produced and one of them, Guy Domville, resulted in James being jeered and hissed off the stage. After this horrible experience James returned to novel writing and created some of his renowned masterpieces, like Wings of a Dove and The Golden Bowl. But first he took the premise of this unborn play and reworked it into a novel. Here I quote Schwartz:
True to its roots, The Other House reads like a play fleshed out with detailed stage directions: “Gradually, as she talked, he faced round again; she stood there supported by the high back of a chair, either side of which she held tight.” Books First, Second, and Third correspond to three acts, set in a drawing room, a garden, and another drawing room, with characters coming and going, mostly in twos and threes, twining and untwining their intricate relationships; the scenes, or chapters, are crowded with incident and end abruptly at cliffhanging moments, usually when a new character enters, as in French drama.
Here’s the other little nugget: In 1968, one Dorcas Ann Turner, B.A., did her masters’ thesis on “Henry James’s Tales of Tormented Children”. Her starting point was that James’s traumatic botched venture into the theater brought up deep-seated feelings of being a tortured youth (his difficult relationship with a harsh father and a more successful brother may have also played a part). Most of the novels of this middle period deal with the theme of a child who is the innocent victim of selfish, irresponsible and depraved adults.  It’s a brilliant deduction, and so true! It has made me want to go back and re-read What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age and his shorter works, Turn of the Screw and The Pupil. I plan on blogging about some of these in the future.


Friday, April 22, 2011

Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman

 Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman, by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Another from the NYRB Classics list. First of all, there is something about that subtitle that intrigues me right off the bat. 
Sylvia Townsend Warner was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group. Warner and her lesbian lover, poet Valentine Ackland, lived together for decades, joined the Communist Party and went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Warner has found her way back onto the LGBT reading lists, so she may not be so underappreciated now as she once was.
Lolly Willowes was Warner’s first novel (published in 1926). The title character is  Laura (nicknamed Lolly), the pampered only daughter of a well-to-do Edwardian family living in London during World War 1 and its aftermath. Too docile to take the cause of women's suffrage, too conventional to be an artist and live in a garret, she chooses instead to live with her eldest brother's family and become the overlooked maiden aunt: useful to have around when you have a package to be tied or an errand to be run, and disappearing into the wallpaper when you don't need her. Suddenly in mid-life she rebels and to her family's shocked disapproval, she demands that her brother turn over to her what's left of her inheritance, and she goes off to let a room at a boarding house in the isolated country village of Great Mop. Perhaps there she can finally "have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day..."
Once she gets away from her family, she begins to undergo a change. She takes walks and falls asleep in a pile of dead leaves, and spends weeks puzzling over the other inhabitants of the village. Then she stops puzzling over them. “She admitted that there was something about them which she could not fathom, but she was content to remain outside the secret, whatever it was. She had not come to Great Mop to concern herself with the hearts of men.”
But her hard-won peace is almost lost when her nephew Titus arrives uninvited for a visit and then decides to stay and make his home in Great Mop, too. Lolly is beyond dismayed. “ In vain she tried to escape; transient and delusive had been her ecstasies of relief. She had thrown away twenty years of her life like a handful of old rags, but the wind had blown them back again, and dressed her in the old uniform…And she was the same old Aunt Lolly, so useful and obliging and negligible.”
Now this is where the story takes an unexpected turn, and a supernatural element is introduced into the plot, but it’s so deftly handled that it does nothing to jar or distract the reader.  I hesitate to reveal too much, but I will say that Lolly makes a pact with the devil in order to secure her independence. This development can be accepted on its face or not, as you choose. It works either way, because Warner writes so beautifully. 
Since the 1970's Warner has been considered a significant writer in the gay and lesbian community, but I don't see any real lesbian coding or subtext in her work. Not unless you think that the notion of women bonding with other women and maybe even preferring that situation to a male-female bond, is a "lesbian" notion. I don't see it that way and I'm a straight woman. But perhaps I'm naive.
I've read several other books by Warner after having first encountered Lolly Willowes, including "Summer Will Show" and "Mr. Fortune's Maggot", but Lolly Willowes is still my favorite.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A life in service of others: looking for and finding dignity

Virginia Woolf- Flush: A Biography
This book is a departure from Virginia Woolf's groundbreaking style experiment. If you find yourself becoming a little bit restive or impatient while floating on Mrs. Dalloway's stream of consciousness, this book will restore your equanimity. Woolf wrote it as a way to “ease her brain” after the intense effort she put into writing “The Waves”. It was meant to be a light thing, and she predicted that it would sell in embarrassingly large numbers, and that she would “very much dislike the popular success of Flush”.  It did end up to be her best-selling book during her lifetime, but today it is largely forgotten. So Virginia's fears were groundless: Flush didn’t end up taking away anything from her reputation as a serious writer. I hope she’s pleased.
Flush was the name of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, and Woolf relates the love affair and marriage of those two celebrated poets (Barrett and her equally gifted husband Robert Browning) through the consciousness of a dog. Flush was given to Elizabeth by an acquaintance who admired her poetry, and he spent his early years curled up on Elizabeth’s sickbed, keeping her company during her time as an invalid in her father’s house, throughout her courtship and elopement with Browning, and their subsequent life in Italy. For source material Woolf relied largely upon Barrett Browning’s letters and her own close observation of her pet spaniel, Pinka. She allowed her fertile imagination and prodigious intelligence to do the rest. The style of the book is straightforward and direct, very much how a dog would tell his story if given the opportunity. Woolf manages to make you inhabit the canine consciousness of Flush, not in a cutesy or trivial way, but with seriousness, keen insight, and with considerable wit.
The book opens with a brief history of the ancient origins of the Spaniel breed, and mockingly compares the “aristocracy of dogs” with that of humans, raising questions as to what constitutes “noble birth” in men and dogs—the curled tail, the light nose, or the coat of arms? Flush conforms to the strict guidelines of the British Kennel Club, so we know he’s sufficiently well bred to make a suitable companion for a lady. We note the change in Flush’s fortunes when he moves from the country to the elegant house on Wimpole St (“as long as Wimpole Street remains, civilization is secure”), where the smells of roast beef wafting from the kitchen combine with the scent of furniture polish & Oriental carpets to let his canine intelligence know that he is in a different world now. We learn about Flush’s new home the same way he does, through his senses.
We understand the rage and jealousy felt by Flush when that interloper, Mr. Browning, comes between him and his mistress, and we sympathize as he does his best to get rid of the usurper, even going so far as to bite him on the ankle. To no avail. Flush has to learn his place. We feel his terror and loathing on the occasion of his being kidnapped by “hairy ruffians” and held for ransom. And when Elizabeth and Robert go to Italy, we share in his joy at the foreign sounds and smells, and the newly discovered freedom of running off the leash with the Italian dogs, who, to Flush’s surprise, are all mongrels. No breeding or pedigree at all!  
A dog lover’s book if ever there was one, “Flush” is an amalgam of animal story and biography, but it’s better than both.

More on the subject of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Flush the dog has a supporting role in the next book, too, but he doesn't come off nearly as well.

Margaret Forster - A Lady's Maid, published 1991  
Told from the point of view of Lily Wilson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s maid, who devoted her life to the invalid poetess' care, moving with her to Italy and caring for her until Barrett's death. The life of a lady's maid in the 1800's was without question a hard one. Being "in service" usually meant a lifetime of sacrifice and servitude. Enmeshed in a complicated relationship with Browning that at various times encompassed the roles of nurse, go-between, advisor, confidant, friend, and servant, Lily demonstrates her loyalty again and again, even helping Elizabeth defy her father's wishes and carry out her elopement with Robert Browning. Yet Lily (who is called “Wilson” by her mistress) is not permitted to pursue her own desires for love, a husband, and a family, but must sublimate all of her own needs in the care of a querulous and controlling employer, whom she nevertheless loves deeply.  
The aspects of the book that interested me the most were the love story between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, and the unyielding class divisions that existed in Victorian times, even among the intellectual elite.  I thought the author dealt with the latter very successfully. There was none of that smug and superior 21st century sensibility looking back at a less enlightened age, as is sometimes the case with historical novels.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Thoughts about Diana Wynne Jones

I was truly saddened to read that Diana Wynne Jones passed away on March 26th.  I came across this news via the internet; as a matter of fact, I read about it on a book blog.
I first discovered DWJ about 15 years ago when my daughter asked me to buy her a copy of Witch Week. Of course I read it myself. It was right up my alley, being both a children’s book and one having to do with magic. This was around the time that Harry Potter was catching on in a big way, and I wondered if JK Rowling had read the Chrestomanci series. Both series have a few things in common. For instance, both are set in a world where magic is an accepted part of life. Some people are born with magical ability, while others are not. And those who do have it have to be carefully trained in its proper use, so they don’t endanger themselves or anyone else.
Anyway, I went on to read everything by DWJ that I could get my hands on, and I have re-read much of it many times.
Jones has been a major figure in the sci fi / fantasy literature world for a long time, and a lot of people are in mourning right now. The most emotional reminiscence / celebration of her life that I’ve seen so far was written by Neil Gaiman  .  Gaiman was a personal friend of DWJ for many years, and at various points she seemed to serve as his mentor, mother, critic and muse.
The Guardian published an obituary  ( that did a good job of putting Jones' body of work into its proper context. The obit also pointed out that Jones’ early life experiences contributed to her rare ability to convey the feelings of a child who has been abandoned, neglected, and left to fend for himself. Not because the adults in his life are evil or cruel, but because they’re too selfish and self-absorbed to remember that he is there. Despite the fact that many of her child protagonists are without an adult to care for them in the way that every child deserves to be cared for, they're still resilient and capable of figuring things out for themselves. Jones herself discussed this aspect of her life in detail in an autobiographical sketch that was published on her official website (here it is: )  It’s well worth a look, if you’re interested in how she came to write the kinds of characters she is famous for. She also talks about her childhood encounters with two legendary giants of the children’s literature world, Arthur Ransome and Beatrix Potter, both of whom apparently hated children!
I’m not going to review any of Jones’ books now because I’m about to go on a DWJ reading binge and I’ll probably re-read most of them, or at least my favorites. So I’ll save the reviews for later.
For right now I just want to do homage, so I'll simply list what  in my opinion are her best. 

And finally, here is another link, this one to an real live scholarly paper written by Deborah Kaplan and published in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. With footnotes and works cited. It's rather interesting in a geeky sort of way. 

But Diana didn’t take herself that seriously; she possessed humor and modesty and she was a down-to-earth person. You can tell this much from her writing.