July 29, 2010

This is the End, Stella Benson

WWI looks like a thunderstorm at the end of a perfect summer day (well, if you were English); but a thunderstorm mistaken, until the blast, for a cooling rain. So many people were unsatisfied in the summer twilight.

This isn't the best example; Benson's The House of Living Alone is better. This one argues that the urge to fantasy or fiction doesn't save us from much, and tries to make the argument in the same genre; the current The Magicians, Lev Grossman, is better at the same suicide.


You promised War and Thunder and Romance.

You promised true, but we were very blind

And very young, and in our ignorance

We never called to mind

That truth is seldom kind.

You promised love, immortal as a star.

You promised true, yet how the truth can lie!

For now we grope for hands where no hands are,

And, deathless, still we cry,

Nor hope for a reply.

You promised harvest and a perfect yield.

You promised true, for on the harvest morn,

Behold a reaper strode across the field,

And man of woman born

Was gathered in as corn.

You promised honour and ordeal by flame.

You promised true. In joy we trembled lest

We should be found unworthy when it came;

But—oh—we never guessed

The fury of the test!

You promised friends and songs and festivals.

You promised true. Our friends, who still are young,

Assemble for their feasting in those halls

Where speaks no human tongue.

And thus our songs are sung.

Project Gutenberg file , This is the End

So wrote clew.

June 28, 2010

Stover at Yale, Owen Johnson

Should he join Skull and Bones? Is this elitism healthy at Yale? What will make the father of a charming girl approve of him? Can he be an intellectual and an athlete? If he tries to stop his classmates from debauching townie girls, will they all be angry?

This is a minor classic of worrying about joining the right social group. Moves smoothly, kind of charmingly quaint, mostly annoyingly (if authentically) adolescent.

ManyBooks link: Stover at Yale.

So wrote clew.

June 13, 2010

Horses of Heaven, Gillian Bradshaw

Like most of Bradshaw's protagonists, the heroine starts this novel more than half defeated; in her case, by being a princess of a wealthy land married to a king. She wants to be a world-renouncing Buddhist instead, not tied into 'the burning house' that is the world. Then things happen to make her life more difficult in a traditional storyish way; wars and diplomacy and a love triangle. I'm not sure the ending can be justified internally, given that it's a novel in which theology is true; a profoundly syncretic theology, as should be right on the Silk Road.

I did like it as a psychological study of a bad arranged marriage -- like A Winter's Tale. It also attacks the question of why Central Asia seems to have kept so little from Hellenism, even though we know Greek cities outlasted Alexander by generations. (I thought that was a question posed by Cosma Shalizi, but I can't find it in his notes.)

Find in a Library: Horses of Heaven

So wrote clew.

May 08, 2010

Late to the Gillian Bradshaw party

I've known the title of one of her books for ages (Hawk of May), but never bothered to read them; having lucked into a Great Rebellion/rogue printer novel a while ago, I picked up her The Sand-Reckoner, about Archimedes' early career, and am now reading them all fast as I can.

The characters generally start the book four-fifths defeated. I don't know that any of the beginnings are as thumping as waking up with no memory in the crater of a volcano about to explode (a Tanith Lee bombast that I can't remember the title of), but I think waking up badly wounded on your own pyre, with the enemy soldiers not noticing you only because they've gone into the shade to escape the killing heat of the desert at noon, is plenty enough trouble to start with (Cleopatra's Heir).

Bradshaw's characters are also not quite wish-fulfilment characters; they are mostly smart and reasonably likable, but not effortlessly smart or given unreasonably devoted followers and enemies (as in too many of Anne McCaffrey's novels). Most of them get out of trouble by paying a lot of attention to the people around them (Render Unto Caesar, an excellent trader's noir set in early Imperial Rome; or Island of Ghosts, about a princely defeated Sarmatian exiled to be his Roman conquerors' shock troops in northern Britain). Some survive by concentrating on a singular gift and letting other people react to them (Dangerous Notes, like and unlike The Gold Bug Variations; or The Wolf Hunt, which retells a lai of Marie de France). Some of the problems so far have been moral quandaries, but the point of the novels has not been to mull and marinate, but to choose a path and carry it out competently.

The prose is clear; the historical characters are probably more fitted to modern mores than they should be (uneasy about slavery, accepting female agency); and they wind up with a few pages on which parts are better or worse documented in actual history. Most of the stories are romances in the modern sense, with autonomy and skill valued in both partners. They're as good as a basket of apples.

Find in a Library: books by Gillian Bradshaw.

So wrote clew.

January 18, 2010

Camp Fire Girls novels

There was a Camp Fire Girls novel at my grandparents' when I was small, and I don't know how many times I read it -- it was a perfect story for a young girl, with a lot of the plot devoted to practicing skills and courage, and a little bit of improbable events and grown-up social obligations. I'm sure it has formed my whole understanding of women and modernity; Alcott's Little Women had many of the same rhetorical ideals that the Camp Fire girls did (Work, Health and Love) but even Jo didn't achieve the independence that the Camp Fire novels were describing a generation later.

For those of you who haven't read any: the Camp Fire Girls coalesced from 1910 to the 1920s, hot on the heels of the Boy Scouts; there are relations by siblinghood or marriage between the YMCA and the American Scouts and the Camp Fire Girls (and the authors of The American Boy's Handy Book and The American Girls Handy Book). The CFG practiced artistic, academic and domestic skills, but the books -- and the imagery -- concentrate on actual time camping, just girls in the woods, with their Guardians. I don't know what earlier group managed as much freedom for women. (Some camps clearly had a male manager; often they were run by a married couple.) Entire novels (How Ethel Hollister Became a Camp Fire Girl) concentrate on how a girl persuades her family to let her do something so shocking and newfangled. One of the common arguments is that a girl as competent as a Camp Fire girl will be a better wife and mother, but in the Fire they definitely value independence for itself.

A lot of the stories have girls escaping, or rescuing each other, from True Crime dangers. Camp Fire girls can outsmart dangers that innocent or flirting girls run into.

For instance, Bessie is pursued by someone who is going to 'adopt' her and keep her imprisoned as a farmhouse-laborer, if only he can get her across a state line. The innocent must have felt this as an exaggeration of the fear of doing nothing but housework, with no respect; the less innocent, as fear of kidnapping for sexual purposes ('across state lines'); I kept reading it as a memory of the slave/free states, when state lines meant that much for many.

That plot was in the middle of a continuum from realistic troubles to plots that would do Mary Pickford proud. I liked the plot in The Torch Bearer of a very, very timid girl, never praised or helped at home, earning her first health honor by walking to the nearest hamlet and back; but she has to walk past a settlement of the poor, who jeer at her as she cringes past them on the way; but, arriving at her goal, she gains courage, and on the way back they shout something friendly. Was it jaded tastes that eventually required 'heiress kidnapped and held in a lakeside tower' (The Camp Fire Girls at SchoolM) or 'gypsies kidnap good girls for ransom' (The Camp Fire Girls at Long Lake). Eventually Camp Fire Girls serve in the Red Cross, and build wireless stations, and fly planes; I haven't read The Banner Campfire Girls as Federal Investigators, but there is explicit overlap with the Nancy Drew series. The Campfire Girls of Roselawn doesn't seem to have any organized Camp Fire girls in it, which might be why it doesn't occur to the girl chums to rescue a girl being forced into a car until it is professionally important to a lawyer.

The most annoying trope is how much racism gets built in to balance, I think, the radical feminism. The first infuriating thing is that the Camp Fires were very explicitly using Native American -- they say Indian -- imagery, costume, even language, with a lot of cod-Longfellow poetry; but it could not be more clear that there aren't any actual Native Americans there. One of the better novels opens with a canoer saying to herself "It sounds like an Indian call, but I'm sure those were not Indian voices." There are references in the more egalitarian novels to 'girls of every shade of complexion', but I'm pretty sure those are shades of European. Of course, in the 1910s, it was liberal to accept working immigrant girls from Eastern Europe or Italy or even Ireland into the same social circles as Anglo-Protestants. Like Maria Thomson Daviess, these novels are pushing to extend sisterhood across class lines, and a little across cultural lines, but they aren't risking race lines.

There is at least one academic treatment of this; and a defense of the Camp Fire Girls on the grounds that one of their founders was a Sioux of impeccable credentials in two cultures.

I also love the details of what life was like over the several decades they cover. When Bessie and her friends are escaping from a kidnapper and his rural Fagin, they cross what seems like half the state on the trolleys; the lines obviously run well into the food-producing countryside, as well as connecting the cities, and many people make their regular market or shopping or school trips on them. The domestic beauty the Camp Fire girls make is so obviously the 'Craftsman', naturalist style, rather than the delicate Victorian style, that I wonder how much the Camp movements fueled the change in aesthetic styles, even styles of dress. Also, the careful enumeration of color-coded doo-dahs to be made or earned or purchased is awfully familiar; the Elks and Masons and Oddfellows bought even better ones.

There is an excellent bibliography of Camp Fire Girls novels at the Memory Book of Alice Beard. Many of them are available online, and she has linked to them.

I still haven't found the story I read so often as a child. I think the girl I loved most was called George, and she longed to be as brave as a heroine, and eventually was; exhausted herself to unconsciousness rescuing someone else.

So wrote clew.

January 16, 2010

Futurist Stories, Margery Verner Reed

The plots of these little stories are straight up "Next week East Lynne!", but the paragraphs are very short and the sentences incomplete. They would work as the narratives for graphic novels, or films, or music videos; succesfully futurist, then.

HER voice sank almost to a breath.
I PLACED you in his cradle.
AN intolerable silence.
I LOVED your father
YOU never knew that he was a Portuguese nobleman.
DID you ever hear of Madeira, she asked sharply
IT was there that one by one all the passions of love--hatred--revenge
had torn my heart. He married and came to England--I followed--repulsed,
MY only weapon against him--was to contrive--the death--of his little
BUT to kill a child--
SHE caught a shuddering breath.
I COULD not--
I HID it securely.
ONCE again I visited Madeira. On the steps of the Church I stabbed my
enemy among the flowers in that land of beauty--a crime to darken its
SO you belong to me--
YOU owe me much--
ALL that you can pay.
THE little sum of money he had in the Postal Savings rose into his
mind--and gave him amazing steadiness
HIS voice sounded loud and full in his own ears
YOU lie! he shouted suddenly.
YOU lie! you fiend! Come into the daylight.
HE was tearing his mind free from the influence of the place, the
shadows--the possessing voice of the woman.
SHE crouched back toward the door.

Project Gutenberg file#30374, Futurist Stories

So wrote clew.

The Whole Family, twelve authors.

Each chapter of this is by a different author, in the first-person voice of a different member of the 'whole family', as they annoy and assist each other and absorb a newcomer. It isn't an exercise in subtle characterization in any of them; it's more as though they chose the three-word, easy to sell description of each character and went for easy wit instead. It might be a television show; catchy, a little bit catty.

The father / William Dean Howells -- The old-maid aunt / Mary E. Wilkins Freeman -- The grandmother / Mary Heaton Vorse -- The daughter-in-law / Mary Stewert Cutting -- The school-girl / Elizabeth Jordan -- The son-in-law / John Kendrick Bangs -- The married son / Henry James -- The married daughter / Elizabeth Stuart Phelps -- The mother / Edith Wyatt -- The school-boy / Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews -- Peggy / Alice Brown -- The friend of the family / Henry Van Dyke.

Project Gutenberg file #5066, The Whole Family

So wrote clew.

The Crisis, Winston Churchill

(Not the Winston Churchill who became a Prime Minister, incidentally. ) A novel of the Civil War, built around the young man who comes down from the North beforehand and is horrified by slavery; but the South is represented by gallantry and tradition. Well, both sides get to be gallant, but the South has better hats.

Project Gutenberg file#5396, The Crisis

So wrote clew.

The Lamp in the Desert, Ethel M. Dell

A classic romance -- the solitary and proud sister of a poor officer comes out to India, is scorned by the station wives, strikes sparks off the inscrutable Captain Monck. Etc etc. Angst ensues, verandahs, jungles, resolution, all what it says on the tin.

Project Gutenberg file #13763, The Lamp in the Desert

So wrote clew.

Far to Seek, Maud Diver

I suppose this was the Far Pavilions of its day, but it doesn't tickle my id as well. The young people have more interesting moral challenges -- this is set around the 'Mesopotamian' war (WW1), and has nationalism and the New Woman as Questions -- but the author is solidly for Englishness and motherhood, and not surprising interpretations of either.

Project Gutenberg file #15704, Far to Seek.

So wrote clew.

August 03, 2009

The Night Horseman, Max Brand

Heathcliff! Heathcliff! and his even prettier horse!

Odd Western; the perfect Western man is so wild he can't live among men, but follows the wild geese; dangerously attractive to man and woman (and horse and wolf-dog). Oddly, one symptom is his whistling like Keat's lark; endless ornate flights of unformed seductive music.

Starts slowly, ends sadly.

Project Gutenberg file 12436 , The Night Horseman.

So wrote clew.

July 22, 2009

The Youngest Girl in the Fifth, Angela Brazil

This wasn't a very good novel but I can see why she's an evergreen author and I will probably read more. Brazil's school-stories novels are widely said to be some of the first stories written from the young protagonist's actual perspective, which is part of the fault in this one. The main character avoids admitting errors, even when she knows they will come out eventually; and she gets away with more than I think she ought. Because it feels rather like the earlier Victorian novels of moral examination (e.g., The Young Step-Mother), I expected her to have to give up something she wanted to make up for having cheated. But no; circumstances and forgiveness conspire, and all she suffers is extended worry and not-too-public embarrassment for having been 'not quite straight'. She is generally forgiven because of her family's reputation, perhaps because of her skill in school competitions.

This isn't unrealistic, I'm sure; that must have been part of the pleasure of Brazil's novels in her day, that occasionally one was successful and admired for something other than self-renunciation. Brazil's young women are as likely to look forward to careers as to marriages; in this story two older sisters are stuck, by bad luck, with each others' jobs, but they are clearly planning to get back into their right lines eventually; one will go in for nursing in the big city (had originally hoped to be a doctor!) and the other will marry, one is sure, and be an excellent housewife and farmwife.

Nor does Brazil pretend that the wrong actions aren't wrong, so she isn't constantly galling to read. On the other hand, it does become noticeable that actually poor people exist only as a background for the virtue of the clerical class. Rowling might actually be more socially lively, there.

Project Gutenberg etext 21687, The Youngest Girl in the Fifth

So wrote clew.

June 24, 2009

Blue-Grass and Broadway, Maria Thompson Daviess

Obvious in plot and worse in characterization, but interesting to see what parts of modernity had arrived in 1919. Some things are now unintentionally funny; e.g., the New York impresario who looks forward to the California influence on entertainment because he thinks it will raise the tone.

Daviess is, as usual, good on sisterhood (the woman who would in most versions of this be the scheming villainess is admired for the strengths she does have, and allowed a happy ending of her own) and on the importance of work for men and women (and the need to change social mores because men and women need to work together). She's still classbound and race-bound, though I did think the faithful black servant in the South got a lick in:

"Yes, sir. We whipped them Yankees in no time but they jest didn't find it out in time to stop killing us 'for it all ended."

Rare in libraries: Blue-Grass and Broadway, but almost ready to be released by Project Gutenberg.

So wrote clew.

April 30, 2009

Middling mysteries, but free

Lady Molly of Scotland Yard is written from the painfully worshipful view of her, clerk?, upper servant?, who takes her as a champion of feminine intuition and guile in the plodding world of Scotland Yard. The first few stories are mildly interesting bits of Edwardian life, especially feminine life; I noted one illegitimate child put to be raised by a village woman, with the mother certainly thought less of but not scorned or ostracized in the village; and another young woman of good family who fenced and boxed.

They didn't do much for me as mysteries -- if there were clues, they were social enough that I missed most of them; Lady Molly is supposed to be 'condensing fact from the vapors of nuance', as another writer had it, and I miss nuance from a culture even as little different as that. The only really interesting mystery is of Lady Molly's origins; I can *imagine* that over the course of the whole, the worshiping servant discovers them -- perhaps accidentally -- perhaps disillusioned -- perhaps more worshipful yet -- ... But I only imagine, because I didn't finish.

Max Carrados has an equally improbably competent sleuth, this one blind and rich, with a rather stupider professional inquiry agent as the narrator and foil. The puzzles are more material, and hold up to changing time a little better, and I think there are more clues for the reader.

From the U. Penn. Celebration of Women Writers: Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, Baroness Orczy

Project Gutenberg etext #12932: Max Carrados, Ernest Bramah

So wrote clew.

March 08, 2009

Snake and Sword, Percival Christopher Wren

Cliché Gothic romance, set half in India. Sub-Beau Geste.

Bits I liked: the uniforms of cavalry troops -- I should think they needed to be over six feet and all in proportion, just to fit in the plumes and sashes. Contrast with "...the khaki kit so admirable for work (and so depressing unswanksome and anti-enlistment for play, or rather for walking-out and leisure)...". Boxing is the measure of a man, as in a Jeffery Farnol novel, but the heroine learns to box too:

it was in her heart to smite the Haddock on the lying mouth with the straight-from-the-shoulder drive learned in days of yore from Dam, and practised on the punching-ball with great assiduity.

She doesn't, though.

Several references to the desirably small extremities of an upper-class man. My lower-class imagination sniggered. Sort of tries to argue for better treatment and respect of the middle and lower classes, especially Tommies, but undermines itself by assuming that practically everything is inherited and ought to be; both the Snake and the Sword are dementias of the hero inherited, in great detail, from traumas experienced by ancestors he never met.

A cavalry funeral described; new handkerchiefs a perquisite of those close to the deceased (were they still expensive, handkerchiefs, or is this left over from centuries earlier?); and the slow funeral marches to the grave are contrasted with the merriest tune the band can play, leaving. I had thought that was a New Orleans innovation.

The Wise thank God for Work and for Sleep--and pay large premia of the former as insurance in the latter.

Project Gutenberg file #10667:Snake and Sword

So wrote clew.

March 03, 2009

When A Man Marries, Mary Roberts Rinehart

Just a fluffy romance, only good because Rinehart is good at pacing and foreshadowing; but in passing, as a plot-bunny, a reminder of what life was like before universal inoculation. The butler took sick and dropped a tray, and the servants are mysteriously all missing, and:

There was a man on the top step, with his mouth full of tacks, and he was nailing something to the door, just below Jim's Florentine bronze knocker, and standing back with his head on one side to see if it was straight.
"What are you doing?" Jim demanded fiercely, but the man only drove another tack [...]
It said "Smallpox."

They're all locked into a house together under police guard, because one person taken out of the house may have smallpox. This is not necessarily a brief sentence:

...keeps the commuter at home for three weeks with the measles; that makes him get the milk bottles and groceries from the gate post and smell like dog soap for a month afterward, as a result of disinfection.

Before that, a combination of mob attacks, walled cities, and general Decameron-style flight to places previously uninfected.

Project Gutenberg etext #1671, When A Man Marries

So wrote clew.

March 01, 2009

The White Linen Nurse, Eleanor Hallowell Abbott

`Nurse romances', almost always between a nurse and a doctor or surgeon, are quite common. I've found a site that implies they're a WWII phenomenon; can't be that, as this one dates to 1913 (as does this New York Times headline on the subject... ) The interesting thing about that is that professional nursing is not *very* old, not much older than the ninteenth century, and the status of sick-nursing previously was peculiar; all women were expected to be willing and able to nurse their families at home, and the poor if possible, but secular professional nurses were confused with camp-followers.

UWMilwaukee has a special collection of them, and a summary that also makes them a post-WWII phenomenon, but Hallowell Abbott is in the game for "the image of nurses and the nursing profession in popular culture, and the books that serve to reinforce not only popular misconceptions of nurses, but of women generally, and professional women in particular."

We have: a student nurse who doesn't want to graduate because her 'trained face' distresses her; her childhood sweetheart who broke the engagement because she washes male patients; a socialite nurse; a nurse who dies in saving an annoying old patient from a fire; a car-accident; a lame child right out of The Secret Garden; heaps of money and house-decorating; and a marriage with an indefinitely postponed consummation (but a happy ending). I'd call that a solid third of the evergreen cliches, and the prose is springy enough.

Project Gutenberg file #14506, The White Linen Nurse

So wrote clew.

November 29, 2008

Independent People, Halldor Laxness

I knew this was great literature, although I had not remembered that the author had the Nobel in literature; and I have enjoyed some of the epics of the North to which it is compared: it was Hesperion XXI, I think, that accompanied the singing with an actual swans-bone flute. Iceland is in the news, of course; and the book itself was on the `employees recommend' shelf last week.

It is great literature, but you aren't going to get analysis of it from me, because I haven't the time or the skill and anyway better writers than I have done it. One of the cover blurbs is from E. Annie Proulx, who must be as close as the US gets to this degree of dank hyperrealist gloom -- but Proulx writes Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm compared to this slow starvation and rape and lightless mud. The hero Bjartur of Summerhouses is a freeholding sheep-farmer whose sole determination is to owe nothing to anyone. In trying, he kills most of his family by disease or starvation and loses his farm anyway.

EPIC FAIL: dead sheep

Now, one of the reasons this is great literature is probably that it's also regularly funny, in a bitter way, and has episodes of any of the great emotions, although the kinder ones tend to be tragically misapplied, partly because almost everyone is badly malnourished and not thinking very well. There's some comment by, by, Marx? Shaw? Wells? about rural idiocy, which is much sneered at as classism; but here it looks like a consequence of starvation. Marginal farmland gives back fewer calories than it takes to farm it, and the people doing it wear out. Some wear out sooner than others: Bjartur loses two wives and regularly relies on the labor of female indigents sent by the parish. He's not willing to marry an equal with savings, though. Bjartur has virtue in the very, very old sense, which is sort of grand but painful to hear, like a swans'-bone flute.

P.S. -- The picture of the dead sheep is copyright by John and Susy Pint, from their blog entry Saudicaves in Iceland;

Apparently, even though it found itself inside a long narrow tube, with daylight rapidly fading, it didn’t have the smarts to turn around and go back out, preferring to starve to death rather than try something new.

Find in a Library: Independent People

So wrote clew.

June 01, 2008

Living Alone, Stella Benson

A World War One novel ought to be strange and sad; this novel was published in 1919 and reprinted twice in 1920, seems to have hit a nerve in its day, and goes from the odd to the inconsolable.

The outward odd thing is a novel about bedsits and witches, in which a committee devoted to helping the deserving poor in WWI London is bewildered by a witch who happens to dogfight in the city's defense. Her magic is explained in terms of past lives; but, unusually, in this cosmology one only has magic power in one's first life; old souls are too worn down and sad. This is a recognizable view of The Cute and the Cool idealization of the young, and there are little bits of that, but mostly it's a principle of universal decline -- there is nothing to explain why the world is better off with old sad souls in it, or the souls better off, or the world lovable at all if this is what it turns us into.

Why the title? Much of the story is set in a boardinghouse in London which obliges its boarders to solitude, and discomfort, and scarce friendship. One bildungsroman character, poor and honorable, earnest and hardworking, moves in because there is no rent and she's broke. (The combination of London, poverty, gentility, and a war is another trope of universal decline.) In almost any story that we now have with witches and dogfights -- in Harry Potter or Dr. Who, let alone Disney -- this would be the heroine, and she would make some friend, acquire some skill, possibly be fallen in love with, and would leave the House of Living Alone as Inanna left the Underworld.

But no! it goes with her instead! The witch escorts her nearly to the New World and then abandons her with these words:

Dear Sarah Brown, you did mean well. How sad it is that people who have once lived in the House of Living Alone can never make a success of friendship. You say you left all you loved--what business have you with love? [...] Did you think you had destroyed the House of Living Alone? Did you think you could escape from it?

I seem never to have mentioned Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, which is a terrible oversight, as it is an excellent book connecting the bored, bruised swoonings of the late Victorian poets -- A. C. Swinburne, etc. -- to the imaginative experience of World War One. (I remember Fussell citing a poet as describing going to war as 'into cleanness leaping'. I'm pretty sure that was before the actual war.) From there I can go by easy steps to Tolkien, and modern tastes for romantic adventure; and therefore Star Wars, the fictional one and the factional project.

What molded the architects of World War One? The long, long end of the nineteenth century reared up more than one biological generation of gilded youth into... bored, entitled fools who thought a war would be as manageable as a peace? (The film Oh! What A Wonderful War is amazing, by the way.) This bodes ill for us; Fareed Zakaria is probably right when he says that the U.S. could change course and lead a world of developing equals into peace; but I don't see why anyone should assume, on our current form, that we will.

History; did we think we could escape from it?

Living Alone, Stella Benson; Project Gutenberg etext 14907

Find in a Library: The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell

A. C. Swinburne, many works at Project Gutenberg

Find in a Library: Oh! What A Lovely War; if the blocking in the opening scene is inherited from a stage play, it's even more amazing

So wrote clew.

January 05, 2008

Greatheart, Mary Ethel Dell

Somewhere in Dorothy Sayers, I think, reference is made to virtuous spinsters secretly devouring Ethel M. Dell novels; Sayers' character would have been speaking in the twenties or thirties, and this novel was published in 1918, so it was a fairly current taste.

In content, a romance without other plot; and worse, the drama of the romance mostly comes from the extreme ignorance and innocence of the heroine, and the timidity of the hero and heroine to admit to each other that they love each other until it is Almost Too Late. (It's obvious to everyone else.)

On the other hand, Dell writes with the straightforwardness that makes a story good anyway, rather as Edgar Rice Burroughs does but with opposite failings as to plot and character.

One of the pleasures is in the use of Apollo and Daphne as a structural trope -- the false 'good marriage' that the heroine almost makes, for glamour rather than love, is to a big tall good-at-everything man nicknamed for the god of the lyre. His brother, the true good marriage, is a little lame man; but not Hephaestus, as he would be if the literary metaphor were mechanically applied; rather, Great-heart, a Paul Bunyan figure of courage and protection.

Dell's Apollo is, like the original, frightening. For much of the novel we are not at all sure he isn't going to rape the heroine (in the belief that she will enjoy it eventually); he certainly holds her against her will; I wasn't even sure that Dell was not conflating sexual passion with the desire to be overmastered. None of this is heavyhanded allegory--rather, the metaphors are alive to the characters, they think with them and therefore act by them.

Greatheart, standing for Christianity, may be seen to conquer Apollo; but because these are characters, not allegories, it's more complicated than that. (I started reading Pilgrim's Progress again, because really I suppose one ought, but oh, it's dull.) Apollo is somewhat chastened, but not overthrown; by the end he is engaged to a woman who, in the first place, is called Aphrodite; and in the second, is clearly not afraid of him. Nor is passion abandoned; but it is rather a point that it's not healthy until Daphne initiates it herself.

There is a poem Great-Heart by Rudyard Kipling, also; written in memory of Theodore Roosevelt; not very memorable.

Project Gutenberg e-text #13497, Greatheart.

So wrote clew.

December 11, 2007

A Journey in Other Worlds, J. J. Astor

Very, very bad, with brief descents into being humorously bad. It opens with a landing on Jupiter in its temperate forests:

"I hope we may find some four-legged inhabitants," said Ayrault, thinking of their explosive magazine rifles. "If Jupiter is passing through its Jurassic or Mesozoic period, there must be any amount of some kind of game."

In the fraction of the book I pressed through, that's as lively as the dialogue gets, and the action is no stronger.

The good bit is the grandeur of the terraforming plans -- Terra-forming, in fact; our own planet requires improvement:

As long ago as 1890, Major-Gen. A. W. Drayson, of the British Army, showed, in a work entitled Untrodden Ground in Astronomy and Geology, that, as a result of the second rotation of the earth, the inclination of its axis was changing, it having been 23@ 28' 23" on January 1, 1750, 23@ 27' 55.3" on January 1, 1800, and 23@ 27' 30.9" on January 1, 1850; and by calculation one hundred and ten years ago showed that in 1900 (one hundred years ago) it would be 23@ 27' 08.8". This natural straightening is, of course, going on, and we are merely about to anticipate it. When this improvement was mooted, all agreed that the EXTREMES of heat and cold could well be spared. 'Balance those of summer against those of winter by partially straightening the axis; reduce the inclination from twenty-three degrees, thirty minutes, to about fifteen degrees, but let us stop there,' many said. Before we had gone far, however, we found it would be best to make the work complete. This will reclaim and make productive the vast areas of Siberia and the northern part of this continent, and will do much for the antarctic regions; but there will still be change in temperature; a wind blowing towards the equator will always be colder than one blowing from it, while the slight eccentricity of the orbit will supply enough change to awaken recollections of seasons in our eternal spring.
"The way to accomplish this is to increase the weight of the pole leaving the sun, by increasing the amount of material there for the sun to attract, and to lighten the pole approaching or turning towards the sun, by removing some heavy substance from it, and putting it preferably at the opposite pole. This shifting of ballast is most easily accomplished, as you will readily perceive, by confining and removing water, which is easily moved and has a considerable weight. How we purpose to apply these aqueous brakes to check the wabbling of the earth, by means of the attraction of the sun, you will now see.
"From Commander Fillmore, of the Arctic Shade and the Committee on Bulkheads and Dams, I have just received the following by cable telephone: 'The Arctic Ocean is now in condition to be pumped out in summer and to have its average depth increased one hundred feet by the dams in winter. We have already fifty million square yards of windmill turbine surface in position and ready to move. The cables bringing us currents from the dynamos at Niagara Falls are connected with our motors, and those from the tidal dynamos at the Bay of Fundy will be in contact when this reaches you, at which moment the pumps will begin. In several of the landlocked gulfs and bays our system of confining is so complete, that the surface of the water can be raised two hundred feet above sea- level. The polar bears will soon have to use artificial ice. Perhaps the cheers now ringing without may reach you over the telephone.'"

There is so much exposition that two of the chapters are:


Bits of the 'history' are mildly interesting for their take on redesigning urban transit, but not very.

Eventually they meet a ghost Bishop on Saturn, who lectures them on physics and morality. This is to Swedenborg as the hunting on Jupiter is to Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Project Gutenberg etext #1607. They file it under 'Utopias'.

So wrote clew.

December 10, 2007

Riders of the Purple Sage, Zane Grey

Another of the great geological feature adventure stories (with, e.g., Lorna Doone, The Island Stallion; also some pirate novels; when even the deus ex machina is inert, you know you have some pulp characterization...)

There are a few places that really do have geological features as astonishing as any building; and the parts of the Southwest that Zane Grey wrote about are among them, and his writing is best when evoking the drama and sentiment of the landscape. The Wild West romance-and-real-estate plot makes a lot happen (all suitable for a Firefly episode) but the landscape is the charm; and the horses.

There are two female proto-heroines; proto- because they aren't very efficacious, as far as the plot goes, but heroines because they are courageous and skilled. I take what I can get.

One of them is a Mormon heiress, under social and economic duress by the elders of her region. There's reflexive anti-Mormon fulminating, all justified by their treatment of women. From my vantage the Mormons in this novel look not much worse than the non-Mormons. Most all of the non-Mormon men with speaking parts happen to be individually virtuous, but it's obvious from one subplot or another that women outside the region are also at considerable risk. I did very much like the consideration of the divided loyalties of Mormon women, who perhaps would like the heiress to be left alone, or failing that to stop rocking the boat, but who abandon her when the chips are down. They come across as weak but not venal. It's not where you expect a quiet little argument for sisterhood in the face of oppression, but again, I'll take what I can get.

Project Gutenberg etext 1300, Riders of the Purple Sage

So wrote clew.

October 08, 2007

Diane of the Green Van, Leona Dalrymple

There wasn't much to like in this as a novel; the plot is a mishmash of Ruritanian inheritance, rich US Gilded Age sort-of-anti-monarchism, and extremely unreliable racial reconciliation (on the basis of good looks, and mostly undercut by the plot).

I did enjoy the scenes in the wilderness of the rich river Everglades, still (in 1914) close at the back of Palm Beach, and crammed with amazing wildlife and the outposts of several vanishing civilizations.

Project Gutenberg etext 16101, Diane of the Green Van

So wrote clew.

August 09, 2007

Maria Thompson Daviess, various novels

Now these were good fluff, if one can get over the obligatory appearance of a loyal old black servant in various genteelly poor Tenessee families. The author, and the characters, are never unkind to the servant, never enjoy themselves mocking the servant; I choose to take one pie-in-the-sky statement that if the family had money, they would all go to college and the cook would earn a degree in Home Economics as serious. (Quite possible.)

It's harder for me to say why the fluff is so well-constructed. It isn't all well reasoned; the French duelling disguised-as-a-boy heroine in The Daredevil doesn't live up to her training, and I don't think the political plot much holds together, either. I would say the emotional reasoning is coherent, or that the characters are distinct and consistent (and peculiar and likeable). When characters are described as sweet and optimistic, they really are. The religious concerns are caused by and reflected in real behavior. The worries of the girl heroines, even when silly, are taken seriously because they're serious to the character; Phyllis is especially like that.

One steady trait, which sets them a little apart from both suffering-virtue Victoriana and from modern Mary Sue idealizations, is that the rich, kindly, spirited, good-looking heroine is recognized as a natural heroine by most of her peers. I suppose this is one of the things that makes them emotionally consistent. Certainly it's more fun to read than most idealized suffering, and it makes a lot more sense than perfect heroines who everyone dislikes for no reason (the Menolly disease). There's still plenty of trouble for a young headstrong person to get into.

The weirdest of the ones I read is The Golden Bird, which is a brave romance of chicken-raising, with a Methodist Dionysius in it. The dashing heroine discovers that the family fortunes are almost gone; she spends the remainder on a small mail-order flock of champion layers, and retreats to a shabby rural property; and the vaguely The Egg and I amusements of urbanite-learning-ruralism are leavened by a romance with a strange hero with funny-shaped hair who comes dancing out of the woods in homemade clothes. She calls him Pan, and is smitten by his resemblance to her champion rooster. Really, the pleasure in it is that the main character throws herself into everything, whitewashing or Gallus guy or anything, with happy allusions to any of her strengths;

Talk about Mordkin and Pavlova! To stand up and drive a team hitched to a jolt-wagon over boulders and roots requires leg muscles!

I also wonder if the peculiar Pan is a reference to, or memory of, Johnny Appleseed; the recent The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan sets him up as a harbinger of desire as well as horticulture.

The Elected Mother: A Story of Women's Equal Rights is a cheerful short story of work-life balance, and alliance between the genders and the generations. Tennessee remembers her as an adopted daughter and a devoted suffragist; I should think she was effective.

Project Gutenberg's collection of Maria Thompson Daviess' books

Google Books has The Elected Mother: A Story of Woman's Equal Rights

So wrote clew.

The Mummy and Miss Nitocris, George Griffith

This is a too routine and smug to be really enjoyable fluff, but some themes are amusing, especially for a 1906(?) novel.

The difficulty is that the parts are too disparate, and the highflown lectures by the protagonists stop the action and display the patched seams between the parts, attempting to combine the science of the day with plot-advancing nonsense. There are elderly and combative mathematicians, one of whom gains the ability to travel in 'the fourth dimension', but the author gets too confused about what an axiom is to let the character rumpus in any disbelief-allowing way. The 'fourth dimension' is sometimes timelike; the Mummy of the title is a prior life of the rich, degreed Miss Nitocris; the Mummy committed murder-suicide to avoid an evil arranged marriage, and in 1906 all the characters are trotting through their parts again. Miss Nitocris ascribes romance simultaneously to 'affinities' between souls who always have been engaged, and to Natural Selection that improves the race. I can't even think how that would work. Monads in the gonads, I guess.

The evil guy is reincarnated as a Russian tyrant, and there's an American heiress who has a bachelor's degree and can drive, which is clearly quite dashing for the time; but it all bogs down in these annoying sludges of badly-digested classist/racist pop scientism.

Project Gutenberg etext #19231

So wrote clew.

June 23, 2007

The Valley of the Moon, Jack London

The scenes in this are good, as one expects from Jack London, but the novel as a whole hangs together only by heroic doses of exceptionalism. On the other hand, it so perfectly figures the Californian ruburban ideal that the second half could nearly be reprinted in Sunset every year.

The first half is a sort-of proletariat drama in lower-class Oakland (1900s or thereabouts). It's more pro-tagonist than pro-labor; the best-looking young things in town meet, fall in love, marry, see their slightly more low-tone friends go to the bad, and get out of town in the wake of pitched strike and riot: "Capital everywhere seemed to have selected this city for the battle with organized labor." At this point Saxon (the heroine) and Billy are labor; he's a teamster.

They decide the city is corrupt and corrupting, and leave for a dream of 'the valley of the moon' with all of California's agricultural and scenic advantages in one place, not far from a railroad. The wandering part of the novel is a pleasant fantasy of full public trout-streams and high-class, book-learned small-holders with a lot of time to explain truck-farm profits to the vagabonds.

The middle of the book is mildly interesting for set-pieces discussing clever agricultural tricks of 'the immigrants'; grafting in Portuguese fruit orchards, drying by Chinese fruit-shippers, all so much more profitable than the lazier methods of the Anglos that the Anglos are getting bought out of the land. "Not an inch wasted. Where we get one thin crop, they get four fat crops." The protagonists are weirdly sure that this is all kind of tacky, that they as 'real' Americans deserve forty acres rather than four (acres 'free from the government', too).

Carmel is a valuable visit because they 'learn how to play': "A poet named Mark Hall had offered them the free use of a "shack," and it turned out to be a three-roomed house comfortably furnished for housekeeping. ... They paid no rent." Hall inherited money and can afford to preach democracy and fixing the system -- to which, Saxon:

If we all get into politics and work hard for something better, maybe we'll get it after a thousand years or so. But I want it now. I can't wait; I want it now. ... What we want is a valley of the moon, with not too much work, and all the fun we want.

They are advised to lease a farm, work the heart out of it, and make off with the profits -- this is explicitly described as the tactic of "the land-hungry Anglo-Saxons... It was his kind that destroyed New England. Back there, great sections are relapsing to wilderness." But they also don't want to do anything so immoral.

They adopt a camper-wagon so that she can travel with an adequate wardrobe.

There is much talk of how the soil ought to be protected and replenished, but no detail on how that should be done.

Finally they happen onto perfect land in Sonoma -- an abandoned farm, with nice neighbors and reliable water, near a railroad and a hotel boom. Inexplicably, it's affordable. There's a brief dig at the original French settler, whose land-love is "a disease", and some extremely handy setting-up advice from an independent farmer who takes quite a lot of time off her own farm to help them set up; and finally our protagonists are happy because they're going to be capitalists:

You must use your head. Let others do the work. You must understand that thoroughly. The wages of superintendence are always larger than the wages of the laborers.

Nor is this a strictly rural idyll:

As a farming investment, using old-fashioned methods, it was not worth it. As a business investment, yes; for the virtues of the valley were on the eve of being discovered by the outside world, and no better location for a summer home could be found. ... And he knew [the seller] would allow time on most of the amount.

So, yes, if land in Sonoma falls into your lap on easy terms, you can feel very good about your prospects for catering to the upper classes and to land speculation, and it might even be easy. Truly, a prototype of the Californian dream to this day.

Find in a Library: The Valley of the Moon

Project Gutenberg etext #1449

So wrote clew.

April 16, 2007

Friendly Brook, Rudyard Kipling

I regret that the paragraphs about hedge-laying were not longer, but it's still amazing to read a hillslope hydrology mystery. Perhaps it's an amateur civil engineering mystery. Water moves.

It's also amazing how good late Kipling is. Most of the story is unwritten, but it isn't missing or even obscure.

Friendly Brook.

So wrote clew.

November 05, 2005

Beau Sabreur, P. C. Wren

I will start at the very nadir of my fortunes, at their very lowest depths, and you shall see them rise to their zenith, that highest point where they are crowned by Failure.

That's the first line and, alas, it might be the best. P. C. Wren is famous for Beau Geste, and for the story of the men who died but could not fall at Zinderneuf; this novel is tied into that story at several points, but doesn't need them.

It isn't quite an all-out swashbuckling novel, although it manages to combine the heroic characters of the square-jawed English gentry, the subtle and nationalist French gentry, the dashing Sheik, and the jes' natural Western cowboy into fewer actual characters than you'd think that would take. The narrative structure is more complicated than I expected, and does the combined identities proud. It might be just a little too late (1926) to carry off the noble burden of the colonizer. Anyway, something didn't jell. It wasn't a bad waste of time, but it wasn't good.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

July 16, 2005

A Dornfield Summer, Mary Murkland Haley

My city library has a selection of "Books Your Parents and Grandparents Loved" out, a mishmash of reprinted classics, old Issue Novels, and gloriously moldy cheese. I twirled my whiskers and went for the cheese.

This one does well by its mold. It's basically a Louisa May Alcott story, of an opinionated, bookish, pre-Woman young woman who makes mistakes and learns to be a better person. This is not tedious because Haley isn't cheating; her heroine really does make mistakes and they're embarassing and she changes afterwards, though not lots. The visiting poor cousin neither worships at her shrine nor gets molded into an upper-class young thing. (More on that later; it gave me the one total surprise of the book.)

Nor are there plot coincidences or deathbed conversions; although hugely concerned with being good Christians, these people live in a world of practical causality. The didacticism is under control.

Historical details:

...having had a small fortune left him, he[r father] was able to give up a profession [in the law] for which he did not care much, to take up the farm life he did enjoy.

a saleratus cake (it goes wrong, because made by the poetry-quoting rich daughter Gertrude, not the practical and precise poor cousin Florence).

There seems to be a serious labor dearth, so much so that household servants set their conditions, though maybe not their wages. True, in 1906? This is set outside commuting distance from any large city, and I think the family isn't quite rich enough that their help lives in.

Haley (like Alcott; see An Old-Fashioned Girl) approves of women who support themselves. It's Florence who didn't think there was a ladylike way to do that:

... the warm friendship of these girls for each other, on terms of perfect equality, though Miss Casson, incomparably the gayer, better-dressed and more popular, was working her own way through college, while Emma was a rich man's daughter, brushed away a few more of her disappearing class prejudices.

Of Casson and a young man:

Miss Casson, by the way, took the reins from Thorsby at the end of the first mile, remarking that as she was not now playing golf, she preferred to go around the hazards rather than over them. She knew how to drive and he did n't, so both were satisfied.

There's also a nontraditional young man, who everyone takes lightly, but who is going to go to the city and make a living as a wallpaper designer.

Florence figures out how she's going to make her living when a masonry accident brings a crushed hand into the house, and she's the calmest person there. Send me to the bottom of the class; I thought she was going to train to be a nurse - but the doctor says,

"Well, young lady, do you think you'll be able to take off a man's fingers yourself next time?" This was his only recognition of her coolness, when all was done.
"I mean to, sometime." The admission was drawn from her by the excitement of the hour, which she had not otherwise shown except by the darkening of her eyes. ... "I should n't care for the pills and powder people so much. I might not have patience, I'm afraid, with their whims and complaints. But—yes, I should like to 'chop.' I'd like to see how the inside of you looks this minute, Gertie Gleason!"...
"It cannot be unwomanly to make the best of any talent God has given you.

that last from the mother of the family, who is Perfect. Nor is this dreamy utopianism; the novel is dedicated to three girlhood friends, one of whom "was to be known in a great city with M.D. written after her name".

The Seattle Public Library copy was given by Haley herself, and for all I can tell is the second-to-last trace of her; Worldcat doesn't list it, but she did write a story indexed in FictionMags. FictionMags is a serendipitous find; the tables-of-contents are such a picture of daily worries and ambitions.

Haley, Mary Murkland. A Dornfield Summer. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1906.

So wrote clew.

July 08, 2005

Swing Shift, Howard M. Brier

What I principally enjoyed in this WW II story was the careful namechecking of Seattle and Puget Sound places and sights, including the Kalakala, which was considered an eyeful back in the day too.

The second-best bit was the tale of a young North Dakota lad becoming entranced with heavy industry and forging his way to competence through a love of logistics and a great facility at making friends. He walks down to the waterfront his first day off the train and meets the son of a shipyard owner; on his way to the recommended work he meets an old bosun type who explains shipfitting. He also gains the regard of the owner by reading Walt Whitman.

The espionage plot wasn't as good, because he was pretty stupid (Tell the Grownups, subcategory iii: Tell the FBI) and didn't suffer for it; the German-named saboteurs with little black mustaches get caught.

No ISBN, and it isn't listed by Worldcat even though I checked it out of the Seattle Public Library, which generally does show in those listings. Behold a gap in the internet, tho' I guess I'm doing my bit to darn it.

Brier, Howard M. Swing Shift. New York: Random House, 1943.

So wrote clew.

June 23, 2005

The Oakdale Affair, Edgar Rice Burroughs

I guess Burroughs was a great writer, but he wasn't a good one. Everything about this early story is some degree of awful but I enjoyed the whole. The plot would fit the bad Camp Fire Girls series; the characters are stock; the subtext is lively, but probably unintentional, as no-one does anything with it; the prose suggests that the author was paid by the word:

But even the most expert of second story men nod and now that all seemed as though running on greased rails a careless elbow rakes a silver candle-stick to the floor where it crashed with a resounding din that sent cold shivers up the youth's spine and conjured in his mind a sudden onslaught of investigators from the floor below.

That's a clunky sentence as narrative, but it isn't hard to say; it's not tin-eared. Likewise, although the plot and characters are old chestnuts, they're used handily. At least, I assume they're used handily, and that a blind test would show some difference between this and a similar-plotted story by a failed G. A. Henty or a pulp writer who never wrote anything better. I don't know where the difference resides; pacing, maybe: the sentences are prolonged but the action clips along paragraph by paragraph.

It is very sad that the republisher who wrote such a laudatory preface about Burroughs could not honor him with adequate proof-reading as well as hard covers.

Project Gutenberg etext 363

So wrote clew.

June 19, 2005

The Brontës Went to Woolworths, Rachel Ferguson

This is obviously a novel about a family's use of imagination and literature, our era might say 'creativity', to ameliorate the loss of their father and associated income. Most of the Carne family interactions manage details of how the game is worked out, how a joint fantastical narrative is agreed on, how they negotiate what's in what category of reality without admitting that different categories of reality exist.

A. S. Byatt's introduction (I recommend reading it after the novel) is particularly interested in how dangerous this degree of fantasy is. I think she's thinking of the danger that the players will forget they're playing; her novel The Game, she mentions, obviously owes a lot to this. This is an evident danger, and the more seductive because the imaginary world uses the eerie as material.

Me, I was struck by the plodding predictability of the class structure of the game. The Carnes make up stories about real people, including people they know. It never occurs to them to tell a (charming, kind, successful, imaginative) comedian that he's in their game, because he has the wrong kind of relatives. At the opposite pole, they go to some effort to invite a judge and his wife into the game and make the game comfortable for them. But their governesses, who live with them, are constantly shown the game and consistently shut out of it. Governesses live an unpleasant divided existence... The Brontes, literature's champions of the governess, are the only defenders of the governess in the game; perhaps they have enough reality to overrule not only the Carnes but Ferguson herself.

From the intro in the Virago reprint I have, Ferguson was well read in her day (1920s through the 1950s) especially by professionals, or not-too-radical New Women, or decaying gentles. There are, accordingly, a fair number of old copies of her books for sale, or still in the more thorough libraries, but she seems to be just comprehensively out of print. I think The Little Professor remarks that the Virago reprints made more happiness than profit, as they were bought in ones and twos by professors of literature, but not assigned in their scores and hundreds. (Googling doesn't confirm my memory of that, although she does refer to at least one case of even a reprint being much-sought-after.) Anyhow; if you want a more thorough and scholarly view of similar and earlier novels, I recommend her summaries. I also find that just picking out the dark green Virago Modern Classics spines at the used bookstore is a good search algorithm for novels that are not actually hard to read, but not trivial; they spread over enough of the exciting history of the last century to be a gentle reminder of history, too.

Oh! I should also tip a bit to Greer Ilene Gilman, who has been recommending this for years, and whose Moonwise is soon to be reprinted, hurrah.

LCCN: PR 6011 E7 B76 1988

ISBN 0860689360

So wrote clew.

April 05, 2005

Wodehouse public-school novels

I hiss about id-fic yearnings for aristocracy, I offend my friends with my kneejerk antagonism towards what I think is the reconstruction of a gentry system in the US, but I certainly get the charm of the stories as a form of relaxation.

I can enjoy it in P. G. Wodehouse's novels about public-school life, which are even more inane than his famous Jeeves novels, and try to be more serious. They partly fail to offend me because there are so few non-public-school-man characters in them to grovel. (A Matron speaks once; she doesn't grovel. Also, sometimes there are professional sportsmen.) I can't excuse my fondness for them, really; I can't explain it, since they're full of blow-by-blow cricket matches that I don't follow at all. They're very pleasantly soporific.

The Prefect's Uncle has the best connection to the Jeeves stories; there's a wizened, jaded-too-young, nephew-aged city slicker who turns up in the train of various robber-baron acquaintances of Wooster. A Head of Kay's is very faintly interesting for the psychology of the school Houses always run by and named for living, present men; the management-by-charisma system is of course still tried by your more thrusting, innovative change-management firms, though as far as I know illicit fistfights wth subordinates are not as often used. I expect those are more relevant to the prefect system as training for being a subaltern on some desolate stretch of The Great Hedge of India or wherever. Stalky & Co. is more fun in that line, though, and G. A. Henty more plentiful.

The White Feather was my favorite of this weedy lot for three reasons. First, it has the most plot, because the protagonist makes such an embarrassment of himself and has to make several tries at saving his pride. Second, it has the boxing thing, as in David Liss' Restoration crime novels or Jeffery Farnol's Amateur Gentleman. This seems to be an older foundation of English manly pride, and more class-permeable, than cricket.

  "Since boxing is a manly game,
    And Britain's recreation,
  By boxing we will raise our fame
    'Bove every other nation."

Third, there is science education, although mostly offscreen. The science and engineering sides are sort of respected by the literature/classics characters who get all the traditional praise. There isn't really any science or engineering in the story, excepting a fellow student who conveniently has an auto and can give lifts off school grounds. I had rather wondered how England managed as long as it did in the Industrial Revolution and sequelae without training any of its own engineers; apparently it did, but no-one else wanted to hear about it? Is there a subclass of Scots boarding-school Stinks novels? No wonder the Tom Swift stories were so popular.

Project Gutenberg etext #6877 (A Head of Kay's)

Project Gutenberg etext #6985 (A Prefect's Uncle)

Project Gutenberg etext #6927 (The White Feather)

March 04, 2005

Bab: A Sub-Deb, Mary Roberts Rinehart

Nothing bad happens to the Sub-Deb, except that occasionally she spends even more money than her lavish allowance gives her. Everyone likes her, even her older sister; she will clearly get to marry and be adored by the nicest young man; she orders her friends around relentlessly and they like her anyway.

There are other suspicious similarities to Mary Sue fictions:

I had my Work, and it filled my life. There were times when my Soul was so filled with joy that I could hardly bare it. I had one act done in two days. I wrote out the Love seens in full, because I wanted to be sure of what they would say to each other. How I thrilled as each marvelous burst of Fantacy flowed from my pen! But the dialogue of less interesting parts I left for the actors to fill in themselves.

There must be a monograph somewhere on the automobile as a figure of pre-War freedom for women. Bab buys one, without telling her parents; finding the operating costs more than she'd budgeted for, she starts a cab service from the train station. Hijinks ensue.

Most other hijinks are about clothes or money, although the War starts partway through so there is a Spy subplot and she practically gives her courtier the white feather, which horrified me but he took in manly puttee'd stride.

Project Gutenberg etext #366

February 24, 2005

The 27th Kingdom, Alice Thomas Ellis

A novel of great middlebrow worth, with observation of character and subtle points about the use of virtue in the sublunary world; but also the background half of any Terry Pratchett novel set in Ankh-Morpork. No, really; there's Mrs. Cake and an abbess saving the world from a saint; mutually rebounding interests of class and race; and Greebo, slightly. Is this all London, or all England, or what?

And yet in the course of whatever passes for time in Heaven and Hell, all would be resolved, since the good deserve that the bad should be forgiven, the nature of goodness being to love.

It's not that I think this is a bad or pretentious novel; but it does point up how much Pratchett is a moralist.

ISBN: 1559212500

February 20, 2005

The Circular Staircase, Mary Roberts Rinehart

Rinehart's heroine is thorny and unpleasant, and I expect she was meant to be so when written, although the particulars we object to probably aren't what they were. Rachel Innes is an old maid with money and DAR membership and antique china, and a revolver, which she's willing to fire into the dark (and into the china; or maybe it was only rented china). The plot is on the way from Gothic to noir. (The noir wrongsters are trying to hide behind Gothic superstitions; there's a plotline that springs immortal.) Innes chances onto the adventure and digs in; she's quite a tough old bird, who looks back on her adventures in secret rooms and graveyards with great pleasure:

...from perhaps a half-civilized ancestor who wore a sheepskin garment and trailed his food or his prey, I have in me the instinct of the chase. Were I a man I should be a trapper of criminals, trailing them as relentlessly as no doubt my sheepskin ancestor did his wild boar. But being an unmarried woman, with the handicap of my sex, my first acquaintance with crime will probably be my last.

What's annoying now is her racism and her unkindness to her companion. The racism, as is frequent, does absolutely nothing for the plot, and doesn't match the actual behavior of characters in the story; Thomas Johnson is no more nervous and superstitious than any of the servants. While he's alive, Innes mocks him (in narration, not dialogue) with jets of stereotyped bile; once he's dead, he earns praise for being a moral person; much of his morality has been loyalty to his employers, who are dubiously worthy, so this grudging respect has no redeeming value for an egalitarian. (There is one thing that left me curious; is the Methodist minister who she condescendingly, but openly, admires, black or not? If he is, her treatment of him is probably unusually respectful. If he isn't, why does he officiate at African Zion Church? Do they not have a pastor of their own? It is a tiny town.)

The classism of the whole thing is inescapable anyway. Innes' unlikable character may be what keeps it readable now; she doesn't even expect to be liked, only to be respected for her considerable force of personality and inheritance.

Project Gutenberg text #434

February 10, 2005

The Guardship, James L. Nelson

The current fashion for pirates is either puzzling or an amazing testament to Johnny Depp, don't know which. The pop-scholarly arguments that pirate councils had significant non-racist or proto-democratic power structures don't convince me often, but they do leave breathing-room for historical revisionism. And through that narrow gap, that hawse-hole of believability, climbs this swashbuckler in which a mostly-reformed pirate beats annoying Tidewater gentry at their own games. He has the help of freed slaves, a woman with a past, and an ex-schoolteacher, so's there's something for everyone.

It isn't just twee Flynnery. There is a great deal of grim material in the dawning 18th c., on land as well as at sea; and it's not clear in this first novel whether the reformed pirate will pull it off. The gore and cruelty is battled against more than it's wallowed in.

There should be more sailing; maybe the sequels have it.

ISBN: 0380804522

Mawrdew Czgowchwz, James McCourt

Deliberately wordlessly, Merovig Creplaczx approached Mawdrew Czgowchwz, now seated near Carmen in the shadows. Throwing out his shapely, manicured right hand—a hand accustomed neither to refusal nor to too much in the way of tender requital, the perfect hand for his purposes heretofore (Mawdrew Czgowchwz thought of Tristan, the man)—he offered a challenge: to take hers. She took his in one svelte parry.

This should be annoying, a whole novel like this, but the rocky writing is polished to terrazzo throughout. Besides, the characters make no claim to sympathy or even reality, being New Yorkers and of the opera; the manner and drama they claim, they achieve.

Presumably there's a lot of roman à clef for those who knew the 1970s opera scene, but the characters are at least a century old--

What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?

--well, not very solitary, except when center stage. Anyway, it isn't The Third Policeman but it's more cheerful than The Poor Mouth.

ISBN: 0940322978

January 23, 2005

Prisoner's Dilemma, Richard Powers

I wasn't moved by the mathematical analogy but I was really moved by the alternate Walt Disney history. It made great use of the difference between art and reality and the uses of art. It was also better integrated into the family grief, even though the math was more thought about by the family. (Specifically, the family payoff matrix doesn't much match PD. It doesn't matter to the psychological use of the motif, as it was believable that Artie would spend time worrying about a bad analogy.)

A very minor tangent; there's a brief reference to a Black American singer of early music, probably in the 1970s or early '80s; like the protagonists of In the Time of Our Singing.

ISBN: 002036055X

January 19, 2005

Greenmantle, John Buchan

My nation's policy now has less compassion and insight than a John Buchan hero. Thus Richard Hannay:

That night I realized the crazy folly of war. When I saw the splintered shell of Ypres and heard hideous tales of German doings, I used to want to see the whole land of the Boche given up to fire and sword. I thought we could never end the war properly without giving the Huns some of their own medicine. But that woodcutter's cottage cured me of such nightmares. I was for punishing the guilty but letting the innocent go free. It was our business to thank God and keep our hands clean from the ugly blunders to which Germany's madness had driven her. What good would it do Christian folk to burn poor little huts like this and leave children's bodies by the wayside? To be able to laugh and to be merciful are the only things that make man better than the beasts.

For those who haven't read Greenmantle, sequel to The Thirty-Nine Steps, think of him as a James Bond precursor; a man's man, happy in war, daring behind the lines, dauntless in fisticuffs and accurate with "a German Mauser of the latest pattern". He also praises himself as a "nigger-driver". This is not a puling new-man liberal hero.

He would, though, stick at killing the parents in front of the child.

Project Gutenberg etext #559

January 10, 2005

The Life of Insects, Victor Pelevin

Pelevin pursues Kafka by seeing everyone as an insect, of insect kind depending on their human business. It's blackly funny but mostly disturbing.

The flap copy flaps on about how insect analogies are perfect for post-Soviet Russia, but I was equally reminded of Eileen Gunn's "Stable Strategies for Middle Management", which is more likely to be a roman à clef for Microsoft.

On the whole, I preferred Pelevin's The Yellow Arrow, probably because I liked the narrative structure better. ...Insects is a series of nested braces with all the wierdness closing with the last brace; ...Arrow is a slippery slope tipping from oddity towards doom. Both structures are beautifully integrated with the subject matter.

ISBN: 0374186251

January 06, 2005

Talking it Over, Julian Barnes

He do them all in different voices; the whole joy of this is the narration done in a dozen different voices, all first-person, arguing with the interviewer and each other.

The story is a love-triangle with associated failures of self-presentation, like @expectations, for instance, but better told.

ISBN: 0679405259

November 18, 2004

The Virginian, Owen Wister

Firefly really isn't science fiction. I have enjoyed the romance of the first three CDs greatly, but it gives me snickerfits that the economy is so goofball; some of the things they treat as rare are physically fungible with stuff they treat as cheap.

But, okay, it's obviously SF in the same way the Star Wars movies are, which is to say, romantic historical gallimaufry; of Westerns, in Firefly's case; so, being almost but not quite thorough, I read The Virginian for familiarity with the source. This was wrong; the TV source is probably 1950s TV, or maybe novels. But a 19th. century enthusiast gotta do what she's compelled by circumstance and character to do.

Actually, Wister's book is completely early-20th-c., in its politics and romance; the natives are just scary 'noises off', and the heroine is halfway between coy and competent. I don't think there's a woman of easy virtue in it anywhere, the rich are just and deserving (dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt), juries are untrustworthy, violence one of those unfortunate necessities.

The oddest thing I noticed was what a perfect 'chick flick' it would currently make, although I think it was renowned for manlitude in its own day. The plot and the writing are just dreamily fond of the lithe good looks of The Virginian; and the man himself is happy to be domesticated to become worthy of his bride. Also, he stages a wedding-night that fogged up the lens of my critical faculty.

It seems to me that somewhere after noir, conventional novels-aimed-at-men dropped the domestic fantasies. Travis McGee was good-looking and seductive and all, but rather a lout. And it further seems to me that this was a backlash against the loss of men's automatic status. Barbara Ehrenreich probably covers it in The Hearts of Men.

Project Gutenberg etext #1298

October 26, 2004

Short stories by novelists

After reading Tim Powers' Night Moves and Julian Barnes' Cross Channel in close succession—alternation, really—I'd look for more short Barnes, as efficient doses of what I like Barnes for; but not for more short Powers. I have been wondering whether the problem is that Powers' style doesn't excerpt well, or whether it's that Powers tries to compress his stories instead of excerpting, and they really don't work for that. (His own afterword suggests that he thinks much the same.) One gets three brisk movements: something is creepy; it leaps dangerously to the foreground; the survivors face the rest of their lives with relief and diminished ambition. It's not a bad plot, but I like it better with the room for misdirection, foreshadowing, and research that his novels give him.

Cross Channel's stories sometimes resolve into diminished expectation, and they have enough WWI in them to obtain a little of the creepy, but they have a much wider range in pace and characterization. He doesn't compress as much plot into one story, although the whole make an arc. And, of course, Barnes is all lit'ry, which tends to excerpt well.

I especially liked "Hermitage", which improves two familiar genres by joining them: its main characters move to France to avoid the stuffy social conventions of England, but they don't go wild in Paris, they weave themselves into a rural southern village. I suppose it's three genres, if you count the depiction of a happy lasting marriage as a genre. The parallel that leaps to mind is Simon & Garfunkel's "Bookends", but there must be enough novels to make it a genre.

ISBN: 1892284901 (Night Moves)

ISBN: 0679446915 (Cross Channel)

June 11, 2004

Crampton Hodnet, Barbara Pym

This is much like The Other Side of the Fire, but longer and a touch more cruel and more constantly funny. The funniest bit is probably the tutor pitching himself into an affair with a student, mostly out of bored vanity, and then being horrified at the thought that divorce would make him so uncomfortable; he doesn't see that she isn't interested in anything but talk:

She knew exactly how she ought to feel, for she was well read in our greater and lesser English poets, but the unfortunate fact was that she did not really like being kissed at all.

The introduction is written by Hazel Holt. Now I see why Holt's cosy mysteries are unsatisfying; her sees-all character is nice where she should be kind. The classic characters see the foibles of their neighbors and are kinder because of it, avoiding the cruelties that a true innocent would say unknowingly.

Anthony Trollope isn't cruel even when he's dissecting a really hopeless character, as in Cousin Henry. I wonder how. I wonder why.

ISBN: 0452258162

The Other Side of the Fire, Alice Thomas Ellis

Dignity, I admit, will not keep you warm in winter, but it is a little something to cover the nakedness.

How English. I can't think of an American author, not a living one, with that characteristic combination of dissection and affection. Ellis' characters are pathetic, in that they inspire pathos, not that they know it. They're all suffering under a microscope, not playing on a stage.

And yet, stupid as the sweet ones are, right as the clever ones are to put no faith in those who love them, it turns out pretty much all right in the end. Dignity means not talking about it, so making no errors that can't be kindly ignored.

There is a funny (ha-ha) subplot about talking about far too much because one is a Writer.

ISBN: 1888173858

April 01, 2004

Peregrine's Progress, Jeffery Farnol

More Farnol fluff; more varied in action than The Amateur Gentleman but not as extravagant in form as The Geste of Duke Jocelyn.

Hero Peregrine is neither big nor strong nor clever in the ways of the world, but goes a long way on being a nice man and a gentleman. He's remarkably unstuffy for a gentleman of the period, willing not only to live with a tinker but to marry an orphan raised by the Zingari. She's not so feeble as Farnol's upper-class heroines; teaches him knife-fighting, steals them dinner; I think she's taller than he is when they meet. By the end of the novel she's been adopted by a lord and given all the polish of one who sings for the Crowned Heads of Europe, etc etc. (It is escapist fiction.) Peregrine wrestled his angel and virtuously lost when he encouraged her to follow her education before marriage, surrendering his chance to appear to her as Perseus to Andromeda, as Thrones, Dominations puts it.

I am reminded a little of Marie Curie's saying that she couldn't have done research either as a Polish woman in Poland or as a French woman in France; as a Polishwoman in France, she could never quite be a lady, so doing something as unladylike as research didn't shock everyone around her into resistance.

(I should check the last two attributions but am lazy & hurried.)

Project Gutenberg etext #7059

March 22, 2004

The Money Moon, Jeffery Farnol

A lot like My Lady Caprice, but with more stage-dressing and less heart.

It is an example of non-nuclear families valued by pre-1960s standards. The romantic heroine is raising her nephew, who the hero is immediately an Uncle to. There's an unrelated older woman also loved as part of the family and called Aunt to demonstrate as much. She gets to marry even though she's too old to bear children.

Project Gutenberg etext #10418

March 09, 2004

Firedrake's Eye, Patricia Finney

Elizabethan London spinning out madmen and bravos, Jews, spies and codebreakers, spinning around a plot wound around the Queen. It works as a spy novel and as a story of outsiders. The language is not obs., but echoes Elizabethanisms in its arrangement and grammar. The characters' voices are distinct. A great deal happens; in the penultimate scene it nearly happens all at once.

In all of England is no finer sight than London Bridge, the glory of the City, with its serried fleet of piers against the onrush of the Thames. The best drapers' shops in the land are on it, arching across it, enclosing those who care not that they get their cloth good cheap, but that it be fine. There may be bought silks of Cathay and cottons of Inda, velvets and damasks of buttercup and viridian and violet and crimson and strange fancy colours like Dead Spaniard that was begun as a putty shade.

ISBN: 0-312-18094-2

March 05, 2004

The Geste of Duke Jocelyn, Jeffery Farnol

Farnol carries off clichés as though he had them over his saddlebow. He slips from blank to jingling verse and into prose at his convenience. He interjects himself and his daughter, arguing about the course of the story, and usually puts their discussions into the same rhymes the medieval characters use, even as he's aggrieved by his daughter's tasteless use of slang ('ripping', 'corking'). But his pace is brisk and even, so—taking this as the light amusement it claims to be—it works. The plot is a trusty old dobbin:

"'Spite all thy talk, my mind on this is set--
Thus, in all lowliness I'll e'en go to her
And 'neath this foolish motley I will woo her.
And if, despite this face, this humble guise,
I once may read love's message in her eyes,
Then Pertinax--by all the Saints, 'twill be
The hope of all poor lovers after me,
These foolish bells a deathless tale shall ring,
And of Love's triumph evermore shall sing.

"So, Pertinax, ne'er curse ye so
For that in lowly guise we go,
We many a merry chance may know,
Sir Pertinax of Shene."
"And chances evil, lord, also!"
Quoth Pertinax of Shene.

Some of the antic prose is jolly too:

"Fellow," questioned the haughty knight, "what hold ye there?"
"Fellow," quoth Sir Pertinax, haughty and gruff also, "'t is no matter to thee!" And speaking, he buttoned the jewel into the wallet at his belt.
"Fool!" exclaimed the Knight, staring in amaze, "wilt dare name me 'fellow'? Tell me, didst see three foresters hereabout?"
"Poltroon, I did."
"Knave, wilt defy me?"
"Rogue, I do!"
"Slave, what did these foresters?"
"Villain, they ran away!"
"Ha, varlet! and wherefore?"
"Caitiff, I drubbed them shrewdly."
"Dared ye withstand them, dog?"
"Minion, I did."
"Saw ye not the badge they bore?" demanded the fierce stranger-knight.
"'T was the like of that upon thy shield!" nodded Sir Pertinax grimly.
"Know ye who and what I am, dunghill rogue?"
"No, dog's-breakfast--nor care!" growled Sir Pertinax, whereat the stranger-knight grew sudden red and clenched mailed fist.
"Know then, thou kennel-scourer, that I am Sir Agramore of Biename, Lord of Swanscote and Hoccom, Lord Seneschal of Tissingors and the March."
"Ha!" quoth Sir Pertinax, scowling. "So do I know thee for a very rogue ingrain and villain manifest."
"How!" roared Sir Agramore. "This to my face, thou vile creeper of ditches, thou unsavoury tavern-haunter--this in my teeth!"
"Heartily, heartily!" nodded Sir Pertinax. "And may it choke thee for the knavish carcass thou art."
At this, and very suddenly, the Knight loosed mace from saddle-bow, and therewith smote Sir Pertinax on rusty bascinet, and tumbled him backward among the bracken. Which done, Sir Agramore laughed full loud and, spurring his charger, galloped furiously away. [...]

The secondary characters are some of them charming; Rob o' the Greenwood, who Farnol does the respect of not explaining; the frightening but benevolent witch and her frightening but benevolent dwarf son; and the grouchy sidekick Sir Pertinax, who gets several star turns of his own. The lovely maidens are valiant, though ineffectively, and the hero gets himself into trouble for consistent and not totally numskulled reasons.

Project Gutenberg etext #8165

February 17, 2004

A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss

Like Liss' later book, this is a noir mystery with a MacGuffin of the markets. The Conspiracy of this one is in London, during the ever-green madness of the South Sea Bubble.

There's an interview with Liss at the end of this version of the book:

Nevertheless, it has long been my theory that the Bubble shaped the British novel, which emerged in its modern form around 1740 (this is an arguable point, but I'm sticking to it). These mid-century novels are preoccupied with the sudden loss or the sudden appearance of wealth because the novelists came of age during the period of the Bubble and its aftermath.

Marriage and inheritance still count for a lot. Also; French novel, John Law, how connected?

Liss started writing fiction as a doctoral student in literature, which I should think means he'll never run out of interesting material to mine. For instance, the hero of this novel is not only an ambivalently Anglicizing Jew, but a boxer (as was the Amateur Gentleman). Daniel Mendoza was a real Jewish boxer in England; famed, scientific, determined.

For a year, for no good reason, my household got the Ringside boxing-supplies catalogs and newsletters; there was an essay once on how to coach someone into courage; a chancy process of never setting them up for too painful a failure or too easy a victory. Very pastoral, despite the violence and potential brain-damage and, oh, class struggle also evident.

ISBN: 0-8041-1912-0

January 21, 2004

My Lady Caprice, Jeffery Farnol

I was hoping for a sillier novel, possibly involving rose-pink farthingales and masked highwaymen with slender white hands; but no. (I based this hope entirely on the title. The first bibliography of Jeffery Farnol I found suggests that he often did write that sort of thing, but I don't know if I subconsciously knew the name, or if the title was a 1907 attempt to cash in on his existing lace-and-duelling popularity.)

This one is a perfectly realistic, if unlikely, romance: Boy Persuades Girl to Marry Him Despite her Aunt. If you can imagine the courtship of someone who liked E. R. Eddison but didn't mistake him for philosophy, that would be about right; or the courtship of the Victorian young man in To Say Nothing of the Dog. It was written in the young man's voice, which was mildly interesting, as it wasn't obvious to me that it was meant to be read only by women.

The young woman doesn't get to do anything. She shows her slipper and her dimple alternately, and is silent for a while, and eventually says Yes. Her reasons are perfectly solid, as the young man shares her sense of humor and opinions on childrearing; her rich suitor is a drip.

Most of the story is actually the narrator and the maiden's nephew in a series of imaginative games; Robin Hood, pirates, knights in armor; all of romance and heroism played on a summer riverbank, and earnestly. But I kept thinking of World War One.

URI: http://www.gutenberg.net/browse/BIBREC/BR2025.HTM

October 09, 2003

'Realism' vs. Moralism

Two anthologies from Distributed Proofreading which have not weathered time and politics equally well.

Southern Lights and Shadows, ed. William Dean Howells and Henry Mills Alden, claims The most noticeable characteristic of the extraordinary literary development of the South since the Civil War is that it is almost entirely in the direction of realism. Unless this was an excuse to refer to their mountaineers, their slattern country wives, their shy rustic men and maids, their grotesque humorists, their wild religionists, even their black freedmen, under cover of compliment, I'm astounded this made sense even in 1907... the best of the stories are about rural slyness, the worst are off the back of an Aunt Jemima box, the middle is Scott boiled till lumpy. (All the men have military titles and expensive horses, there's a midnight elopement, the fair maiden turns her horse steed across the way as the pursuers fire; none know her wound until she faints at the altar, just as her father breaks down the church door to underscore the minister's pronounciation of the holy sentence!

But she's all right, and there's a wedding announcement in the paper. )

Stories Worth Rereading is explicitly moralistic and Christianizing, but didn't get up my nose nearly as much as the first. It lives up to its own claims better. A good part of the baggage it carries along with its claims is less annoying, too; slaves preach as well as being preached to - and the evil master falls down with an agony in his guts, repentant. Plucky shoeless boys get good jobs based on their characters and diligence. Young women new to paid employment are told to get used to constructive criticism, and buckle down to it. The first American Indian to speak in court wins his case, is represented as a hero, and neither has to convert to Christianity nor to die painfully to deserve it. It's predictable and moralizing and twee, but it isn't mean. In fact, if I consider the stories as moral lessons for the people in power as well as the plucky underlings, it's perfectly healthy.

If the underlings were reading "Suffer Pluckily" stories while the scions of the rich were reading Nietszche or the like, not so healthy for the underlings. There's an argument for national curriculum.

September 02, 2003

Jack Maggs, Peter Carey

Wonderfully disdainful of Dickens and respectful of Dicken's novels, if we can take Oates as a take on Dickens, and I think we can. Someone else, talking about Charlotte M. Yonge, tells me she likes to imagine Yonge's novels if Yonge had had to make her way in California or Australia for a while. I don't know, though, maybe she would have retreated into a defensive shell of more-genteel-than-thou.

Maggs does, values gentility so far above its deserts that it nearly kills him. He reminded me of Agamemnon going to his bath, bull-like, so large and suspicious elsewhere and helpless against duplicity. It's a triple trick for his dialogue: it has to carry his considerable intelligence, without education, and then the huge gap in his street smarts and character-reading both when he's chasing his will-'o-the-wisp.

ISBN: 0-679-44008-9

June 10, 2003

High Fidelity, Nick Hornby

I don't know enough pop music to get the relevant jokes in most of this novel; but that's all right, I still haven't found out what Yonge had against an embroidered church cushion.

Summary: Feckless slacker makes a fool of himself, insults people, is finally rescued by (more than one) girlfriend who seems too good for him... I assume that, like Bridget Jones' Diary, this makes sense because we can assume that the narrator is self-denigrating wherever possible.

My other half found it disconcerting that the hero is only saved by having his girlfriend run his life without asking. True. On the other hand, more growth in the time given would have been even less believable.

ISBN: 0-575-40018-8

May 06, 2003

Ripley's Game, Patricia Highsmith

Depressingly plausible tale of an amoral man tempting a weak one into crimes against worse men yet.

ISBN: 0-679-74568-8

So wrote clew.

April 17, 2003

Extravagance, Gary Krist

Nice conceit; the same plot - names, events, conversations - happens in London in 1690 and in New York in the 1990's. Instead of showing each event in each century, Krist tells it as a single linear story with flickering back ground and dress.

Not a perfect trick. The 1690s speech was neither quite florid nor quite earthy enough, compared to Oronooko, e.g. I think the religious and political background of the late 17th century would have been more present to even a callow young man.

ISBN: 0-7679-1330-2

So wrote clew.

March 21, 2003

The Mind-Body Problem, Rebecca Goldstein

A modern Middlemarch, consciously so; the narrator is a philosopher manqué, and conscious of most of what she thinks. She still actively makes mistakes, and the self-reflection has more quips than angst, so this is definitely a funny novel and possibly a deep one.

It's also an academic-midlife-crisis novel, and a nonobservant-Jew novel, and a Bildungsroman, but I liked the Eliot-and-philosophy best. I don't know anything about philosophy, so you should assume that the philosophizing is undergraduate. For instance, our heroine's Mr. Casaubon is a mathematician: it is not surprising that he is a 'working Platonist', someone who thinks abstractions are more real than matter. This in turn is a setup for his holding some of Plato's odder beliefs (though not the ones I would have guessed, if asked to do so).

ISBN: 0-14-017245-9

So wrote clew.

March 18, 2003

Just Wanted You To Know, Jennifer Crusie

A brisk epistolary story, written from a smalltown hairdresser to the husband of 26 years who just left her and ran off with a bank clerk. Nicely controlled changes of tone & mood from the beginning to the end. Might be the basis of a heartwarming ensemble movie aimed at the Oscars first, and then grown women and their mothers; or a raunchy filmed-on-a-creditcard movie which grown women and their mothers would still enjoy...


So wrote clew.

December 02, 2002

The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley

A book not totally unlike Gosford Park, or that crossed with Cold Comfort Farm. the writing is all very well, gothic or modern as needed.

I was much struck that the old rules of morality, in it, punish a cross-class extramarital affair with madness, amnesia, an immediate suicide, a possibly suspicious early death, and social ostracism still active two generations later; it's hard to see how this could be worse than allowing the misalliance. I suppose that's what makes it an early modern novel: the nineteenth century would have made it clear why the misalliance was worse, and a late modern novel would have allowed it.

So wrote clew.

October 24, 2002

Scholarship and failure of will

Darconville's Cat, Alexander Theroux
The Grand Complication, Kurzweil
Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

I recommend Darconville's Cat instead of the others, although official critical opinion seems to be with Confederacy.... The Kurzweil novel is a faint attempt at Umberto Eco-ish intellectual plotting and sophistication. Darconville's Cat doesn't have hunt-the-slipper MacGuffins, but his prose is actually intellectual and sophisticated (especially in the early sense of that word, adulterated and untrue ). Each book has a young lovely person wound into the plots of an elegant and slimy scholar, but Theroux had the nous to write as the scholar, recognizing that the pretty young thing is better to look at, but the prose of the Humbert^2 is more interesting to read.

Confederacy of Dunces is also written in the voice of a horrible would-be intellectual, set in the South as is Darconville..., but my tastes weren't up to the miasma of hopeless self-destruction and unloveableness of Toole's antihero. I want two classical things in a tragedy: beautiful language, and the tragedy has to have been brought on - however loaded the circumstances - by its hero.

Darconville... has both in spades; the book is like a collection of Elizabethan halfbricks flung at the South, women, sex, academia, the narrator - it's a long book.

ISBN: 0805043659

ISBN: 0786885181

ISBN: 0802130208

So wrote clew.

September 06, 2002

The Third Policeman, Brian Nolan (aka Flann O'Brien)

Why is this not more famous? If nothing else, it should be a recognized stepping-stone for readers who find the leap from James Joyce's Dubliners to Ulysses too big.

Resting before me like a tame domestic pony, it seemed unduly small and low in relation to the Seargeant yet when I measured its height against myself I found it was bigger than any other bicycle that I knew.
So wrote clew.

August 25, 2002

Farewell Great King, Jill Paton Walsh

Stunningly good. I wonder how many possible novels there are in Plutarch and Herodotus; more than in Paton Walsh, I assume, but not by many nor by much. (She's written a lot more, and finished the last Dorothy Sayers novel, Thrones, Dominations.)

This one is Themistocles' story, and - what with the Greek capacity for fighting on both sides of important wars - is a vivid view of Xerxes' attack on the Greek city-states, and a brilliant one of the city-states, Athens especially, contorting themselves to deal with the threat.

It's mostly politics, and very personal politics, which gives the plot an immediate grip - not much romance; that would be a novel on Alcibiades, I guess. The voice it's told in is wonderful; both direct and sophisticated, which fits perfectly with the career of a politician who lived by unscripted speeches in front of all his peers and enemies.

So wrote clew.

August 21, 2002

An Equal Music, Vikram Seth

This lives up to its praise; reminded me of The Gold Bug Variations, although Seth's plot and prose are more realistic. It isn't just the centrality of music, it's the whole elegiac tone of the book.

I was also tidily surprised by at least one major plot twist, as Seth had been dragging a red herring about so effectively.

So wrote clew.

July 25, 2002

A Tenured Professor, John Kenneth Galbraith

Possibly a roman à clef, but I haven't looked up who is our Princess. It's about an economics professor with a scheme (to calculate irrationality in the markets) that's good enough to make money by speculation instead of publication; he does make a pile, but the indignation of the irrational reels him back in after a while. (Lovely set piece of Senators huffing about how un-American it is to bet against the market.) Maybe Galbraith just wondered what would happen if a fairly normal person, someone with no urge for a Batcave or polar mansion or world domination, had such a power.
So wrote clew.

June 27, 2002

The Linnet's Tale, Dale C. Willard

This should be loathsomely sweet, but it wasn't. It's about an anthropomorphized colony of mice and how they react to the arrival of a barn cat, and it's told by an adopted orphan linnet. It's charming because the characters would be charming if human - more than a bit Cranford - the alterations of style and society to fit mice are coherent, and it's a real plot, because it's quite clear that death is real.
So wrote clew.

10th Grade, Weisberg

Lordy; awful. Imagine the Adrian Mole diaries if Mole had stupider classmates and lower ambitions and missed those by a greater margin.
So wrote clew.

June 25, 2002

Thinks..., David Lodge

Another professor's midlife crisis adultery novel; see How to be Good &ff. Lodge has rung plenty of changes on the subject, of course, and this is perked up by amusing student writing exercises - well, I thought the S*m**l B*ck*tt parody was funny - and somewhat tentative irruptions of computing and game theory. It isn't a bad novel, but his earlier professorial ones are probably funnier, and Richard Powers' Galatea 2.2 blows this out of the water esp. as SF-themes-treated-by-respectable-litrachure-writer. (That's not a fair comparison, as Powers is generally a depth charge.) There is better female POV writing in this than in any Lodge novel I remember.
So wrote clew.

June 03, 2002

How To Be Good, Nick Hornby

Another novel about a writer's midlife marital crisis (see The Beauty of the Husband), but written from the spouse's point of view, not the writer's. Much interesting stuff lightly handled; division of roles in a marriage, difficulty of switching, thought vs. feeling, Faith vs. Works, and how to be good. I also like the writing, which is light but not plain: echoes of Coleridge and Woolf used for meaning as well as sound.
So wrote clew.

June 01, 2002

Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann

Was there a movie made of this recently? Why was it in my consciousness? It was full of vaguely sexy events, and the female characters were unhappy for a whole varied array of reasons, but I can't actually say it was good. (I do think it was better than the last modern 'shopping-and-sex' novel I read, mostly because it had less shopping.) Things I didn't expect: '40s good girl was much more aware of sexual norms and behaviors than I thought she would be, although for somewhat clinical A-normal-women-would reasons.
So wrote clew.

May 18, 2002

Do Try to Speak as We Do, Ford

A sideshoot of Brit chick lit; feckless American works as an au pair for a decaying-British-gentry family. I haven't read the Nanny Diaries; this might be more entertaining in comparison. Since it's first=person by the nanny, it isn't really clear why the employer is so brittle and ungenerous, although it's also clear that the au pair is acting like a doormat all over the place, and that the employer is in the middle of a social system that just isn't going to reward her for anything but nastiness. Fluff, but honest fluff, one might say. Nice followup to One Fine Day if you like mocking the decay of fictional British gentry.
So wrote clew.

May 13, 2002

Maidservant & Manservant, Ivy Compton-Burnett

Vicious characterization beautifully written. I gather this is characteristic of C-B and expect to read everything she wrote, but not all at once. I think it would be unhealthy.
So wrote clew.

May 09, 2002

One Fine Day, Mollie Panter-Downes

English gentility just after WWII can bear the lack of house servants only because England is so pretty in summer.

It's better than it sounds. I picked it up because M P-D provides an epigraph in To say nothing of the Dog.

So wrote clew.

Paris to the Moon, Gopnik

Expat life. Funny, wistful, mockinq, kind, and has a funny joke abt man who speaks 5 languages w/deep Esperanto accent.
So wrote clew.