NESFA Press, 1995
Finished: early August 2010
Source: library browsing
Genre: fantasy
On the Scales: mixed

I wish I had been able to post my review of this book during actual Diana Wynne Jones Week (as opposed to the perpetual Diana Wynne Jones Week in my heart), since my sole purpose in reading it was to make everyone jealous.

No, no!  I swear it wasn’t!  Before I was even thinking about Diana Wynne Jones Week I was strolling through the adult fiction section of the library.  I spotted her name on the shelves at eye-height.  “What’s this?” I said cleverly (knowing Jones has only written two books my library might shelve in the adult section, and that it doesn’t own either of them), “A new book I haven’t heard about?  An old UK-only release that has finally come out in the States?  Or has a sensible magid taken pity on us for only having twenty- or thirty-odd books by Diana Wynne Jones to read in this particular dimension, and imported one by her counterpart in his home world?”

I knew I would want to read it, whatever it was, so I put it in my bag without opening it, checked it out without looking at it, and took it home.  That’s where I figured out it was a rare book.

Contents include:

Two novellas:
Everard’s Ride
The True State of Affairs

One essay:
The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings

Five short stories:
nad and Dan and Quaffy
No One
Dragon Reserve, Home Eight
The Master
The Plague of Peacocks

The title novella strikes me as an early work because of its style.  Jones typically externalizes her characters’ thoughts and feelings, either through hints in the things they choose to say or through their facial expressions, manner, and movements.  Everard’s Ride employs authorial asides and makes forays into the characters’ thoughts.  This busy style is in keeping with the setting: high Victorian England, where a teenaged brother and sister make trips to an island accessible via a causeway at low tide.  The island is also the access point for a 15th century kingdom which (sometimes) occupies the same landscape.  One character is recognizable as serious version of Wild Robert, while the ever-so-slightly-sent-up Victorian family life is reminiscent of the Chrestomanci books.

It’s fun to spot the Jonesian details in the not-so-Jonesian prose.

Miss Gatly came back after taking the teapot to the parlour and told them some of the stories.  She sat by the range, knitting socks, needles clicking, cap rattling, and talked in the strange, formal way old country-people still use when they tell stories which may not quite be true.  She told them how the ghost-lights flitted through the island on foggy nights and were seen to go winding through the bay where no-one else dared to go for fear of quicksands.  She told of the dangerous kingdom of Falleyfell out in the bay and how those who saw it were as good as dead.

“And if,” she said, “a wise man hereabouts sees aught of this on a clear night, he will shut his eyes and turn away, making the sign of the cross for safety. . .”

Alex put his thin greasy hand under his pointed chin and leant forward with an eager sigh.  Cecilia had tucked her feet up under her green tartan skirt, with one hand holding down the bulging crinoline.  With the other hand she was absent-mindedly twirling and pulling a bright gold ringlet.  The draught sighed in the chimney and a sheep coughed outside.  Cecilia signed too, because the best part of the tale was coming.

You can find most of the short stores here in the collection Believing Is Seeing.  “nad and Dan and Quaffy” is DWJ tripping on I mean paying tribute to coffee and word processing in the life of the science fiction writer.  As with The Homeward Bounders and A Tale of Time City you’ll have to step lively if you want to keep up with her on this one.  “No One” is the name of a household robot I am pretty sure must have been a prototype for Yam in Hexwood.  “The Master,” is a frightening, dreamlike tale set in a wood, a rose garden, and a futuristic sorcerer’s den.  “Plague of Peacocks” features a satisfyingly tongue-in-cheek revenge on some neighborhood busybodies.  I particularly enjoyed “Dragon Reserve, Home Eight” which takes place on a frontiersy Nordic-themed planet with matriarchal steadings.  Non-anthropomorphized dragons are kept in game parks and witches (while fairly common) are illegal, so I’m thinking this may be the same world mentioned as “Lind” in Hexwood.  “Dragon Reserve, Home Eight” is not Jones’ usual sort of thing, and I would very much like to see it expanded into a novel.

I can’t say the same for The True State of Affairs because it is perfect as it is.  Unless you have begged, borrowed, or stolen Everard’s Ride (or can get your hands on the UK-only collection Minor Arcana), you will not find it easy to get a copy of this story, but it’s worth a try!  At just 90 pages, this is (I’m dead serious) one of the best things Diana Wynne Jones has ever written.  It is simply masterful.  If you don’t think of Diana Wynne Jones as a “literary” writer, you are wrong.  The True State of Affairs is a study of power, personality, communication, love, and loneliness that compares favorably to work by the likes of Eudora Welty or Katherine Anne Porter for emotional depth.

The plot is simple.  A modern day Englishwoman finds herself, through no real fault of her own, a political prisoner in a fantasy world (Dalemark).  The action takes place in her tower room–she is not allowed to leave it–in a medieval-style fortress.  Her confusion with the language, her privations, her desperation, and her growing dependence on her journal and her daily over-the-rooftops glimpses of a fellow prisoner who is allowed a brief walk in a distant courtyard, all come together in a pressure-cooker of personal narrative, scribbled on a diminishing supply of paper that is always in danger of being confiscated…

Strong stuff.  Actually, on second thought, I do want it to be a full length novel.  I’m greedy and willful that way.

Next to The True State of Affairs, “The Shape of the Narrative in the Lord of the Rings” was my favorite piece. One of the the things that pleases me most about Tolkien is the shared arena he provides for people who want to hash out the theory and practice of fantasy.  Having read this essay, I reeeeeealy wish I could put Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones in a room, and then they would start talking about Tolkien, and I could be a fly on the wall.  I could listen to either one of them for days.  I could listen to both of them for weeks.

Diana Wynne Jones studied at Oxford when, according to her online biography, “C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien were both lecturing . . . Lewis booming to crowded halls and Tolkien mumbling to me and three others.”  Tolkien’s mumblings failed to reveal his narrative intentions, but Jones draws them brilliantly from his books.  “The Shape of the Narrative in the Lord of the Rings” reminds me more of an energetic guided tour than a scholarly dissection.  Like an actor giving you a backstage tour of a theater, Jones knows what she’s talking about, and her excitement is contagious.

To make your envy complete, I leave you with her thoughts on the Elves:

. . . Legolas has been there for some time now, hinting at these mysteries, and yet, since he is one of the Fellowship, kidding you that Elves can be human and approachable.  This is not the case.  Tolkien lets you see much, but still leaves the Elves almost as mysterious and alien as they were before you saw it.  They are genuinely not human.  Their concerns seem other, even when they help.  The reason seems to be their intense, abiding melancholy . . . The Elves are dwindling, we are told.  The dwarves awakened evil and forced many Elves over the Sea.  This could be the explanation, but it is not really.  You get the real reason by hints, which you pick up mostly subconsciously: the Elves, by reason of their apparent immortality, are widowed from history.  They are forced back on their own, which is merely living memory, unimaginably long.  Tolkien conveys quietly, without ever quite centering your sights on it, the immense burden immortality would be.  He uses women to do it: the Morning Star, Arwen Evening Star, and Galadriel herself.  I daresay Women’s Lib could make destructive points here, but it is entirely appropriate in a Romance, in which woman grieves for ever.  Women are generally more often widowed than men.  But this stands for the situation of all the Elves.  When they enter the temporary brawls of history, they pay for it by having to endure its horrors for ever.  So they are forced for the most part to stay withdrawn among their yellow trees, never dying, but never quite coming to maturity either.  The yellow trees vividly express their state.  Are mallorns the yellow of spring, or autumn?  Both, but not summer or winter.  I find them profoundly saddening.

Harcourt Brace and Co., 1947

(most essays previously published)

Finished: early April

Source: Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot

Genre: essays

On the Scales: middleweight

It was a bit unfair of me to write this review in two acts, because there’s no more drama.  Once I had been apprised of my barbaric incompetence as an English speaker, my conversation with Dorothy Sayers was through.  I’d read everything but the Holmesian criticism: “Holmes’ College Career,” “Dr. Watson’s Christian Name,” “Dr. Watson, Widower,” and “The Dates in The Red Headed League.”  My Sherlock Holmes was too rusty to appreciate them–and I wasn’t in the mood.  Sayers says that the rule for this sort of essay is “it must be played as a county cricket match at Lord’s: the slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere.”  She meant it.  They are the driest things in the book.  I wonder if Laurie King has read them?

BUT

I don’t regret the time I spent reading Unpopular Opinions.  I would do it again.  I am even thinking of getting my hands on my own copy.  After my last post Jenny of Jenny’s Books pointed out that even when she is spouting complete [insert crass noun of choice] Sayers’ turns of phrase are charming, and it is so true!  It was stimulating to read such repugnant assertions couched in such fine style–a crash course in appreciation of style regardless of content.  Good for my brain.

AND

You will notice I didn’t talk about “Are Women Human?” and “The Human-Not-Quite-Human.”  That is because anything I might say about Sayers’ feminism or the delightful humor you’ll find in these essays would be redundant if you read Nymeth’s review at Things Mean A Lot.

As for the theological essays, time and cultural distance may have turned them into curiosities, but they go down like a bowl of cherries as long as you are willing to spit the pits.  She takes an understandably hard line in “Forgiveness,“ as it was written during the war, and rejected by the newspaper editor who commissioned it because he “wanted and got [from someone else] . . . Christian sanction for undying hatred against the enemy.”

That isn’t to say I agreed with it.

One thing emerges from all this: that forgiveness is not a doing-away of consequences [Check.]; nor is it primarily a remission of punishment [Check.].  A child may be forgiven and “let off” punishment or punished and forgiven; either way may bring good results.  But no good will come of leaving him unpunished and unforgiven [Double check.]  Forgiveness is the reestablishment of a right relationship, in which the parties can genuinely feel [italics mine] and behave as freely with one another as thought the unhappy incident had never taken place.  But it is impossible to enjoy a right relationship with an offender who, when pardoned, continues to behave in an obdurate and unsocial manner to the injured party and to those whom he has injured, because there is something in him that obstructs the relationship.  So that, while God does not, and man dare not, demand repentance as a condition for bestowing pardon, repentance remains an essential condition for receiving it.

Something didn’t sit quite right with me, and it had to do with that “genuinely feels.”

By Sayers’ definition, forgiveness between equals must be very rare.  It would work when a parent forgives a child, or a Deity forgives a mortal, but in those cases no one has taken an emotional injury. For injury, there needs to be equality.  A parent isn’t hurt when her child behaves badly because the child (usually) is not sophisticated enough to be naughty with the deliberate intention of causing emotional harm to her parent–and certainly not of actually causing it.  A boundary been transgressed, that’s all.  The ritual of forgiveness must be played out for the sake of the child, who needs to learn it in order to live with other people, and for the adult, who needs to feel she is doing her job as a parent.

When a parent forgives a child, everyone can “genuinely feel” that nothing unhappy has taken place, because it hasn’t.  Not in the way of malice between equals.  Like physical injuries, emotional injuries don’t just disappear on command, they have to heal.  Until they heal there is no way the injured party can “genuinely feel” unhurt.  I take issue with Sayers’ claim that the ritual of forgiveness, properly conducted, results in the practical equivalent of an undoing of harm.  That trivializes forgiveness on one hand and makes us all failures (or self-deceivers) on the other.

Sayers’ distinction between the conditions for bestowing pardon and receiving it strikes me an ugly work-around for the injured.  It robs them of the healing grace of the ritual.  “Here’s your forgiveness.  I’m setting it right here.  But–nah, nah!–it’s just going to rot.  You can’t have it because you’re still making me mad!”

Finis

Have you ever enjoyed a prickly book because it was good for your brain?

Harcourt Brace and Co, 1947

(most essays previously published)

Finished: early April

Source: Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot

Genre: essays

On the Scales: middleweight

I opened this collection of essays with the same confident anticipation as a really good chocolate bar.  Der Mann and I had just watched the BBC Wimsey and Vane adaptations then listened to an audio version of Strong Poison that had us laughing like goofballs.  She was every bit as great as everyone was saying!

Such was my confidence, I stopped to read the introduction.

I have called this collection of fugitive pieces Unpopular Opinions, partly, to be sure, because to warn a person off a book is the surest way of getting him to read it, but chiefly because I have evidence that all the opinions expressed have in fact caused a certain amount of annoyance one way and the other . . .

Ho, ho! I chuckle.  I skip introductions because I have found that they often make me like a book less, and never make me like it more; but how could any opinion that annoyed the po-faced hoi polloi of the first half of the 20th century possibly annoy modern me?  And what’s more fun than a guiltless laugh at the past’s expense, through the eyes of woman so eminently ahead of her own time?  I read on:

. . . Speaking generally, the first section courts unpopularity by founding itself on theology and not on “religion.”  The second will offend all those who are irritated by England and the English, all those who use and enjoy slatternly forms of speech, all manly men, womenly women, and people who prefer wealth to work.  The third will annoy those who cannot bear other people to enjoy themselves in their own way.

My laughter grows nervous.  I have been moved to irritation by England and the English at times.  Notice how Sayers lumps me together with entitled slackers and those who patronize the literary equivalent of prostitutes.  I feel her rapier wit turning, turning . . . and a sudden need to duck.

The essays are divided into three sections: theological, political, and critical.  The theological section includes work that could be called philosophical, like “Towards a Christian Aesthetic”–less about Christianity and more about aesthetics and ethics, with a look at Plato and Aristotle.  The critical section features Sayers’ foray into the genre of spoof literary criticism that treats the Sherlock Holmes stories as memoir.  The political section includes her famous feminist essays “Are Women Human?” and “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,” but aside from those, is mostly given over to essays about English national character English usage.

“The Mysterious English” is a speech delivered in London in 1940.  To an English audience.  Remember that.  Actually, no need: Sayers makes it pretty hard to forget.  After she describes the history and geography that have contributed to make England an Island Nation of proud mongrels, the very essence of which is its integrative spirit (“If ever you hear a man boast of his pure English blood, he may be a Bostonian, he may be a Jew; but whatever he is he is not English.”), she speaks about language (for of course only one real language has ever been spoken at a given time by the people that matter in the Island Nation) and finally draws her thesis up to the present era:

A direct result of the mongrel nature of the English, and a thing very noticeable about them, is that they have never in their lives been what the Germans still are, that is, a Volk.  From the first beginnings of their Englishry they have been, not a race, but a nation.  The comparative absence of folk-music and folk-customs from England is remarkable, compared with their energetic survival in, say, the Highlands of Scotland; and the English have never had a folk-costume at all.  The thing that ties them together is not a consciousness of common blood so much as a common law, a common culture and a very long memory of national consciousness.  The law, generally speaking, is Saxon; the culture, generally speaking, is continental.

I could rip this apart.  Not in anger, Ms. Sayers.  But in terms of European and British history, I could come up with a pretty darned good argument to counteract pretty much every assertion (implied or otherwise) in this paragraph—and you are so much smarter than me!  Really, how could you put yourself in such a position?

Well, yes, I understand your audience’s need to dissociate themselves from Volk just now, and I understand this is rhetoric, not a scholarly essay.  Perhaps if I just read the rest as if it were called “How The English Needed to See Themselves In 1940,” I will remain un-irritated and avoid the needle-sharp point of your scorn.  Back to national character:

We are not a military nation, as has sometimes been said; and I doubt whether it is correct to call us a martial race; but we are an adventurous people.  We are the magpies of Europe.  We love to decorate ourselves with foreign spoils, mental and spiritual as well as material.  We feel we are in no danger of losing our own individuality by decking ourselves in these borrowed plumes.  Insecurity tends to turn the soul inwards upon itself, so that it keeps on reckoning itself up to see that it is all there . . . but security looks outward.

That’s interesting.  You are not military Volk.  Not “a martial race.”  I believe that your next point will be that your own stab at a worldwide Empire (unlike some we could name) was a reflection of your innate confident eclecticism.  Is that right?

England is an adventurer and a collector of unconsidered trifles.  It would be true to say that she did not conquer her Empire; she did not even very deliberately acquire it in the interests of her trade; the fact that she collected it casually, and almost accidentally, in a spirit of lighthearted adventure, as a sailor will collect monkeys and parrots and, like the sailor, found herself committed to looking after the creature.  The English, though they have done a good deal of conquering in this random kind of way, have never considered themselves to be a nation of conquerors, in the sense that Hitler understands the word, or even as Caesar understood it.  We do not see ourselves as invaders of conquered territory.  It is true that if you turn out the Englishman’s luggage you will find it full of bits of land of alien origin; but the possessor will explain, with perfect sincerity, and more truth than you might suppose, that he never had any idea of foreign conquest.  He was just roving about the world doing a little business, when he came across something, the Elgin Marbles, or Cleopatra’s Needle, or an island or so, or possibly half a continent that nobody seemed to be looking after, and he just slipped it in his pocket to take care of it.

What is more he does take care of it.  Like the sailor with the parrot, he feels it is his duty to feed it, make it comfortable, and teach it the English language, and will go to a surprising amount of trouble and expense to do the right thing by it.

I see.  You just happened to put India in your pocket because it needed looking after.  Yes!  I’m irritated.  I’m irritated at the English capacity to use self-deprecating humor to legitimize self-congratulatory self-deception!  I’m irritated at the English!  I’m irritated at YOU Dorothy Leigh Sayers!  Happy?!

Or wait a minute.  Maybe the joke was on me all along?

It is not surprising that the European should suspect a certain hypocrisy in this apparent contradiction between the Englishman’s repudiation of the idea of conquest and the plain fact that he has succeeded in laying hands on so much of the Earth’s surface.  Yet there is really no hypocrisy, and no true contradiction.  Both things spring from the same root: the powerful sense of national solidarity, which results from his being an island mongrel.  His outward security has made it easy for him to go roaming about the world; his mixed blood has made a roaming life agreeable to him.  Like Kipling’s cat he walks in the wild woods, waving his wild tail, and all places are alike to him.

Exactly.  Why.  I’m.  Still.  Mad.

If we’re going to make it a matter of blood–something I would think, Ms. Sayers, you might show a little more reluctance to do in 1940–I suppose you could say this is my Celtic bias.  If you ignore Scandinavia and the Continent, my blood’s a lot more Welsh and Irish than English; what’s more, all the most interesting ancestors and best stories come from those bits of the family.  So let’s just say I’m a raging Celt, genetically programmed to take an obtuse angle on the age-old argument between dominant culture (“All places are alike, so what’s your problem?”) and marginalized culture (“We are us.  We don’t want to be you.”).  Fine.  I don’t mind.  I cede the point.  Let’s wipe the slate clean.

What next, now that we’re friends again?  You know how much I adore your writing.  How about “The English Language” (1936), since I’m sure it’s something we both can agree on.  I’m just wild to hear what you have to say about those slatterns who debase “the richest, noblest, most flexible and sensitive language ever written or spoken since the age of Pericles”!

It is well, then, to know what we mean and to learn how to say it in English.  And by English I mean English, not any other tongue.  In a day when the British Broadcasting Corporation imports its language committee from Ireland and Scotland, and when Fleet Street swarms with Scots, Irish and Americans, it is well to remember that all these persons are foreigners; that the Scots and the Irish were so from the beginning and that the Americans have become so; that they speak our language as foreigners; and that while it is childlike and charming in us to enjoy their sing-song speech and their quaint foreign barbarisms, to imitate these things is childishness and folly.  It is true that a language thrives by piracy: it will do us no harm to adopt a striking word of slang or a vivid turn of expression.  We must not, however, give our pure gold for cowrie-shells or abandon our beautiful and useful grammatical tools because these barbarians do not know how to handle them.

[About to hurl the book across the room, Trapunto pauses thoughtfully at the sight of it’s first American edition green cloth binding and puts in a bookmark instead.]

End of Act I

Rapid Fire

April 23, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow
Dial of Random House, 2008
Finished: Late March 2010
Source: Various blogs
Genre: historical fiction
On the Scales: lightweight

How much I loved it: 68%.  I didn’t know it was written by an American till the end, when the co-author credited some Brits for helping tidy the Americanisms out of the manuscript, then in retrospect I noticed some they’d missed.  So good-hearted, its twee-ness was easy to forgive.  Reminded me of mid-20th-century light British novels, the kind my great grandmother loved to read, then found out that my Granny read this recently and liked it.  So, good gift for a granny-aged person who remembers the war.  Made me understand a little better why some people who lived through that time were never able to get over hating Germans.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
Margaret K. MeElderry of Simon and Schuster, 1999
Finished: Late March, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: children’s historical fiction with time-travel device
On the Scales: lightweight.

How much I loved it: 50%, or as much as a warm bath and a fuzzy towel when you have the chicken pox in fourth grade, which, sadly, would have been the best time to read it.  I wouldn’t have liked it quite as much if I’d read it when I was a little older than that, even though I was a Shakespearean theater nerd, because it was too short, and I would have compared it to my then-favorite children’s historical novel Lark by Sally Watson, in which the 17th century political intrigue is more life-threatening, and the adventures rompier.

The Unlikely Disciple: a sinner’s semester at America’s holiest university by Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 2009
Finished: ?
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: Stunt journalism?  Anthropology?
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I wanted to squeeze this book’s earnest chipmunk cheeks and tell it to fight the good fight: 100%.  An undergrad wrote this amazingly balanced account of his year undercover at at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, delighting me with such expressions as “well-worn scientific canards” and “coltish paternalism.”  Liberal Christians should read The Unlikely Disciple if they want to know what “those kinds of Christians” are thinking.  Secular individuals who wonder how a certain branch of mainstream Christian culture (the most vocal and widely disturbing) sees itself should read it but they should not think it gives them a peek into Christian college life anywhere but Liberty University, or into Christian theology, because frankly Southern Baptists scare the crap out of everyone but Southern Baptists and maybe Pentacostals, who are way less scary, even when they are being slain in the spirit, though their music is worse.  Committed Atheists should read it if they can stand it.  But first you should all read Jenny’s fine review with its stimulating comments, because, as the graduate of a Christian college which did not in any way resemble Liberty University except for a few creepy sociological phenomena (the expression “ring by spring” was not unfamiliar to me) and which I nevertheless hated with a passion, I am quite unequal to the task of writing one.  I should probably just write my own book about Christian college, but then my family, who paid for a large part of my schooling, would have to disown me and there would be no-one to call me on my birthday, which come to think of it I actually loathe.  (Query: I’m no less scared of Southern Baptists after reading this book–is that because I’m a yankee?)

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
also heard part of audio CD version, narrated by Juanita McMahon
Riverhead of Penguin Puntnam, 2002
Finished: April 2, 2010
Source: Various blogs recommending Waters
Genre: historical fiction in Victorian style
On the Scales: welterweight

How much I loved it: 10%.  I had to skip a lot because of the combination of confinement, watertight conspiracy, and psychological abuse (presumably physical abuse as well, but those were the parts I skipped).  I abandoned the audio version because the reader’s dramatization was too perfect, it was flaying my nerves.  I thought could take it in print.  Nope.  I had to skip the whole asylum section in the second half of the book.  I didn’t see the mid-story plot twist coming at all.  Sarah Waters should write movies, and M. Night Shyamalan should direct them, and Ismail Merchant should produce them.  Oh shoot, he’s dead.  I’ll try her other books.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan
Viking, 2001
Finished: April 4, 2010
Source: Bookgazing
Genre: YA same-sex hothouse romance and coming of age
On the Scales: featherweight

How much I loved it: not much, except for the fact that the protagonist was sincere and wanted to be an archeologist.  It read as though a self-satisfied teenager had written it, which one might argue is a realistic touch in a YA novel, but I think was just a matter of the author still being one, at heart: the kind of teenager, who, had I been at the same smart-kid summer camp, would surely have looked down on me because I used big words and wore two long braids and home-sewn clothing, assuming I was a sheltered homophobe and prude, giggled at me over lunch with her friends, and said “What are you looking at?” when I glanced at her girlfriend’s shaved head to admire it.

Rude Mechanicals by Kage Baker, festooned with barfy photoshop collages by J.K. Potter
Subterranean Press, 2007
Finished: April 5, 2010
Source: I’ll read anything by the author
Genre: time travel science fiction novella
On the Scales: lightweight

I read this book with an overwhelming sense of sadness and nostalgia because I’d just heard Kage Baker had died, and the story was a tribute to Hollywood as-was, where she grew up when it still had bungalows and touching trumped-up glitz and aging silent film stars, when famous German directors might be paid to stage monumental, doomed outdoor productions of Midsummer Nights Dream featuring clueless big-name actors, and when a hardworking cyborg could still get a drink in this town.

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
first published UK 1920, This edition Moyer Bell, 1998
Finished: April 6, 2010
Source: book blogs
Genre: social satire novel
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 80% but I don’t know why, because LUCIA IS THE DEVIL AND RISEHOLME IS MY HELL–Riseholme, where the gossips trip across the Elizabethan green and local poets self-publish attractively bound books of verse at the village printer’s, while Lucia the one-woman cultural improvement committee sees to it that an antique set of stocks is purchased from a neighboring village to authenticate the ducking pond.  No mere “duck” pond for Riseholme.  (Riseholme = risible?)   Poor Georgie, I’d pegged him for a buffoon and then Benson turned him into a tragic, sweet capering Harlequin and got all incisive in the last half of the book, and the other characters became something more than just tortuously English stereotypes.  I’ve never been so puzzled and stimulated and repulsed by a piece of light fiction, all at the same time.  And nothing even happens, except Olga, the reality-foil, throwing them into disarray.

Tonoharu Part One, by Lars Martinson
Pliant Press, 2008
Finished: April 8, 2010
Source: husband’s library browsing
Genre: autobiographical graphic novel, first of multivolume set
On the Scales: ?
How much I loved it: 95%

Serially-released graphic novel about a dreamy procession of imported young American English-tutors in a provincial Japanese high school, culture shock, inertia, loneliness, and the weirdness of expatriate culture.  Spare and static.  Literally painful not to be able to go on immediately to the next volume!

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
read by Ian Carmichael
Originally published 1930, Chivers 1989, distributed BBC AudiobooksFinished April 10 or so, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books, Nymeth’s and other blogs
Genre: mystery
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 99%.  I’m a convert.  I have nothing to add to the great recent reviews, except that we saw the BBC television version from 1989 just a little before we listened to the book.  The BBC version was a pretty faithful word-for-word, scene by scene adaptation, so we knew everything that was going to happen, and Der Mann and I were still laughing aloud and completely enthralled by the audio.

La Perdida by Jessica Abel
Pantheon, 2006
Finished: April 18, 2010
Source: Nymeth’s blog
Genre: graphic novel
On the Scales: welterweight
How much I loved the visual storytelling: 90%
How much I loved the characters and setting: 0%
Overall love: 45%

I think this calls for a little doggerel, don’t you?

In Mexico City
The living is shitty
For an innocent expat.
Commie friends are a rat-trap.
Chicos and booze,
Her ideals confuse,
And she rips up her Frieda
Just when she needs her!

I used to be a night person.  Now that I’m no longer a night person or a morning person, it takes a special kind of book to end up on my bedside table.  I drop off to sleep instantaneously; that’s not the issue.  My bedside book has to be something good enough that I can put it down without feeling I’ve devoted the last few minutes of my day to something pointless or cheesy, but not so good I’m tempted to keep the light on because I can’t find a stopping place, while Der Mann (who gets up early to catch a bus) flops in increasing half-asleep irritation. Plus, when I read too long after Der Mann’s sleepy-time my hands and forearms get cold from holding up the book, and sometimes I can’t warm them up again.  Fifteen minutes to a half hour is usually about right.  If I’ve got a book I literally can’t put down I just get up and read in a chair.  Social satire is good, but not too cringey.  Period drama, but not too weighty.

Well, last night I made a terrible terrible mistake when I selected my reading options.  I took one of these.  I don’t even want to write its title, because that could turn into an unintentional advertisement.  From now on I have sworn off Rick Geary.

Geary wrote a non-fiction comics in a series known as A Treasury of Victorian Murder, and now he is writing about early 20th century crimes as well.  About twelve years ago I found The Borden Tragedy in general nonfiction at a public library.  It was probably the first edition; crude printing, small publisher–I assumed it was somebody’s little moneymaking scheme, the kind of thing you might find for sale at a tourist bureau in Fall River.  Back then the only graphic novel I’d seen was Maus.  Epic and serious.  So I barely knew what to make of this.

But I read it, and it stuck with me.  Geary was reporterly–even humane–in his treatment of a gristly crime of passion.  The distance in time from the events, combined with the objectifying effect of comics in general and of Geary’s reductive-yet-detailed drawing style in particular, was compelling.  I avoid horror and true crime books, so this was the closest my reading would get to any kind of real-life-type murderers; coming this far was kind of interesting.  Hopeful, even.  Geary presents his disasters with the accompaniment of a careful diagram, defused of their explosive craziness, so that you can examine them.  He doesn’t obtrude his own personality or emotions on his narratives; both in his pictures and in the tone of his text he steers clear of spatter in favor of the slightly smarmy tone of contemporary newspaper accounts (perhaps directly quoting from them) and traditionally composed panels that owe a lot to old photographs and postcards.  It sounds weird to say so, but I felt like I was learning and being diverted at the same time–the same feeling I get at a really good museum exhibit.

I didn’t know the Borden tragedy was part of a series until just a few weeks ago.  Then I read Famous Players (the 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor in Hollywood) and The Fatal Bullet (the assassination of James Garfield).

By the time I realized how much more disturbing last night’s little book was going to be than the other three, it would have been worse NOT to finish it than to find out what happened.

Another thing I’d liked about Geary’s comics was the intentional variety.  Although his drawing style and pacing is very consistent, each comic had a little unique device in the telling, an emphasis, that made you feel like you were entering a separate miniature world from the last.  The emphasis in the one I read last night wasn’t the murderer’s character, because he was a cipher, but the the repetitive, frenetic, a-logical series of events he generated.  His constant scurrying, like an insect.  The fact that, like an insect, he was able to perpetrate so much disgusting awfulness completely disregarded and completely unchecked.

I like to think about times when everything was messier and on a more human scale.  It comforts me to remember how recent they were.  In The Fatal Bullet I enjoyed the atmosphere of late 19th century Washington D.C., with the president strolling out of the White House by himself after dinner and walking a few blocks to visit a friend!  In Famous Players, I was impressed that just 90 years ago a Hollywood director like William Desmond Taylor was living in a normal courtyard bungalow, where an actress in a neighboring unit usually spent her evenings knitting.  The book I read last night offered no little socio-historical compensations for the murderer’s mess.  The events took place in a time modern enough that a clearly screwy fellow couldn’t be kept in line by the watchful eyes of his community–this one had no community, just business associates and incurious suburban neighbors–but not modern enough that there were official structures to take the community’s place as watchdog.

Seeing all the ways he might have been caught if anyone was paying attention gave the whole thing a fatalistic  feeling which only got worse, and worse, and worse.  You know a book’s not doing you good when the only bright spot is an incident of arson.

When I had finished it–and it didn’t take long–I put it down with a feeling that it was physically tainted.  I’m not generally subject to the horrors, or even persistent unwanted thoughts, but last night took me back to early childhood.  My sense of hearing was heightened, and the caterwauling cats, distant coyotes, squirrels working to get into the eaves, and animals going thump as they jumped onto the porch gave me plenty to listen to.  There was also the dread of opening the door on the dark bathroom–the shadowy no man’s land behind the tub.  It occurred to me for the very first time in the year we’ve lived here that Something Bad might easily have happened in a 97-year-old house.  Even in a 97-year-old house with a crappy down-to-the-studs remodel, that wasn’t even built as a house. “The Creamery Murders of 1918” perhaps?  Eh.  Better not go there.

In the process of not going there, I lay perfectly still on my back and my side and my other side like a slow rotisserie.  My shoulder muscle went into spasm.  Every thought went foggily back to something from the book.  It seemed to last all night.  No bad dreams, thankfully, because I never dropped off that far.  I didn’t feel personally threatened, just nauseated that there was such evil in the world.  It seemed that it would have spilled over into everything it came near.

Now I’m angry.  Not at Geary: Geary’s just doing what he always does.  It’s a lot better than what true crime writers are doing.  I suppose I’m angry at the murderer, who used his creative energies for destruction.  The fact that he was caught and punished means nothing because it undid nothing he’d done.  I wanted him never to have existed.

That made me think of eugenics.  The whole notion of eugenics is repellent, but I am wondering if its popularity in the early 20th century may have something to do with that crack between pre-modern and modern social structures–when the moral cockroaches first started venturing out of the woodwork without fear, before we stood around with our cans of Raid, expecting them.  Resigned to them.

The best I can do is not read about them.  I need my sleep.

Is there a book you wish you could unread?

Harry N. Abrams, 2000

Finished: January 21, 2010

Source: magazine article

Genre: nonfiction

“The Red Rose Girls” was the name the given by Howard Pyle to artists Jessie Wilcox Smith, Violet Oakley, and Elizebeth Shippen Green, students in his famous illustration classes at the Drexel Institute.  The three women shared a Philadelphia studio and later several houses together with various aged parents and their friend Henrietta Cozens.  The Red Rose Inn was where they molded their artistic family into what the author argues was an enriching creative partnership.

A lot of readers are going to be disappointed when they come to this book hoping for evidence that the household’s two implied Boston marriages were sexual as well as emotional and practical in nature.  “Boston marriage” is a term the author explains at length and uses often, then fails to mention whether the artists or their friends ever applied it to them.  She wavers between interest in their relationships and reticence, just as she never seems to take a straight line–any line–about their art or the day-to-day mechanics of their posited partnership.  I wondered if this oversight was for lack of a researcher’s knack for detective work, lack of material to research, or simply lack of direction in the whole project, combined with a biographer’s complimentary prejudices.

If this sounds harsh, it reflects my high expectations.  My husband brought home a stack of 1990’s issues of  graphic designers’ and illustrators’ trade magazine from work, one of which had the short article by Carter that was the germ of this book.  I was really, really looking forward to reading it!

I should say first that I’m grateful anyone at all has written at length on this wonderful subject, much less an illustrator with roots in Philadelphia and a keen interest in the history of her profession–particularly of the women who filled the high demand for commercial artists in the late 19th and early 20th century.  I’m also very glad it was published in an oversized format with plenty of space given to color reproductions of the artists’ work.  The writing was engaging, and despite the fact that it could and should have been twice as long, I read it in one sitting with complete absorption.  The sections devoted to the early life of each woman who later joined the group were a very good thought, as were the background on women’s access to art education and nude figure drawing classes in the 19th century, as well as the scandal that got Thomas Eakins booted from the Pennsylvania Academy.

I was made a little impatient, however, by the careful explanations of the sociological climate of the era.  It assumed an elementary-school level ignorance of cultural history on the part of the reader, which might have been necessary for her publisher’s intended audience, but I still think the information could have been imparted with a little more finesse.  Anyone who reads historical novels or watches period-setting films will already know most of what Carter explains about the artificially limited role of women in the arts, their ghettoized and underpaid place in the work force, and the domestic expectations placed on both married and unmarried ladies.  Perhaps fewer will have an understanding of the tolerant attitude toward “romantic friendships” in the Victorian and Edwardian era, or the fact that the workings of such friendships (which need not–but might have been–sexual, a distinction the author does not seem to like) were seldom examined very anxiously either by observers or participants, until the 20th century spread of Freudian thought and modern psychology.

In a book determined to assert the artistic significance of the Red Rose Girls’ partnership, Carter misses a surprising number of opportunities to talk about their art in its own right.  This undermines her thesis.  If she had wanted to make the point that the women’s individual painting and drawing styles ossified because their household broke up and they were no longer working in an atmosphere of liberated creative collaboration, she should have taken care to uncover each woman’s professional attitude toward the others’ work and her own, not just their domestic harmonies and dissonances.  From the picture she paints, it would be just as easy to believe that the women’s art failed to progress for a number of reasons:  They were no longer young artists in the innovative stage of their development.  They had achieved the limits of their talents.  They  were worn down by the heavy load of work they accepted to keep themselves in comfort.  They were satisfied to hit on something the public and the publishers liked, and stick with it.  They were products of the popular romanticism of the time.

Carter did manage to convince me the women lost something important when they parted.  The descriptions of Violet Oakley’s attachment to the Red Rose Inn alone go a long way to showing what an important place it must have been for them all, and what an important time in their lives.

Life at the Red Rose Inn sounds enchanting, but one of the most interesting parts of the book was the account of Jessie Wilcox Smith’s undistinguished later work as a children’s portraitist–commissions she received due to the popularity of her monthly Good Housekeeping covers.  All the Red Rose Girls relied on photographs of staged models for their work–Jessie Smith even more than others, perhaps, as her paintings were the more candidly lifelike.  This practice would have been unacceptable to a wealthy parent paying for a “real” painting by a “real” artist–one who works only from life–so that Jessie was forced to abandon photographs and produce paintings of a lower quality than her cover illustrations.  (Presumably the parents couldn’t tell the difference, as the commissions continued to pour in!)  How galling this forced incompetence must have been to the dignified and supremely competent professional illustrator.

Like the wealthy parents who commissioned Smith’s portraits, I feel Alice Carter does these fascinating women a disservice by holding them up–probably unconsciously–to the 20th century ideal of the “important” artist.  With the exception of the unhinged Violet (a muralist and social crusader who seems to have had an elevated view of her work’s moral significance), they were primarily illustrators.  They were proud to support themselves with their art.  To call themselves working artists in an age in which illustration was a more highly appreciated craft than it is now, as well as a more lucrative one–a situation the author explains particularly nicely–was a compliment, not a compromise.

It’s a worthy book.  On the balance the poor thesis can’t do it much harm.  The drama that brings the Red Rose Girls story to life is the drama of the Belle Epoque itself.  The high hopes, the ideals, the bonhomie–so promising, and so soon ended as the page turned on the age of the novel and the illustrated magazine to a century of world wars and new media.