Thursday, March 8, 2018

Spin 2018

Counting books I've read and haven't posted reviews for yet, my list is actually running short for the next Classics Club spin! So I've divvied it up like so:

1 - 3: Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri: The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition 
4 - 6: William Baldwin: Beware the Cat (etext link
7 - 9: Honore Balzac: Lost Illusions
10 - 12: Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Coleridge's Notebooks: a Selection
13 - 14: Delarivier Manley: The New Atalantis
15 - 17: Kay Nielsen: East of the Sun and West of the Moon 
18 -  20: Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton: Who Would Have Thought It?

I'm only giving 3 slots to The New Atalantis because I've already started it, and it seems like I should use the spin to do something more random than that.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Faves of 2017

This year saw a Volume Two of The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories come out from the amazing people at Valancourt Books. Because I'm not made of stone, I didn't even try to save it for Christmas itself, but I did read it in December, when there was snow on the ground. I loved everything in it, and ordered another novel by Grant Allen because of the story in here. If I had the funds, I'd buy tons of both volumes, and send the pair to everyone I know. And you'd like it!

Other highlights of contemporary reading from 2017, including two things published this year, which, in my life, is practically unheard of. 

My Best Friend's Exorcism (2016), by Grady Hendrix. Scary, funny, gross, and heart-warming, all at once. I rushed out to read his previous Horrorstor (2014), and also the 2017 non-fiction Paperbacks from Hell, which are both also HIGHLY recommended.

The Essex Serpent (2017), by Sarah Perry. From the blurbs, I didn't even know what genre I was in, and all throughout reading, I had no idea where it was going. It's not horror, but it's certainly full of uncanny atmosphere. I loved it, and look forward to whatever she does next.

Zombies from the Pulps! (2014), edited by Jeffrey Shanks (Skelos Press). Full disclosure: I know the editor, and have been published in the Skelos journal. However, if I hadn't really liked this collection of classic pulp stories about all kinds of zombies (voodoo, mad scientists, sometimes both!), I just wouldn't have mentioned it. As it was, I was a little late getting around to it,  but this was a super-fun read, one of my favorites of the year.

Ride the Star Wind: Cthulhu, Space Opera, and the Cosmic Weird (2017), edited by Scott Gable & C. Dombrowski. The subtitle sounds like a non-fiction work of literary criticism, but it's not. I discovered this when I met the people from Broken Eye Books at the Providence NecronomiCon. Normally (despite some of my above recommendation), I'm not a real fan of short stories, but I was very impressed by this collection of deep-space, far-future sci-fi takes on themes from the Lovecraft mythos. Their earlier collection, Tomorrow's Cthulhu, is on my list for future reading.

All the above, by the way, have very different, but really great cover art. We seem to be in a golden age for that!

And a huge thanks to Tartarus Press for providing me with beautiful new (limited) editions of Arthur Machen's fantastic memoirs. Far Off Things and Things Near and Far are collected in The Autobiography of Arthur Machen, and The London Adventure volume contains many of Machen's additional essays on London life. Plus an also lovely but very affordable paperback edition of his long out-of-print collaboration with A.E. Waite, The House of the Hidden Light, which I recently reviewed here.

Looking forward to the books that the new year will bring.

The Manxman, by Hall Caine

"I know I should like to fight my way in the world as you are doing! But a woman can do nothing to raise herself. Isn't it hard?" -- Kate Cregeen, proving the novel should be called The Manxwoman (p. 203)

There's a quote by Czeslaw Milosz that I think about all the time, that "since the late eighteenth century, literature and art had been steadily forfeiting the ability to represent what I would call the 'multi-layered object'." (from the fantastic The Land of Ulro, p. 211). I'd add that, as the tendency has progressed, the problem has increased dramatically from the 19th century to the 20th. This came to mind when I was trying to figure out why on earth Hall Caine's The Manxman (1894) was so good.

This is another once best-selling book, written by a once famous author -- even later turned into a movie by the super-famous Alfred Hitchcock! -- and both he and the novel have been almost completely forgotten. I threw it in my cart on a whim several years ago, when Valancourt Books was having some kind of sale, and I put it on my Classics Club list because it was still on my shelf. It came up on in the November Classics Club spin, and I said to myself, "Oh, why not?"

And lo! I loved it! Despite an occasional slog of dialect, it was a page-turner, with characters I was deeply invested in, deft psychological insights, a broad societal picture of life on the Isle of Man, and a whole wealth of themes underlying a fairly simple triangle of childhood best friends and the neighbor girl they both love. It's hard for me to even imagine a randomly selected contemporary best-seller, especially on the love triangle theme, that would have so many dimensions.

Cousins Philip and Pete are both grandsons of the local lord of the manner. Orphaned Philip's father was disinherited for marrying beneath him, and while he has no income, he does have a doting, genteel aunt looking out for him. Pete is the current heir's illegitimate son, an open secret unacknowledged by the family, who grows up more rough and tumble among the working classes. The two boys become best friends, dreaming of running off to sea, and as they grow up, both fall in love with their feisty schoolmate Kate.

When Kate's father shoots down Pete's proposal, he goes to South Africa to make his fortune. She (kinda sorta) agrees to wait for him, not taking it too seriously, although Pete, Philip, and her family sure do. In ironic foreshadowing, she insists that she doesn't care about Pete's lack of a "name," and says "when I want to marry I'll marry the man I like" (50). Oh, the certainty of youth! By the next page, though, realizing that everyone considers them engaged, she says "I have nothing to do with it, seemingly. Nobody asks me" (51). Whether she wants to marry Pete or not, the people in her life aren't taking her autonomy into account.

Pete's villainous half-brother, also infatuated with Kate, contextualizes her situation, reflecting their world, in which men with more fortune and social standing are ruined by treating women honorably, and rewarded for abandoning their lovers and children: "A girl like this can never marry the right man. The man who is worthy of her cannot marry her, and the man who marries her isn't worthy of her" (70).

While Pete is gone, she and Philip form a strong bond, eventually blossoming into love, but Philip is constrained by his loyalty to Pete; later he realizes that he's also been held back by the idea that their marriage would repeat his own father's disgrace, and probably wreck his prospects.

The young couple finally gives in to their feelings, just in time for Pete to return a rich man, and preparations for the wedding are underway before Kate can even be sure if she is or isn't pregnant. With no right course before her -- just a muddle -- the characters are all pretty much doomed to misery.

This novel does a masterful job of portraying the environment of its time, and how that influences the characters to do what they do. A lot of the pressure on Kate is emotional and psychological: she doesn't want to hurt the kind, doting Pete, or hamper Philip's career, or disappoint her family. Because of all this, she doesn't assert herself or take her own feelings into account, merely going along with events. But her doing so leads to much worse damage down the line, for everyone. Caine is clearly sympathetic to Kate's position; near the end, both men remember how full of life she was, before being dragged down by love, sex, and motherhood, clearly making a thematic point.

Caine also addresses the societal pressures on her, such as ideas about who can marry whom, with potentially career-destroying loss of status in a wrong choice; Pete wasn't good enough for Kate because of his finances; Kate isn't good enough for Philip because of her social class. Women are in bad positions if they have sex, and especially if they have children out of wedlock, and their enforced subservience leads to avoidable problems. Women aren't supposed to be straightforward about their feelings or desires. While all of this is shown as wrong and unfair, the narrator describes it as if it is all an inevitable part of human nature that could never change.

"The pathos of the girl's position was no accidental thing.  It was a deeper, older matter; it was the same to-day as it had been yesterday and would be tomorrow; it began in the garden of Eden and would go on till the last woman died -- it was the natural inferiority of woman in relation to man" (116).

Now, going on 125 years later, almost no one thinks a woman's life should be over because she has a baby without being married, or that the child should be marked for life by society because of it. or that no man could be a successful lawyer if he married a girl whose parents were in trade. The fact that so much has changed makes the book, in retrospect, oddly hopeful.

The paragraph above is immediately followed by these sentences: "She had the same passions as Philip, and was moved by the same love. But she was not free. Philip alone was free" (ibid). I feel like the light is starting to dawn on even the narrator, as it does to the reader, that her lack of freedom is not the result of anything "natural," but to social conventions that can and will change, after they ruin enough people's lives to make those changes themselves seem natural and self-evident.

For one thing, there's the open hypocrisy of the fact that "a man may sin and still look to the future with a firm face" (202), when a woman cannot, but at the same time, the pressure to marry men they don't love, and have sex with those men, is recognized as "a grim reality of life" (226).  When Kate asks herself, "Why can't I be quiet and happy?" (247), the answer is that she shouldn't! And tellingly, all the constraints put on her as a woman lead to making the lives of the two men who love her as unhappy as she is, so neither gender is served by them.

This is no sociological treatise, however, but an entertaining page-turner with a lot of local color. Since we are dealing with Victorian melodrama, the novel's major turning points all seem to be timed for maximum coincidence value, rendering the drama a little less "realistic," but I could actually see the usefulness of the convention in highlighting the emotional intensity of those scenes. Using coincidence in this way might not have always been sheer authorial laziness, but a device to create a certain effect, which would have been understood by the readers.

I wondered if this novel was the origin of the phrase "for Pete's sake" (65).

There's some unfortunate comments about the natives in South America that will make a modern reader go "Eeeee," but it's certainly realistic to the period.

There are (often amusing) subplots about Kate's father, a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and his conflicts with other villagers. When told that the rakish heir "has sold himself to the devil," he  replies that "the devil gets the like for nothing," which made me LOL.

But speaking of religion, the beleaguered Pete breaks out in an angry speech near the end: "God doesn't punish the innocents for the guilty. If He does, He's not a good God but a bad one ... you are making Him out no God at all, but worse than the blackest devil that's in hell" (387). Amen, brother.

Caine, Hall, and David MacWilliams. The Manxman. Kansas City, Mo: Valancourt Books, 2009.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

"I don't see why handsome men should not be run after as much as handsome women."
"But you wouldn't have a girl run after any man, would you, whether handsome or ugly?"
"But they do, you know."
-- Lady Glencora Palliser and Miss Alice Vavasor tell it like it is in Can You Forgive Her? (p. 593-594)

Can You Forgive Her? (1865), the first of Trollope's famous Palliser series of novels, was a bit of a slow starter for me. Once I'd gotten about a fourth of the way through, though, it got faster and faster, and eventually I was reading it in every spare moment until it was done. There are many characters whose thoughts and feelings we are privy to, descriptions of social life and customs, and a whole lot about British politics. The main focus, however, settles on two young women, thwarted and frustrated by their limited options in life, in vaguely similar love triangles.

Financially and morally self-sufficient Alice Vavasor first jilts a handsome, eligible suitor, convinced their temperaments are too far apart for them to be happy. Then, wanting to feel useful and involve herself in politics, she gets drawn into a new engagement with her previous fiance, a cousin with bad money sense and a bad temper, who wants her small fortune to help him run for Parliament. Her friend, Lady Glencora, was  torn from her gorgeous but dissipated first love and pressured into marrying a perfectly fine, but somewhat boring husband, with whom she is mostly miserable, especially when that first love turns up again.

While the narrator seems to think the reader might not forgive Alice for her indecisiveness, breaking up with multiple fiances, modern audiences are probably less likely to forgive her angst about it. When she realizes she doesn't love cousin George, she can just break it off! Why all the punctilio?

It's unladylike for a woman to express her feelings, since she mustn't be perceived as a sexual aggressor; it's ungentlemanly for a man to express his feelings, since he is expected to maintain an air of stoic reserve. Under the circumstances, it's difficult for a couple to gauge their compatibility before more marriage, and both heroines think men don't love them, who really do. Given that every aspect of her future life hinges on her choice of husband, Alice's vacillation is understandable. Even with more freedom and more options, it's hard for people to know what they really want.

As everyone knows, I am particularly interested in novels about women's lives in prior eras, and the problems facing even the most privileged women in the 19th century are richly detailed here. The overall effect might not be as obviously subversive as that of other writers (even other male ones like Wilkie Collins and J. Sheridan LeFanu), but Trollope gives his women way more agency and insight into their situations than I had expected.

On that subject, I could quote all day. Alice, defined by almost everyone she meets as the sum of her marriage prospects, is told by her closest friend, "It is you that ought to be Chancellor of the Exchequer" (591). Lady Glencora, thought so childlike by her husband, is described by the narrator as "in many things ... much quicker, much more clever, than her husband" (414), and "I do not know that she was at all points a lady, but had Fate so willed it she would have been a thorough gentleman" (473).

Glencora herself, about to scandalously place a bet at a German casino, expresses her situation with poignant eloquence. "I'll tell you what I want, -- something to live for, -- some excitement ... I'd go and sit out there, and drink beer and hear the music, only Plantagenet wouldn't let me" (653). Most women today take for granted that they can drink beer and listen to music if they want to, but it wasn't that way a hundred years before I was born.

She goes on, "There are moments when I almost make up my mind to go headlong to the devil, -- when I think it is the best thing to be done ... A man can take to drinking and gambling and all the rest of it, and nobody despises him a bit ... All he wants is money, and he goes away and has fling. Now I have plenty of money ... and I never got my fling yet. I do feel so tempted to rebel, and go ahead, and care for nothing" (654-655).

I took a side trip from Can You Forgive Her? to read a little collection of Trollope's holiday stories, Christmas as Thompson Hall, and discovered that he it isn't just this book: he clearly had an interest in the imp of the perverse, and the big problems that could arise from seemingly small communication gaps. Once I get caught up on some more Classics Club reads, I hope to revisit Trollope. Maybe the Barchester series!

Trollope, Anthony. Can You Forgive Her?London: Vintage Books, 2012.

Can You Forgive Her.jpg

Monday, December 25, 2017

The House of the Hidden Light, by Arthur Machen and A.E. Waite

"Something is added which gives vastness and a certain splendour and immensity fo the material universe in all its parts, so that when I came down the stairs in this house, I did so with the sense that I passed through immense distances, as if I came down the stair of a cathedral spire. And when I went out into the street, it seemed to me that I saw in a happy and shining air, a new, glorious and unknown city, builded of radiant and living stones." -- Filius Aquarium, a thinly-fictionalized Arthur Machen in The House of the Hidden Light (p. 35)

Finally available again in a beautiful but affordable paperback edition from Tartarus Press, The House of the Hidden Light (1904) is a cryptic tome of metaphysical symbolism, which the introduction, by editor and annotator R.A. Gilbert, plausibly interprets as describing the social lives of its two mystically-inclined authors.

Arthur Machen was a Welsh author of influential weird fiction, most famous for the fin-de-siecle horror tale "The Great God Pan," and for accidentally creating the urban legend about angels appearing above a battlefield in the First World War. A.E. Waite would become one of the most famous occultists of his age, immortalized by his work on the Rider-Waite Tarot, now the "standard" deck, the template of which has been copied by thousands of other artists and writers.

The two men became lifelong friends, with Waite encouraging Machen to join the then-new Order of the Golden Dawn (characteristically, Machen would be inspired by its rituals to create a drinking club as a similar mock order, and that sort of behavior is on display in Hidden Light. When his wife died after a lengthy battle with cancer, Machen was devastated, and found a welcome distraction in the Golden Dawn and long conversations about metaphysics.

While Waite was offering support and companionship to his grieving friend, he was living a storyline ripped from the kind of Victorian novels I read. He was in love with a woman he thought of as a soulmate and intellectual equal, who married a wealthy older man instead of him. On the rebound, he married her sister, but eventually the two began meeting again in secret. (The introduction implies that this began as an emotional affair that probably turned into a physical one, until they finally finally broke it off to make a go of it with their spouses). Meanwhile, Machen met a woman in their social circle who made him believe that he could love again.  And yes, all this soap opera is necessary exposition, because apparently the four of them used to meet up for dining and drinking until all hours, with a strong suggestion that the couples went off to enjoy themselves privately.

The literary collaboration contains faux letters making veiled references to these meetings and their relationships with the two women, layered with occult terminology, and focused on the search for a divine Light, an infusion of spiritual joy and meaning strong enough to permeate one's mundane existence. They reframe their experiences into a kind of mythical symbolism, attempting, in a way, to create what contemporary writer Hakim Bey would later call a Temporary Autonomous Zone.

Or, in the words of Waite's stand-in, Elias Artista: "two poor brothers of the spirit, friends of God and members of the sodality, having dwelt after the common manner of men in the desert of this mortal life, understanding ill enough what manner of distinction there is between stars that speak and stars that sing, conceived between them the ambition to get on int he world by a right ordering of the mind in respect of the real interests and true objects of life" (3). With that, you probably already have a good idea of whether you'd want to read this.

The romances didn't last, but the experience created a sense of the way love (and probably physical pleasures) can color one's perceptions. After this project of rendering that reality in a divine light, everyday life begins to reassert itself: "the signs are no longer visibly afforded to us ... the lights have waxed dim within the holy place" (93). But since it was an elaborate metaphor to begin with, the insights are not really been lost. Waite continued to dedicate himself to mystical experiences, and Machen's ideas about deeper spiritual realities would remain with him throughout his life, vividly expressed in his series of memoirs.

Machen, Arthur and A.E. Waite. House of the Hidden Light. Leyburn, North Yorkshire: The Tartarus Press, 2017.

Arthur Machen circa 1905.jpg

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Prose Edda, by Snorri Sturlson

"When Odin entered Asgard he spat the mead into the vats. It was such a close call, with Suttung almost catching him, that he blew some of the mead out of his rear. No one paid attention to this part, and whoever wanted it took it; we call this the bad poets' potion." -- from The Prose Edda (p. 86)

Just one of many, many WTF? moments from the slim collection of Scandinavian folklore from which much of our information is gleaned. And seriously, Penguin Classics, why is it "Sturlson" on the cover and spine, but consistently rendered as "Sturluson" within?

Yes, I thought about starting this after every viewing of Thor: Ragnarok, and after the third, finally settled in to read. I read a different, more narrative translation years ago, but I honestly didn't remember how messed up it was.

Just to start with, the Prose Edda (written somewhere around 1220) tells us that the Norse gods came from Asia, specifically Turkey, and even more specifically, Troy. Once their wanderings take them to Scandinavia, even "their language -- that of the men of Asia -- became the native language in all these lands" (8). Yes, sure, this is the result of the tendency to elevate oral legend by tying it in with "historical" facts, but it's still weird. Also intriguing, given the contentious but popular idea of the "Indo-European" language.

There's a related tendency to associate Odin with Jesus, as if the work is reflecting an "intimations of immortality," to quote Simone Weil on the pagans, creating a theoretical framework to fit Jesus into later. For example, "He created man and gave him a living spirit that will never die ... All men who are righteous shall live and be with him in that place ..." (12). Of course, that's followed right up with the question (still really unanswered in the Judeo-Christian world)"What did he do before heaven and earth were created?" and the straightforward reply, "Back then, he was with the frost giants" (ibid). As good an answer as any!

In short, mostly unconnected segments, the Edda tells us about Thor (who responds to every problem by hitting it with his hammer), Loki, the Yggdrasil, the Bifrost, the Valkyries, and, of course, Ragnarok, along with a mind-numbing amount of bit players and names of people's relatives for a book that's only 118 pages long, not counting Appendixes. It's hard to know whether it's intentional or not, but the total untrustworthiness of the gods is a running theme. The giant Fenriswolf is raised by the AEsir, and they seem to get along fine before they entrap him, because "all the prophecies foretold that it was destined to harm them" (40). The more sophisticated, literary Greek writers would have made the cause and effect of fate clearer, but here we're left to wonder if the wolf would cause the end of the world at all if the gods hadn't tricked and imprisoned him.

Similarly, when they gods need a fortress, they get a builder and make the kind of deal with him familiar to us from fairy tales like Rumpelstiltskin. They agree to reward him with the goddess Freyja and the sun and moon, if he can build it in an impossibly short time. When they realize he has the ability to meet their deadline, they "attacked Loki," who's "frightened" into a scheme to hold up the work and get the gods out of their obligation (51). The swindled builder "flew into a giant's rage," at which point they bring in Thor to do what he does best: "Thor paid the builder his wages ... he struck the first blow in such a way that the giant's skull broke into small pieces" (52).

It's because of this incident, by the way, that Loki gets impregnated while in horse form, and gives birth to a colt: "it was grey and had eight feet" (ibid).

Almost needless to say: recommended reading!

Snorri, Sturluson, and Jesse L. Byock. The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology. London: Penguin, 2005.

(Loki and SvaĆ°ilfari (1909) by Dorothy Hardy. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.)

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux

"You do not go back to a tomb and a corpse who loves you ... Perhaps, after all, he was still, if onlyslightly, the Angel of Music and would have embodied it perfectly, had God made him beautiful instead of clothing him in rotten flesh." -- Christine Daae, in The Phantom of the Opera (p. 148)

I was picking a selection from Phantom of the Opera (1909) to be read at my Halloween program this fall, when I suddenly went, "Wait a minute, I've never read it! How did this HAPPEN? What have I been doing with my life?"

The book's structure is, like Dracula's found-document one, unexpectedly modern. In this case, Leroux uses his experience as a journalist to frame the events as if they're a documentary history, based on interviews and current reportage. Even when the events are totally unbelievable, the verisimilitude is there, and it's not surprise that readers tended to believe it was at least based on real events. Especially since the opening sentence is "The Phantom of the Opera did exist," and the second paragraph calmly starts out "When I consulted the archives of the National Academy of Music..." (5).

The plot is mostly familiar from the various adaptations. There's a Phantom (named Erik) at the Paris Opera, promoting a young singer with whom he's obviously in love, and he's willing to ruin or murder anyone who gets in his way, although, in the end, he's become a figure of pathos. Heroine Christine, gullible even for a pious orphan, seems to really believe that the disembodied Voice that gives her singing lessons are taught by a literal "Angel of Music," thanks to the allegorical mysticism her father used to talk about.

I was surprised that she's a lot more into the Phantom here than I remember her being in the film adaptations (although I know nothing of the musical version, so can't speak to that). Maybe there's a Stockholm Syndrome thing going on, but their connection through music is pretty strong, and the Phantom understands a lot more how important it is to her than does Raoul, the juvenile lead and rival for her affection. Even when he finally kidnaps her and she famously rips of his mask, as she must, she has a lot of sympathy for him. It's obviously not the making of a healthy relationship, though; near death, Erik gushes later that "I ...I kissed her! I did! I kissed her! And she did not die of horror!" That's a low bar, but he does go on about how even "my own poor, unhappy mother ... never let me kiss her -- she recoiled from me and made me cover my face" (172). Despite his numerous horrible deeds, there's a Frankenstein-ish undertone that he may have only become a monster because everyone treated him as one.

Along the way, there's much interesting material about the opera company, including an opera called Le Roi de Lahore, tying into the subplot that Erik had traveled the world, learned the arts of assassination in India, and worked devising torture rooms for a sadistic "sultana," before bringing his skills in music, murder, and secret architecture back to Paris.

The Phantom of the cover of the Penguin Classics edition struck me as rather more dapper and jovial than I expected, but turns out, this was the cover image on the first book publication in 1910, so this mask may be more canonical than the ones I'm used to.

Leroux, Gaston. The Phantom of the Opera. Translated and edited by Mireille Ribière: with an Introduction by Jann Matlock. Penguin Classics: Cambridge (England), 2012.