Sunday, December 4, 2022

Reading List, Yule 2023


Every year during the Yuletide season I find some thematic reading. I try to stay on the spooky side, although I do diverge into Christmas mysteries (thanks to the British Library Crime Classics) and even occasional non-fiction. Here's what I have on the list so far this year:

The Lure of the Unknown: Essays on the Strange, by Algernon Blackwood (Swan River Press). This is a new favorite press, billed as "Ireland’s only independent press dedicated exclusively to the literature of the fantastic." I ordered this earlier in the year, and when it arrived, I discovered essays like "Looking Back at Christmas" and "My Strangest Christmas," so I decided to save it.

The Shrieking Skull & Other Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, by James Skipp Borlase (Valancourt Books). Their five volumes of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories are all must-haves, and this year they've done something different, a single-author collection. I had never heard of this writer before, and that itself is the Valancourt way. Beautiful production, beautiful cover, and halfway through, I am loving all the stories so far!

The Uninhabited House, by Charlotte Riddell (Broadview Press). Another of my can't-miss publishers, this is often name-dropped as a classic haunted house tale. I have yet to discover if Christmas plays a part int he story or not, but it was originally published in a Christmas Annual (1875), and the appendixes include an essay by the author called "The Miseries of Christmas," which sounds absolutely delightful!

Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory, by Robert E. May (University of Virginia Press). Obviously a lot more serious than my other choices, this looks at the historical reality of the holidays, debunking a mythology of happy "slave Christmases." My friends at the Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic Houses in New Orleans are hosting a webinar with the author on December 14, 2022, which is how I heard about the book, and I can't wait to sit on that! You can sign up here and join me for free.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Iola Leroy, by Frances E.W. Harper

 I've tried to read Uncle Tom's Cabin, but never got very far. I was happy to find in Iola Leroy (1892) what I wanted in a Civil War novel: the point of view of the slaves, written by a black author, who in this case was an ardent abolitionist, born to free black parents in Baltimore.

A kindly Southern plantation owner thinks the slave system is wrong, and will eventually just kind of dwindle away. In the meantime, though, he doesn't mind profiting from it, and wishes those Abolitionists would keep their mouths shut and their noses out of everyone's business. This cognitive dissonance is very 2020! He marries and frees a beautiful mixed-race slave, and continues to think the best of his relatives despite their continued prejudice, but the minute he dies, they swoop in, invalidate the marriage, and plot to sell the family into slavery. 

The couple's beautiful and refined daughter Iola, raised oblivious to her racial heritage, is at school up North, believing that slavery isn't all bad, just before she's tricked into returning home, where that very fate awaits her. Her story carries through the aftermath of the Civil War, showing a (historically accurate but little publicized) world of former slaves desperate to find their separated family members with the scantiest of information, and debates on how to best help them find a place in the new world. Plus romance!

There's a clear didactic intent to the novel, which is something talking about as if it's always bad, even though many things are didactic just in supporting a status quo, and that goes unnoticed. Harper wrote mainly for overtly Christian audiences, who wanted their moral lessons plainly expressed, so that's nothing to condemn her for.

Editor Koritha Mitchell (author of the amazing book From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture) provides an excellent introduction, and a wealth of historical documentation impressive even by Broadview Press standards, with seven appendixes! 

Harper, Frances E. W, and Koritha Mitchell. Iola Leroy, Or, Shadows Uplifted. Broadview Press, 2018.

Iola Leroy, or, shadows uplifted

Monday, July 1, 2019

Twilight Sleep, by Edith Wharton

"If a woman was naturally straight, jazz and night-clubs couldn't make her crooked ..."
-- Maybe, maybe not. From Twilight Sleep (p. 581)

I had planned to read The Glimpses of the Moon, since a friend has highly recommended it, but when I checked out the Library of America volume of Wharton's Four Novels of the 1920s, its flyleaf described Twilight Sleep (1927),  about "the flapper mentality and the new York society ladies who turn to drugs, spirituality, and occultism to escape boredom and ennui." Well, sold!

Sadly, "occultists" was a little misleading, although there's some New Thought/New Age/guru stuff, and a main character who thinks she's a little psychic. Nonetheless, this was a very fast-reading story about a fast-paced world, surprisingly modern despite its period touches; for example, the home decorated in "the new bareness," where "nothing in it seemed at home or at ease" (521), which sounds staged for Instagram. The main difference is that today there'd be a lot less visiting and dining together going on.

If a miniseries were made out of this, I can easily image the TV recappers yelling about the storyline's lack of "stakes," but that's part of the point in this tale of wealthy New Yorkers who can't find any escape from the hollowness of their lives. Marriage, children, career, religion, worthy social causes: all just lead to the same existential void, but it's described with sparkling, quotable wit. For a few example: a pretentious artist, whose trompe l'oeil window is painted over a bricked-up real one says, "It was really there; and I hate things that are really where you think they are. They're as tiresome as truthful people" (557). Divorce isn't just a fact of life, but a means of "having people's lives disinfected and whitewashed at regular intervals, like the cellar" (515). So at least the social commentary is interspersed with humor.

Complacent matriarch Pauline Manford is "proud of the fact that whole categories of contradictory opinions lay down together in her mind as peacefully as the Happy Families exhibited by strolling circuses" (515). She's so overbooked that her family has to schedule get-togethers with her social secretary, and they are all stifled to some degree by her competence and optimism. This includes her increasingly unmoored daughter Nona; her son Jim, struggling in his marriage to the fashionable Lita; and her husband, who feels his life in the city is just "artificial activity ... exertions that led to nothing, nothing, nothing ..."

The alternates he imagines, however, as a farmer "on the big scale, with all the modern appliances" (ibid), or maybe being a politician instead of a lawyer, don't seem like that much of a change. As he ponders, "they seemed, all of them -- lawyers, bankers, brokers, railway-directors and the rest -- to be cheating their inner emptiness with activities as futile as those of the women they went home to" (619). All the characters are in some way limited by the modern world, and what is realistically available to them. The scandals of the vague, frivolous Lita (beginning with leaked photos from a nudist spiritual retreat, and culminating in an "eww"-inducing affair) are at least motivated by her relatable desire to go "anywhere where I can dance and laugh and be hopelessly low-lived and irresponsible" (687). She may be ignoring her husband and her baby, but at least she articulates what she wants, which is more than anyone else in the novel is able to do.

While multiple characters struggle with dissatisfaction and ennui, Pauline remains the center. Her  husband's casual thought is that it's a "pity Pauline wasn't a lawyer" (578), where she could have put her energy to some use. Instead she obsessively fills her time with wheel-spinning causes and trendy, expensive paths to promised spiritual enlightenment, all focused on what Wharton depicts as practically the national disease: "All her life she had been used to buying off suffering with money, or denying its existence with words" (691), searching for "perfect confidence that everything would always come right in the end" (700).

Her whole attitude of positive thinking is largely described in negative terms. For her son, "his mother's glittering optimism was a hard surface for grief and failure to fling themselves on" (638). Her daughter is emotionally burdened by the people in her life: "it was as if, in the beaming determination of the middle-aged, one and all of them, to ignore sorrow and evil, 'think them away' as superannuated bogies, survivals of some obsolete European superstition unworthy of enlightened Americans, to whom plumbing and dentistry had given higher standards, and bi-focal glasses a clearer view of the universe -- as if the demons the elder generation ignored, baulked of their natural prey, had cast their hungry shadow over the young. After all, somebody in every family had to remember now and then that such things as wickedness, suffering and death had not yet been banished from the earth; and with all those bright-complexioned white-haired mothers mailed in massage and optimism, and behaving as if they had never heard of anything but the Good and the Beautiful, perhaps their children had to serve as vicarious sacrifices" (532).

Food for thought.

Be aware that there are some casual racial slurs, and a trip to "the Housetop," seems to be a stand-in for the Cotton Club (608). I'm assuming that the "Somaliland Orchestra" is similarly based on a real combo (553).

Wharton, Edith.  Edith Wharton: Four Novels of the 1920s. New York, Literary Classics of theUnited States: 2015.
Image result for twilight sleep wharton

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Sheik, by E.M. Hull

"She hated him, she hated herself, she hated her beauty that had brought this horror upon her."
-- from The Sheik (82)

Spoiler warning, and a trigger warning, too. Sorry, but you're going to want to know what you're getting into.

This 1919 work has an important place in the history of the romance novel, selling over a million copies before spinning off the fabulously famous Rudolph Valentino film and the much-recorded song "The Sheik of Araby." I understand full-well that this is a period piece, and I grew up in the time of The Flame and the Flower and Luke and Laura, so I know this kind of narrative clearly appeals to some people, a fantasy that circumvents then-contemporary restrictions on women's sexual autonymy. But I was still surprised how much this influential book is a love letter to Stockholm Syndrome.

British beauty Diana Mayo, brought up by her brother as if she were a boy, is indifferent to romance and basically asexual. With a government-approved guide, but no proper male chaperone, she embarks on a month-long trip through the Algerian desert, laughing off any dangers related to her gender. The trip is a long-time dream, beautifully described: "It was the desert at last, the desert that she felt she had been longing for all her life. She had never known until this moment how intense the longing had been. She felt strangely at home, as if the great, silent emptiness had been waiting for her as she had been waiting for it, and now that she had come it was welcoming her softly with the faint rustle of the whispering sand ..." (24)

On the cusp of feeling true freedom for the first time in her life, Diana's group is attacked by Arab tribesmen led by the handsome Ahned Ben Hassain, and then, there's no sugar-coating it. He kidnaps and rapes her. "She had paid heavily for the determination to ignore the restrictions of her sex laid upon her and the payment was not yet over" (88). None of this is a crime of passion or opportunity: it's a planned, premeditated kidnapping and rape, a conspiracy in which her guide was bribed and the bullets in her gun previously replaced with blanks.

Hull does a masterful job in describing Diana's pain, humiliation, and despair as she's kept in a situation of long-term abuse by a man who says he'll stop raping her "when I am tired of you," and "better me than my men" (81, 90). Her skill here makes it all the more disturbing when, following a thwarted escape attempt, Diana is suddenly struck by the inevitable realization that she's fallen in love with her abuser, and the story starts to work on his eventual repentance and redemption.

You should also be aware there are various casual racial slurs, and a lot of assumption of British superiority over the Arabs, although "Western civilization" doesn't come off all that well either.

This is a well-written book, it's an interesting historical document, but as much as I tried, it's hard not to see it as pretty unsavory through modern eyes.

The Sheik with Agnes Ayres and Rudolph Valentino, movie poster, 1921.jpg 
The edition I read was from a University of Pennsylvania imprint, in a high-quality facsimile style. I did wish it had some background information about the novel and about Hull, who apparently did travel in Algeria before marrying and settling on an estate. This is a novel that cries out for contextualization! I haven't watched the movie yet, but a synopsis tells me that while the desert sequences play out much the same way, the Valentino version of the Sheik "considers forcing himself upon her, but decides against it" (
Hull, E.M. The Sheik. Philadelphia: Pine Street Books, 2001.

Dead Love Has Chains, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

"No, I am not your wife. I owe you nothing. You have not the shadow of a right over me. You left me to my misery, to my shame."

"Girls are not hysterical for nothing." 
--from Dead Love Has Chains (117, 4)

There's a spoiler coming, but the main secret is revealed on the book jacket, so c'est la vie.

I very much think of Mary Elizabeth Braddon as a Victorian novelist, and it surprised me to see that this short novel, published in 1907, wasn't even her last book. Things really changed fast during her lifetime, and it's easy to forget that there were contemporaries of Dickens who lived to see WWI.

Devastated by her beloved son Conrad's confinement to an (impressively humane) mental hospital, Lady Mary Harling is traveling for her health -- and escaping "the impalpable invisible black devil of ennui" (1) -- when she meets a young woman on the ocean voyage. The miserable Irene borrows books (Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter!), and eventually confides that she's being sent home from India to relatives, to have an out-of-wedlock baby in seclusion.

Lady Harling promises to keep her new friend's secret, despite a sense of shock that caused me to write "Ha!" in the margin: "The fall of a well-born, well-bred girl was inconceivable ... a girl, educated in a respectable English school ... for such an one to fling herself into the arms of her first lover, consumed by the fire of lawless love! It was unthinkable" (18). I'm assuming that the use of the word "inconceivable" wasn't a conscious pun.

Lady Harling's promise causes trouble later on, when Irene reappears as the new love of the miraculously recovered Conrad, and his mother fears that heartbreak will lead to an even more devastating breakdown. Irene has problems besides her future mother-in-law: her long-ago seducer, now an unencumbered widower, "whose coarse mind could conceive no shame in the remembrance of sin" (104), aggressively seeks to make amends by marrying her himself.

Stuffed with acute observations about human nature, embodied in complex characters, this is a page-turny domestic thriller that really has no villain, except for the man who lives down to what's expected of him. As the story develops, the point of view shifts, and with it so does our understanding of sin and blame, so as we move more into Irene's perspective, we can see how unfair are the social judgments that come so naturally to other characters. 

My only quibble with this novel is its length. I could have easily settled in for a full Victorian-length extravaganza, but only got 134 pages.
The Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association is online, and seems to be active. You can even follow their doings on Twitter, a place which would have REALLY horrified the genteel Lady Harling. 

Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Braddon, M E, and Laurence Talairach-Vielmas. Dead Love Has Chains. Richmand, VA: Valancourt Books, 2014.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Black Lizard, by Edogawa Rampo

"Outside was the boulevard at night, like a land of death where only the streetlights and asphalt were visible."
-- Setting the tone of The Black Lizard (7)

I have meant to read this famous Japanese thriller (originally published in 1934) for at least a decade, largely based on the reputation of the 1968 film adaptation, which I still haven't seen. There's never been a legitimate home video/DVD release, that I can find, although I just discovered it's on YouTube. So it's strange that when I finally did, the timing made me aware of its numerous similarities to the The Sorceress of the Strand!

There's a beautiful woman at the head of a vast criminal network, who covets famous jewels, befriends the young women she plans to victimize, and enjoys close-quarters cat-and-mouse games with the detective on the case. Even the style, relatively straight-to-the-point, at least in the 2006 English translation, has more in common with Meade's than it does that of a Poe or a Conan Doyle.

Instead of operating out of a posh beauty salon, though, this mastermind, who I kept thinking of as the Girl with the Lizard Tattoo, seems to have kidnapping and jewelry theft as her main occupations. And she's far less inhibited, introduced dancing naked at a Christmas Eve party, which shows off that lifelike tattoo: "it seemed as if it would crawl from shoulder to neck, neck to chin, and to her red and shining lips" (5).

That definitely sets a tone, and her plan to steal both a jeweler's prize gem and his beautiful daughter leads to a lot more nudity and general weirdness. Followed by the intrepid Detective Akechi Kogoro, himself a master of disguise and deception, the Black Lizard takes her victim to a perverse art museum/full-on Bond villain lair, complete with a human-scale aquarium, former victims stuffed and posed as trophies, and a man (who may be a kidnapped movie star) naked in a giant cage. The baroque quality of all this has a lot more in common with something like 1968's Danger: Diabolik than it does, say, noir stalwart Raymond Chandler, whose first novel wouldn't be published until five years after this one.

Along the way, there's an amount of direct address to the reader, which makes it feel like an old-time serial (or maybe the '60s Batman series), with rhetorical questions about the plot and statements like "doubtless the reader will have divined that this dark-garbed woman was none other than our heroine, the Black Lizard" (30).

I was interested to see that, by 1934, some people in Japan were already wearing gauze face masks, "commonly used to prevent colds from spreading" (103), which comes in handy when escaping the police, and that Akechi enlists the aid of a "modern girl of somewhat dubious morals" in his plans (167), since that gives her the "guts" to stand up to the stress.

The black lizard ; and, Beast in the shadows

Edogawa, Rampo, Ian Hughes, Mark Schreiber, and Hiroaki Kawajiri. The Black Lizard and Beast in the Shadows. Fukuoka, Japan: Kurodahan Press, 2006.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Sorceress of the Strand, by L.T. Meade

"Is it possible that success has turned my brain?"
-- Madame Sara prepares to meet her fate in "The Teeth of the Wolf" (245)

The prolific L.T. Meade wrote popular girls' fiction before going into competition with Arthur Conan Doyle in series of short thrillers, featuring her own recurring first-person male narrators who hunt international conspiracies of anarchists and thieves, but headed, in her versions, by glamorous female masterminds. One of the most successful was The Sorceress of the Strand (1902), originally appearing in The Strand magazine, in which the titular Sorceress, Madame Sara, operates out of her business as a "professional beautifier" (120). Her elegant salon offers cutting-edge dentistry and  plastic surgery alongside cosmetics and hair styling, and provides her with open access to the rich and powerful.

While Madame Sara targets some male victims in these stories, often in the interest of expanding her criminal influence, the most interesting relationships are those she forges with her young women clients, who revere her even as she exploits them for her own ends. Given the limited opportunities most women have, the role model of a successful, independent woman has great power over their imaginations. When confronted with her criminal activity, it's easy for them to believe Madame Sara is being unjustly persecuted by men who want to put her back in her place. As one of them says, "He would be sure to suspect any very clever woman" (213).

The stories include an emphasis on good manners and honorable behavior, where enemies make their plans known, and assume that all sides will abide by agreements. This creates the sense of a bygone, more naive time, also noticeable when one character, a police sergeant, no less, asks "Is this is a civilized country when death can walk abroad like this, invisible, not to be avoided?" (134)

My personal favorite tale was probably the haunted house outing "The Face of the Abbott," in which it's drily noted that "ghosts have a way of suppressing themselves when most earnestly desired to put in an appearance" (175). I also enjoyed the character of Madame Sara frenemy Mrs. Bensasan, "the best tamer of wild animals in Europe" (231), another fairly unconventional path that it's nice to see represented, even if the character herself is pretty unlikable, trying to control her daughter as much as any patriarch.

True to the tales' international flavor, the background characters are of varied ethnicity, and some of this material is casually dismissive, like  the cavalier treatment of a courtly Persian delegate, certain to be executed for the theft of a jewel, who's just collateral damage in the detectives' schemes to capture their prey.

The Madame Sara stories are available online through the University of Pennsylvania. I read the Broadview Press edition, which is great as always, with a lot of interesting supporting material. It collects all the stories in the "Sorceress of the Strand" cycle, along with "Other Stories" that feature similarly sinister female Moriarty types (and a few seemingly sweet young things with secret agendas).

Meade's contemporary E.A. Bennett, whose review appears in this volume's appendices, does have a point about the style when he states that "there is no padding whatever; incident follows incident with the curtness of an official dispatch" (258). Characterization is very thin, and the protagonist detective characters lack any meaningful interior life, or even the kind of background context that we get for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, which makes the more famous detectives much more memorable. .

Meade's comments in an interview about writing for the market, also included in the Broadview Press edition, suggests that the shift in magazine fiction, from serialized novels to singular short narratives with recurring characters (exemplified by the Sherlock Holmes series) may have stifled her style: "It is so difficult to make one's points tell in short stories" (254).

Photo portrait, 1912 

Meade, L T, and Janis Dawson. The Sorceress of the Strand and Other Stories. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2016.