A Thousand Miles Up the Nile

thousand miles nileAmelia Edwards went to Egypt in the winter of 1873-74. She was already known for her novels and for a much-anthologized story called “The Phantom Coach,” and she intended to write about this trip. But what she saw changed her life. She wrote this vivid memoir of a long trip in a hired dahabiyeh (houseboat) — a thousand miles up the northern part of the Nile, from Cairo to Abu Simbel and back, with her own hand-drawn illustrations — and it became a runaway best-seller. For the rest of her life (another twenty years) she abandoned her other literary work in order to concentrate on Egyptology. She founded the Egypt Exploration Fund and lectured tirelessly on its behalf, traveling all over Europe and the United States to raise funds. She told the story no one else had told, of the threat to monuments that had lasted six thousand years, because of modern tourism and the frantic industry in “antiques.” She advocated for research and preservation. And it all began with this book.

A Thousand Miles Up the Nile was written in 1887, and no photographic plates accompany it. All along, from the first days choosing and outfitting the boat, to the days gliding along the banks and observing everyday life along the agricultural Nile, to the days at the great pyramids, to the days at Karnak and Luxor and their magnificent temples, to the final destination and the weeks spent at Abu Simbel, we hang on Edwards’s every word. Her descriptions are sometimes serene snapshots of a quiet moment, and sometimes noisy, jostling little videos of a scene:

[At Philae] As the boat glides nearer between glistening bowlders, those sculptured towers rise higher and ever higher against the sky. They show no sign of ruin or of age. All is stately, solid, perfect. One forgets for the moment that anything is changed. If a sound of antique chanting were to be borne along the quiet air — if a procession of white-robed priests bearing aloft the veiled ark of the god were to come sweeping round between the palms and the pylons — we should not think it strange.

And then:

The [bazaar] with its little cupboard-like shops, in which the merchants sit cross-legged like shabby old idols in shabby old shrines — the ill-furnished shelves — the familiar Manchester goods — the gaudy native stuffs — the old red saddles and faded rugs hanging up for sale — the smart Greek shops where Bass ale, claret, curaçao, Cyprus, Vermouth, cheese, pickles, sardines, Worcester sauce, blacking, biscuits, preserved meats, candles, cigars, matches, sugar, salt, stationery, fire-works, jams, and patent medicines can all be bought at one fell swoop — the native cook’s shop exhaling savory perfumes of Kebabs and lentil soup, and presided over by an Abyssinian Soyer blacker than the blackest historical personage ever was painted — the surging, elbowing, clamorous crowd — the donkeys, the camels, the street-cries, the chatter, the dust, the flies, the fleas, and the dogs, all put us in mind of the poorer quarters of Cairo.

The passages that are devoted to Egyptian ruins could almost be called worshipful. Edwards gives us a clear-eyed vision of lofty pillars and serene colossi rising twenty-five, forty, fifty, seventy-five  feet in the air. Stripes of color often as brilliant as the day they were painted: golden stars studding a pure cobalt sky, crimson, ultramarine, olive green. Murals of a king’s everyday life as it was lived two, or three, or six thousand years ago; time unrolling like a scroll. Hieroglyphics that explain that businesslike world, its taxes, its foremen, its serfs, and most of all, its powerful vision of the gods and the afterlife — a vision that could call forth creations that we still wonder at today. She calls that world forth with knowledge, skill, beauty, and reverence.

But when it comes to present-day Egypt (or rather, Egypt of 1877, under British rule) Edwards is not so kind. Her casual, cheerful, and absolutely universal racism is more than troubling, and it pervades every chapter:

The fact is, however, that the fellâh is half a savage. Notwithstanding his mendacity (and it must be owned that he is the most brilliant liar under heaven), he remains a singularly transparent piece of humanity, easily amused, easily deceived, easily angered, easily pacified. He steals a little, cheats a little lies a great deal; but on the other hand he is patient, hospitable, affectionate, trustful. He suspects no malice and bears none. He commits no great crimes. He is incapable of revenge.

Though I will say that she is at least an equal opportunity racist (at one point she refers to the people of Minieh as “the most unappeasable beggars out of Ireland”) it is unpleasant, to say the least, to read her unflappable judgments of Arabs (simple, cheats, liars) Nubians (hideous savages) modern Egyptians (happy savages) Abyssinians (handsome, but savages) and so forth. There is one truly horrible incident in which one of Edwards’s travel companions accidentally (non-fatally) shoots an Egyptian child instead of a pheasant, and then the entire nearby village — most of them innocent — is punished (only mildly, at the companion’s request) for shouting and throwing stones at him afterward. The companion, who is not so much as reprimanded for shooting near a village, wants the villagers to know that they must “respect travelers,” and the villagers weep with relief that the punishment is not worse. The scene is presented as local color, but it made me feel rather sick. While of course Edwards was a product of her own imperialist and colonialist age, it’s important to remember that a number of people writing at this precise time were anti-imperialist, and had a strong sense of others — whatever their race — as individual human beings with real inner lives.

I had genuinely mixed feelings about this book. I truly enjoyed the trip up the Nile (indeed, I kept my computer near me for maps and photos) and admired Amelia Edwards for her courage, dash, and aplomb in the face of what was quite a dangerous voyage. I also appreciated her vision for the nascent study of Egyptology, since without her and people like her, it’s likely we would have little or nothing left to see. Yet the infuriating insistence that anyone not British deserved their national fate, was hard for me to swallow. She couldn’t see the irony in passionately defending Egyptian ruins from plunder, and at the same time praising the British Museum, or indeed having a collection of her own to take home. She couldn’t condemn a system that prized an English shooter over an Egyptian victim. She couldn’t see the absurdity in criticizing ancient Egyptian taste! Still, overall, this book was worth reading, and it is certainly a piece of its time borne forth in aspic.

Incidentally, I think Amelia Edwards was the inspiration for Amelia Peabody, a series I haven’t read. I hear I should!

Posted in Classics, Nonfiction, Travel/ Exploration | 11 Comments

Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at NightAddie and Louis were neighbors for many years. They knew each other’s spouses and watched each other’s children grow up and go away. They had observed each other for decades, at a distance. And now they were on their own, that is, until Addie asks Louis if he would come to her house at night and keep her company in bed. She has trouble sleeping, she tells Louis, “But I think I could sleep again if there were someone else in bed with me. Someone nice. The closeness of that. Talking in the night, in the dark.”

And so begins the quiet and loving relationship between the two main characters in this novel by Kent Haruf. Although it begins in the bedroom, the friendship that comes from their late-night talks moves into the kitchen and the neighborhood and beyond. It becomes a late-in-life love affair.

As I describe the plot, I realize it sounds like some sort of cliche about second chances and finding passion and meaning in old age. But Haruf’s treatment of Addie and Louis isn’t like that at all. It’s too quiet and subdued for that. It’s not that there isn’t passion between them—there is!—but the book focuses on simple day-to-day routines and pleasures. A sandwich and chips for lunch. Buying a softball mitt for a grandson. Making sloppy joes over a campfire. Louis says, “I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening every day. And come sleep with you at night.” And that’s what the book is about—living simply and paying attention and being together at night.

For most of the book, there’s hardly any conflict. Neighbors make rude remarks, but Addie makes it clear that she doesn’t care, and Louis decides she’s right. Louis and Addie spend time talking about past troubles and how they got through them, and Addie worries about her son’s marriage, which appears to be crumbling, causing Addie to take in her grandson, Jamie, over the summer. Addie and Louis worry about him, and Louis makes an effort to fill his days with happy pleasures, like watching baby mice and watering plants. It’s lovely.

I’d like to say the loveliness lasts forever, but it doesn’t. The book has to end. The distressing truth is that sometimes, no matter how much we want to do our own thing, other people get in the way. They may be wrong, but it’s not always possible to do much about it without making sacrifices we aren’t prepared to make. For most of their lives, Addie and Louis had to make compromises and follow paths that weren’t quite what they wanted. They did find some happiness along the way, perhaps by focusing on the simple joys. The only thing to do is to appreciate what happiness we can find. “For as long as we can. For as long as it lasts.”

Posted in Fiction | 21 Comments

Half a Lifelong Romance

Half a Lifelong RomanceShijun, Shuhui, and Manzhen all work in a factory office in Shanghai. Each day, they go to lunch together and Shijun and Manzhen slowly and sweetly come to acknowledge that they are falling in love. Their romance faces a few minor obstacles that both assume can be surmounted with time. Shijun has to look after his family in Nanking. His mother is the first wife to a successful businessman, Hsaiao-tung, who has all but abandoned the family to be with his second wife. Manzhen also has responsibility to her family. Her older sister, Manlu, worked as a taxi dancer to earn money to send Manzhen to school, but now Manlu is getting married, and Manzhen works multiple jobs so that Manlu’s husband won’t have to support a family that isn’t is. When Manzhen’s brother is old enough to work, she says, she’ll be able to marry Shijun.

This 1948 novel by Eileen Chang and translated by Karen Kingsbury traces Shijun and Manzhen’s courtship through the years of waiting. In parallel, we also see Shuhui develop a flirtatious relationship with Tsuizhi, a cousin of Shijun. In keeping with their less serious natures, Shuhui and Tsuizhi keep their relationship light, never quite committing to each other, but avoiding giving their hearts to anyone else as they are clearly most enamored by each other.

For well over half the novel, the romance between Shijun and Manzhen proceeds with minimal complications. They worry about their families’ reactions to their engagement, but there are no major obstacles in that area. Their families might have chosen differently for them, but they don’t seem inclined to stand in their way. It’s a sweet story about decent young people trying to make their way in the world.

And then it takes a shocking, dark, and wholly unexpected turn. Although Chang drops hints along the way at the tragedy to come, I could never have predicted the turn of events that disrupt Shijun and Manzhen’s plans. I would say that it was too unexpected, but I don’t think it is. I was a little frustrated that one character in particular ended up playing the villain as it plays into too many stereotypes about what it means to be a good woman and what is means to be bad. But I was, frankly, too shocked and upset to analyze. And, in the moment, I believed it.

After this tragic turn, everyone’s plans change. Some find a sort of happiness, and others don’t, but, no matter what happens, there’s always a sense of how things could have been better, and that sense taints what comes after. Things are not as they ought to be.

I’m not sure what, if any, statement Eileen Chang was trying to make about the state of marriage in 1940s China. I don’t know enough about the time and place to put it in context. But I know enough about people to have found this book terribly sad. It’s sad in a good way. It made me feel sorrow for people who didn’t deserve the pain they faced. That sweet and shy love that grew so beautifully at the start didn’t even become half the lifelong romance it should have been.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 11 Comments

Station Eleven

stationelevenOver the past twenty years or so, I’ve read a fair bit of dystopian fiction, starting with Stephen King’s The Stand (one of my very favorites of his novels.) Authors of dystopias are often doing what King calls “dancing on the grave of the world”: they’ve taken some existing problem — technology, tyranny, the environment, nuclear winter, or, in Station Eleven‘s case, the flu — and brought it to the end of times. But in the best of these novels, like The Stand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, apocalypse takes on its original meaning in Greek: revelation. How can the end of the world open our eyes to what it means to be human?

In Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel uses a nonlinear narrative to create a vivid picture of life after the Georgia Flu destroys 99.9% of the world’s population, and a strong sense of nostalgia for the world that has been lost. Twenty years after the disaster, the Traveling Symphony (motto: “Survival is Insufficient” from Star Trek: Voyager) goes from settlement to tiny settlement, playing Shakespeare and Beethoven; they break into homes looking for knives and canned food, yes, but also for poetry, musical instruments, tabloid magazines. In an airport, people who were stranded the day the flu began to erase the world’s population create a Museum of Civilization: on the shelves are Amex cards, exotic stiletto shoes, iPhones, iPads, laptops, a Nintendo console, a whole motorcycle.

Mandel plays with the back-and-forth between present and past to talk about what’s important to the human race. Survivors are desperate for stories: in a new era when strangers are suspect at best and lethal at worst, the Traveling Symphony is always welcome to town. A tiny circulating newspaper, telling stories from the flu era, is a prize. One character creates a comic (Station Eleven, in fact) in the pre-flu era that has prescient visions of the post-apocalyptic world, just as Shakespeare’s stories from his plague-ridden time are strangely relevant. But stories can also be dangerous: survivors discuss whether it’s best to tell children about what has been lost, lest it depress and disorient them. And a prophet, the leader of a cult, tells stories that could endanger anyone he comes into contact with.

I enjoyed reading this book just fine. It was very pretty: it was nicely written and structurally well put-together, and I liked some of the characters. But I have to confess to you that it bored me almost silly. This is not because I wanted it to be more gritty and violent (I read a complaint in one review that Mandel was naive about what would really happen in a post-apocalyptic world, and while this is probably so, she is welcome to imagine anything she likes.) It’s because of the unbelievably narrow worldview presented in the book.

Go back and look at what’s on the shelves at the Museum of Civilization. All the items are incredibly luxe, high-priced things. All the characters in the book except one are extremely wealthy — film stars and their (multiple) ex-wives, film producers, executives or those who work with them, artists, actors, musicians. The one character who isn’t wealthy is a paparazzo, hovering at the edge of that world. The nostalgia for what the world has lost is all for that rarefied world: air-conditioning, the light of television and computer screens, lights coming on with the flip of a switch, airplanes, concerts, arenas, plays.

What about any other world? There’s not a single character even from Canada or the US who comes from a lower-class background, who didn’t have some of these luxuries and is used to getting along without them, someone who doesn’t give a crap about Twitter. There’s one disabled character, and he commits suicide because it’s not “realistic” for him to survive. Oh, come on! What does that say about survival being insufficient? We have no sense of how the rest of the world is getting along: people who didn’t know when the lights went out because they didn’t have them anyway. These people not only have stories, they tell stories, they have an entire mythology worth listening to. What would be on the shelves of their museum? It’s not civilization if you only take the very top layer.

I agree with the motif of this book that survival is insufficient. I agree that stories are a vital part of this. But more stories, please. More, more, more.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 17 Comments


thornThe Goose Girl is a character from Grimm, of course, and she’s unfortunate (also of course.) She’s a princess riding her talking horse on her way to meet her prince when her maid forces her to switch places and threatens to kill her if she ever tells the truth. The maid has the horse killed for fear it will talk, the princess is banished to the status of goose-girl, and you’d think that would be the end of the story — but magic winds and natural justice intervene, and in fact the goose-girl winds up with her royal prince after all, and the wicked maid with her punishment.

Thorn, by Intisar Khanani, is broadly a retelling of this fairy tale. There’s the switch between Princess Alyrra and her vicious maid Valka, the beloved talking horse Falada, the dire threat, the magic wind, and the intense focus on justice. But the fairy tale is a skeleton for a broader, richer, more interesting book, one that explores the power differential between rich and poor; one that asks how a goose-girl can love a prince (and vice versa) if there will always be obligation between them; one that demands equal justice for kings and hostlers, men and women — and horses.

I enjoyed this book, largely because of the way Khanani works out some of the knotty problems of power. Princess Alyrra’s fellow workers in the stables don’t have access to the same justice that serves the king and nobles, so they seek it elsewhere, among the rough thieves in the city. When Prince Kestrin talks to Alyrra, knowing and not-knowing who she is, she points out to him that his whims convey obligation — one she refuses out of a desire to keep her newfound independence. There’s an antagonist that doesn’t exist in the original fairy tale, a sorceress with complicated motives, which means that Kestrin is both implicated and vindicated. Only his personal actions can prove his worth.

This isn’t a perfect book. There are several plot points that are messy (the use of magic being one of them) and some that are left as loose ends (Alyrra’s relationship with Red Hawk, for instance.) The larger politics — something that doesn’t interest everyone, I know — wasn’t ever very clearly sketched. But Khanani adds some lovely touches to the book: worship in the temple; moments of safety with friends; the choker of fear that comes with the memory of betrayal; the slow development of friendship with someone you never thought you’d trust. The book is worth reading for these alone, and for other things, too.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 11 Comments

The Broken Kingdoms

broken kingdomsThis novel takes place about ten years after the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, after Bright Itempas’s exile and the growth of the World Tree. It opens with a new character: Oree Shoth, a blind street artist who despite her disability can see magic, a faculty she inherited from her father. Oree wants nothing much to do with magic — she wants to live as ordinary a life as she can — but the city of Sky is teeming with godlings, and magic apparently wants something to do with her. So she isn’t all that surprised when she finds a mute, broken, homeless man glowing in a dumpster, and she takes him home with her. (He won’t tell her his name, so she dubs him “Shiny,” assuming he’s just another godling.)

Later, things start getting more complicated. Someone is murdering godlings, and the night-god Nahadoth gives the city a deadline to find out who is committing the murders and why. (It turns out that the way they are being murdered is important, too.) The Itempan Order is looking for a scapegoat rather than a culprit, and Oree, with her ability to see magic, is very handy. Shiny turns out to be rather more than an ordinary godling, increasing the danger to Oree. Yet as the story goes on, she begins to find her power in her own identity and history.

The relationships wind back and forth in this novel: who owes what to whom? One of Oree’s first and deepest relationships in the book is to Madding, the god of obligation. He runs an organization of his fellow godlings and some disaffected mortals, with a traffic in godsblood (which is a kind of narcotic.) For Madding, no relationship can be satisfying if it is altruistic; there must be a deal, something owed, something paid. This resonates with the sense of justice in Itempas’s punishment: he can’t just say he’s sorry and have it finished. He owes a sacrifice. But Oree is willing to give herself up and not ask for anything in return — and in the end, more life is the result.

This second book in N.K.  Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy is less complex than the first, because there’s less world-building to be done. Jemisin also does more of the heavy lifting here: for readers of the first book, it’s not at all difficult to figure out who Shiny really is, for instance. These characters are more two-dimensional — Shiny is no Nahadoth — and the mysteries we explore are shallower: more temporal and less eternal. But there is still a sense that there are centuries of geopolitics, religion, history, war, spirituality, race, culture, art, and literature backing up the events of the novel. This is a rich world.

I know some of you didn’t enjoy the third book in this trilogy much at all. Should I even try it?

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 8 Comments

There Were No Windows

There Were No WindowsWhen Claire Temple was young, she was a literary celebrity, was proposed to by Oscar Wilde, was surrounded by friends, and had a lover or two. She was happy. Now, as the Blitz tears London apart, she’s on her own and unhappy:

No, it was so unfair that she couldn’t help but imagine that there was some conspiracy against her. Her enemies, people she had annoyed by saying amusing things about, but things which, of course, had been indiscreet because naturally they were repeated, her enemies had got together and delivered her into the hands of her cook, a cruel and vulgar woman, of whom all that could be said was that her savouries were quite good. So no more conversation, no more parties, no more flirtation, nothing except that she was still as light as she had ever been , and so she could still dance, even if it were all by herself.

Claire tries to keep her spirits up, but her memory loss and the near-constant confusion that results makes it difficult. Her cook, Kathleen, doesn’t have much patience with her, but it’s hard to have patience with someone who asks the same question or shares the same anecdote repeatedly during the same conversation.

In this 1944 novel, Norah Hoult lets readers see the struggle from all sides. We get in the minds of Claire and Kathleen and the various acquaintances and helpers who turn up. Sadly, Claire really does have few friends left. Her oldest friend, Edith Barlow, does visit every couple of weeks, but the visits are miserable. Edith gets frustrated with Claire’s wandering mind, and, in her loneliness, Claire makes it nearly impossible for Edith to leave. My heart ached for both of them.

Most of the people around Claire are staff. Although she’s no longer wealthy, she is able to employ a full-time cook, and a woman comes to do the wash every week. But the war has made lucrative jobs more available to women, and so she lost her secretary to a better opportunity. But the secretary does stop by once in a while to go over her finances and help make plans. The servants and staff form a sort of community, who work together to keep Claire safe. It’s not, however, an inspiring and happy thing. It’s more that these are women who do what is necessary. Set against the backdrop of war, caring for Claire seems like part and parcel of what people had to do. They had to pull together, even if it was miserable and thankless work.

I find it interesting that most of Claire’s helpers are paid help or visitors who come out of obligation or other mixed motives (one comes to collect papers for the war effort). This fact certainly emphasizes Claire’s lonely state, but what does it mean for the caregivers? Would their side of the story have been more distressing if Claire was someone they loved? Or would they have been able to find meaning in caring for a loved one? I would say that they do this work because they have to, but most of them have other options.

One of the things that impressed me most about this book was the way Hoult doesn’t flinch from the misery, nor does she ramp it up to excessive levels. It feels real–distressingly real. It’s awful to see someone with no options left, having to live according to others’ dictates because even her own mind betrays her, causing her to open the curtains during a blackout or accuse her companion of poisoning her. And it’s equally awful to see people who are trying to help, but finding their efforts are scoffed at and rejected.

This is a sad book, an interesting companion to May Sarton’s As We Are Now, which focuses on the mind of the woman with the failing memory. It seems to be one of the lesser-known Persephone Books, and it’s certainly more unsettling than many of them. But I’m glad I read it. I think it’ll haunt me for a while.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 4 Comments

The Old Curiosity Shop

old curiosity shopAlmost fifteen years ago, I started to read The Old Curiosity Shop. For some reason, I didn’t get on with it, and I never finished reading it. What a mistake! This time, I’ve finished it, and while it will never be my favorite of Dickens’s novels (Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are tied for first place so far) I enjoyed it thoroughly. It is a study in contrasts, rich and strange, and full of the language and character Dickens excels at.

The Old Curiosity Shop is in some ways a sort of picaresque novel, a bit like The Pickwick Papers or Nicholas Nickleby. Nell and her disturbed grandfather escape their shop and the clutches of the evil dwarf Quilp, and take to the roads with scarcely a penny. Their wanderings and adventures are more than half of the book, through the English countryside as well as through evil cities. But the picaresque implies a kind of earthly destination, a happy ending. Dickens uses a different model for Nell’s journey:

There had been an old copy of the Pilgrim’s Progress, with strange plates, upon a shelf at home, over which she had often pored whole evenings, wondering whether it was true in every word, and where those distant countries with the curious names might be. As she looked back upon the place they had left, one part of it came strongly upon her mind.

‘Dear grandfather,’ she said, ‘only that this place is prettier and a great deal better than the real one, if that in the book is like it, I feel that we are both Christian, and laid down on this grass all the cares and troubles we brought with us; never to take them up again.’

Nell’s journey with her grandfather is much more like Bunyan’s work than Nicholas Nickleby’s rattletrap journey. They visit the equivalent of Vanity Fair (a racetrack), the Palace Beautiful (a schoolmaster who helps them and shows them the beauty of a loving and faithful death), the Doubting Castle (a terrible city wreathed in eternal flames). The most important part about this model, however, is the destination: it is heavenly rather than earthly, across the River Death. Nell’s death is forecast almost from the beginning of the book: if she is Christian, then we know where she’s going.

There are two kinds of language in this novel. One is the language Dickens uses to talk about Nell (and the English countryside):

The sky was serene and bright, the air clear, perfumed with the fresh scent of newly-fallen leaves, and grateful to every sense. The neighboring stream sparkled, and rolled onward with a tuneful sound; the dew glistened on the green mounds, like tears shed by Good Spirits over the dead.

Desperate times, neighbors: this is banal, almost on the level of a very bright “how I spent my summer vacation” essay. Now look at this:

‘Oh please come home, do come home,’ said Mrs. Quilp, sobbing, ‘we’ll never do so any more, Quilp, and after all it was only a mistake that grew out of our anxiety.’ […]

‘I tell you no,’ cried the dwarf. ‘If you dare to come here again unless you’re sent for, I’ll have watch-dogs in the yard that’ll growl and bite — I’ll have man-traps, cunningly altered and improved for catching women — I’ll have spring-guns, that shall explode when you tread upon the wires, and blow you into little pieces. Will you begone?’

Nell is all artless prayers, anxiety for her grandfather, simple thoughts, sparkling dew, innocence that never blossoms into adult wisdom — and the language Dickens uses reflects that. But Quilp! Quilp is the strangest, crookedest, most violent, sadomasochistic villain I’ve found in Dickens, or in many another book. He swallows boiling liquids and crunches up hard-boiled eggs, shells and all; he torments men and women and boys and girls and dogs. He is deformed and inhumanly cruel (Dickens uses words like “imp” and “troll” to describe him) and yet he is irresistible to women; his wife is convinced that if she were to die, he could have anyone he wanted. He is rapaciously sexual, even (or perhaps especially) toward the innocent Nell:

‘Ah,’ said the dwarf, ‘what a nice kiss that was — just upon the rosy part. What a capital kiss!’

Nell was none the slower in going away, for this remark. Quilp looked after her with an admiring leer, and when she had closed the door, fell to complimenting the old man upon her charms.

‘Such a fresh, blooming, modest little bud, neighbour,’ said Quilp, nursing his short leg, and making his eyes twinkle very much; ‘such a chubby, rosy, cosy, little Nell!’

The language Dickens uses when Quilp comes on the scene is vigorous, vivid, electrifying. Quilp meets his end, just as Nell does, but as a reader I was far more moved (though not to tears) by Quilp than by the pale Nell. What a finish!

There are many more wonderful characters in this book: Codlin and Short, the Punch and Judy men; Mrs. Jarley and her wax-works; Kit Nubbles; the grandfather, another Dickens type of the failed guardian, like Skimpole and Micawber; Sampson Brass and his androgynous sister Sally; even the Single Gentleman blows through the pages like a tornado. But perhaps my very favorite minor characters were Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness. Dick begins the book as a non-entity, capable of speaking only in phrases from music-hall songs. Later in the novel, however, he proves himself — if not very enterprising or brave — at least kind and generous, and his below-stairs imitation of the good life with the tiny abused servant he light-heartedly calls the Marchioness is well-rewarded.

Have you read this novel? What did you think of it?

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 10 Comments

All the Single Ladies

All the Single LadiesWhen it comes to books about singleness, I’m pretty hard to please. But as a single woman in her 40s, I would like to see myself in books about the single life, and I’d like to see some sort of complexity in the discussion—how it’s not all great and not all bad, how singleness can be a mix of choice and happenstance, and how the single life is not the same for everyone.

Last year, I had high hopes for Kate Bolick’s Spinster, but I couldn’t cope with it. Despite being my age and sharing my profession, Bolick’s experience couldn’t have been further from my own. Never mind that her supposed attempt to redeem a word often used disdainfully ended up involving redefining the word altogether. Her “spinster” role models? Most of them got married. And Bolick? Usually in a romantic relationship. You can’t have my word, lady. I like my word. I am about as much a spinster as you’re likely to find, and being unmarried is a big part of that. If I were to get married, I’d still be me, but I wouldn’t claim the word spinster because that’s not what it means.

Okay, rant over.

So with all that said, you might imagine that I approached Rebecca Traister’s new book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation with some trepidation. And I was relieved to find the book I’d been hoping someone would write.

The key is right there in the title–the word All. Traister does not assume that her own experiences prior to marriage or those of her social circle are the norm. Nor does she try to paint a picture of the typical single woman. Instead, she looks at data about women and marriage at different points in U.S. history (it is a U.S.-centric book), talks to women from different walks of life, and delves into the literature about women and singleness. She finds some trends and pokes holes in common assumptions and stereotypes as she examines women’s singleness from multiple angles. She looks at money, motherhood, friendship, sex, and so much more, always finding multiple perspectives on the topic.

Throughout the book, Traister considers the degree of choice women now have in their lives and the fact that marriage is no longer a requirement, while also acknowledging that not all woman are single by choice. And sometimes the choice is less about choosing singleness than about choosing a life in which meeting a suitable spouse is difficult. For instance, she discusses how singleness is easier in cities, where services and amenities are more readily available to women who are having to manage their households on their own. But women outnumber men in large cities, so the odds of marriage are reduced. Never mind that the services single women depend on are often provided by other single women at a low wage. (And there’s the complexity that I didn’t necessarily want but ought to keep in mind.)

She also does well at looking at some of the difficulties of single life that I don’t often see addressed. For instance, being independent means a lack of built-in support. It’s not that single women lack support entirely, or that married women always get the support they need, but singleness does present logistical challenges at times. Traister addresses this even while acknowledging that singleness also brings with it a degree of liberation and freedom of choice that marriage does not. Both states can be good. The important thing, and the thing that this book celebrates, is that women do have a choice. And even women who are single not by choice are able to live in a degree of comfort not available to women in the past, when marriage and motherhood were the assumed norms for all.

Although Traister’s personal stories and interviews tend to lean toward middle-class urban professionals, she broadens her discussion to include women from different races and social classes, and I think she was generally successful. She draws extensively from statistics about marriage rates among black women, for example, and incorporates black women’s own stories into the narrative. She also addresses many of the challenges specific to poor single women and explores why so many women choose to have children when they’re barely able to support themselves. (This was a great discussion that opened my eyes to a line of thinking I’d never fully considered.) And she has sharp words for lawmakers and pundits who scold women for their choices without doing anything to help them. (Traister has a political point of view, which if it weren’t obvious from the main text, would be absolutely crystal clear from the policy proposals she offers in the appendix.)

This is as comprehensive a book on single womanhood in America today as you’re likely to find, especially if you want to something that’s just 350 pages and written for a general audience. The comprehensiveness does mean a slight sacrifice of depth. There were topics I would have liked more on, but I wouldn’t have wanted anything left out, and more depth might have bogged the text down. The important thing to me was that I saw myself in these pages, but also I saw other women, including a few whose stories I hadn’t given much thought to.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in Nonfiction | 19 Comments

The Story of My Teeth

Story of my TeethDo I like this book? I have no idea. I don’t even know if I admire it much. So I’ll write this post to figure it out.

Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, known to most as Highway, is an auctioneer in Ecatepec, Mexico. But more than that, he is a fabulist. He tells big stories, and the question is to what degree this novel by Valeria Luiselli and translated by Christina MacSweeney is just another of his big stories. Of Highway, Luiselli writes,

When Highway first began to recount his stories to me, I thought he was a compulsive liar. But then, living with him, I realized that it had less to do with lying than surpassing the truth. Highway was one of those vast, eternal spirits. His presence was at times menacing—not because he was a real threat to anyone, but because, in comparison with his ferocious freedom, all the parameters we normally use to measure our actions seem trivial. Highway had more life in him than the usual man.

Highway narrates most of the book himself, with each chapter meant to demonstrate a different type of story: hyperbolics, parabolics, circulars, allegorics, and elliptics. Perhaps I’m dense, but most of these just seemed like regular stories, each one drawn from a different part of Highway’s life. The final two chapters are narrated by Luiselli herself, who shares what ultimately happened to highway, and then by MacSweeney, who puts Highway’s story in a larger context.

The whole thing is a fiction, of course, but Luiselli says in the Afterword that she did get draw some of the incidents in the book from the stories told to her by workers at the Junex juice factory that she wrote the book for and who served as sort of beta readers for the initial draft, which she shared a chapter at a time. This is all very interesting, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a good book.

It also doesn’t make for a bad book. This is not a bad book at all. But I didn’t really find much value in the emphasis on the different story types. It’s the kind of thing that sometimes strikes me as trying too hard. Just tell your story!

So how is the story? It’s fine, sometimes very funny, especially when Highway makes up stories about the supposed owners of the teeth (his own!) that he auctions off. His entirely made-up takes on the likes of Plato, Petrarch, and Virginia Woolf are goofy fun. And there’s an enjoyable loopy nightmarish sequence involving being locked in a room with talking clowns on every wall.

But the thing that kept me from really loving this book was that I just didn’t care about Highway the man very much. I tend to get impatient with narrators who like to show how clever they are. It’s the same type of narration that kept me from loving fellow Tournament of Books competitor The Sympathizer. No matter how skillfully the author undercuts the narration, unless I’m in precisely the right mood, I’m inclined to just want the narrator to get over himself. (It’s always a him with these books—or maybe I’m only annoyed when it’s a him.) Look back at Luiselli’s description of him, a vast, eternal and sometimes menacing spirit whose stories “surpass the truth.” Does that guy appeal to you?

Posted in Fiction | 11 Comments