The Echoing Grove

echoing groveWhen I finished Rosamond Lehmann’s The Echoing Grove, I set it aside with an “ugh, glad that’s over.” It was seriously hard going for a while. “An infinite boredom seemed to be invading him,” the narrator noted late in the book. My note? “Not just him.”

But now, having been away from the book for a bit, I can appreciate what it does well while also knowing that it is just not a book for me.

This 1953 novel focuses on two sisters, Madeleine and Dinah, and the man they both loved, Rickie. It begins near the end of their story, years after Rickie’s death, as the wife (Madeleine) and mistress (Dinah) are meeting each other again for the first time in a long time. Dinah wonders if now they can put the past behind them:

Let it alone, it’s dead and everybody’s dead except Madeleine and myself. It’s a patch of scorched earth, black, scattered with incinerated bones. Whatever she’s digging for will not turn up: there’s nothing buried alive. What does she fear? … He fathered her breathing children in lawful wedlock; and in the lawless dark another: mine; spilt seed, self-disinherited prodigal; non-proven proof, stopped breath, rejecting our and the whole world’s complicity.

The novel moves back in time, sometimes narrated by Dinah, sometimes by Madeleine, once by their mother, and sometimes in the third person. At times, it’s difficult to keep up, but once the novel plants itself with a person and time, it generally stays for a while. And I think the structure, with overlapping timelines and narrations, gets at how we’re all living in our own and each other’s pasts even as we experience our own presents. These characters in particular are lost in each other’s lives, partly because they’ve lost so much of each other’s lives.

Lehmann shows how painful and unpredictable love can be. But the barrier between me and the book was that I couldn’t sympathize at all with Rickie. The main characters all love him and keep talking of his pain. He’s a good man under Dinah’s bad influence, but I saw no signs of his goodness. He’s saddled with a unsuitable wife, who shows no signs of being so terrible. I’m not sure if I was supposed to like Rickie or if Lehmann was trying to show how men so often become the center of women’s worlds, whether they’re deserving or not. Are we supposed to see Rickie as the problem, with the women being so blinded by love that they cannot see it?

My distrust of Rickie proved to be a serious problem when, near the end of the book, the narration turns to Rickie and his new lover, a close friend of Madeleine’s (!). This section is an interminable examination of Rickie’s feelings for his wife, his old lover, his new lover. I don’t know if this section is meant to help us sympathize with him by letting us see he felt bad, but it had the opposite effect on me. I now not only disliked him for his affairs, I disliked him for boring me.

In that final section, Dinah observes that Rickie “had something in him that didn’t need human beings.” Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t care about him—he didn’t really care about anyone else. At least, that’s if Dinah is right about him. One of the questions of the book is whether, with all their thinking and talking about each other (and themselves), these people really understand each other (or themselves). So maybe he’s too needy. I don’t know, and I don’t really care.

This is apparently considered one of Lehmann’s best books, but I much preferred her earlier novel Invitation to the Waltz. And that novel was bumpy at times. It may be that her style is just not a great match for me, but when she dazzles, she really dazzles, so I’m willing to try more. I have The Ballad and the Source and The Weather in the Streets, so I’ll give those a try at least before I write her off.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration through Netgalley.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 10 Comments

Black Water Rising

Black Water RisingAttica Locke’s debut novel is a great example of why diversity in fiction can be such a pleasure. In many respects, it’s a typical thriller, with its reluctant hero, wide-ranging conspiracy, and multi-threaded plot that all comes together in the end. But this hero’s reluctance and the history behind it brings a freshness to the story and keeps it from feeling like the same old thing.

The novel’s hero, Jay Porter is a struggling African-American Houston attorney. It’s 1981; his wife, Bernie, is pregnant; and he’s taking cases that are more about making money than righting wrongs. (Although among his usual clientele, there’s not all that much money to be made.) Jay’s history has made him suspicious of the establishment. As a young man active in the Civil Rights movement, he was arrested and nearly sent to prison. He got off mostly because one of the jurors believed in him and refused to find him guilty. The experience got him interested in studying law, but it also left him frightened, sleeping with a gun under his pillow.

Jay gets drawn into an unwanted mystery during a birthday boat trip with his wife. As they are celebrating, they hear screams and gunshots and then discover a well-dressed white woman in the water. Jay, doing what even reluctant heroes do, jumps in to save her. He takes her to the police station and hopes that’s the end of it, but, of course, it isn’t. Jay’s too good and too curious to just let it rest.

As Jay is trying to figure out who the mysterious woman is and what happened that night on the river, his father-in-law, a local minister, pulls him into a union dispute. The black longshoremen are hoping to get the whole recently integrated union to strike for equal pay for black and white employees, and it appears that some of the white men in the union are reacting to the idea with violent attacks on the black union members. Jay’s father-in-law is hoping Jay will speak to the mayor to get help from the police. Despite having once known the mayor as a fellow activist, Jay wants nothing to do with her today, but he agrees.

Both of these storylines puts Jay in worlds he’d rather avoid, and they force him to remember past injustices and suspicions. In flashbacks, Locke takes readers back to the 60s, the world of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael, and the burgeoning Black Power movement. It was also the world of COINTELPRO, when activists’ phones were bugged and their organizations infiltrated. These flashbacks, which give the reasons for Jay’s mistrust, even paranoia, set Jay apart from so many reluctant thriller heroes. Jay’s reasons for keeping his head down are rooted in experience, in knowing firsthand what happens when you stand up.

The present-day storylines, on the other hand, are pretty typical thriller fodder. There are real-estate deals and greedy oil companies. The rich and powerful have all the advantages, and the ties between them are near impossible to untangle. The story lags at times, and there’s a point toward the end, when all is being explained, that bordered on mind-numbing. It was difficult to keep the pace moving with all these plotlines, and I think there was one plotline too many. I like a leaner plot. Locke’s second novel, The Cutting Season, was better in this respect.

But as first novels go, this is a better than respectable effort. Now with three novels under her belt (including a second Jay Porter novel, Pleasantville), Attica Locke is proving to be a valuable new voice in the world of crime fiction. I’m glad to see it, and I look forward to reading Pleasantville and more from her.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 10 Comments

The Lottery and Other Stories

The LotteryThere are too many people in these stories by Shirley Jackson—people who watch, people who judge, people who insinuate themselves into your life, people who leave, people who throw stones. Almost every story unearths some little bit of darkness in urban or suburban life, life that on the surface seems perfectly genial.

Before reading this collection, “The Lottery” was the only one of Jackson’s stories that I could remember having read. If you’ve read this story, you won’t forget it. On first read, if you don’t know what’s happening, it’s a shocker, but the story is so embedded in American culture that it has lost some of its shock value. However, experiencing it as the capstone of a collection about secret darkness in people and communities brought some of its power back. It’s a story that shows how far things can go when ritual goes unquestioned and cruelty goes unchecked.

Most of the other stories, however, are about more commonplace cruelties. “Charles” is probably the lightest story of the bunch and one I think I’d come across before. Did she adapt it from Life Among the Savages? It’s one of those “kids do the darndest things” kinds of stories about a little boy telling tales about a naughty classmate. Couched in the midst of these uncomfortable and oppressive stories, it looks a little more sinister than I remembered it being.

I was surprised to find two stories—“After You, My Dear Alphonse” and “Flower Garden”—that made race a topic. The white suburban woman at each story’s center has certain expectations about the lives and roles of their black neighbors. These women are perfectly nice and polite, but they see blacks and whites having proper places and roles and see no reason to change that.

These are almost all stories about women, single women, married women, women with jobs, women at home. Mostly unhappy women. “Elizabeth,” for example, has a job that has gone nowhere, although she pretends differently. Similarly, the title character in “The Villager” has built a life that she’s happy with, unless she lets herself think about the life she meant to have. For these women, the pain comes from within and the difference between what they planned and what they have.

The lead character in “The Demon Lover,” which Ana and Chris both wrote about this week, is also dealing with dashed hopes as she waits for her lover on their wedding day, all the while fretting over whether she’s wearing the right thing and what people will think. As Ana notes in her review, it turns out that she was right to worry because when she finally ventures out, people smirk at her and treat her with barely concealed scorn. And by the end of the story, we’re pulled right along with them as we’re given reason to wonder how real her lover is.

As I think of the final image of the protagonist in “The Demon Lover,” I come back to Tess Hutchinson’s wail of “It’s not fair” at the end of “The Lottery.” This is, I think, a book full of (mostly) women crying inside that “it’s not fair.” But this isn’t a book all about damning the patriarchy. It’s more complicated than that.

Sometimes, for example, women are the ones doing the oppressing. It’s a woman who weasels her way into a man’s life in “Like Mother Used to Make.” Interestingly, however, she is able to do so because he takes on traditionally feminine roles while she grabs the power (and the house). The housekeeper in “Men with Their Big Shoes” similarly draws herself into an unwilling host’s home, this time by putting on a sort of sisterly camaraderie that the story’s protagonist doesn’t know how to refuse. People wanting to be polite is a problem in these stories. It’s being polite that keeps them in their places. And again, I return to Tess crying that “It’s not fair” even though all the rules were followed. Everything was done as it should be, and that is her doom.

I think, mostly, this is a book about people being made miserable by other people. The protagonists are mostly women, but it’s not just women who suffer. We rub up against each other in this world, and rubbing causes friction. Some people push their way in (like the neighbor in “Trial by Combat”), and others do mean things without a thought (like the man who buys the book he doesn’t even want in “Seven Types of Ambiguity”), but sometimes just going about our business (crossing the street in “Pillar of Salt”) makes life impossible for others. These are unsettling stories about how hard it is to live in the world. They’re perfect in their uncomfortableness.

Shirley-Jackson-Reading-WeekI read this collection for the Shirley Jackson Reading Week hosted by Simon, Jenny, and Ana. Thanks to you all for giving me the impetus for pulling this off my shelf. I think all of the stories at once was a bit of an overdose, but a Shirley Jackson overdose is a good kind of overdose!

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 15 Comments

The Far Side of the World

Far Side of the WorldAt the end of Treason’s Harbor, the ninth installment in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, Stephen Maturin sends a letter sharing his suspicions about a French spy in the upper ranks of the Royal Navy—to the actual French spy. On top of that, Jack Aubrey is about to lose his precious HMS Surprise, which is slated to be broken up for scrap. As The Far Side of the World opens, Jack and the Surprise get a reprieve, but Stephen is no closer to uncovering the spy.

Instead of being broken apart, the Surprise is to go to the Pacific Ocean to protect the British whalers from the USS Norfolk, which is believed to be headed to the Pacific to attack the whalers. As usual, Stephen is on board as ship’s surgeon, and he recruits an assistant, Higgins, to help with dentistry. Also on board is a Mrs Horner, wife of the ship’s gunner, as well as several mutinous men who previously served on the Defender and some others recently released from a psychiatric ward. The Admiral claimed Aubrey was just the captain to straighten these men out.

As the Surprise took its long journey across the Atlantic, I felt rather impatient as I watched the ship move away from any good opportunity to help resolve the espionage problem. There’s still plenty of banter and fun (the cat named Scourge–ha!), but not much seems to be happening. There are storms and still waters and shipboard conflict. It’s a difficult journey, but uneventful in compared to others. Well, until the murders.

The story picks up considerably when Stephen learns of a shipboard romance affair between Mrs Horner and a midshipman, Hollom. The affair has led to a pregnancy, and Stephen has to decide what to do. This is just the kind of complication that no one wants aboard a ship. One of the difficulties of being on the other side of the world is being far away from help when there’s a crisis. But when the ship has stopped in the islands past Cape Horn, Hollum and Mrs Horner don’t return to the ship. The Surprise‘s believe Horner has murdered them, and he’s looking for more people to blame for his misfortunes. It’s all very dramatic!

That situation does get resolved—dramatically!—but there are more crises to come. The most notable is probably Stephen’s unfortunate fall from the ship. Jack dives into the sea to rescue them, and they both end up stranded in the water. And now it gets bonkers. The two are rescued captured by a boat full of Polynesian (possibly cannibal) women. But instead of castrating them, as Stephen feared, they leave them on a deserted island where they must wait and hope for the Surprise to find them.

I don’t even know what to make of this incident, but it’s entertaining. I wonder if O’Brian came across some account or rumor of a group of similar women like. The whole business did lead to one of my favorite conversations in the book, that of Jack and Martin discussing these women and why they might abandon male company and strike out on their own, emasculating any men they come across. Stephen defends them with this speech:

Oh, as far as unsexing is concerned, who are we to throw stones? With us any girl that cannot find a husband is unsexed. If she is very high or very low she may go her own way, with the risks entailed therein, but otherwise she must either have no sex or he disgraced. She burns, and she is ridiculed for burning. To say nothing of male tyranny—a wife or a daughter being a mere chattel in most codes of law or custom—and brute force—to say nothing to that, hundreds of thousands of girls are in effect unsexed every generation: and barren women are as much despised as eunuchs. I do assure you, Martin, that if I were a woman I should march out with a flaming torch and a sword; I should emasculate right and left. As for the women of the pahi, I am astonished at their moderation.

Oh, Stephen, I knew I liked you.

Eventually, the Surprise does catch up with the Norfolk, but the circumstances are far from ideal. There’s been a bad storm, Stephen appears to need surgery, and the Norfolk is claiming the war is over. And so, being on the far side of the world, away from any news, Jack has to make the best choices he can, even if he doesn’t quite trust the Norfolk.

This book got off to a slow and sometimes frustrating start, but the last half was so much fun that it will probably end up being one of the most memorable in the series. The final chapters are loaded with suspense, right up to the final paragraph. I look forward to getting back to the espionage plot in future books, but I’m not sorry to have gotten this story instead.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 2 Comments

Consider the Lobster

consider the lobsterDavid Foster Wallace has been on my list for a long time, but to be perfectly honest, I’ve been a bit skeptical about reading him. He’s one of those Gen-X white-dude heroes, and in my experience they have a tendency to be a trifle overhyped. A few years ago, when people were doing Infinite Summer, there was a core group of folks who seemed to think he could do no wrong and every word he wrote was perfect, and that’s just… a bit of a turn-off, you know? So I went into Consider the Lobster, a book of his essays, reviews, and articles, with a healthy dose of skepticism: would he be egotistical, would it just be a bunch of annoying logorrhea, would he be any good?

Well, I was blown away, that’s all.

If you read blurbs about Wallace’s writing, almost everyone will tell you that he’s funny. “Holding up the high comic tradition,” or “one of the smartest and funniest writers on the loose,” things like that. This is true, OK? His piece “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Have to Think,” (a review of John Updike’s novel Toward the End of Time) is howlingly funny, cruel, satirical, and so on-point that I savored every word. The last bit will give you the idea:

Updike makes it plain that he views the narrator’s final impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself, and he clearly wants us to mourn it as much as Turnbull does. I am not shocked or offended by this attitude; I mostly just don’t get it. Rampant or flaccid, Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the novel’s first page. It never once occurs to him, though, that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.

There are pieces like this all through his writing — pieces that are revealing, incisive, and frankly hilarious.

But Wallace’s writing is also deeply serious. His articles have a strong tendency to begin innocently enough as one thing and swerve into much profounder territory. The title essay was written for Gourmet magazine, and starts as a report on the annual Maine Lobster Festival. But the essay gradually becomes an examination of whether these hundreds of thousands of lobsters can feel pain and suffering, and can express a preference not to be killed — and if so, what are we doing at the Maine Lobster Festival? What are the wider ethics of killing animals to eat? What makes us reluctant to think about it, if being a “gourmet” means thinking carefully about what we are eating? Is it all mere sensuality? Wallace is clearly not trying to bait his audience: he really wants to know the answers.

His article “Authority and American Usage,” nominally a review of Bryan Garner’s dictionary of modern American usage, is another example. Some essayists might simply review the book; others might go further, and talk about why “bad grammar” (depending on your point of view) is good for American language, or perhaps bolster the other case. Wallace, however, offers his own experience as a native-born grammar nerd (in his upbringing this is known as a SNOOT — “Syntax Nudniks of our Times” or possibly “Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance”), an English professor, and a voracious reader and researcher in order to discuss the importance of authority, class, and race in American society. This all comes to bear on the question of (e.g.) whether split infinitives matter. And if you think this sounds dry — all I can say is, read the essay. The first sentence is “Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of US lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near-Lewinskian scale?” And he absolutely follows through. 

I could do this for every essay in the book. Each one, whether it’s literary, political, or an analysis of some arcane piece of American society, is funny, serious, and deeply compassionate, touching on real human behavior.

Wallace is famous for his structure, of course. It is true that he is nuts about footnotes and abbreviations (and sometimes even weirder note-like structures, as in the article “Host,” which has an intricate system of interlocking boxes with arrows), which interrupt the normal linear reading experience. If a worse writer did it, it would just be gimmicky, and I don’t know how I would feel about it in fiction, but it works in these articles. The interruption is meant to make my mind switch gears, stop my comfortable flow of thought, do something differently. It did what it was meant to do, so it didn’t bother me. I wonder very much what his audience made of him when he first published these things, before footnotes were a “thing” for every half-baked experimental person out there. I also wonder what his editors made of him. Who writes an article about animal rights at the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine?

This book of sparkling, brilliant essays about the American project — about human beings trying to be human beings in some of the oddest ways imaginable — was some of the best reading I have done this year. I want to read more by David Foster Wallace. What is his fiction like? Would I like it, or is his fiction substantively different from his nonfiction? What would you recommend next?

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 12 Comments

The Living

the-livingIt took me a long time to read this novel by Annie Dillard, not because it isn’t good, but because the prose demands a slow reading and there’s little driving action to propel the reader forward. (It didn’t help that I also had a couple of books coming due at the library and a soon-to-expire e-galley that I really wanted to read.)

The nice thing, however, is that the early sections of the novel read almost like a series of interlocking stories, set in chronological order. There’s one about a pioneer couple, the Fishburns, coming to the settlement of Whatcom in Washington State in 1855. Then there’s the story of John Ireland Sharp, a young man from the next generation of Whatcom settlers. Next, there’s Eustace and Minta, a Baltimore couple who come to the area in 1878. By the halfway point, the book has turned to Obenchain and Clare, children of the area’s early settlers, and the divergent stories become more closely intertwined.

I’ve seen people talk about books being plot-focused or character-focused, but The Living is neither. If anything, it’s setting-focused, with Whatcom and its fate being the thing that everything else spins around. Whatcom changes people, and as Whatcom changes, so does its people. With the earliest generations, death is always around the corner:

Women took fever and died from having babies, and babies died from puniness or the harshness of the air. Men died from trafficking in superior forces, like rivers and horses, bulls, steam saws, mill gears, quarried rock, or falling trees or rolling logs. Women died in rivers, too, and under trees and rockslides, and men took fevers, too, and fevers took men. Children lost their lives as other people did, as a consequence of their bodies’ material fragility; hard things smashed them, like trees and the ground when horses threw them, or they fell; they drowned in water; they sickened, and earaches wormed into their brains or fever from measles burned them up or pneumonia eased them out overnight. It was all the same and predictable except in detail, whether a heart collapsed and seized in an old woman, or a runaway buggy crushed a growing boy; the people took the boy’s death harder, for they longed to have him with them longer, and to see him grown and fruitful. They were not ready for him to die, but they knew for a fact that death was ready. Death was ready to take people, of any size, always, and so was the broad earth ready to receive them. A child’s death was a heartbreak—but it was no outrage, no freak, nothing not in the contract, and not really early, just soon.

But as the town grows and comforts increase, death becomes more distant, less expected. Beal Obenchain, who rejects the new town ways, believes that losing sight of death has made people overconfident, and he seeks to make death more present and give himself death’s power through murder and threats of murder. But the back and forth of progress is bigger than Beal Obenchain.

One truth that comes up again and again in the novel is that people’s power over their own fate and that of others is limited. It’s not just that death may come swiftly and suddenly. It’s that the promised railroad may never appear. It’s that floods wash away crops, and crashes wash away money.  Unanticipated love ushers children away from parents, and all-too-predictable prejudices push people away from their best convictions. Life in this novel is full of epic forces, but the people are small in the face of it. Even the strong can be taken down by patient and persistent forces, like the fire lit within the massive trees in order to fell them.

I don’t mean to give the impression, however, that these are small, powerless people. Many of them have remarkable abilities to endure and adapt. One of my favorite characters, Minta, raised as a society girl in Baltimore, manages to survive the death of her husband and most of her children and the fiery destruction of her home and become a prosperous hops farmer and foster-mother to a family of Nooksak Indian children left in her care. I’m tempted to say that it’s Minta’s adaptability and strength that enables her to survive, and perhaps that true. But another character, John Ireland Sharpe, can’t cope with the way the world is changing around him and eventually retreats to an island hideaway. Summoning up massive inner strength is not the only way to survive, and no approach to life comes with a guarantee.

The novel ends with a group of characters taking a midnight swim in a pond with a rope swing. As they swing off the platform into the water, there’s nothing to see but darkness that gives away to the light of stars reflected on the water. The only thing to do is judge the moment and let go. Maybe that’s the way to exist in the world of The Living; just fling yourself against whatever light you can find in the darkness and hope for the best.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 12 Comments

Hard Times

‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle upon which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

hard timesIf Hard Times had been given an alliterative title along the lines of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, it would have to be Fact and Fancy*. Dickens sets up a strictly utilitarian education and point of view, and then shows its terrible consequences. These consequences are to be found both in the moral and emotional destruction of children educated along utilitarian lines, and in the industrial wasteland created for workers by those same principles.

I should point out that not only does the plot betray those principles, Dickens also undermines them with his prose at every opportunity. As soon as Thomas Gradgrind finishes demanding Facts and only Facts, Dickens describes him:

The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall.[…] The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside.

Firs… planted on a plum pie… on a warehouse…over a cellar wall? Okay, Charles. This is why I love you. Facts!

This short novel — a quarter the length of the ones that precede and follow it — has the feel of a fable or a parable. The characters, especially the antagonists, have names that suit their characters: Gradgrind, Bounderby, M’Choakumchild, Sparsit. (Where else does Dickens do this? Trollope does it all the time, but Dickens? Mr. Murdstone comes to mind.) Old Stephen, who lives according to his conscience, is named for a martyr. We are in Pilgrim’s Progress territory: the three sections of the novel are Reaping, Sowing, and Garnering.

One part of Hard Times describes the education of three young people. The two who are most intelligent and absorb the education are ruined: the young man becomes a thorough egotist, free of integrity, morals, or even gratitude (because they are not Facts), and eventually sinks into crime. The young woman is as close to soulless as Dickens will permit a woman to be, never having learned an emotion (which, of course, is not a Fact.) She is less selfish (probably because Dickensian women are Naturally Unselfish), but she has no warmth or happiness in her makeup. The third — who, being less intelligent, was unable to make much of her education — is imaginative, warm, happy, and domestically inclined. Parents! Let your children read story-books! Take them to the circus! Let them use their imaginations! Avoid this dreadful fate!

The other part of Hard Times is less warmly personal, but it is bleaker, and it is uncomfortably modern:

The wonder was, [Coketown] was there at all. It had been ruined so often, that it was amazing how it had borne so many shocks. Surely there never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made. Handle them never so lightly, and they fell to pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been flawed before. They were ruined, when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke.

Through the characters of Old Stephen and his friend Rachael (perhaps the only strong female character in the book, and she doesn’t get a lot of page-time), Dickens shows the disastrous consequences of the working conditions in Coketown. Worse, he shows the consequences of the deep chasm of distrust and suspicion between master and man. Bounderby, a deeply-self-interested and offensively bumptious mill-owner, repeats his claims that all his hands want to “feast on turtle soup and venison, served with a golden spoon,” and that he will not be taken in by such nonsense. Stephen’s mild, bewildered requests for help and justice meet with no help from that quarter, and eventually the ruination that the mill-owners have been claiming for so long, falls elsewhere.

I’ll repeat that this book feels like a fable, with more archetypes and fewer characters than I’m used to. (Mr. Sleary, of the circus, is a happy exctheption.) It’s so short that the resolution comes quickly on the heels of the problem, and if it’s not exactly a happily-ever-after ending, then at least we do have bread and (literal) circuses to amuse us on the way. It’s a harsh book, too, as fables and fairy tales can be harsh, with punishments for the bad: put him in a barrel and poke out his eyes! But that doesn’t make it simplistic. Dickens wrote this book in between two of his great novels: Bleak House and Little Dorrit. He was at the height of his narrative powers. The plot and the symbolism of Hard Times may not be developed over as great a field as those two books, but the characters, the prose, the artistry, and the moral force are just as strong. (It is also, in parts, extremely funny, as Dickens always is.) This book isn’t just for Dickens completists (are any of his novels really just for completists? I don’t know.) It’s a powerhouse, and at less than 300 pages, what are you waiting for?

*… and Frankenstein’s creation?

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 13 Comments

The Goblin Emperor

Maia woke with his cousin’s cold fingers digging into his shoulder.

“Cousin? What…” He sat up, rubbing at his eyes with one hand. “What time is it?”

“Get up!” Setheris snarled. “Hurry!”

Obediently, Maia crawled out of bed, clumsy and sleep-sodden. “What’s toward? Is there a fire?”

“Get thy clothes on.” Setheris shoved yesterday’s clothes at him. Maia dropped them, fumbling with the strings of his nightshirt, and Setheris hissed with exasperation as he bent to pick them up. “A messenger from the court. That’s what’s toward.”

goblin emperorBut the message, when it comes, is beyond anything Maia or his guardian had thought possible. Maia has been brought up far from court, fifth in line to the throne and mostly forgotten. But when the steamship Wisdom of Choharo goes down with the Emperor and all Maia’s brothers on board, suddenly there is an emperor no one ever expected: a skinny, untrained, half-goblin, eighteen-year-old boy.

If you like political intrigue, this is the book for you. Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor shoves us headlong into Maia’s new world at the (shall I say Byzantine?) Untheileneise Court. Everything is new to him: he has no idea who to trust (or even the names of the courtiers), the basic outlines of what an emperor is expected to do, the ins and outs of imperial family dynamics, or even the sorts of clothes he will wear. The only gift his upbringing has given him is how to recognize cruelty, and that he wants to avoid it. As Maia learns what power he holds, he tries out small rebellions against “the way things have always been done,” and small revenges against those who have harmed him. But whoever sabotaged the Wisdom of Choharo is also after him, and he learns what danger he is in, and where he can begin to rely on real help.

In one way, this plot is genius, because Maia’s ignorance reflects our own. Addison’s world-building is wonderfully detailed, down to the language used, but I never found it overwhelming, because Maia as a point-of-view character didn’t know any more than I did. There was never a point where there was a sort of expository information-dump; he, and I, were learning about the court (or signet rings, or rites of the dead, or family rivalries, or whatever) as we went along, because that was part of what Maia was doing to understand the intrigue he needed to know to stay alive. It makes it a thoroughly enjoyable book to read, instead of a drudge; the world-building is meticulous, but the plot is the part you really remember.

The Goblin Emperor touches very lightly on race and gender. Goblins are, of course, a different species than the elves at the Untheileneise Court, and have a different kingdom. They have dark, often completely black skins, and a different facial structure from elves. Maia’s mother was a goblin, and Maia regularly hears slurs both about his mother and about himself. His willingness to talk to goblins, however, brings him answers that other emperors would be unlikely to get. The question of women comes up several times, as there is a quietly rebellious group of noblewomen who believe (shockingly enough) that women ought to be educated for something other than bearing children. One of these women turns out to be an unexpected ally for Maia, and he for her.

This book was so detailed in its world-building (there is even a “handbook for travelers” at the end, with a guide to pronunciation, names, and forms of address) that it made me think about fiction in general. In the realms of fantasy and science fiction, there are so many little worlds like this, scattered about, more or less fully-formed and then abandoned; used for a few books at most or sometimes just a short story. It is such intricate work to make one: everything from tectonic plates to footwear. I can see the temptation to use the world we have instead, where everything is already lying around, waiting to be used.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 7 Comments

Gaby, Lost and Found

gaby lost and foundOne of the (approx. ten billion) things I didn’t anticipate about having kids was that their reading lives would shift so much. Of course I knew their reading level would change. But I suppose I didn’t foresee that what they liked to read would change so much, as well. A child who started off liking Junie B. Jones for the comedy may later want nothing but dark fantasy, and still later want endless stories about children like herself. A child who started off racking the shelves for books about dogs may turn to other nonfiction (sports! mummies! the Titanic!) and then to novels on those topics and then to graphic novels and then to how-to-draw.

What did I think would happen? I guess I thought I’d hand them books I liked to read, for the rest of their lives, amen. Ha! It’s way better than that. They turn out to be their own people, thank goodness.

Proof: this summer, my daughter read a book called Gaby, Lost and Found, by Angela Cervantes, and asked me to read it so we could talk about it. I think she picked it up because of the cat on the cover, and then discovered it was more complicated than a cute kitty story.

This middle-grade novel is about Gaby Ramirez Howard, an “amazing sixth-grader.” Her beloved mother, an undocumented worker from Honduras, has been deported after a raid on the factory where she was working. Gaby is now in the awkward custody of her father, who left the family years before and knows Gaby only from occasional birthday and Christmas visits. He works hard, but neglects Gaby mostly out of ignorance, leaving her alone much of the time and letting her get herself up for school and find her own food. Gaby clings to the idea that her mother will be able to find a way back to the US, and in the meantime, she gets support from her best friend Alma and her school community (barring a few kids who tease her about the deportation.)

At the same time, Gaby’s class is doing a service project at the local no-kill animal shelter. Gaby herself, a skilled writer, is asked to write some flyers so that the shelter can advertise the animals they have for adoption. Helping the animals find “forever homes” helps Gaby realize that she, too, needs a home while she’s waiting for things with her mother to be resolved — she can’t help animals if she can’t help herself. The ending of the book is bittersweet, but honest and warm.

Cervantes doesn’t tiptoe around the issues in this book. Immigration, deportation, unemployment and underemployment, and kids having to take on more than they can really handle because of adult policies are all major themes of this book. Yet Gaby, Lost and Found is not depressing or heavy-handed. It’s a warm, hopeful book without being saccharine or unrealistic. My daughter (who is about to go into sixth grade herself) and I talked about the political issues, and also about how easy it is to assume everyone’s home, or everyone’s life, is like yours. Literature is a door into understanding otherwise, a door that keeps on opening.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Contemporary, Fiction | 6 Comments

Finders Keepers

finders keepersThis summer, Stephen King has come out with a sequel to last year’s Mr. Mercedes. That book was a solidly enjoyable thriller with nothing supernatural about it — a race against time to catch an unpleasant mass murderer. I enjoyed it, though it had its flaws, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to try King but is put off by horror. (I would have plenty of other recommendations, too, though!)

Finders Keepers is a better novel than Mr. Mercedes. For one thing, King is writing about the relationship between writers and readers, something he loves to ponder. (Novelists are the main characters in at least nine or ten of his books.) For another, the premise is great: there’s an author, John Rothstein, who has written a spectacularly successful trilogy of books and has then retreated to his home in New Hampshire and never published again. (This author is obviously and hilariously supposed to be mostly John Updike; the novels in the trilogy are called The Runner, The Runner Sees Action, and The Runner Slows Down.) One night, he is rudely awakened by a group of thugs, who appear to want the money in his safe, but one of them — Morris Bellamy — actually wants what’s more precious: the hundreds of Moleskine notebooks in which Rothstein has written unpublished stories, novels, and verse. This “fan” is furious that Rothstein dared to take his main character, Jimmy Gold, down a path of consumerism and self-satisfaction. He wants revenge — and he gets it, along with the notebooks. Thirty years after the crime, it’s safe for Morris to return for the money and those little black books. Both are gone (I won’t tell you why.) It’s time for bloody-minded revenge again, and again on an unsuspecting innocent.

This book is suspenseful and gripping, with the good characterization that makes King so generally enjoyable. Bill Hodges, the retired police detective who was the main character in Mr. Mercedes, doesn’t come in until about halfway through this one, and he isn’t necessary. Far from being the “perfect” murderer, as we had in Mr. Mercedes, Morris seems hapless and a little nebbishy. But the results of his utterly selfish and murderous intentions are frightening and deadly. And there’s a little fillip of a question remaining from the last book, too — something Hodges can’t quite resolve. I’m very interested to see what King will do with it in the third book, coming out next year.

Finders Keepers isn’t a perfect book. This makes, for instance, the second murderer in a row who can blame his mother for his problems, and there’s another bad mother thrown into the book for good measure. King has Issues (just check out the mothers in his fiction, starting with Carrie’s mom) and he can be repetitive. I also noticed that he never really resolved what I considered to be the real question at the heart of the book: why didn’t Rothstein publish the extra novels about Jimmy Gold? I have theories — if you’ve read this book, let’s discuss it in the comments. But overall, I really enjoyed reading this, and ripped through it on an airplane ride. It’s a satisfying, engrossing book, and I recommend it.

Posted in Fiction | 6 Comments