A Scottish-Canadian Blethering On About Books

Notes and reflections - not really worthy to be called reviews - written at various times over a long life of eclectic reading.

Antonina: or, The Fall of Rome (Collins)

Antonina: The Fall of Rome - Wilkie Collins

This is Wilkie Collins' first published novel, and it definitely shows. I am generally a fan of the expansiveness of Victorian prose, and of the tendency of Victorian narrators to break the fourth wall and address the reader directly. I find both things charming. But "discursive" doesn't begin to cover it when it comes to Collins' self-conscious and very long apostrophes to his reader, often merely for the purpose of moving from one setting to another. He rarely uses less than a page where a sentence (or nothing at all) would do. In fact, this was so noticeable that I checked to see whether "Antonina" was originally published in parts, or for a magazine, either of which might lead to - though not completely excuse - padding towards a word count. Not so, however - Antonina was published in volume form from the beginning. So all there is to see here is the growing pains of a young author; apparently he had yet to meet his highly influential mentor, Dickens.

 

Antonina, or the Fall of Rome is a historical novel set in an era most people are unfamiliar with, I should think, namely the early 5th century, when the Goths led, and the Huns participated in, the siege and eventual sacking of Rome. For the purposes of his novel, Collins has simplified the exceedingly complicated series of multiple sieges and battles, not to mention dramatic shifts in loyalties and alliances, down to one very long siege and its outcome. He has principal characters on both sides of the conflict; furthermore, he sets up a very deliberate contrast and conflict between extremist representatives of the Christian religion (by this point dominant) and the declining pagan religion. The conflict is centred in two men, one of them the rather oppressive father of the title young lady. There is an entirely incredible (and in my view unnecessary) coincidence about these two men introduced towards the end of the plot.

 

Madness is a primary motif of this work. Almost none of the primary characters make it through without having some sort of breakdown, but two of the principals - Goisvintha and Ulpius - are essentially mad for a large part of the novel. Goisvintha is a Goth woman whose husband and children have been murdered by the Romans; she exists primarily as a threat to Antonina to whose death she manages to attach an entirely disproportionate urgency as a symbol of her revenge on the entire Roman people. She is also more or less directly responsible for the death of her own brother, Hermanric, who has the poor taste to become romantically attached to Antonina for a very brief and idyllic period. Ulpius is a pagan priest, also a threat to Antonina (we are first introduced to him pretending to be a Christian acolyte of her father Numerian); Ulpius has already seen the defeat of his religion in Alexandria and ends up dementedly occupying a deserted temple, where he carries out human sacrifices with a hidden "mechanism" over the river, and also builds up a monumental pile of idols in it.

 

Antonina herself is more or less a cipher as a character; she loves music (against her father's instructions); she's naive and obedient; she very nearly dies of famine, but survives. This book doesn't really qualify as a romance, despite the Hermanric/Antonina episode in the middle of it. There is one alternate suitor, a somewhat older aristocratic Roman named Vetranio; he attempts to seduce/rape Antonina near the beginning, and his remorseful conversion from his pleasure-loving ways to sober country living (and support of, but not pursuit of, Antonina) forms the last few chapters after all the excitement of violent deaths in the temple - the real climax of the novel - is over.

 

Vetranio has one of the set-pieces of the novel: the feast of death, where he and a number of other degenerate friends have a banquet (without any food, more or less) with a corpse standing guard over the table, and with the intent of drinking/drugging their already weakened selves to death. The descriptions of this scene and the temple scene are the most heightened in the book - this is the beginning of Collins' reputation as a sensationalist writer.

 

If you're going to read one Wilkie Collins novel in your life, this definitely shouldn't be it (go for The Moonstone or The Woman in White), but as a diversion, despite its longueurs, it wasn't bad.

The Christian's Wedding Ring, containing Five Letters and a Series of Poems, written by A Lady with the Sincere Desire of Sowing the Seeds of Union in the Christian Church

The Christian's wedding ring [microform]: containing five letters and a series of poems - Jane Porter

I'm being a bit disingenuous marking this "read". Unless you're passionately interested in obscure Christian theological apologetics of the 1870s (I'm not), this volume is pretty much unreadable. However, as the product of a Canadian woman of some apparent intelligence, though little literary talent and less taste in subject matter, it still was worth scanning through for points of interest.

The broad subject of all of the lengthy sermonizing in the 5 "letters", and much of the undistinguished verse - I won't call it poetry - is ecumenicalism. In addition to desiring the "union in the Christian Church" referred to in the subtitle (her explanations of doctrinal differences reveal her as definitely Protestant), this author appears to hold out some desire for the reunification of all adherents of the Abrahamic religions, under the Christian umbrella of course.

The volume, which exists physically at the University of Toronto library and in e-form on both the Internet Archive and the CIHM free miccrofilm scans (http://eco.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.03865/3?r=0&s=1), was published by Montreal's Lovell publishing house in 1874. Unlike many items coming out of Canadian publishing houses at this period, this appears to be genuinely Canadian in origin, which means that I was somewhat perplexed at first to see that it is attributed in worldcat to "Jane Porter".  The 19th-century literary Jane Porter I know of, the authoress of "The Scottish Chiefs", died in 1850 and has nothing to do with Canada. However this, it appears, is another Jane Porter, and there is a little - a very little - further literary activity by her tracked in Watters' definitive bibliography of Canadian literature. However, we don't know much about her, though the small personal clues in the miscellaneous verse suggest that she was single, fairly active and interested in Canada and current events, a churchgoer in Montreal, and very likely was published by Lovell as a favour to help her financially. (There's one short poem where she asks readers to buy her books, and ruefully tells us her publisher would prefer her to write romances).

I scribbled down a few notes about two things - comments about religion that struck me as different from mere convention; and phrases or subjects of poems that reflected either Canada or current events or both.

On the religious front, her five letters certainly have an ecumenical set of addressees. The first is to Princess Victoria (Queen Victoria's daughter, Queen of Prussia, politically liberal). All the blithe internalized misogyny of her time comes out in this letter of a woman to a woman, even though at the same time Princess Victoria is urged to exert her considerable political influence. "Female education is not practical," and the calling of wives and daughters is home-making. Indeed, Miss Porter goes so far as to deride nuns for abandoning their home duties. The second letter is to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (whom she congratulates, by the way, on the opening of the Suez Canal in 1870).  The third letter is to "Dear Jewish friends", while the fourth is to Pope Pius IX (accompanied by a portrait of him that looks quite demonic). The last letter to so the "Archbishop of Syra and Tenos" (orthodox) who had taken part in ecumenical talks - unsuccessful, one presumes - with the Church of England at Ely in 1870.

Canada is not really present in the prose, but quite a lot of the verse is either explicitly on Canadian subjects, or contains references such as:
The rapids with majestic roar
Proud St. Lawrence at our shore.

On the subject of the Friday fish fast, she has this to say:
The Esquimaux on fish subsist.
Without it, how can they exist?
If eating fish is called a fast,
Their fasting days forever last.

(Apparently Miss Porter was not aware of Inuit seal-hunting).

Other Canadian subjects memorialized in verse include John Bethune, the very prominent Montreal Anglican clergyman who died in 1872; a church in Trois Rivieres, Niagara Falls, the April 1873 wreck of the "Atlantic" off Halifax, a boat race in St John NB in which a man died, and a Montreal incident in which nine people were poisoned with stolen wine. For reasons unknown, there are also some Boston poems, and poems about 1871 fires in both Chicago and Wisconsin, as well as an unexpected poem "On Philately". A few people will know what I mean if I say some of these poems are "McGonagall-esque" (no, not the Harry Potter one).

It's easy to be derisive about this kind of bad book that pops up (only because some of its contents have rhyme and metre, I'm sure) in the miscellaneous anonymous literature sections of very large research libraries. And, I suppose, it's also easy to be too imaginatively sympathetic with the Miss Jane Porters of the Victorian colonial world, trying to sell flat conventional poetry and tortuous, untutored theology as belles lettres. Perhaps Miss Porter had a very comfortable life and was merely a hobbyist. She is dust and we will never know; thanks to big libraries, microfilm, and the internet, her book has been saved from that same dust for other odd ducks like myself to ponder over.

SPOILER ALERT!

Bodies from the Library (comp. Medawar)

Bodies from the Library - A.A. Milne, Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, J.J. Connington, Roy Vickers, Nicholas Blake, H.C. Bailey, John Rhode, Anthony Berkeley, Ernest Bramah, Leo Bruce, Tony Medawar

This is a compilation of previously uncompiled detective short stories, most of them having appeared once in a periodical and then disappeared from view. They are ephemeral enough that that disappearance is hardly a literary crime, but there's a certain interest in seeing a really representative selection of what was coming out at a time when apparently turning your hand to a short detective story was a reliable way of making a bit of extra cash. The main selling point of this compilation is a largely unknown story by Agatha Christie (given pride of place at the end); other well-known names include Georgette Heyer and A.A. Milne. For me, the actual value of the collection was the 2-3 page biographical sketch of the authors at the end of each story. The collection redresses the historical female bias in the surviving material from the Golden Age by presenting mostly male authors, in many cases writing under a pseudonym, presumably to distinguish these stories from other, perhaps more "serious" work. I have not been impelled by any of these stories to run out and find the complete works of, say, Anthony Berkeley or Arthur Upfield, but it's good to have the list on hand for reference.

I see from Amazon that a volume 2 is to be coming out in July 2019.

I'm going to cheat now and just reproduce my brief and ungrammatical notes about the stories as I scribbled them while reading. Spoilers abound, so stop here if you're planning to read the collection.

Before Insulin (J.J. Connington) – An inheritance depends on the date of death of a young man with diabetes; mail fraud detected because of a heavy postmark through thin foreign paper.  Date of story: 1936, in a magazine collection curated by D.L. Sayers. A “fair play” story – relevant clues clearly laid out before solution given.

The Inverness Cape (Leo Bruce) - Brief story about a double bluff; young man ensures he is accused of murder because of a distinctive outfit, and also ensures he has an alibi because said outfit is being mended by a servant at the time (two outfits, of course, and his mistake is disappointingly simple, as he doesn't dispose of the second one properly).  Pub. 1952, one year before the author (whose real name was Rupert Croft-Crooke and was the biographer of Lord Alfred Douglas) -was convicted and imprisoned for (homosexual) indecency.  

Dark Waters (Freeman Wills Crofts) - an apparently perfect murder by drowning (covering up a financial fraud) is detected simply by the victim clutching a distinctive missing button from the perpetrator's overcoat. Not really a "fair play" story.


Linckes' Great Case - spy/senior aristocratic detective story about missing submarine plans, Georgette Heyer, pub. 1923. Characters more interesting than the plot, which had a very obvious and over-signalled solution (identical siblings whose existence was signalled by apparent massive mood swings and slight but significant changes in habits). Romance element intrusive, especially for such a short story.

"Calling James Braithwaite" - Nicholas Blake (i.e. Clive Day-Lewis). 2 part radio play (first half dramatizes the murder (very indirectly) the second has Blake's detective, Nigel Strangeways, coming to what is in fact a reasonably obvious conclusion.  It's a closed-room mystery, set on a small commercial vessel where several different parties have reason to despise James Braithwaite, the owner. One of these is his unhappy wife; another is a man who loves her (but we are more or less given to understand no adultery has taken place, so this early on seems likely to be a red herring. A third is the captain of one of James Braithwaite's boats which he allowed to fall into disrepair and wreck for the insurance money the captain (Maclean) was railroaded into bearing responsibility, and now is first mate to the captain of the current vessel, Greer, who is also the father of Braithwaite's unhappy wife.  There is a false alibi due to wrong time of death, somewhat reminiscent of Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.

The Elusive Bullet - John Rhode (one of several pseudonyms of Cecil ("John") Street).  A professor with a horror of conjecture does a little bit of investigation into what seems to be a slam-dunk case of murder by firearm in a railway carriage. The solution turns on the existence of a flagstaff just beyond the end of a firing range.

The Euthanasia of Hilary's Aunt (Cyril Hare, pseudonym of Judge Gordon Clark). A short stinger - a ne'er do-well nephew prepares a sleeping draught to euthanize his terminally-ill aunt, but miscalculates because he is unaware of her true marital status. She disabuses him and then insists on taking the sleeping potion, leaving him without the reward of his misdeeds

The Girdle of Dreams (Vincent Cornier). "Often implausible, sometimes preposterously so, Cornier's work in nonetheless always entertaining."  Eh - the wise old professor tracks down the provenance of a Renaissance bride's girdle, and links the only possible descendant to various obscure tropical poisonous substances which enabled said descendant (in disguise as an old woman) to rob a prominent jeweller.  No particular character development or any hope of the reader actually discovering the methods, so this is just an "isn't that curious" kind of story. I have little doubt the obscure facts alleged in the story are fundamentally correct, but little reason to care.

The Fool and the Perfect Murder (Arthur Upfield).  Australian, set in the outback.  One remote rancher kills another, then disposes the body according to a set of procedures suggested by a drifter. Upton's half-aboriginal detective, "Bony" (Napoleon Bonaparte), catches him because he trips up by overdoing it and by missing a medical detail.  Interesting mostly because of the racial details; I didn't think the warning about political incorrectness at the beginning was  wholly necessary; as far as I could see the narrative voice evinced high respect for the aboriginal peoples.

Bread Upon the Waters (A.A. Milne, of all people). A short stinger - a nasty young man resolves to commit a money-related murder, and decides to muddy the matter of his own motive by doing a motiveless murder first, and then ensuring his detective-fiction-obsessed uncle (the object of his own schemes) gets involved. He gets his comeuppance because he has developed a relationship (and, it turns out, enough to establish a money-related motive) with his first victim.

The Man with the Twisted Thumb (Anthony Berkeley). This story of a pair of aristocratic Englishmen and an ex-governess, mucking about in spy matters they don't understand in Monte Carlo, has a Wodehouse feel to it - the dialogue is quite flip - with perhaps a nod to Lord Peter Wimsey, though neither of the young men is particular brilliant, and the solution is provided by a relative in the Secret Service. There is a nascent romance, which doesn't seem to be stifled in any way by the tendency of the young man in question to knock people out (using his Oxford expertise) at a moment's notice.

The Rum Punch (Christianna Brand). Framed by domestic concerns - story counts down the days until Sergeant Troot is due to take his wife and kids on vacation - a story of domestic conflict and deceit, and the use of the "woman's weapon", poison. Women don't come off well in this story; 2 of the 3 main ones are murderous, and the third dangles two lovers.
Blind Man's Bluff (Ernest Bramah) - short play set in WW1; an unsavoury couple and their Japanese associate scheme to acquire government dispatches being taken by a young American to French allies. Much revolves around the jiu-jitsu skills of the Japanese person (difficult to remember that in this war he is an ally against the Germans). Carrrados, the author's recurring blind detective, foils the scheme.

Victoria Pumphrey (H.C. Bailey) . A young woman of more ancestry than means finds herself stuck in a dead-end typing job in a lawyer's office.  While there, she runs into a former butler who has done very well for himself financially, and who is trying to establish a claim for an inheritance for a protegé (whom we never see). Miss Pumphrey takes a trip to a country house to meet the old dying gentleman and an Autralian claimant of dubious veracity. She meets and spars flirtatiously with the Australian, but has to engineer a house fire in order to provoke the old gentleman to disappear - upon which, since she has met the family, she is able to verify that the old gentleman is long dead and his house servants have been playing a fraud. "This is how Miss Pumphrey entered upon the profession of which she is the most distinguished practitioner" - but the afterword about the author H.C. Bailey does not mention any sequels.

The Starting Handle Murder (Roy Vickers). A “gentleman” commits a well-planned murder (on a train) of another gentleman (whose behaviour and nickname is ‘Balmy’), thus ridding his long-time love of an abusive husband, and acceding to her affections and improved money & social position.  Many years later, an unresolved loose end involving the theft of jewellery leads to the likely conviction/hanging of a groom and likely jailing of his innocent girlfriend.  The gentleman, in compliance with his code, turns himself in. There’s a twist in the last sentence. This one is short, but I thought it was fairly trenchant in its comments on pre-WWI class attitudes that were fading away by the time this story was published.

The Wife of the Kenite (Agatha Christie). A grim tale of revenge taken by a woman against a brutal war opponent; the resolution is foreshadowed if you read Judges 4 (Deborah’s revenge), but it doesn’t take long to get there.  Set in South Africa, with the villain being German and the outraged woman Flemish. Apparently Christie had recently visited South Africa, so there was some scene-setting and use of Afrikaans terms like kraal and stoep.

The Spy of Venice (Brandreth)

The Spy of Venice: A William Shakespeare Novel - Benet Brandreth

I enjoyed, but at the same time was slightly disappointed in this volume by the son of Gyles Brandreth. The latter has given me many pleasurable hours with his Oscar Wilde mystery stories, where he reimagines a literary great as a solver of mysteries. Benet Brandreth has taken advantage of that big gap in Shakespeare's known biography to set up the beginning of a series of adventure stories - not mysteries, but more action-oriented - featuring Will on a fictional but historically possible trip to Venice; presumably this volume's sidekicks, Nick Oldcastle (who was the real-life inspiration for Falstaff) and Heminges, fellow-actor and eventual publisher of the First Folio, will also continue to play a part in sequels.

The chief delight of the novel is the interweaving of an endless succession of Shakespearian references. The more Shakespeare you have lurking in your brain, the more smiles of recognition will break out across your face as yet another familiar phrase or situation surfaces in an unfamiliar context. The story itself is also not bad: there's nothing wrong with Brandreth's imagination and he clearly knows enough about the 1590s (English and Italian) to navigate from spies in the Bearpit to vengeful Italian femmes fatales, with many minor characters biting the dust along the way.  It's a decent romp in an interesting historical setting (for me, the story picked up considerably once  it moved to Italy).

For me at least, there was one constant irritant in the style. All too frequently, we'd read a perfectly good declarative sentence. Which was unnecessarily broken and followed by a sentence fragment. I don't mind this device when it's occasionally used for emphasis or to characterize a speaker, but when it appears every other page in the general narrative, it's just a nasty (and unskilful) little tic, and I wish there had been an editorial foot put down on it. Comparisons are odorous, as Dogberry says, but the language of Benet's Dad in the Wilde series is pretty much irreproachable.

Will is still in Venice at the end of this novel, no doubt with much still to observe about Jews on the Rialto amongst other things. If I see the second in this series, I'll likely give it a shot, but with lowered expectations. It's still a worthy entry in that remarkably voluminous sub-genre, stories featuring Shakespeare as a fictional character.

When the Music's Over (Robinson)

When the Music's Over: An Inspector Banks Novel (Inspector Banks Novels) - Peter Robinson

You could probably say I give Peter Robinson a bit of an advantage amongst mystery writers because I always start any of his books expecting to enjoy it thoroughly. But to tell the truth, I've never been disappointed, and that's the case again with "When the Music's Over".

 

I wish that the split plot (2 cases half a century apart of sexual assault of young girls, with subsequent loss of life; linked only by theme) seemed less universal and at the same time less timely. But it would be a rather oblivious mystery author who did not at least consider dealing with the issues so very much front of mind with the #MeToo movement.

 

Banks has accepted promotion and is solely investigating the cold case of rape by a prominent entertainer - shades of Jimmy Savile, I suppose. That one has all sorts of political and internal police implications - past cover-ups and bribery in the force - and Banks is struggling for the first time with being the establishment instead of the righteous rebel. Of course he stays abreast of the modern-day case, which involves grooming and racial tensions between working-class white people and the local Pakistani enclave, and that enables us to see the expected interactions with the other main characters we've come to know and like.

 

I very much appreciated the expanded role for Banks' team, especially the female members of it. Annie Cabbot and Gerry Masterson take on the modern rape/murder, while Winsome Jackman accompanies Banks (and gets much opportunity to roll her eyes) as Banks tracks down witness memories relating to the now elderly entertainer.

 

Though the actual perpetrators of the individual crimes get their just deserts in various ways, Robinson doesn't leave us with an easy feeling at the end, showing us instead, heading out into danger, yet another potential young victim of the longstanding blight on society that not even Banks and his team can hope to eradicate. It chimed well with the feeling of anger and sadness that so many of us, women and men, have been feeling lately.

 

Recommended, as always.

The Accidental (Smith)

The Accidental - Ali Smith

The strength of this novel, for me, is in the very tight point of view for each of the chapters, right down to the individual use of language by the characters whose train of thought we are following. For instance, in the chapter where we first meet Astrid and her reaction to the country village where her parents have dragged her, we know that she is a pre-teen not just from the mixture of sharp insights and sheer incomprehension with which she sees things around her, but from her repetitive use of the word "substandard", in that infatuated way we have when young for some new word or idea.

 

Like quite a lot of literary novels, this one keeps us engaged by feeding information - who are these people, what is happening to them, what (if anything?) is the shape of the story - in small and obscure parcels that we have to keep decoding. It was, in fact, mostly fun to do, although I was a little disappointed to discover that the seemingly accidental factor that precipitated the breaking of their world and their family - the arrival and persistent presence of a mysterious young woman named Amber - was not accidental at all, and rather easily explained by all-too-common human depravity. Nonetheless, in the unfolding we learned a lot about the inside workings of not just Astrid, but her brother Magnus (racked with guilt over a serious incident at school), her mother Eve (a working author), and her stepfather Michael (a professor of English with tendencies to infidelity).

 

The formal experimentation is audacious. As Amber enters his life Michael's life become a sonnet, and the next dozen pages are in various poetic forms, including a magnificent sonnet sequence. It doesn't surprise you one little bit that Ali Smith is also a published poet.

 

What's left at the end? A tremendous sense of inconclusiveness, of course - this is a literary novel after all. A lingering sense of who the characters are, even Amber (who is not a complete mystery, though her chapters require even more decoding than most). And, most of all, a sense of playfulness and lightness.

 

Appropriately, my reading of this book was entirely accidental; it was a random pick from a book exchange at work. It has made me curious to read more. (I only discovered well after reading it that Ali Smith is Scottish; there's nothing particularly Scottish about the book, though I seem to remember Amber has a Scottish tinge. Still, no need for the "Scotland" tag - Smith's biography makes it clear that her actual and spiritual home is Cambridge).

 

Recommended if you want to try something you've definitely never read before, and that gives pleasure in exchange for the work.

Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star (Hunter)

Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star - Tab Hunter

Tab Hunter (real name Arthur Gelien) was only vaguely known to me as an actor - his movie acting career was essentially over before I became aware of such things, and his TV appearances were too infrequent and minor to register. However, his name came up now and then, as I grew interested in figure skating culture and history, as a fairly long-term partner of Ronnie Robertson, perennial silver medalist and quite possibly the greatest spinner of all time (check out youtube if you don't believe me). Hunter skated competitively himself a bit in his youth, enough that he was cast (with Dick Button!) in a Hans Brinker movie. After this biography was published in 2005 - and again after it received publicity with the release of a documentary about him in 2015 - I also learned to link his name with that of Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowall, and other closeted Hollywood leading men.

 

I quite enjoyed most of this autobiography. It is neither morbid nor thoughtless (the blond good looks of his youth do not indicate a brainless bimbo). The details of the staged romances with up-and-coming actresses like Natalie Wood are told matter-of-factly. There is definitely a hint of self-pity in his recounting of the way the studios treated him, but it's no more than you'd expect, and it's clearly mitigated by the older actor's understanding that he had a very good ride in the jet set era, financially and in terms of lifestyle. He name-drops like mad, of course, and we'd expect nothing less. And a warning to readers of the e-book/Kindle version - the photo section has been shunted unceremoniously to the end of the book, without any sort of table of contents entry, but it is there. The photos are interesting, though small in their e-version, and the beefcake ones, aimed explicitly at the female population, provoke admiration and wry smiles at the same time.

 

There were moments when I didn't much like Mr. Hunter, from his own account, though they were relatively few. One of those was his entirely uncalled-for use of "fag" (twice) to describe certain hangers-on in his social circle when he was at the height of his financial success. Yes, yes, I know, re-appropriation, but this was clearly a dismissive use, and perhaps not unexpected from a man whose conventional masculinity was his major selling point. And perhaps this usage might not have grated quite so much when the book was published, 13 years before I read it.

 

Those interested in the shenanigans of the Hollywood studio system (Hunter and Natalie Wood were the last actors put under those famous long-term contracts), and the creepy world of agents, with sidelights on the spaghetti western scene in Italy and the world of Hunter's real passion, raising and training horses for show-jumping, will find lots to interest them in this book. Those interested in salacious details of the lives of actors like Rock Hudson (for whose career Hunter is convinced his own was sacrificed) and Tony Perkins (with whom he had a relationship for a while) will have to look elsewhere, since this is a man of the mid 20th century after all.

 

Recommended as a useful counteractive to the official Hollywood narrative of the time, for its unexpected little additions to figure skating history (he has nothing but good things to say about Dick Button, by the way), and as a rather interestingly reflective late-life autobiography of someone you might consider to be a bit of a Salieri; a mediocre career (and he knows it) but still celebrated.

The Sisters Brothers (deWitt)

The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt

As usual, I'm second-guessing myself when I find myself disliking a book that has received awards, critical praise and a movie deal. But unfortunately I just could not enjoy this book.

 

There's an easy explanation for this: it was only after I was well into the novel, and started reading reviews in my perplexity, that I realized that everyone who manifestly enjoyed it claimed it was hilariously funny. I didn't find it so. There's a certain mild and steady amusement in the contrast, well maintained throughout the book, between the mannered, Victorian prose of the first-person narrator and the vicious, violent events he narrates (he and his brother, surname Sisters, are hired killers in gold-rush California), but it's not by any means hilarious, and it does not for me overcome the equally constant level of mild nausea at the violence. I rarely abandon a book, but I should have stopped with the description in the first few pages of the death of horses in a fire. In some ways, the human deaths (macabre though some of them were - think acid baths) were less upsetting than that.

 

I'm not planning to see the film, but I think it likely works if the story is treated as slapstick. The convention of slapstick is that you simply remove for yourself any obligation for empathy - the characters are obviously not real, so pain is not real, and you can laugh. Possibly those who enjoyed this book treated it in the same way, and it may be a failing in me as a reader that I was unable to do likewise. What inhibited me, to a large extent, was that there was clearly an attempt to make some sort of empathy happen for the narrator, who is the less brutal of two brothers, and who gives us a backstory to explain the psychopathy of his family. So, for me, between that and the horses (I don't think I've ever seen any film where the terrified, painful death of animals was slapstick and funny), I just couldn't get into the right frame of mind.

 

Possibly, also, I was spoiled for the historical setting by the fact that I just read an extremely rich evocation of the same period and place by Isabel Allende ("Daughter of Fortune"). In comparison, deWitt's use of the same basic facts about San Francisco and area in '49 seemed bald and uninterested.

 

That said, one thing saved this review from being a single star, and that is the control of and delight in the nineteenth-century language. DeWitt managed to create a unique voice here - whether he has others, or whether this is his default, other readers will have to tell me, because unfortunately I'm not likely to pursue the rest of his oeuvre.

Daughter of Fortune (Allende)

Daughter of Fortune - Isabel Allende

By coincidence, this was one of several works I've read in the past year set (or set partially) in the California gold rush of 1849. I'd say this is by the far the most successful. The others, by the way, are The Sisters Brothers, and the novelized version of Lola Montez' life.

 

The title character, Eliza Sommers, grows up in early 19th century Chile, but in a very specialized sub-culture (as you can tell by her name) - the British colony of Valparaiso. Eliza is a abandoned doorstep orphan and so her identity from the very beginning is shrouded in storytelling. The novel, in its largest terms, is the continuing story of her discovery of that identity, and her increasing control over that narrative.

 

In the early chapters about her girlhood and adolescence, Eliza is presented with two contrasting mother figures: indigenous Mama Fresia, housekeeper and nursemaid, overwhelmingly practical but superstitious and a keeper of secrets; and spinster Englishwoman Rose, who has conventional ideas about women and marriage as tightly bound as her corsets, but (or perhaps therefore) keeps a secret or two of her own.

 

Matchmaking efforts for the growing Eliza go awry, as do the efforts of a couple of unsuccessful suitors for Rose, and each chapter is crammed with fascinating historical detail, well-integrated, about that period and place. Eliza has a quick dream of adolescent love, which finds its expression upon a pile of unused curtains in an unused room, and then her first love, who is a political idealist, leaves her behind.

 

Eliza pursues him to California on a fairly horrible journey as a stowaway (Valparaiso is a port city, as of course is San Francisco), but what we might fear would turn out to be a rather conventional romance reunion turns instead into a series of fascinating adventures in fruitless pursuit of an outlaw who may be him,in the wholly lawless place that is gold rush California. As her adventures unfold, we also learn a great deal about the past and present of a companion who becomes increasingly important, a Chinese doctor named Tao Chi'en.

 

In the last paragraph of the novel, Eliza, having been permitted to view the remains of the notorious outlaw, turns to Tao Chi'en and says simply, "I am free." For what happens in between (including a two-page appearance by Lola Montez, expertly rendered), I strongly urge anybody who likes historical novels, or novels with psychological insight, or both, to read and savour this book. It really is very very good.

The Gem Collector (Wodehouse)

The Gem Collector - P.G. Wodehouse

This was the quintessential airplane read - free in e-version, ephemeral and amusing, and just long enough to take one from one side of the continent to the other. It's relatively early Wodehouse. This is the version of a story published in the American literary magazine Ainslee's in 1909; it was republished - and possibly revised/expanded - as A Gentleman of Leisure (UK) or The Intrusion of Jimmy (US) the following year. I would describe it as droll rather than flat-out funny in the way Wodehouse sometimes is in the Jeeves books a couple of decades later.

 

Jimmy is a jewel thief who has attained a British aristocratic title by inheritance, but plenty of other people in this book are also suppressing a less than pristine past, and the humour largely resides in the contrasts between the manners expected of certain nations (especially US/UK) and certain classes and the actual thoughts and actions of the principals. I couldn't tell you what exactly happens with the extravagant necklace of the title (tempting people to theft), but I'm pretty sure there must be a paste duplicate in there somewhere.

Skim (Tomaki)

Skim - Mariko Tamaki, Jillian Tamaki

It's unlikely I ever would have picked up a graphic novel, particularly a young adult one, had it not appeared on my "CBC 100 novels that make you proud to be Canadian" list. The experience of reading this was not unpleasurable, but it was enough to confirm for me that I don't really like this form of storytelling very much, mainly because I am decidedly more of a verbal than a graphic learner, and I find the process of hunting through a picture for clues about context to the spoken words considerably more laborious than my well-established abilities to interpret verbal clues.

 

So, all that said, I found Skim an interesting enough character to keep me with her to the end of her teenage angst story, and there was (if I recall my now very distant adolescence) a fairly raw and realistic portrayal of the hyperdramatic emotional state in which a very young woman spends her schooldays. I am not sure that my generation generally experienced the heavy level of depression and confusion (including exposure to peer suicide) depicted here; maybe I was just in a lucky place and time. And I know for a fact that I was oblivious to any same-sex sexual experimentation that may have been going on around me, in a way that clearly is not possible now - and I'm presuming that's a good thing in general. Skim's sources of confusion are manifold - she's a Goth who tries to use supernatural ritual to find answers; she's racialized (Asian), although that doesn't seem to have a front row impact in this particular story; she's attracted to a female teacher; she's finding her way through the minefield of different friendships as she finds herself in or out of sympathy with the way those friends think. It's not a phase of life I willingly revisit, but I'll admit the pictures - once I had made myself put the effort in to interpret them - did an effective job of portraying it, and the progress of the story generally made sense.

 

I don't think I'm a snob about graphic novels; I think reading them effectively is a skill I exercise only tolerably well, and that's probably why (along with the teen subject matter), even though I read and enjoyed this, I'm unlikely to seek out more of the same.

Deathworld (Harrison)

Deathworld - Harry Harrison

If ever you needed convincing that "classic" science fiction, as published in the various periodicals in the mid 20th-century, was a guy's game, you'd only need to read this. Even while it posits the need for a peaceful resolution on a planet where nature itself is rising up against the colonizers, the story revels in its endless battles. What's more, there's exactly one woman on the whole planet, it seems (her name is Meta) and though she's portrayed as being skilled and gutsy, there's no question of her having any sort of real agency (and while she's not as objectified and hypersexualized as, say, the women in Heinlein, she's certainly the product of a straight male imagination).

 

I would be more inclined to be generous and give a third star if the writing were not so irritatingly flawed. The sentence fragments and comma splices are not in any way artfully deployed; clearly they were just bad habits. It gets very wearing after a few chapters.

 

That said, the story was reasonably well spun out, and if it seemed a bit predictable that's doubtless because so many of these early stories have turned into tropes in the intervening half century. There was some attempt to be thoughtful about the notion of the relation of colonizers and their colonized environment (if you go in slashing, don't be surprised if you meet a hostile response).

 

I must admit I did chuckle at the occasional place where imagination stopped short of current reality (there seemed to be a certain tendency to turn the results of computer processing into paper, for instance!). But you can see that this story was based in the same excitement about space, and about associated technologies such as medical instruments, that informed the first round of Star Trek. I can completely understand that for the original and intended audience (men who were young in the 60s), there would be an enormous nostalgic pull in this novel.

SPOILER ALERT!

Money in the Morgue (Duffy, after Marsh)

Money in the Morgue - Stella Duffy, Ngaio Marsh

Reading posthumous completions of famous authors' unfinished mysteries is always a bit of a gamble, because the intrepid completers set themselves the exceedingly difficult task of replicating the very particular virtues (as well as, perhaps, a few much-excused quirks or even faults) of said famous author. In this case, I found myself somewhat disappointed, although you'll notice I still gave it three stars, which in my lexicon means "provided substantially more enjoyment than irritation".

 

Stella Duffy did not have a half-finished deathbed masterpiece to work with here, but rather an abandoned few chapters and associated notes for a novel started at least thirty years before Marsh's death. (This leads one to the rather obvious question of why it was abandoned, although one can only speculate). It is a wartime novel, where part of the mystery revolves, not very subtly, around treasonous activities in a remote (and apparently cave-riddled) part of New Zealand, where a military hospital and its associated morgue (in a cave) form the principal setting. Marsh's detective Alleyn is there, writing homesick letters to sidekick Fox and wife Troy, due to the national security issues, but ends up conveniently solving a local murder that becomes intertwined.

 

The plot's a bit sensationalist, which is only what we expect from Marsh, and the murder details are actually a little less gruesome and bizarre than in some of her work. The characters, including the Fox-substitute that Alleyn picks up, are not hugely well-developed, though one or two of them have private secrets. Lesbian attraction is a motivating factor for one character, and though it is hopeless and decried, I think there's some evidence that Duffy played down any nastiness that wasn't completely necessary to understand the plot. None of this was particularly bothersome and some entirely expected in a Marsh-mimicry.

 

My discomforts, such as they were, were actually with the writing, which was clunkier than Marsh's, and the unsuccessful attempt to introduce motifs and quotations from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" - they seemed terribly superimposed, whereas I always got the sense that the theatrical references in Marsh's own writing sprang spontaneously out of her own background in theatre.

 

There are three intertwined crimes in this story: one faked murder, one real domestic murder with mitigating circumstances, and one treasonous plot. We are clearly invited by Alleyn's musings, and explanations to pseudo-Fox at the end, to compare and contrast the outcomes for the individuals involved, and whether they are properly weighed and balanced. (Bear in mind that New Zealand still had the death penalty in the 40s). Was this rather ambiguous ending one of the reasons Marsh abandoned the project? As I say, we can only speculate.

 

I can't say I'm sorry that Duffy picked up the project and published it. It provided a few hours of harmless pleasure. However, to those who want to read Ngaio Marsh, read Ngaio March, not this.

The House of the Seven Gables (Hawthorne)

The House of the Seven Gables - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Somehow I missed this during my omnivorous reading of the 19th century gothic in my undergraduate years. I read it now from the point of view of someone who distinctly resembles fractious, unsightly Hepzibah far more than the idealized "little woman" Phoebe (though perhaps I have always been more a Hepzibah than a Phoebe). In any case, the emphasis on Hepzibah's incapabilities and infirmities, and her constant scowl, was the one truly uncomfortable note for me in this otherwise delightful excursion into Hawthorne's extravagant and oratorical chessboard of symbols and motifs. I'm aware that Hepzibah's offputting scowl, which does not at all represent her actual mood or actual morals, is the counterpart of the Judge's false and beaming smile, and both are equally insisted upon beyond any reasonable requirement for description so as to force the careless reader to consider what they actually represent. But I must admit, at the umpteenth reference to the ugly Hepzibah scowl, I was provoked into growling, "oh just give it a rest, already, Nathaniel!" Subtlety - not his forte.

 

Chapter 18 is extraordinary writing. I started reading it in a slightly irritated mood, because it seemed that the author was going to take a simplistic trope (the narrator doesn't realize that Judge Pyncheon is dead) and just make a chapter out of it without doing much. Instead, it becomes an absolute symphony of rhetorical, imaginative expansion of the would-haves and could-haves surrounding the mundane fact of a nasty man dead of congenital heart failure in a decaying old house.

 

I have a very small and select folder on my Kindle called, "read but keeping". In goes The House of Seven Gables.

The Ra Expeditions (Heyerdahl)

The Ra Expeditions - Thor Heyerdahl

Heyerdahl's an interesting character; it appears he's a true damn-the-torpedoes adventurer, but his nature, as expressed in his writing anyway, is actually quite contemplative, and when he is describing physical surroundings, he gives the impression of having not just an observer's eye, but a painter's one.

 

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter much to me whether his "diffusionist" theories (the notion that very early civilizations on separate continents did in fact affect each other because they were capable of high-seas travel) are fully credited or discredited by modern archaeological thought. The chapters of special pleading mentioning all sorts of similarities between the cultural practices and artifacts on both sides of the Atlantic, although interesting and to me (in the absence of the other half of the argument) fairly convincing, are not the reason I would go back to reread this volume. What I appreciated the most were his vivid, concrete word-pictures of life on the two reed boats (Ra and Ra II), being swamped under 30-ft high waves, or going swimming and encountering all sorts of sea-creatures, not to mention nasty oil pollution, or simply co-existing with more than half-a-dozen men with as many different cultural backgrounds - a deliberate choice - in a space where "cheek-by-jowl" would be a generous description.

 

I also enjoyed the chapters detailing the round-the-world researches into very secluded places where reed boats are still built and used, and then the arrangements that had to be made in order to turn the mad concept of a cross-ocean voyage on a "paper boat" into reality. I suspect that this part of the account may be pretty heavily sanitized, particularly as regards financing, about which we learn next to nothing. Practically all we learn is that between the voyages, Heyerdahl was relying on future book revenues to finance Ra II.

 

There is a curious imbalance in this volume: the initial, almost-successful Ra voyage takes up fully 90% or more of the text, and the second, completely successful voyage is confined to the very last few dozen pages. The answer is probably buried in publishing history, but I was unable to deduce anything solid from looking at the various multilingual Ra-related items in worldcat. The turnaround time between Ra and Ra II appears to have been too short for a full book on the first voyage to have been written and published, but it's entirely possible that, knowing that most of the details of the first would be applicable to the second, Heyerdahl chose not to repeat his level of on-board documentation the second time around. Can't really tell.

 

Anyway, recommended as a really well-composed piece of highly unusual travel writing, with an interesting assortment of oddities and incidents, and an underpinning of speculative archaeology that's quite interesting to the layperson, and possibly enough to spark a deeper interest in the field for some readers.

The Birth House (McKay)

The Birth House - Ami McKay

Given that this falls into a subgenre of literary women's fiction that I flippantly call the "gynecological novel", I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. A large part of that is due to the historical setting, around WW I, which gave both urgency and context to the fairly straightforward narrative of a young woman's apprenticeship in, and practice of, midwifery, chiefly in opposition to the men around her. This is largely a story of female friendship and mutual support, though I hasten to add that there are a few sympathetic male characters, notably Dora's brothers and her eventual lover. They have, however, a relatively small part to play in comparison with the three overwhelmingly negative males who create the tension in the story: the abusive Mr. Ketch, murderer of women and of Dora's reputation; Dora's feckless and increasingly controlling husband, Archer; and, of course, the obstetrical villain of the piece, Dr. Thomas.

As a woman who, if she had ever given birth, would have undoubtedly chosen to take advantage of medical science, pain relief, and the security of an institutional setting, I find myself in an odd position when asked to sympathize unstintingly with the older, less professional, in many cases highly unscientific practices and ideology of home birth and midwifery as presented here. To navigate this problem, I fall back on my knowledge of my own profound ignorance of the realities of childbearing, but also on the reassuring notion, which I devoutly hope is true, that the stark opposition of male and female, science and superstition, pharmaceuticals and plant remedies, is moderated in our own time by some mutual understanding, in a way that it was not in 1914-1918.

I said at the beginning that I'm not a fan of the gynecological novel in general. This one, fortunately for me, was character-driven rather than obsessed (as some are) with pain, blood and the fragility of life. I enjoyed Dora's gradual coming of age as a proto-feminist; near the end of the novel she travels far from her small Nova Scotia community to a foreign but friendly women's enclave in foreign but friendly Boston, where she associates with suffragists and lesbians (and her brother Charles) before returning to home base Scots Bay and her final defeat of the interloping Doctor Thomas.

The style is transparent and unexceptionable. I wouldn't characterize the novel as having a particularly vivid sense of place in comparison with some of the other east-coast Canadian novels I've read, nor is it particularly poetic in its description, but it was enough to carry the story and the characters. In enjoyed the introduction of the expected historical milestones - the Halifax explosion, the Armistice, the Spanish flu. All in all, a quick and painless read, without benefit of chloroform.