The Gothic Tales of H. P. Lovecraft edited by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Fear, frogs and fungoids…

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“Shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless, ensanguined corridors of purple fulgurous sky…”

I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with Lovecraft. When he manages to restrain his worst excesses, he’s the equal of any horror writer I’ve read and far superior to most, but when he gets into full “weird” mode, he seems to lose control and goes wandering off through chapters as long and tortuous as the ancient tunnels and buildings he describes. So the idea of some of his shorter, more Gothic tales collected in one volume appealed to me greatly. I’m happy to say I loved this collection – every story got either a four or five star rating individually, a rare occurrence that has happened to me only once before, as far as I remember.

There are thirteen tales in the collection, ranging in length from eight pages to forty or so. They are simply presented, without illustrations or notes. However there is a short but informative introduction by Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. Reyes discusses how Lovecraft’s reputation as a major influence in weird fiction has led to his more traditionally Gothic work being somewhat overlooked. But Reyes points out that even in his weird fiction, Lovecraft often used Gothic concerns. Having read the stories, I’d say the reverse is also true – that his Gothic tales often include elements of his major weird works, particularly in the settings, the hint of unknown fears from something more cosmic than ghostly, and the idea of the degeneration of humanity, which recurs frequently not only in Lovecraft’s work but in that of many of his near contemporaries.

HP Lovecraft

Reyes also mentions Lovecraft’s well-known racist views. The stories collected here have been selected to avoid the worst of these. I’m not sure whether that’s the right decision – to get a real flavour of the man, unfortunately one has to be made aware of his views, since they underlie so many of his recurring themes. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that the less overtly racist stories are considerably more fun to read.

I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide.

But enough of the analysis! It’s all about the stories, of course! Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most…

The Music of Erich Zann – I used this for a Tuesday Terror! post. Great stuff!

The Music of Erich Zann

The Alchemist – a young man is brought up in the castle of his ancestors by an old servitor. On his 21st birthday he is given papers revealing the family curse – each head of the family will die around the age of 32. Naturally, this thought obsesses the young man, so he sets out to find the reason for the curse and to reverse it if he can. Lots of Gothic in this one – the ancient castle with ruined wings, decayed aristocratic family, bats, cobwebs, darkness, curses and so on. And a nicely shocking moment when… nah! I’m not telling! And only ten pages… well done, HP!

The Moon-Bog – the narrator’s friend returns to his ancestral home in Ireland. At first all is well… until he decides to drain the bog for peat. This is also heavily Gothic but has touches of his trademark weird – the frogs especially are a delightfully Lovecraftian touch, but I shall say no more about them… It’s excellently written with some wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of the bog before and during the draining.

The Moon-Bog
by bealinn via deviantart.com

The Shunned House – an empty house, a nameless horror, and no Lovecraft collection would be complete without phosphorescent fungoids! This is straight horror, well-paced, and full of great imagery even though it’s written in plainer, more restrained language than usual.

The Strange High House in the Mist – this, I felt, was more clearly heading into weird territory though still with Gothic aspects.

In the morning mist comes up from the sea by the cliffs beyond Kingsport. White and feathery it comes from the deep to its brothers the clouds, full of dreams of dank pastures and caves of leviathan. And later, in still summer rains on the steep roofs of poets, the clouds scatter bits of those dreams, that men shall not live without rumour of old, strange secrets, and wonders that planets tell planets alone in the night.

It tells of a house in Kingsport, a fictional town in Massachusetts, and one of Lovecraft’s regular settings. It’s set high on an inaccessible cliff where the sea mists meet the clouds, providing a conduit through which pass things unknown to puny humanity. Until one man decides to ascend the cliff…

The Strange High House in the Mist
by tikirussy via deviantart.com

The book itself is gorgeous. The cover illustrations on back and front are embossed in what looks like silver, but seems to have different tones in it so that it takes on different colours in some lights. The print is clear and the paper is high quality, with a lovely thickness and weight to it. Given the Gothic theme, it would be perfect as a gift not just for existing Lovecraft fans but for anyone who enjoys Poe or MR James and hasn’t yet sampled the delights of weird fiction – a good introduction that clearly shows the crossovers between the genres. Of course, if you’re anything like me, you might prefer to keep the gift for yourself…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, The British Library.

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Imagined Corners by Willa Muir

Repression, religion and sex…

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Calderwick is a small town on the east coast of Scotland – a town that looks in on itself, that has “turned its back on the sea”. When Hector Shand marries, he brings his young bride Elizabeth to live in the town he left in disgrace some years earlier, after he had ruined another young girl’s reputation. Hector is the half-brother of the mill owner, John Shand, one of the leading men in the town, and they have a sister, another Elizabeth (known as Lizzie or Elise), who also left the town many years earlier in disgrace, running off with a man to whom she wasn’t married. Now Elise, newly widowed from yet another man, is returning to Calderwick too. Muir sets out to look at Calderwick society – Scottish society – both from the perspective of those who consider it home and from those who are looking at it with the fresh eyes of incomers.

This book is full of doubles, used as complements and contrasts to each other, as a method of showing both sides of the themes Muir raises. I’ve become aware through reading various scholarly introductions and reviews of Scottish classics that the double, or duality, is a particular feature of Scottish writing – Jekyll and Hyde, the good and bad brothers in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the separated twin sisters in Marriage, and many others examples in books I haven’t yet read. Scholars suggest this may have arisen as a result of the Union, which has left Scots with a legacy of divided nationality – Scottish and/or British. Another theory is that it arises out of the tensions in Scottish society as it began to emerge from the stranglehold of Calvinism. Both of these theories could be applied to this book, I feel.

The themes Muir deals with include a kind of feminism, cultural rather than political; parochialism; the worth or otherwise of higher education; and, of course, religion – all Scottish fiction worth its salt addresses the effect of Knox and his hellfire on the Scottish psyche. I felt Muir was trying to do too much in this relatively short novel and as a result failed to get far beneath the superficial in most of her themes. From my perspective, it doesn’t reach the profundity of insight for which I feel it’s aiming.

However, it’s an interesting and enjoyable read, with some good, though somewhat exaggerated characterisation, and an excellent picture of the kind of society prevalent in the smaller towns of Scotland in the early 20th century. Calderwick is apparently a fictionalised version of Montrose, where Muir grew up. Published in 1935, it’s set in 1912, though the attitudes of many of the characters felt to me much more in tune with the ‘30s than the pre-WW1 era. In fact, if it weren’t for the references to the style of women’s clothing, I’d have read it thinking it was about a post-war society. There are no references to what’s going on in the wider world that might have rooted it in time – there’s a curious feeling of isolation, as if Calderwick is unaffected by the world outside.

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The two Elizabeths are both struggling with the status of women in society. Elise, the elder, escaped to Europe, a place Muir seems to suggest allows greater freedom, although even there she eventually succumbs to the conventional by marrying. Young Elizabeth, newly married, is an idealist with that kind of ecstatic fervour that seems to be prevalent in modernist feminist writing – so tiring. Quickly discovering that her husband isn’t quite the man she thought, she decides to be a Noble Wife – a support and guide to her husband-child, all-forgiving, a kind of Earth Mother. It’s all rather nauseating. Muir uses it to discuss how women were expected to maintain moral (sexual) standards higher than those of the men, to provide a kind of moral structure on which they could lean, and to help them control their rampant sexuality. There’s much daring talk of sex and Elizabeth’s enjoyment of the physical side of love, in defiance of the repression forced on women by Church and society. In a world where sex is seen as sinful (for women), Muir suggests, then women who discover they enjoy it immediately have to question their own moral righteousness. Oh, how I recognise the Scottishness of that! Knox’s trumpet still blasts…

The other main family is the Murrays. William is the minister of the Free Church, a particularly Calvinist version of Presbyterianism. His brother Ned is suffering from some kind of mental breakdown due to something that happened while he was at university. As Ned spirals ever downwards, William wrestles with his faith. Why would God allow this? Is it a punishment? William knows that God is a god of anger as well as a god of love, but in Scottish Presbyterianism the anger part generally takes precedence. As Ned descends into madness, and William wrings his hands helplessly and looks unavailingly to his God for help, their sister, Sarah, rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the job of trying to hold all their lives together. It’s not made explicit, but Muir clearly implies that, in a crisis, forget God and man – it’ll all end up on the shoulders of the womenfolk.

Willa Muir

Although it’s very well observed, I found that Muir’s resolutions to the various storylines feel overly contrived to make her points. While I certainly recognise the patriarchal society and the repressive religion that has blighted Scotland for centuries (are we out of it now? Hmm, perhaps), I felt that, as with much feminist literature, she has treated her men unfairly, making each either weak or immoral. There’s a kind of implied suggestion (or perhaps I’m inferring it unfairly) that the only way to get away from the repression is to flee Scotland (and maybe men too) – I’d have preferred at least one of them to decide to fight from within, as so many strong Scottish women have done in real life, working alongside the many good Scottish men to change the culture immeasurably for the better. Muir’s own views may have been coloured by the fact that she spent much of her life in the shadow cast by her more famous husband, the poet Edwin Muir, and spent many years working as a translator to fund his creative endeavours. We’re all the products of our own experiences, in the end.

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Marriage by Susan Ferrier

The Scottish Jane Austen…?

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When Lady Juliana is ordered by her father to marry a Duke she doesn’t love for money and social advantage, the girl refuses. Spoilt and with her head full of romantic ideas, instead she elopes with her young lover, Henry Douglas – a handsome but penurious Scotsman. Henry has relied on his guardian to keep him in style, but the guardian is furious about his marriage and cuts him off. Soon, the shallow and vain Juliana realises that living on love is not nearly as much fun as living in luxury. As their funds dwindle to nothing, they are forced to beg shelter from Henry’s father, a rather insignificant and uncouth laird in the Highlands. Their marriage continues to worsen, but Juliana bears twin daughters, one healthy, one sickly. When Juliana gets a chance to return to London, she promptly takes it, taking the healthy daughter, Adelaide, with her and leaving the other, Mary, in the hands of her sister-in-law. The story carries us through Juliana’s marriage and on to the lives of her two daughters, showing how their different upbringings determine their personalities.

Apparently when this book was originally published in 1818, it was hugely popular, outselling even Jane Austen. Now, on its recent re-publication, Ferrier is being touted as “the Scottish Jane Austen”. I fear not. While Austen’s books sparkle with wit and intelligence, this one, though often humorous, has nothing like the lightness of touch nor the true insight into society of Austen’s work. It’s grossly overlong and has large stretches of pure sentimentality that would make even Dickens cringe.

Part of the problem is that, in conjunction with so many Scottish authors following the Union, Ferrier was probably writing with an English audience in mind, and I assume that’s why she felt it necessary to drag all her characters down to London for the largest section of the book. While the Scottish sections are fun and give a believable if deliberately caricatured picture of Highland life and Edinburgh society, once she reaches London there is no sense of place and the society she describes feels considerably less authentic, more as if it’s based on books Ferrier has read than on a lifestyle she has lived and observed.

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The other major flaw is one common to many writers of that era – the drooping perfection of her main female character, the good sister Mary. Often, these drearily angelic women are surrounded by quirky or dastardly characters who liven the story up, and there are some of these in this book, too. But for my taste we spend far too much time with the saintly Mary and hear far too much about her religious scruples – about her religion in general, in fact. Regular readers of my reviews will know by now that Scotland has an unhealthy relationship with religion due to the misogynistic old killjoy Knox and his buddy Calvin. And, goodness! Mary has been well trained by her pious foster-mother to see anything the least bit fun as the temptation of the Devil.

Adelaide, on the other hand, never comes to life as a character at all. There primarily to provide a contrast to Mary, her purpose is to show what happens to girls brought up by shallow mothers to consider wealth and status all-important. I felt she could either have been made hissably unlikeable (like Lady Catherine de Bourgh) or perhaps have caused the reader to pity her (like Mrs Collins) or even allowed us to laugh at her (like Mrs Bennet). But in fact I never felt I had got to know her at all, and therefore felt nothing for her.

Fortunately, the book has some redeeming qualities that make it reasonably enjoyable despite its weaknesses. Juliana’s reaction to the rough, unsophisticated life of Henry’s Highland family gives room for a lot of humour in the first section, as does Ferrier’s description of the Highland landscape as a bare, harsh, barren place of rain and mud. More realistic than the prettified, shortbread box version of the Highlands that was beginning to be created by those of a Romantic inclination at that time. As Mary travels south years later to visit her mother and sister, she stops off in Edinburgh, and Ferrier creates some excellently caricatured characters there, almost in the vein of Dickens.

Susan Ferrier

The best bit for me, though, is the character of Mary’s English cousin, Lady Emily. Sarcastic and independent, Emily relentlessly mocks the aristocratic society of which she’s a part and supports droopy Mary through all her trials. One can tell Emily’s opinion of Mary’s constant moralising and rejection of fun is rather similar to my own – i.e., one suspects she often wants to slap Mary with a wet fish. But for some reason, despite this, Emily grows to love Mary and indeed, (to my horror), even occasionally wonders if she should emulate her. If there is any resemblance to Austen, it’s in the character of Emily, and it was she, not Mary, who kept me turning pages.

Overall, I enjoyed parts of the book a lot but felt that I had to trudge through too much moralistic sentimentality along the way. I’m not a great enthusiast for the women-writing-about-women-for-women type of book in general, and think this would probably work better for people who do enjoy that. It’s certainly good enough that it doesn’t deserve to have been “forgotten”, but to compare it to Austen does it a disservice by setting up expectations it doesn’t meet. As entertainment, this one has much to recommend it in parts, but neither the quality of the writing nor the depth of insight it provides take it into the true literary fiction category.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

Sex and death…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Frank Chambers is a bum who drifts from place to place, making a living out of gambling and petty cons. One day he finds himself at a garage outside Los Angeles without funds or a ride. He cons a meal out of the owner, a Greek by the name of Nick Papadikis. Nick’s looking for help around the place, so offers Frank a job. Frank’s about to refuse when he catches sight of Nick’s wife, Cora, a luscious brunette who oozes sensuality…

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

Now Frank has a reason to stick around, and it’s not long before the lip-mashing commences. And soon Frank and Cora feel that two’s company.

My initial reaction to this novella was a feeling of disgust. Frank’s objectification and sexualised descriptions of Cora made me faintly nauseous, and their joint racism about Greeks and “Mex” and anyone else who might not be whiter than white didn’t help much. But then as I got to know Cora better I discovered she was just as revolting as Frank, so I acquitted Cain of misogyny and racism, and convicted him of misanthropy instead. And, oddly, once I reached that point, I found the book much easier to get along with.

….She started for the lunchroom again, but I stopped her. “Let’s – leave it locked.”
….“Nobody can get in if it’s locked. I got some cooking to do. I’ll wash up this plate.”
….I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers.
….“Bite me! Bite me!”
….I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

There’s no doubt it’s compellingly written in the true noir style. Reading it is a little like being held up on the motorway because there’s been a crash just ahead – you know you shouldn’t stare but you can’t help yourself. As a study of two amoral, self-obsessed monsters drawn to each other through lust, it’s brilliantly done. But, like Damien Hirst’s dead cow, can it really be considered art? I’ve mentioned more than once that I tend to judge literature on the basis of Flaubert’s famous quote:

Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we long to move the stars to pity.

I could see the bears frantically dancing but the stars had all gone out. Maybe that’s why they call it noir. I’d call it a glamorisation of sado-masochism, except that it’s way too sordid to be glamorous. When our lovely heroes aren’t indulging in some vicious sex that seems to involve lots of bruising and blood – but it’s OK ‘cos Cora likes being hurt – then Frank’s beating people senseless…

….When he was half out the door I cut the juice in the sign, and it blazed down in his eyes. He wheeled, and I let him have it. He went down and I was on him. I twisted the gun out of his hand, threw it in the lunchroom, and socked him again. Then I dragged him inside and kicked the door shut. She was standing there. She had been at the door, listening, all the time.
….“Get the gun.”
….She picked it up and stood there. I pulled him to his feet, threw him over one of the tables, and bent him back. Then I beat him up. When he passed out, I got a glass of water and poured it on him. Soon as he came to, I beat him up again. When his face looked like raw beef, and he was blubbering like a kid in the last quarter of a football game, I quit.

And yet, oddly, despite their vicious callousness, they are two of the most incompetent murderers I’ve come across. Of course, that’s partly the point – it’s when the police and lawyers become involved that the story reaches its real moral dilemma – under pressure, will their love/lust for one another be enough to hold them together? When you know the bad, bad things your lover has done, can you ever trust him/her? Can you be sure that when he/she says he/she loves you that he/she really does and wasn’t just using you? And once the excitement of murder is over, how do you feel about the dullness of everyday life – does the passion last when you no longer have to sneak around and hide, when there’s nothing left to plot? This second half of the book is far more interesting than the sex-saturated first half – to me, at any rate.

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I don’t know how to rate it really. It’s undoubtedly superbly done so I admire it for that. I’m not the greatest fan of pure noir so haven’t read extensively in the genre, but the little I have read has usually given me one good guy to root for amid the gritty darkness, and a femme fatale who may behave badly but is morally ambiguous. This one gives two people with no redeeming features whatsoever, so that I could only hope things would end badly for them. Again, that’s the point, so it succeeds in its aim. I found it well written, psychologically convincing, and it creates a truly noir world in which everything is soiled and corrupt and no gleam of light beckons. But it left me feeling I needed to scrub my mind out with a Brillo pad. I’ve settled on four stars – compelling rather than enjoyable, but I can understand why it’s considered a classic.

This is my Classics Club Spin #18 book.

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Mildred Pierce by James M Cain

Then…

😦 😦

When Bert Pierce loses everything in the Great Crash, he turns to another woman to soothe his bruised ego. This is understandable, since the woman he has married, the eponymous Mildred, is not someone you’d really look to for sympathy or support, though on the upside she bakes good pie. So when Bert leaves/is thrown out, Mildred decides to make pies for a living and astonishingly this enables her to become incredibly rich despite the Depression. Mind you, when I’m depressed, pie always helps, it’s true. However, this amazing success isn’t enough for her snobbish daughter who spends all the money while sneering at her mother’s method of earning it. As Veda grows up, their relationship becomes increasingly fraught…

Nope, couldn’t get on with this one at all. I stuck it out to the bitter end, and boy, was it bitter. But I spent most of it wishing that a plague or asteroid would hit, wiping them all from the face of the earth. The only thing that makes Mildred remotely likeable is the fact that Veda is so horrible. Having a mother as dull and tedious as Mildred couldn’t have been any fun though, especially since she veered from pathetic weakness to beating her child viciously. The best I could say about either of them is that they deserved each other. I, however, felt that I didn’t deserve either of them.

The fact that I found neither of them psychologically convincing was a major part of the problem, as was my extreme doubt over the unbelievable success of Mildred’s business ventures. Was it really so easy for a rather stupid, completely inexperienced woman to get thousands of dollars of credit during the Depression even if she did bake good pies? If so, I wonder why so many people suffered. They should just have gone to the bank and got a suitcase full of dosh and set up a small business. Apparently the whole depressed world was just longing to go out and spend money on pie and other such essentials of life. I don’t know what Steinbeck was whining on about in The Grapes of Wrath – the Joads could have just borrowed some money and set up their own orange juice business.

(Hopefully the movie will be better…)

But, in truth, neither of these was the real issue. I’d have accepted Mildred’s and Veda’s dodgy and unexplained rivalry and their easy-to-acquire wealth without much thought, had it not been for my struggles with the actual writing. When you find yourself searching your Kindle to find out how often an author uses the word ‘then’, then you know he’s lost you. Books don’t often make me resort to Trumpesque Twitter storms, but this one did – I had to relieve my feelings somehow or I’d have thrown the Kindle at the wall, and then have had to sell enough pie to buy a new one. The question of how many ‘thens’ there are will remain forever unanswered – the Kindle could merely tell me it was ‘over 500’. Now at least I know the maximum the Kindle will count up to.

…Mrs Gessler went to work. She pinned Mildred’s dress up, so it was a sort of sash around her hips, with a foot of white slip showing. Then she put on the galoshes, over the gold shoes. Then she put on the evening coat, and pulled the trench coat over it. Then she found a kerchief, and bound it tightly around Mildred’s head. Mildred, suddenly transformed into something that looked like Topsy, sweetly said goodbye to them all. Then she went to the kitchen door, reached out into the wet, and pulled open the car door. Then she hopped in. Then she started the motor. Then she started the wiper. Then she tucked the robe around her. Then, waving gaily to the three anxious faces at the door, she started the car, and went backing down to the street.

If I’d handed something like that in to my primary school teacher, I’d have been rapped over the knuckles with a ruler (yes, they really did things like that back in the dark ages) and sent away to rewrite it. What a pity Cain’s editor didn’t do the same! I’d even have lent him/her my ruler.

And the endless, tedious descriptions of how the business worked, down to the last tiny details, meant that I spent most of my time bored rigid. As I’m sure you probably are too by this lengthy whingefest of a review, so I shall cease. Needless to say, not one of my favourite books, and I truthfully don’t understand why it’s considered a classic. I’d have thought quality writing would have been an essential criterion for a book to acquire that status. But apparently not.

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The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Must remember to weed the garden…

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When Bill Masen wakes up in hospital, he’s surprised that none of the nurses have been along to get him up and ready for the day. It’s to be a big day – the bandages that have covered his damaged eyes for a week are due to be removed and Bill will find out if he can see. He missed the big meteor shower last night – amazing green streaks shooting across the sky in a wonderful light-show – but most everybody else in the world had watched them. Bill is about to discover he’s one of the lucky few…

Gosh, I had forgotten just how brilliant this book is! I’m sure everyone has an idea of the basic story even if they’ve never read it or seen a film adaptation, because it’s one of those books that has become a cultural reference point for so much later literature and film. When Bill removes his bandages, he discovers that the vast majority of people have been blinded by the lights in the sky. Only a small number of people like himself who, for various reasons, didn’t see them have retained their sight. It’s a tale of survival in a world turned suddenly dystopian. And with the breakdown of society, the strange walking plants known as triffids have been set free to prey on a suddenly vulnerable humanity.

The 1962 movie…

First published in 1951 and set in a future not far distant from that date, it’s one of the finest examples of the science fiction books that grew out of Cold War paranoia. The world’s first nuclear bombs had been dropped just six years earlier, and the arms race between the US and the USSR was well underway, with each building up stocks of weapons which it was believed could destroy the world. Nuclear bombs were only part of that; Wyndham looks at another aspect, perhaps even more frightening – biological warfare, as scientists turned their brains and technology towards discovering new and horrific ways of destroying their nations’ enemies. Man hadn’t yet made it into space, but that achievement was on the near horizon, again as part of the race for superpower status between the two dominant military mights. And, in a seemingly more peaceful and benevolent manner, man was mucking about with nature in ways that were unprecedented – developing new plants, fertilisers and pesticides without much consideration of possible unintended consequences. All concerns that still exist, though we’ve perhaps become too blasé about them now, but that were fresh and terrifying as Wyndham was writing.

1962 again… and yeah, the woman in the book really doesn’t dress like that to fight monsters…

The joy of this book is that the science horrors are more than balanced by an exceptionally strong human story, with excellent characterisation. On leaving the hospital where he woke up, Bill soon meets a young woman, Josella, also sighted. The book tells their story, and through them of the various ways in which humanity attempts to survive. Wyndham looks at questions of morality and society – should the sighted people try to save the blind, hopeless though that task will be given the huge disparity in numbers? Or should they try to save themselves and create a new world for their children? Should they form small communities or gather together to forge whole new societies? How should they go about preserving the knowledge of the past? What knowledge deserves to be preserved? What form of government should be recreated? Are marriage and monogamy appropriate in a severely depleted population or does childbirth take precedence over all else? What role does religion play in this new world? Now that the flesh-eating triffids vastly outnumber the sighted human population, will man remain in his position at the top of the food chain, or has his time passed?

The 2009 TV miniseries version…

Josella has as strong a survival instinct as any of the men and an equal ability to adapt to new ways of living. She’s witty and amusing and occasionally a little wicked. She’s a true partner for Bill, rather than a pathetic encumbrance that he has to protect. She is, without exception, the best female character I can think of in science fiction of this era and indeed for decades to come. She feels utterly modern, as if she were written today. And Wyndham makes it clear this is no accident – he uses one of his characters to discuss the relative positions in society of men and women and how women’s perceived weakness has arisen out of convention – a convention that women have used to their advantage as much as men have to theirs. And he suggests strongly that if women want to be equal, they can be – they just have to decide that they will be and stop playing the feminine weakness card. A bit of tough love, perhaps, and the teensiest bit patronising, but… not bad at all for a man in the 1950s!

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For those of you who automatically dismiss science fiction as not your kind of thing, I promise you this book – any of Wyndham’s books, in fact – will make you change your mind. The writing and characterisation is first-class, and the science is in there because we live in a world where science is important, and where it can be a force for either great good or annihilation of the species. Questions we should all be aware of and thinking about, and all packaged up in a fantastic story – it’s as much literary fiction as any other book that seeks to examine the “human condition” and, frankly, better than most. Great book!

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The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Hide and Seek…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s May 1914 and war is looming over Europe. Richard Hannay has returned from South Africa and is finding England dull. He’ll give it another couple of days, he decides, and if nothing exciting happens, he’ll return to one of the outposts of Empire. But then a man he doesn’t know turns up at his door seeking help. Scudder tells him that he’s discovered a conspiracy, one that, if it succeeds, will shake the world. It’s four weeks until he can reveal what he knows to the authorities, though, and he begs Hannay’s help to keep him hidden till then. When Scudder is then killed, Hannay finds himself possessed of a secret and Scudder’s coded notebook, running from the conspirators who want to kill him and the police who want to arrest him for Scudder’s murder. And so the chase is on…

Buchan described the book as a “shocker” and that’s basically what it is – what we’d now call an action thriller. Published in 1915, its first audience knew that whatever Hannay did, he didn’t succeed in preventing war, so that couldn’t be the point of the conspiracy or of the attempt to defeat it. Not unnaturally, the Germans don’t come out of it well, and unfortunately neither do the Jews (no Jews actually appear in it, but they’re still referred to in what I wish were outmoded anti-Semitic terms) nor the Southern Europeans – thankfully, it’s been a while since I heard the word “Dago” being used. This is always a problem with books of this era and sometimes I find it easier to overlook than others, I think based on whether the author simply uses the words or whether it feels as if he really means to be derogatory. I found Buchan borderline – it bothered me, but not so much I couldn’t look past it and enjoy the story.

The story itself is mostly a simple chase round the moorland in the south-west of Scotland, a place Buchan knew well in real life. This centre section between Scudder’s murder and the dramatic dénouement forms the bulk of the book, and is divided into chapters each of which forms a little story on its own. (In the introduction, there’s an extract from a letter from an early reader, a soldier in the trenches in France, thanking Buchan for this format since it allowed him to read and assimilate a chapter any time he got a moment of calm. “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”) Each mini-story involves someone Hannay meets during his travels – a road-mender, an innkeeper who would like to be an author, an aspiring political candidate, etc. Most of these are educated men, so that the bulk of the book is in standard English, but in the occasional working-class encounter Buchan gives us some excellent Scottish dialect.

Hitchcock’s version. Woman? What woman?? There is no woman!

The framing story of the conspiracy I found frankly incomprehensible for the most part, especially at the beginning when Scudder is clearly referring to all kinds of people and events that were probably familiar to a contemporary audience but mostly weren’t to me. It does become clearer at the end, although it also all becomes rather silly. However, I’m not a soldier in the trenches of WW1 nor even a worried mother waiting at home, so the thrilling aspects of trying to put a spanner in the works of the nasty Hun don’t resonate with me as they would have done at the time. In truth, I was finding it a bit tedious in the middle – there’s an awful lot of coincidence and near-miraculous luck, and it’s one of those ones where the hero just always happens to have the knowledge he needs: how to break codes, for example, or how to use explosives. But when it reaches its climax and I finally found out what the conspiracy was all about, I found myself nicely caught up in it (once I had switched off my over-heating credibility-monitor).

John Buchan

I’m a bit ashamed to say that I actually found the introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition more interesting than the book! Christopher Harvie, Professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen in West Germany, gives the usual mix of abbreviated biography and literary context, and does so in clear and accessible English without any academic jargonese. What a fascinating life Buchan had! I had no idea! As well as writing a zillion books, he held all kinds of posts in his life, from Lord High Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to Member of Parliament, to Governor of Canada. Along the way, he also travelled extensively through South Africa, worked in intelligence and rose to be the Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information in 1918. (I know any Scottish readers, especially my siblings BigSister and ForeignFilmFan, are currently shaking their heads in disgust at my ignorance, but there it is. Neither of them can play Three Blind Mice on the xylophone – we each have our different areas of expertise in this life.)

Overall, then, a good read if not a great one. And, as I suspected, it turns out I hadn’t read it before – I just knew it from the various adaptations, none of which have stuck very closely to the plot of the book. I’m now keen to re-watch the ancient Hitchcock version to see how it compares – memory tells me I enjoyed it considerably more…

Book 29 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

Brilliantly baffling…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Mademoiselle Mathilde Stangerson is attacked in her yellow bedroom by a murderer wielding a mutton-bone. When her father and the other people in the house break down the door, Mlle S is on the floor and her murderer is nowhere to be found. There are three exceedingly strange things about this – one: how did the murderer get out of a room in which the only door and window were securely locked; and two: why does everyone keep calling him a murderer when Mlle S is still alive…; and three: a mutton-bone???

OK, to my great disappointment I discovered a mutton-bone is actually the name given to a club-like weapon much used by villains of the day, so that solves number three. Number 2 – the murderer with the living victim – becomes progressively more hysterical as the book goes on and Mlle S stubbornly refuses to die. I couldn’t help wondering what she felt every time a newspaper or one of the characters talked about her murder.

The real meat of the thing, though, is not on the mutton-bone, but in the question of how the murderer got out of the room. Enter our hero, Joseph Rouletabille, (a nickname meaning “Roll Your Marble”, given to him, presumably, on account of his large round red head), a young journalist who at the age of eighteen has already acquired a reputation as an inspired amateur detective. He is introduced to us by our narrator, Jean Sainclair, a young lawyer and friend who acts as Rouletabille’s sidekick.

Off they go to the Château du Glandier, where they will meet Mathilde and her father, her fiance, her loyal and devoted servant, and various assorted estate workers and villagers, all with or without alibis and motives, and all behaving suspiciously in one way or another. Even Frédéric Larsan, famed investigator of the Sûreté, will find himself hard put to it to come up with a solution to this baffling mystery, and when he does, it will be entirely different from Rouletabille’s solution. Who will prove to be right? And how will he (the one who’s right) prove he’s right? And will they catch the murderer before the murder victim is finally murdered???

Rouletabille
By Josep Simont i Guillén – Published on October 19, 1907 on the front page of the French newspaper L’Illustration where the story was first serialised

This is a fabulous little romp that is more and more fun as it goes along. First published in French in 1907, I can’t find anything to tell me who the translator was. At first, I felt the language was quite stilted and thought it could do with a modern update. But as the book’s general mildly melodramatic tone began to come through, I realised the style of the translation is actually perfect for it. It makes it feel terribly French and very old-fashioned – both things which add considerably to its charm.

The plotting is great, enhanced by a couple of detailed floor plans allowing the reader to try to get to the solution before Rouletabille. (I failed miserably!) The initial mystery of the locked room is only one of the “impossible crime” features – there is another halfway through which is not only baffling but quite spooky, and there are other sections where Leroux creates a beautifully tense atmosphere. But overall the book leans more towards entertainment with lots of humour, especially in the rivalry between Rouletabille and Larsan. I love that the title of the first chapter is In Which We Begin Not to Understand – sets the light-hearted tone superbly before the book even begins. The villagers are about as welcoming as the ones in The Wicker Man, complete with a surly publican and a witchy old crone with an exceptionally scary cat called Bête du Bon Dieu, so some lovely almost Gothic touches sprinkled into the story.

Rouletabille’s ability to see through the fog of confusion to the truth that eludes all others is well-nigh miraculous, enhanced by Sainclair’s supreme admiration for his young friend. Rouletabille is the master of the enigmatic utterance, throwing suspects into terror while keeping Sainclair (and me) totally befuddled. But when all is revealed, we see that we have indeed had all the clues all along – well, all the important ones anyway – and it’s only our inferior brain-power that has left us trailing in Rouletabille’s brilliant wake…

Hercule Poirot wasn’t baffled, of course, when he read this book. He talks about it in The Clocks, saying…

“And here is The Mystery of the Yellow Room. That – that really is a classic! I approve of it from start to finish. Such a logical approach!… All through there is truth, concealed with a careful and cunning use of words… Definitely a masterpiece…”

… and Poirot (and Ms Christie) knew a thing or two about crime fiction. Poirot is not Rouletabille’s only admirer among the fictional detective classes – John Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell refers to the book as “the best detective tale ever written”. I must say the physical book from the Collins Crime Club series is gorgeous too, with a great cover, including quotes from Poirot and Fell where normally there would be puffs from fellow writers. Made me laugh with delight before I even opened it.

Gaston Leroux

I’m so glad to have had the chance to read this one, since I’ve seen it referred to often in my recent travels through vintage crime. And I’m even more glad to be able to say that I feel it fully deserves its reputation, both for the skill in the plotting and for the entertainment value in the storytelling. An essential read for vintage crime fans!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

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The Classics Club Spin #18

The fickle finger of fate…

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club is holding its 18th Spin, and my 5th. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Wednesday, 1st August. On Wednesday, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read and review whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by August 31st. A tight timetable and it will be difficult to squeeze another book into a month already filled to overflowing with review books but I’ll have a bash. I hope the punishment for failure isn’t too severe!

So here’s my list. I’ve selected it on the basis of mostly including books I already own, and have included some from all five of the categories in my CC list – American fiction, English fiction, Scottish fiction, crime fiction and science fiction. I’m kinda hoping number 20 comes up, since that means Laila will be reading The Gowk Storm, Margaret will be reading Three Men in a Boat and Chronolit will be reviewing the Kama Sutra, so I’ve juggled mine to put a goodie in that slot just in case…

1) The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

2) Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

3) The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett

4) The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

5) Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

6) My Antonia by Willa Cather

7) Nada The Lily by H Rider Haggard

8) The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

9) The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

10) Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

11) Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

12) The African Queen by CS Forester

13) The New Road by Neil Munro

14) The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

15) On the Beach by Nevil Shute

16) Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr

17) Way Station by Clifford D Simak

18) No Mean City by Alexander MacArthur and H Kingsley Long

19) The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John Le Carré

20) Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer

* * * * * * *

I’d be delighted to read most of these. The Fair Maid of Perth might be a bit long to fit in, and The Jungle might be a bit depressing… so with my track record in these spins, I’ve no doubt one of them will come up! Wish for a short, cheerful one for me – Bath Tangle or Nada the Lily!

Which one would you like to see win?

The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

Bodies galore!

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Edgar Leggett’s home is broken into and some not particularly valuable diamonds go missing, his insurance company send along their operative to investigate – enter the Continental Op, the only name we are given for the first-person narrator. The CO soon decides that there’s been some kind of inside job, and that there’s more to the case than a simple burglary. Leggett has a wife and a weird, strange-looking but oddly attractive daughter, Gabrielle. The plot is entirely incomprehensible so that’s as much of a summary as I’ll give. Suffice it to say, the thing soon turns bloody, with more corpses than you could shake a stick at, supposing you would want to do such a thing. Gabrielle, who seems to be thought of by some as a femme fatale but seems to me way too pathetic to be such a thing, is at the centre of all the mysterious happenings and comes to believe she is cursed. It’s up to the CO to solve whatever it is that’s going on, and amazingly, he does.

Oddly, despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, I still found the book entertaining. This is largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace, which doesn’t give the reader much time to ponder the basic absurdity of the storyline. Plus, in the middle of it there is a passage of very effective horror writing, as the CO battles an evil apparition that may be real or may be the product of hallucination, or is possibly a combination of both. I forgave a lot of the book’s weaknesses for my enjoyment of that piece of writing.

Through the thing’s transparent flesh I could see my hands clenched in the center of its damp body. I opened them, struck up and down inside it with stiff crooked fingers, trying to gouge it open; and I could see it being torn apart, could see it flowing together after my clawing fingers had passed; but all I could feel was its dampness.

Challenge details:
Book: 91
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1929

It also gives a snapshot of aspects of Californian life at the time of writing – the late 1920s. Inevitably, this involves some pretty strong racist language, but I felt this was an accurate reflection of the time (built-in and possibly incorrect assumption in that phrase that things have improved since) and in fact Hammett treated his non-white characters no worse than his white ones, so at least he was pretty even-handed in that sense. We also get to see that guns were as ubiquitous then as they still are now. In fact, as I write this, I’m realising that it could as easily have been written today – weird religious cults, casual drug-taking, addiction, money-is-the-root-of-all-evil… Prohibition might be the only thing that has really receded into the past, though I liked that he touched on the idea of moral degeneracy showing as a physical thing, identifiable by physical features – a concept that pops up in true crime cases around the turn of the century and also appears in quite a lot of late Victorian horror writing. (Hammett references Arthur Machen in the text and I felt his influence could be seen both in this concept and in the piece of horror writing in the middle of the book.) Another touch I enjoyed is Hammett’s inclusion of a character who is a novelist, which gives him the chance to include some humorously self-deprecating dialogue…

“Are you – who make your living snooping – sneering at my curiosity about people and my attempts to satisfy it?”
“We’re different,” I said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in jail, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“That’s not different,” he said. “I do mine with the object of putting people in books, and I get paid for it, though not as much as I should.”
“Yeah, but what good does that do?”
“God knows. What good does putting them in jail do?”
“Relieves congestion,” I said. “Put enough people in jail, and cities wouldn’t have traffic problems.”

Dashiell Hammett

I feel I should have more to say about this one, but I don’t. It’s quite fun, so long as you can get past the silliness of the plot. But in truth I’m not sure why it would be considered a classic any more than most other books of the era. For me, it’s doesn’t even come close to the only other Hammett I’ve read, The Maltese Falcon, which unlike this one is tightly plotted and has a wonderful femme fatale worthy of the title. I suspect that if it hadn’t been for that later one, this one may have been forgotten along with most of the pulp fiction of the time. According to Martin Edwards in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Hammett himself later described this book as “a silly story… all style”, and I’m forced to agree with him. Still, that style covers a whole lot of weaknesses meaning that I found it an entertaining read overall, and that’s the most important thing…

Book 28 of 90

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Heart of Darkness and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad

The other tales…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(I’ve been putting off writing a review of this for ages because I couldn’t see how to keep it down to anything approaching a reasonable length, since, although Heart of Darkness is by far the most famous of the four stories in the collection and is the one on my Classics Club list, the other three deserve more than a passing mention too. So I’ve decided in the end to review those briefly in this post and then to review Heart of Darkness itself more fully in a later post.)

This collection from Oxford World’s Classics includes four of Conrad’s stories, each of which deals with the subject of empire and colonialism in one way or another. It also has an introduction and notes by Cedric Watts, Professor of English at the University of Sussex – a Conrad expert. While the notes are very useful, unfortunately, unlike in the other OWC books I’ve read, the introduction is written in the kind of academic jargonese that I hate – the kind that for non-academics needs another introduction to explain the introduction…

An important political aspect of this theme is displayed by the tale’s demonstration that there is an imperialism of discourse which both licenses and conceals the excesses of economic exploitation.

Hmm! So I abandoned the introduction and hurried swiftly on…

Fortunately, the stories are not nearly as intimidating or difficult to understand as the introduction had led me to fear. I’m sure there’s loads of nuance I’ve missed (I missed the bit about the “imperialism of discourse”, for sure), but my own view is that all stories should stand or fall on their own merit as stories, and should not rely on a reader catching all the references or undertones, though they may be enhanced by it. These stories more than stand on their own – in fact, three of the four are up there amongst the best I’ve ever read.

An Outpost of Progress – Two men, Kayerts and Carlier, are dropped off to run a Company trading post in the Belgian Congo. They are basically incompetent, relying on their black agent and workers to do the work of trading for the precious ivory for which they are there. However, events spiral out of their control and they are left running low on resources and increasingly scared of the, to them, incomprehensible and savage people in this wild land. And then the boat that was due to relieve them is delayed…

This starts off with a good deal of humour, full of irony and sarcasm as Conrad turns the prevailing ideas about the superiority of the white man on their head. We see how quickly the veneer of “civilisation” falls away when men are isolated in a vastly different culture they don’t understand. Gradually the story darkens, until it reaches a powerfully dark and dramatic ending of true horror. The writing is wonderful, full of lush descriptions that create an ominously threatening environment, with enough vagueness so that we, like the characters, fear what may be lurking just outside. And his depiction of the downward spiral of his characters into moral weakness and eventual terror is done brilliantly. A great story.

Youth: A Narrative – This tells of Marlow, who will appear again in Heart of Darkness, as a twenty-year-old in his first voyage as second mate on an ill-fated sea trip in the rickety old ship Judea. A series of disasters leads to the ship constantly having to return to port for repairs, and things don’t improve once they finally get off on their journey. It’s quite funny and is apparently a fairly accurate record of Conrad’s own voyage as a young man aboard the equally doomed Palestine. It’s about the vigour and optimism of youth – how even disasters can seem like exciting adventures before age and experience make us jaded and fearful. It’s enjoyable, but a little too long for its content, and with nothing like the depth of the other stories in the collection.

Karain: A Memory – The narrator is one of three adventurers, smuggling arms into the Malay Archipelago. They come to know Karain, the headman of a small land which he and his followers have invaded and occupied. Karain is a haunted man, perhaps literally, perhaps superstitiously. He turns to his white friends for protection…

From the deck of our schooner, anchored in the middle of the bay, he indicated by a theatrical sweep of his arm along the jagged outline of the hills the whole of his domain; and the ample movement seemed to drive back its limits, augmenting it suddenly into something so immense and vague that for a moment it appeared to be bounded only by the sky. And really, looking at that place, landlocked from the sea and shut off from the land by the precipitous slopes of mountains, it was difficult to believe in the existence of any neighbourhood. It was still, complete, unknown, and full of a life that went on stealthily with a troubling effect of solitude; of a life that seemed unaccountably empty of anything that would stir the thought, touch the heart, give a hint of the ominous sequence of days. It appeared to us a land without memories, regrets, and hopes; a land where nothing could survive the coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a dazzling act of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and the morrow.

The story in this one, although good, is somewhat secondary to the wonderfully descriptive and insightful writing. The prose in the first two or three pages is sublime, as Conrad swiftly creates a place, a country, a man and a people, all with a level of lyricism and mysticism that places the reader there, already unsettled before the tale begins. Conrad shows how colonialism disrupts and corrupts long-held traditions and ways of life, but how old beliefs nonetheless endure. And lest the reader should wish to mock the superstitions of the natives, Conrad forestalls this by reminding us with brutal irony that many of our own cherished traditions and beliefs arise out of superstition too. He also shows that, when white and black meet not as master and slave but in a kind of equality, the possibility for friendship exists, even when their cultures are so different. I loved this story.

Joseph Conrad

Conrad gets a bad rap in some quarters these days for what some see as racist portrayals of other cultures, and there’s no doubt that the stories include a lot of words we would now consider derogatory, along with depictions of native customs – god worship, cannibalism, human sacrifice – that our current rewriting of the past to suit political correctness makes problematic. But, of course, these things did happen so is it really racist to write about them? And the language he uses is of its time. Plus, in moral terms, he’s far more derogatory about the white men and the evils of empire. I give him a pass – since he was so clearly writing from an anti-colonialist stance, I feel to hang him for use of the n-word is to trivialise the importance of what he was saying.

Reading these three stories first gave me an appreciation for Conrad’s style and view of colonialism, which I’m sure eased and enhanced my reading of Heart of Darkness itself. I thoroughly enjoyed the collection and, despite my disappointment with the style of the introduction, there’s no doubt the notes aided my understanding and gave some interesting background information, making it an accessible entry-point to new readers of Conrad’s work.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A world without Darcy…

😐 😐

Three young men are part of an expedition in some obscure unexplored corner of the planet when they hear rumours of a country where all the inhabitants are women. They don’t believe this, of course. Firstly, they’ve heard all about the birds and the bees and they know such a society couldn’t exist for more than one generation. But more importantly, they know that women are too silly and incompetent to run a whole country on their own. If the country exists at all, they decide, the men must live elsewhere and visit for… ahem… a bit of the old nuptials every now and again. However, the prospect is tantalising – all those women must be pretty desperate for a bit of male company, what? So they decide to investigate…

The book starts off quite well, rather in the broad wink-wink tone of my introduction, full of male stereotypes of females, and incidentally managing to stereotype the three males pretty heavily at the same time. Then, unfortunately, they arrive in the country they dub Herland. And from there on in it’s an utterly tedious description of how this all-female society operates. Gilman even remarks at one point, in the voice of the male narrator, that nothing much actually happened to them during their stay, so presumably she was well aware of the narrative deficiencies of the book as a novel. Pity she felt a glancing reference to them was sufficient.

And odd! Because what I learned from this book is that women are perfect in every single way, excel at everything they do, and the only thing that causes misery, disease or turmoil in the world is men! Horrible men. Gosh, don’t you just hate them all? With their cruelty and their grubbiness and their greed, and all that nasty, nasty sex business. Women build nicer houses in beautifully clean, well-ordered cities, and they never fight or quarrel or get unhappy. They are naturally far, far better than men, because their capacity for motherhood makes them want to make the world a better place for their children. Unlike nasty men, who only see children as an unfortunate by-product of sex.

The unfortunate thing about some strands of feminism, this included, is the tendency to go well beyond the desire for equality and harmony, towards replacing a world where women are subject to men with one where men are disparaged and despised by women. I’m more of a happy-medium kind of girl myself. At risk of being drummed out of the sisterhood once and for all, I’ll admit my guilty, shameful secret. I like men. Not all of them, obviously – Trump, Hitler and Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t be my idea of a fun night down the pub – but then, Thatcher, Kellyanne Conway and Myra Hindley wouldn’t be my first choices for dinner guests either. But on the whole, I think most men are just bumbling along, behaving the way society has taught them, and most women are doing much the same. And most of us, of both genders, are trying to do better.

The idea of a world with no men in it (or no women) is my idea of hell. Most of our art and ninety percent of our literature is in some way about the interaction of the sexes, even going back past Shakespeare and on to the Bible. Flirting is fun, as is the whole falling in love thing. I’ve even heard the occasional woman admit to enjoying sex! Motherhood is brilliant and for some women it is indeed the most important thing in their lives (just as fatherhood is the most important thing for some men) but it’s not the only or even necessarily the ultimate ambition for womankind. In fact, I thought part of feminism was to get us away from the idea that women are incapable of thinking about anything except having babies and bringing them up, important roles though those are.

So some feminists may see this as a great feminist tract. I saw it as adding fuel to the worst of feminism – the kind that aims to replace patriarchy with matriarchy, where women rule and men become the subjects. Of the three men in the book, one is utterly convinced of male superiority and that women are primarily sex toys; one wants to worship at the feet of femininity; and the third is shown as rational, considering both sides of every argument. (Not that women ever argue, of course, because we’re all lovely when we’re not being jealous over silly men.) He, the rational one, becomes convinced along the way of the innate superiority of women and realises that what all men really want to do is surrender to a mother figure. And that that’s what all women aspire to be. Yeah.

(I have never wanted to be Darcy’s mother…)

But apart from the inanity of the ideas expressed in the book, which I try to forgive because I’m sure Gilman must have had some bad experiences to have become quite so misandristic, it commits the even worse sin of being almost entirely dull. It’s like reading a Rough Guide to Herland, without the humour and the photographs. I kept expecting her to tell me how much I should tip restaurant staff. Interesting, if you want to have nightmares about a world with no quarrelling, no disputes, no politics, no ambition beyond motherhood and child-rearing; and worse – no Anne and Gilbert, no Jane and Mr Rochester, no Cathy and Heathcliff, no flirting, no sex, no dancing, and no Darcy! Me, I’ll stay in this world and just keep striving for equality, thanks very much. I’d rather be driven up the wall by pesky men than bored to death by these unrealistically idealised Herland women.

Book 27 of 90

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The Invisible Man by HG Wells

Beware the mad scientists!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One night, while a snowstorm rages, a man arrives at the inn in a Sussex village, asking for rooms. He is bundled up in scarves, gloves, and a large hat, so much so that Mrs Hall, the innkeeper, can see nothing of him except the tip of his very pink nose. She installs him in front of the fire but even as the room heats up he refuses to remove his outer layers. Still, he pays a sizeable deposit upfront, so she is willing to put up with his demands for privacy, even when he starts to use her parlour to carry out strange experiments. Eventually she discovers that underneath his hat and shaded spectacles, his head is entirely covered in bandages. Disfigured from some accident, she figures. Ah, if only she knew the book title! In time, as his experiments fail, the man begins to run low on money. And coincidentally (or is it??) that’s when the burglaries begin…

(NB On re-reading this review before posting, I think it’s a little more spoilerish than I usually aim for, so if you don’t already know the story and want to read the book some day, you might prefer to skip to the last paragraph now. I’ll forgive you. 😉 The short review is – highly recommended!)

* * * * *

HG Wells
1901 Photograph by Elliott & Fry, owned by the National Portrait Gallery

First published in 1897, this is perhaps the oddest of Wells’ five main science fiction classics, in that it starts out as a very funny comedy and then gradually darkens to become grim and tragic. Comitragedy, then, rather than tragicomedy. It’s another mad science one – this time, the main character, Griffin, has found a way to refract light that can make a human being invisible. A man almost entirely void of conscience or empathy, he sees all the opportunities this could bring, but his overweening pride makes him blind to the potential problems. And, like all these mad scientists, he forgets to work out how to put the genie back into the bottle before he lets it out.

So here he is, invisible, unable to reverse it, and growing increasingly desperate for money to continue his experiments. His initial crimes are small ones but as he discovers the power over others that his invisibility gives him, he becomes ever more vicious and violent to anyone who gets in his way. And first the villagers, and then the wider countryside, become determined to stop him, in any way they can…

The beginning section in the inn is full of some lovely humour, mocking the simple country bumpkins of this little village, but doing it affectionately so that it doesn’t feel cruel or too snobbish. Griffin’s invisibility leads to some fun incidents reminiscent of poltergeist stories.

As she did so, a most extraordinary thing happened. The bed-clothes gathered themselves together, leapt up suddenly into a sort of peak, and then jumped headlong over the bottom rail. It was exactly as if a hand had clutched them in the centre and flung them aside. Immediately after, the stranger’s hat hopped off the bed-post, described a whirling flight in the air through the better part of a circle, and then dashed straight at Mrs. Hall’s face.

From the James Whale film adaptation of 1933.
It’s Claude Rains, of course – didn’t you recognise him?

The informative introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Matthew Beaumont, Professor in English Literature at University College London, points out that this was at a time when spiritualism was all the rage, and that Wells was mocking some of the practices of the fake mediums of the day. Beaumont also puts the book into its literary context, highlighting influences on Wells followed by his influence on later books. Some of the influences are easy to see – there’s a definite element of Jekyll and Hyde (1886) in Griffin, and the chase scenes of this monster are reminiscent of Frankenstein (1818); though it’s much harder to feel empathy, I found, for Griffin, a monster largely of his own making, and with few redeeming features. He ought by rights to deserve some pity, since as an albino at a time when people were less tolerant of difference, he had found himself rather isolated as a child, but somehow his coldness and extreme cruelty left me unable to sympathise. However, this early outcast status makes his detachment from society understandable, and that detachment in turn leads him to act in ways that eventually make his alienation complete.

But although the book echoes these earlier works to some degree, it certainly has its own originality, and Wells’ usual great storytelling skills make it another excellent read, although I did find the descent from comedy to violence and horror somewhat disconcerting. In retrospect, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking that may have been the point but as I was reading, it felt jerky, like suddenly going round a hair-pin bend. However, both sections are very well done with both the humour and the horror coming through effectively, and it’s easy to see why this tale has retained its hold on the public imagination and been so influential on later writers and filmmakers.

I must say I have enjoyed reading these five classics from HG Wells more than almost any other aspect of my reading over the last few months. They tend to share common themes but, far from making them feel repetitive, that in fact highlights the amazing imagination of the man, to be able to come up with so many fresh ways to examine the things that interested him. And at risk of sounding as if I’m on their payroll, reading these OWC editions has enhanced my pleasure hugely; the introductions are always well written and give just the right amount of information to inform without overloading the reader with lots of irrelevant detail or academic jargon. I always read the intros as afterwords, and get a glow of smug satisfaction if I’ve picked up on the things they mention, and a lesser but still satisfying glow when they tell me something I didn’t spot. Great stuff!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Slender indeed…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The May of Teck Club in London’s Kensington is a place for “for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.” The book tells of the lives of the crop of “girls” in residence just as the war in Europe had ended in the summer of 1945. These girls may be somewhat impecunious, but they are not from the poorer classes of society – rather they are the daughters of the genteel and the minor upper-classes, and for most of them, their main occupation is to seek a suitable husband. While the rules state an upper age limit of thirty, a few women have stayed on, becoming almost surrogate matrons to the younger girls and desperately trying to stop the bright young things from allowing standards of behaviour to fall.

There’s a bit of time-shifting in the book. As it begins, we’re in the ‘60s, when we learn of the death of Nicholas Farringdon, a man who used to be a frequent visitor to the club in 1945. He was in love with the beautiful, slinky Selina, who not only had slender means, but also hips so slender she was able to slither out of a small upstairs window for the purposes of having illicit sex on the roof. We see the story mainly through the eyes of Jane Wright, a resident of the club in the ‘40s, and now a journalist in the ‘60s, who wants to determine why, twenty years later, Nicholas should die a martyr in Haiti where he had gone off to be a Jesuit missionary. This is not out of any concern or warmth for him – she merely thinks she may be able to make a story for her paper out of it.

In truth, though, the plot is negligible – for the most part we simply observe the girls as they go about their lives in the club, and we rarely step over the threshold into the wider world. The club is very much like the boarding schools as depicted in so many school series of that era – these girls may be older and sex may have replaced midnight feasts as their method of rebellion, but there’s the same kind of dynamics of different types of people having to learn to rub along together, and the same kind of loyalty to the club as schoolgirls show to their schools (in fiction).

The girls have survived the war, but seem to have been relatively untouched by it. Some have worked in administrative and secretarial roles as part of the war effort, and are wondering what they will do now that peace will soon remove the need for them. We hear about how some have lost young men of their acquaintance, but their ghosts are not allowed to darken the tone. The girls are rather proud of the bomb that narrowly missed the club – they like to point out the damage to visitors – and there’s a rumour that another bomb is buried somewhere in the garden, unexploded.

Muriel Spark
Photo by Frank Monaco/REX (502449b)

This is rather an odd little book and I’m not at all sure if it has some deep and profound meaning that was lost on me. From my perspective, to be honest, it read like a bit of well-written and sharply observed fluff. I know that sounds rather harsh and dismissive, but I kept waiting to be startled by great insights, to be blown away by the depth of the characterisation, as I was with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But it never happened with this one. I enjoyed it – there’s a lot of humour in it and the girls were an entertaining bunch to spend time with. When I finished, however, I felt it had been something of a sorbet – delicious but hardly satisfying.

I think I felt this way partly because the ‘slender means’ of these girls seems to relate as much to their shallow lives as to their financial status. In some ways, I felt Spark’s depiction of them was rather cruel, though undoubtedly amusing. I found myself laughing at the girls for the most part, rather than with them. Again, this was very different to my reaction to the girls and women in Miss Jean Brodie, who had my complete sympathy even when they were behaving rather badly.

Juliet Stevenson

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Juliet Stevenson, which was something of a mixed bag for me. I enjoyed her straight narration of the narrative and her delivery of the girls’ dialogue, but I found her accents for two of the male characters, one Russian, one American, overdone and distracting.

Perhaps I missed something in this book, or perhaps there’s not much there to be missed. In summary, an entertaining read that I enjoyed as it was happening but felt rather underwhelmed by in the end. I do recommend it for the writing, the observation and the humour, but I feel that anyone who loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie should lower their expectations a little before embarking on this one.

For different viewpoints of this and other Spark novels, don’t forget to visit Ali’s blog, Heavenali, where she’s running a year-long #ReadingMuriel2018 feature in honour of the centenary of her birth (Spark’s not Ali’s!), and rounding up links to the various reviews of participants around the blogosphere.

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And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov

The human face of the Revolution…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Melekhov family own a farm in the small Cossack village of Tatarsk, on the banks of the Don. In this strongly patriarchal society, the adult sons remain at home, bringing their wives to join the family, while the adult daughters leave to go to the family homes of their husbands. Patriarch Pantaleimon Melekhov has two adult sons: Piotra, already married as the book begins, and Gregor, just reaching manhood. This Nobel Prize-winning novel will follow the members of the family through the upheavals of early 20th century Russia, casting light on those events from the Cossack perspective.

The novel is divided into four sections. The first section is Peace, which shows the traditional life of the Cossacks before war and revolution changed it for ever. The writing is glorious and, unlike most Russian literature of my experience, the translation by Stephen Garry flows naturally, without the clunkiness and frequent obscurity that so often makes the Russians hard work. Sholokhov paints an entirely credible, unvarnished picture of the lives of his characters – a harsh, physical life, where the women are expected to work as hard as the men, and often fill their roles on the farms when the men are off at their military camps, an important part of the Cossack tradition. Farming and horses are at the heart of life here, with the beloved Don providing water and fish. The landscape is beautifully described, while Cossack life is shown in all its brutality – a society where violence and rape are commonplace, but which nevertheless has a strong social order and strictly observed customs.

….Towards evening a thunderstorm gathered. A mass of heavy cloud lay over the village. Lashed into fury by the wind, the Don sent great foaming breakers against its banks. The sky flamed with dry lightning, occasional peals of thunder shook the earth. A vulture circled with outspread wings below the clouds, and ravens croakingly pursued him. Breathing out coolness the cloud passed down the Don from the east. Beyond the water-meadows the heaven blackened menacingly, the steppe lay in an expectant silence. In the village the closed shutters rattled, the old people hurried home crossing themselves. A grey pillar of dust whirled over the square, and the heat-burdened earth was already beginning to be sown with the first grains of rain.

Young Gregor has developed a passionate desire for Aksinia, the wife of a neighbour, and this storyline carries through much of the novel. However, although the blurb suggests this is a kind of love story in the vein of Doctor Zhivago, it certainly isn’t. To a large degree, Gregor’s and Aksinia’s relationship is there to allow us to see different aspects of life – how the patriarchy works, how custom and tradition play an important role, how violence is never far from the surface, how women are treated within this society, how lust and sex are a commonplace part of life, not hidden and repressed as in most societies. I found Sholokhov’s portrayal of the women in his story fascinating, although it isn’t the main focus. There’s an animalistic quality to the characters – they are driven by earthy, physical passions, the women as much as the men. In a society where young husbands are often absent on military duty, the women are shown as having strong sexual needs, leading to adultery being commonplace. But we also see that women are property and often treated with more cruelty and less respect than the Cossacks’ beloved horses. Sholokhov doesn’t shield his readers from the brutality of beatings and rape, some of the descriptions of which are graphic in the extreme. Despite their subordinate status though, these women are strong and opinionated, and play their full part in their society, and, some of them, in the Revolution also.

….Through the wattle fence Gregor saw Stepan getting ready. Aksinia, bedecked in a green woollen skirt, led out his horse. Stepan smilingly said something to her. Unhurriedly, in lordly fashion, he kissed his wife, and his arm lingered long around her shoulder. His sunburnt and work-stained hand showed coal-black against her white jacket. He stood with his back to Gregor; his stiff, clean-shaven neck, his broad, somewhat heavy shoulders, and (whenever he bent towards his wife) the twisted ends of his light-brown moustache were visible across the fence.
….Aksinia laughed at something and shook her head. Sitting as though rooted into the saddle, Stepan rode his black horse at a hurried walk through the gate, and Aksinia walked at his side, holding the stirrup, and looking up lovingly and thirstily into his eyes.
….With a long, unwinking stare Gregor watched them to the turn of the road.

Having thoroughly immersed the reader in Cossack society and the lives of the people of the village, in the remaining three sections Sholokhov shows the impact of the three phases that led the Russian peoples from the end of Tsarism to the beginnings of the USSR – World War I, the Revolution, and the Civil War. My recent fixation with the history of this period undoubtedly helped me to understand all the nuances of these sections, but Sholokhov does such a great job that I think the book acts almost as a straight history in its own right, with the added fascination that we’re seeing how it all played out through the eyes of those at the bottom of the society’s power structures, rather than via the political actors and intelligentsia whose opinions are the ones we normally hear.

A Cossack troop rides off to war c.1914

The Cossack view is particularly interesting because they were divided – some fell under the Bolshevik sway, others feared the Bolsheviks would destroy their way of life for ever. Sholokhov gradually shows every aspect, from the agitators sent out to the villages to try to win them over to the Bolshevik cause, to the dreadful conditions in the army leading to demoralisation and the gradual breakdown of discipline, to the eventual taking of sides and how that impacted life back in the villages. We see the divide between the elders who wanted to maintain the status quo, and the younger men who were more attracted by the new politics, and how this began to weaken the patriarchal stranglehold. But throughout all of this history and politics, Sholokhov remembers the importance of humanity and keeps the reader in touch with how his characters are affected and changed by their experiences. There is horrific brutality in the war scenes, told not for effect but because it is truth. Sholokhov doesn’t express his own views overtly but he makes it very clear that bloody war is not a great and glorious thing. Instead it robs people of their humanity, coarsening and brutalising them and then sending them, if they’re lucky, to try in some way to put their shattered lives back together again.

….Very similar were all the prayers which the cossacks wrote down and concealed under their shirts, tying them to the strings of the little ikons blessed by their mothers, and to the little bundles of their native earth. But death came upon all alike, upon those who wrote down the prayers also. Their bodies rotted in the fields of Galicia and Eastern Prussia, in the Carpathians and Roumania, wherever the ruddy flames of war flickered and the traces of cossack horses were imprinted in the earth.

As you have hopefully gathered, I think this is a wonderful book, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. It is by no means an easy read in terms of subject matter, with some images that will haunt me for a long time to come, but it’s so well written I found myself fully engaged and caring deeply about these people. To be able to tell such a difficult and complicated history while simultaneously humanising it is a real feat, and one Sholokhov has pulled off superbly. An outstanding finale to the fictional side of my Russian Revolution challenge – highly recommended.

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Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Sometimes tomorrow never comes… 

😦

This is now the third post I’ve written about this book, though the other two will remain unpublished. The problem is that as soon as I start writing about the portrayal of the black characters, I feel I’ll be offending the many, many Americans who consider this a great novel. Clearly, American attitudes to race are quite different to mine, reflective of our different histories; and slaves and their descendants being depicted as devoted domestic pets seems to be a theme that runs through a great deal of American fiction hailed as “great”, even sometimes incomprehensibly (to me) cited as anti-racist. I doubt a smugly superior lecture from me will change anything, so why even try to explain just how distasteful I find it, in this, in Huckleberry Finn, yes, even to a much lesser degree in Mockingbird. It’s not as if we don’t have our own problems with racism here in the UK, albeit of a different style, and some of our own classic literature makes me feel equally queasy.

With unerring African instinct, the negroes had all discovered that Gerald had a loud bark and no bite at all, and they took shameless advantage of him.

It isn’t just the portrayal of race that led me to abandon the book at 15%, however. I bored rapidly with the endless, vapid descriptions of dresses and waist-sizes. Interesting once – not interesting after the first twenty times. I thought at one point I might actually escape from Scarlett’s tedious wardrobe to go to war with the men, but sadly not. A couple of paragraphs dispensed with a year of history, and back we were, trying on widows’ frocks.

The air was always thick with threats of selling slaves south and of direful whippings, but there had never been a slave sold from Tara and only one whipping, and that administered for not grooming down Gerald’s pet horse after a long day’s hunting.

(Am I alone in wishing Mammy had keep tightening till Scarlett croaked?)

I find it quite incomprehensible that this book is still rated as highly as it is. I admit I loved the film when I watched it nearly half a century ago, but times change, and the attitudes expressed in the book (by the author, not just by the characters) make it feel horribly outdated now. Even putting the race question to one side, though, I found the writing unremarkable, the characterisation shallow of the main characters and non-existent of the others, the over-padded length tedious, and the concentration on frocks and dances a total trivialisation of a subject that deserves so much more. Maybe the other 85% is brilliant, but I’m not willing to waste any more of my time on the off-chance. I’d rather be reading Toni Morrison. Heck, I’d rather be reading William Faulkner!!!

Prissy had never been more than a mile away from Twelve Oaks or Tara before, and the trip on the train plus her elevation to nurse was almost more than the brain in her little black skull could bear.

Since obviously this will not be achieving Great American Novel status in my quest, and given that it’s the latest in a lengthening line of GAN contenders that have left me with a bad taste, I’ve decided to ban all other books about slavery and race written by white Americans prior to, say, 1950 from my TBR. Goodbye, Uncle Tom! I fear that re-read will never happen now. I shall leave you decently buried in the long-ago, where I wish I’d left Gone with the Wind. Sadly my love affair with Rhett and Scarlett is officially over…

Book 26 of 90

* * * * *

To cheer us all up and remind us that some white people even back then had at least a little more insight about black lives…

The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells

…and no cheese to be found…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Mr Bedford’s financial difficulties become pressing, he leaves London for the quiet of the Kentish countryside to write a play which he is sure will win him fame and fortune, despite him never having written anything before. Instead, he meets his new neighbour Mr Cavor, an eccentric scientist, and becomes intrigued and excited by the possibilities of the invention Cavor is working on – a substance that will defy gravity. Bedford, always with an eye for the main chance, begins to imagine the commercial possibilities of such a substance, but Cavor is more interested in the glory that he will gain from the scientific community. And so it is that these two mismatched men find themselves as partners on an incredible voyage – to the Moon!

….I do not remember before that night thinking at all of the risks we were running. Now they came like that array of spectres that once beleaguered Prague, and camped around me. The strangeness of what we were about to do, the unearthliness of it, overwhelmed me. I was like a man awakened out of pleasant dreams to the most horrible surroundings. I lay, eyes wide open, and the sphere seemed to get more flimsy and feeble, and Cavor more unreal and fantastic, and the whole enterprise madder and madder every moment.
….I got out of bed and wandered about. I sat at the window and stared at the immensity of space. Between the stars was the void, the unfathomable darkness!

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying revisiting some of the HG Wells stories I enjoyed in my youth, and reading for the first time the ones I missed back then. As with the others, I read the Oxford World’s Classics version, which has the usual informative and enjoyable introduction, this time from Simon J James, Professor of Victorian Literature and Head of the Department of English Studies at Durham University, which sets the book in its historical and literary context. This is one I hadn’t read before and perhaps it’s fair to say it’s one of the less well known ones, though only in comparison to the universal fame of some of the others, like The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine. While I think it hasn’t got quite the depth of those, it’s at least as enjoyable, if not more so.

Mostly this is because of the characterisation and the interplay between the two men, which give the book a lot of humour. Bedford, our narrator, is rather a selfish cad without too much going on in the way of ethics or heroism, but I found him impossible to dislike. He’s so honest about his own personality, not apologising for it, but not hypocritically trying to make himself seem like anything other than what he is – someone who’s out for what he can get. Cavor also has some issues with ethics, though in his case it’s not about greed. He’s one of these scientists who is so obsessed with his own theories and experiments, he doesn’t much care what impact they might have on other people – even the possibility that he might accidentally destroy the world seems like an acceptable risk to him. He simply won’t tell the world it’s in danger, so nobody has to worry about it.

….“It’s this accursed science,” I cried. “It’s the very Devil. The mediæval priests and persecutors were right and the Moderns are all wrong. You tamper with it—and it offers you gifts. And directly you take them it knocks you to pieces in some unexpected way. Old passions and new weapons—now it upsets your religion, now it upsets your social ideas, now it whirls you off to desolation and misery!”

To a large degree, this is a straightforward adventure novel with a great story and lots of danger and excitement. But, being Wells, there are also underlying themes relating to contemporary concerns: primarily two, in this case. Firstly, through Cavor’s invention of Cavorite (the name gives an indication of Cavor’s desire for glory, I feel!), Wells looks at the huge leaps that were being made in the fields of science and technology and issues a warning that, while these promise great progress for mankind, they also threaten potential catastrophe if the science isn’t tempered by ethical controls. Secondly, through the race of beings that Cavor and Bedford find when they arrive on the moon, Wells speculates on a form of society so utopian in its social control that it becomes positively terrifying! He uses this society, though, as a vehicle to comment on the less than utopian situation back on Earth, though I couldn’t help feeling he frequently had his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek as he did so.

….The stuff was not unlike a terrestrial mushroom, only it was much laxer in texture, and, as one swallowed it, it warmed the throat. At first we experienced a mere mechanical satisfaction in eating; then our blood began to run warmer, and we tingled at the lips and fingers, and then new and slightly irrelevant ideas came bubbling up in our minds.
….“It’s good,” said I. “Infernally good! What a home for our surplus population! Our poor surplus population,” and I broke off another large portion.

But the themes are treated more lightly in this one, and Wells allows his imagination free rein. One of the things I enjoyed most was how he includes a lot of realistic science even as he creates an impossible substance in Cavorite and an equally impossible race of moon-beings, the Selenites. Of course we’ve all looked down on Earth from planes now, but Wells imagines how it would look from space. He describes convincingly how to control a sphere covered in Cavorite by using gravity and the slingshot effect of planetary mass. He describes the weightlessness of zero gravity brilliantly, many decades before anyone had experienced it. His Selenites are a vision of evolved insect life, which frankly gave me the shivers, especially when he describes how they are bred, reared and surgically altered to happily fulfil a single function in life – a kind of precursor of the humans in Brave New World but with insect faces and arms!

I won’t give spoilers as to what happens to the men, but the ending gives a minor commentary on one of Wells’ other recurring themes – man’s tendency to look on other people’s territory as fair game for invasion and colonisation. But since you’re now thinking – but wait! That IS a spoiler! I assure you it’s really not, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why it’s not. Or you could just read it because it’s a great read – lots of humour, great descriptive writing, enough depth to keep it interesting without overwhelming the story, a couple of characters you can’t help liking even though you feel you shouldn’t, and plenty of excitement. What are you waiting for? Jump aboard the Cavorite sphere – you don’t get the chance to go to the Moon every day of the week!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Book 25 of 90

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The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

God’s chosen few…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When George Colwan, Laird of Dalcastle, takes a much younger bride, the marriage is doomed from the beginning. The Laird is a fun-loving, hard-drinking, party animal – the bride, Rabina, holds extreme religious views of the Calvinist variety. She despises him; he is disappointed in her. Remarkably, despite this, they manage to produce two sons. The first, George, will grow up to be the apple of his father’s eye. The younger, Robert, bears an uncanny resemblance to Rabina’s close friend and spiritual adviser, Reverend Wringhim. The Laird rejects him and Robert is brought up as a ward of Reverend Wringhim, who indoctrinates him in the antinomian sect which believes that some people – the elect, or justified – are predestined to be saved by God, while everyone else will burn in hell. This is a satire on the idea of predestination, an examination of the origins of the sectarianism which still disfigures Scotland today, a tale of sibling rivalry, a story of madness, murder and the devil. And surprisingly, it’s also full of humour…

It’s a historical novel: first published in 1824, it’s set more than a century earlier, between 1687 and 1715, roughly – or from the Glorious Revolution that saw the final downfall of the Stuarts, through the parliamentary Union between Scotland and England, and on towards the Jacobite rebellions. I’m reasonably familiar with this period of history on a fairly superficial level, but I was nevertheless glad to be reading a book with explanatory notes, and would suggest that’s essential for anyone who doesn’t know the background to the religious and political situation in Scotland at that time. Not that the book gets at all bogged down in any of these subjects, but the author assumes the reader’s familiarity with them, so doesn’t explain them as he goes along. My Oxford World’s Classics edition provides concise background information – enough to allow the reader to understand the references without feeling that s/he’s reading a history book – and a glossary and notes which explain any unfamiliar terms or allusions. The informative introduction, by Ian Duncan, Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, sets the book in its historical and literary context, and provides some biographical information on the author.

Portrait of James Hogg by Sir John Watson Gordon

The story is told in two main parts, plus a short epilogue. The second part is the memoir and confession referred to in the title. The first is written by “the Editor” who, before presenting the reader with the memoir, tells what he has managed to learn of the actual events. This means we see the same story twice, allowing us to judge for ourself how much we can rely on the sinner’s account. The third part wraps the story up in the author’s present day and is unfortunately full of references to real people who were doubtless recognisable at the time but who have faded into obscurity since, so that some of the humour of this section is rather lost now.

The justified sinner of the title is the younger brother, Robert. Abandoned by the man the law says is his father, and subjected to the religious fanaticism of his guardian and his mother, it’s perhaps not surprising that the boy grows up to be somewhat twisted and jealous of his elder brother, who seems to have a golden life. But Robert’s problems really begin when Reverend Wringhim informs him that God has decided Robert should be one of the elect, predestined for salvation. The question the book satirises is – if one is predestined for salvation, does that mean one can sin free of consequences? In fact, is it possible for the elect to sin at all or, by virtue of their exalted status, do things that would be sinful if done by one of the damned cease to be sins when done by one of the elect? The book is not an attack on religious faith in general, but Hogg has a lot of fun with all the gradations of extremity within this particularly elitist little piece of dogma. On a wider level, he quietly mocks the way all religious sects tend to cherry-pick the bits of dogma that suit their world view best, while ignoring or “interpreting” the inconvenient bits of Scripture they don’t like.

From that moment, I conceived it decreed, not that I should be a minister of the gospel, but a champion of it, to cut off the enemies of the Lord from the face of the earth; and I rejoiced in the commission, finding it more congenial to my nature to be cutting sinners off with the sword, than to be haranguing them from the pulpit, striving to produce an effect, which God, by his act of absolute predestination, had forever rendered impracticable. The more I pondered on these things, the more I saw of the folly and inconsistency of ministers, in spending their lives, striving and remonstrating with sinners, in order to do that which they had it not in their power to do. Seeing that God had from all eternity decided the fate of every individual that was to be born of woman, how vain was it in man to endeavour to save those whom their Maker had, by an unchangeable decree, doomed to destruction.

On the day that Robert is told he is one of the elect, he meets a mysterious young man under whose spell he gradually falls. This man convinces Robert that he cannot sin whatever he does, and gradually leads him down a path that will lead to murder – more than one! The structure makes this particularly intriguing. Robert’s own memoir can be seen as the confession of a madman and his tempter could easily be seen as a delusion. But the Editor’s account suggests that the tempter is a real being, seen and witnessed by many others in physical form. To modern eyes, the temptation to see him as a product of mental illness is almost irresistible, but I suspect readers at the time would have been in no doubt about his Satanic origins.

It all sounds terribly dark and serious, I know, but the satirical element keeps it entertaining. There’s a lot of humour in it, particularly in the comparison of the Editor’s portrayal of Robert as a snivelling coward and Robert’s own vastly more heroic portrayal of himself. There’s also some great horror as Robert gets sucked further and further into his tempter’s schemes. And a whole lot of fairly wry insight into Scottish society. The vast majority is written in standard English, but there’s some brilliantly executed dialect in the dialogue, where Hogg manages to differentiate between the various regions of Scotland, and rather shows that the “common” man has considerably more common sense than his social “betters.”

Book 24 of 90

I read this one reluctantly because I felt I ought to given its status as a Scottish classic, and ended up much to my own surprise enjoying it thoroughly. Hogg takes all these theological and societal aspects, and turns them into an entertaining mix of humour and horror, with some excellently satirical characterisation. Like so many others, it has suffered from the cultural domination exerted by England over the last few centuries, but it’s time these Scottish classics took their rightful place in the sun as equal partners in the great British literary tradition – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Goodness, Truth and Beauty…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Miss Brodie is a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in the years between the wars. As she repeatedly tells anyone who will listen, she is in her prime. The people she confides in most are a group of girls who were once in her class and whom she singled out as her girls – the Brodie set. Under cover of teaching them history, she instead tells them the story of her lost love, Hugh, who died in the First World War, and of the joys of being a woman in her prime. She would never marry, she declares, since she is too devoted to her girls. But that doesn’t mean she has to live the life of a nun…

The book gets off to an excellent start, introducing us first to the girls in the Brodie set. Spark plays around with time, taking us back to the girls’ first introduction to Miss Brodie as ten-year-olds, and then forwards to what feels like the present of the book, in the late ’30s when the girls are almost grown-up; and then forward again, often telling us the girls’ future as a way of shedding light on their personalities in the now. The time-shifting is cleverly done – the whole book sparkles with intelligence, in fact – giving layers of depth to what fundamentally is a rather slight little story of one of the many “surplus” women left single after the huge loss of young men in WW1.

Six years previously, Miss Brodie had led her new class into the garden for a history lesson underneath the big elm. On the way through the school corridors they passed the headmistress’s study. The door was wide open, the room was empty.
“Little girls,” said Miss Brodie, “come and observe this.”
They clustered round the open door while she pointed to a large poster pinned with drawing-pins on the opposite wall within the room. It depicted a man’s big face. Underneath were the words “Safety First.”
“This is Stanley Baldwin who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ere long,” said Miss Brodie. “Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan ‘Safety First.’ But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me.”

Although the story may be slight, the characterisation of Miss Brodie is anything but – she is wonderfully realised as an unconventional woman battling against the rigid restrictions of prim and proper Edinburgh society, yearning for art and beauty in her life, longing for love, desperately needing the adulation both of men and of her girls. Her beauty and exotic behaviour bring her admiration from more than one man and lead her into the realms of scandal, endangering her necessary respectability and her career. But perhaps Miss Brodie’s real misfortune is that in the end she isn’t quite unconventional enough.

The wonderful Maggie Smith in her prime…

The writing is excellent, full of barbed humour but with dark undercurrents of repressed sexuality and warped morality. Spark skewers this Edinburgh society with its fixation on class, its soul-destroying respectability, still suffering from the blight of Calvin’s and Knox’s self-righteous, unforgiving Protestantism, obsessed by immorality and sin.

In fact, it was the religion of Calvin of which Sandy felt deprived, or rather a specified recognition of it. She desired this birthright; something definite to reject. It pervaded the place in proportion as it was unacknowledged. In some ways the most real and rooted people whom Sandy knew were Miss Gaunt and the Kerr sisters who made no evasions about their belief that God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died. Later, when Sandy read John Calvin, she found that although popular conceptions of Calvinism were sometimes mistaken, in this particular there was no mistake, indeed it was but a mild understanding of the case, he having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.

It would have been easy for Spark to make Miss Brodie a heroine, leading her girls out of the darkness of repression into the light of self-expression, which is how Miss Brodie herself would justify how she exerts her influence over them. But instead Spark makes Miss Brodie fatally flawed – narcissistic and self-obsessed; blinded by romanticism into admiration of the Fascist regimes springing up around Europe; willing to use the girls as surrogates to lead the life she wishes she could have. But even in her tiny realm, she doesn’t wield absolute power – as the girls mature, they begin to make choices for themselves. The irony is that this is what Miss Brodie has encouraged them to do, but in the full and erroneous expectation that they would make the choices she wanted them to. If Miss Brodie is a heroine, she is a tragic one. The reader is told from the beginning that one of her students will one day betray her.

The wonderful Muriel Spark in her prime…

And when that betrayal comes, the reader is left to decide whether it was deserved. Spark creates a wonderful murkiness around actions and motives that meant this reader could sympathise with both Miss Brodie and her betrayer, yet condemn them both at the same time. No-one is fully likeable, no-one’s motives are completely pure. Instead these women are entirely human, glorious in their complicatedness, selfish in their desires, trapped in their conventions, and ultimately, for some at least, doomed by their weaknesses.

A book that fully deserves its reputation as a Scottish classic – Miss Brodie is one of those literary characters who have become part of the national psyche. But though it says much about the Edinburgh of the period in which it’s set, its focus on the messy humanity of the characters prevents it from being restricted to that small sphere – these are people who could be met with anywhere. I look forward to reading more of Spark’s work – if it comes close to this in quality, I’m in for a treat. And meantime, if you haven’t already read this, then I recommend it wholeheartedly to you.

Book 23 of 90

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The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse

The Totleigh Towers Horror…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Sir Watkyn Bassett’s country seat at Totleigh Towers is probably the last place in the world Bertie Wooster would choose to visit. In his role as magistrate, Sir Watkyn once fined Bertie five pounds for the crime of stealing a policeman’s helmet. Unfortunately Sir Watkyn has forgotten the details of the crime, and thinks Bertie is a habitual criminal whom he sent to jail. But when Bertie receives an anguished plea from his old pal Gussie Finknottle, he is horrified to learn that Madeline has broken off her engagement to the aforesaid newt-fancying Gussie. Madeline, regular readers will know, thinks Bertie loves her and is quite likely to decide to marry him unless he can find a way to patch things up between the sundered lovers. Add to this the fact that Aunt Dahlia wants him to steal a silver cow-creamer from Sir Watkyn, and it seems fate has decided that Bertie must enter the lion’s den. Fortunately Jeeves will be by his side…

This is one of the best of the Jeeves and Wooster books, filled with all the regulars and a plot that gets ever more convoluted until Jeeves manages to sort everything out for the young master in the end. Madeline is as soupy as ever, still thinking that each time a bunny rabbit sneezes a wee star is born. One can quite understand Bertie’s reluctance to enter into the blessed state of matrimony with her. Gussie is as hopeless as ever – not only has he managed to offend Madeline, but he’s lost a notebook in which he has carefully jotted down some stinging insults about his host and Roderick Spode, a man whom it’s unwise to annoy unless one likes having one’s spine tied in a knot. In the interval since we last saw him, Spode has become an aspiring dictator. His followers wear black shorts – unfortunately other dictators had already used black and brown shirts, so his choices were somewhat limited. And to top it all off, Stiffy Byng wants Bertie to steal another policeman’s helmet! Dark days, indeed!

The plots are only part of what makes Wodehouse so wonderful though – and he does have a tendency to recycle the main points, like the Gussie-Madeline break-up. It’s the humour and general silliness of it all that makes them such a joy to read, combined with the certain knowledge that everything will be all right in the end, thanks to Jeeves. And most of all, it’s the wonderful use of language…

He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.

It was a silver cow. But when I say ‘cow’, don’t go running away with the idea of some decent, self-respecting cudster such as you may observe loading grass into itself in the nearest meadow. This was a sinister, leering, Underworld sort of animal, the kind that would spit out of the side of its mouth for twopence.

I remembered something Jeeves had once called Gussie. “A sensitive plant, what?”
“Exactly. You know your Shelley, Bertie.”
“Oh, am I?”

“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”

She laughed – a bit louder than I could have wished in my frail state of health, but then she is always a woman who tends to bring plaster falling from the ceiling when amused.

He was, as I had already been able to perceive, a breathtaking cove. About seven feet in height, and swathed in a plaid ulster which made him look about six feet across, he caught the eye and arrested it. It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment.

“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?'”
“The mood will pass, sir.”

I listened to the audiobook this time, narrated by Martin Jarvis. He does a great job, giving each person a distinctive voice well suited to his or her character. His Madeline in particular had me in hoots. It occurred to me that men “doing” Wodehouse women actually works rather better than when women act them, because they’re written very much from Bertie’s perspective and he’s baffled by them on the whole. A woman acting Madeline is never as funny as Bertie’s descriptions of her. I usually look out for Jonathan Cecil’s narrations of the Jeeves books, but Jarvis was just as good once I got used to his different style.

Altogether, great fun! You either ‘get’ Wodehouse’s humour or you don’t, and for those of us who do, there’s no greater pleasure than a visit to his world. I hope you’re one of the lucky ones too…

Book 22 of 90

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