Thursday, December 31, 2015

Books Read 2015

Poems Dead and Undead  - ed Tony Barnstone and Michelle Mitchell

A really excellent collection of poetry, many poets I’d never heard of, many quite contemporary, but a restrained and mature range of every possible pre-modern contributor, too. 
A sample:


Vertical spindles of shadow, the black
Firs & violet pines surround
This open meadow broken
Only by a pond
Illuminated like an old Bible
With flakes of gold leaf; & beside
The pond, a hunter’s decrepit shack
I’ve claimed, its split planks
Chinked with plaster & old rags.  Just
Today, I’ve spent
The morning poking out a bird’s nest
Lodged in the crooked brick chimney
Pointing up
Through the roof like a single
Broken finger . . . Here, the only
Accusing voices are those
Of the branches snapping & smoking
In the stove, of the gray squirrels chasing
The one albino out of their trees
To, I imagine,
Some ghetto of oak or maple
Reserved for him; & look, his tail
Is as erect as a white feather
Pen, a plume dipped into its tiny, snowy
Inkwell, the spine of the tail quivering
As the fronds of hair
Are blown by a rising breeze.

David St. John

The Case for Christ – Lee Strobel

This was a very readable and interesting look at Biblical and theological “facts.”  It was certainly thought-provoking and an interesting approach, though I would be interested in reading a more recent edition.

The Far Side of the World – Patrick O’Brian

I failed to read a Patrick O’Brian novel last year, so I’m in deficit.  Of all the books in this series that I have read so far, this was the most disappointing.  Something was not quite right about the first two-thirds—the pacing seemed much too slow and there were no twisty, turny narratives as in Treason’s Harbour.  The last third really picked up, with some of the most startling imagery of the books so far (and that’s saying something).  However, the abrupt ending, the complete alteration from the film (that’s not the book’s fault, but the film feels by and large superior), and little annoying tics like Jack realizing at last that he’s fat and Stephen falling for his “type” yet again, not to mention the rather strange missed opportunities for some of the characters, made me feel this was definitely a low point.

Kraken – China Miéville

The first book chosen for our ill-fated book club.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was definitely not what this book ended up being.  Parts of it were creative and interesting and much of it was genuinely suspenseful and an interesting adventure.  I just thought much of it was ponderous and overwritten and derivative.  Billy Harrow was a washout as a hero, and Saira the Londonmancer was paper-thin on characterization.  The villains were far more visceral and real, and aside from Dane and, at times, Collingswood, the goodies were somewhat vaporous, overpowered.  To be fair, though, some of the images stayed with me, making me think Miéville is probably a better poet.

Terry Jones’ Barbarians:  An Alternative Roman History –Terry Jones and Alan Ereira

I really enjoyed this and learned a lot, though I thought there was going to be more information on Roman Africa.  It was much easier to read than An Imperial Possession, but took much the same stance and was far from romantic about the Romans.  You could feel Jones’ antipathy for the Catholic Church surging under the surface though he let the deeds speak for themselves in a much more measured way than Eduardo Galleano.  I would be interested to know what the scholarly response was to the book.

Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

My yearly dose of Dickens.  “Dickens’s feelings are involved on both sides, and it is this vertiginous doubleness of sympathy, with the violent and the victimized, that informs the many great passages and chapters of what is at once a flawed and a magnificent, startling novel”—from the introduction by Philip Horne.

In some ways I suppose I was faintly disappointed—it was rougher round the edges than the more mature works like Bleak House and Little Dorrit—but it fairly seethed with strongly-felt social critique in a much more urgent way than anyone growing up on a diet of Christmas Carol would imagine possible.  For example, early in the novel, Oliver goes with the undertaker to a poor person’s house who has just died.  The husband refuses to let the undertaker have a look at her, while the mother-in-law acts crazy, somewhat reminiscent of later characters in North and South.  “I say she starved to death.  I never knew how bad she was, till the fever came upon her, and then her bones were starting through the skin. There was neither fire nor candle; she died in the dark—in the dark.  She couldn’t even see her children’s faces, though we heard her gasping out their names.  I begged for her in the streets, and they sent me to prison.  When I came back, she was dying; and all the blood in my heart has dried up, for they starved her to death!”

Where I sought to understand Nancy and Sikes’ relationship, I found I could not; the Artful Dodger got written out as if the author was too fond to see him meted out justice; I found a surprising strain of social conservatism à la Emma in that Oliver was actually of good, aristocratic stock to begin with and this at least as much as his good character ensured his ascendance.  That isn’t to say I didn’t find it shocking, moving, amusing, or entertaining. 

“Dogs are not generally apt to revenge injuries inflicted upon them by their masters, but Mr Sikes’ dog, having faults of temper in common with his owner, and labouring perhaps, at this moment, under a powerful sense of injury, made no more ado but at once fixed his teeth in one of his half-boots, and, having given it a good hearty shake, retired, growling, under a form; whereby just escaping the pewter measure which Mr Sikes levelled at its head.
‘You would, would you?’ said Sikes, seizing the poker in one hand and deliberately opening with the other a large clasp-knife, which he drew from his pocket.  ‘Come here, you born devil!  Come here!  D’ye hear?’
“The dog no doubt heard, because Mr Sikes spoke to it in the very harshest key of a very harsh voice; but appearing to entertain some unaccountable objection to having his throat cut, he remained where he was, and growled more fiercely than before, at the same time grasping the poker between his teeth and biting at it like a wild beast.”

To write characters like that at twenty-five demands respect.

That Awkward Age – Roger McGough

Some truly weird poems, but most of them middle-of-the-road, not quite as good as Wendy Cope but quite pleasant to read.

Best Poems in the Underground – Ed. Gerard Benson, Judith Chernalle, Cicely Herbert

A good mix, many short and snappy, all easy to get into.

Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The second book chosen for the book club.  This was both what I was expecting and not what I was expecting.  He was certainly a writer who was building up portraits of his characters brushstroke by brushstroke in a jittery, impressionistic style which made them still enigmatic but not in an unpleasant or unconvincing way, I found.  Dr Diver as a character made a very strong impression on me.  Rosemary Hoyt was a bit disappointing as a character, and Nicole was the most ephemeral of all.  Still, I thought it was a much more interesting picture of expats than Mavis Gallant’s stories.

The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present – Harold C. Schonberg

This was very entertaining and made me wish I could understand music more so I could explain why I’m partial to Glenn Gould.  I wish it had been more up-to-date than 1987 (and didn’t so much bear the unmistakable traces of sexism), but it was quite an impressive achievement in terms of making so much information readable.

Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis

The third book club book, and the one I chose.  I was unsure if I would like this as I had always gotten the impression Amis was the kind of person I would dislike and his books were meant to be quite sexist.  There are certainly traces of sexism in Lucky Jim (particularly in the character of Margaret) but it is striking how far things seem to have come since Tender Is the Night.  In any case, I thought this book was absolutely hysterical, giving vent to the feelings we all have for annoying people who wield power over us.  I didn’t want it to end, and was quite surprised at the happy ending.  I’ll certainly give his other books a chance.

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimanda Ngozi Adiche

This was a very well-written book; I introduced me to cultures and historical events about which I was totally ignorant.  The characters were very skilfully written, and I couldn’t help getting caught up in their lives.  It made me very depressed and tense while I read it, much like Wild Swans when I read that.  I was disappointed that Richard, the only white character, seemed to be good for nothing other than to be a plot catalyst—unless I misread the whole thing.  I would definitely read more of Adiche’s work; I’m a little jealous of her talent.

The Country Girls – Edna O’Brien

I read In the Forest nine years ago, and now that I think about it, I didn’t like it very much.  Nevertheless, for something different, I gave this a try.  It was a quick, easy read, the humor and pathos organized along the thread of dread:  would the young heroine get deflowered by the suave, much older Mr Gentleman, and was he a pervert or was he truly in love with her?  I felt a bit disappointed by the ending, but O’Brien had a very confident voice, and it’s easy to see why this straightforward book, with its implied criticism of convent school, Irish patriarchy, and the options open to lower class women, would have distressed the status quo.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeannette Winterson

The fourth book club read.  Despite the extreme pretensions of the author, this was a fast read, very funny and quite an interesting unconventional novel(la).  I felt it fell a bit apart at the end, but the characterizations of Elsie, Miss Jewesbury, and Mother were very good—I think if I were teaching I would include this as required reading on voice.

The French and Indian War:  Deciding the Fate of North America – Walter R. Borneman

To any casual student of history, I would have no problem recommending this as a compact, well-paced overview of the French and Indian War, opinionated but concise, lively but almost terse.  It told me very little I hadn’t already read in the longer histories (except I got a lot more detail on the war in the Caribbean and Pontiac’s War).  The omission of Washington’s culpability at Little Meadows was bizarre, especially as the book kept pointing out “here goes Gates, Gage, Clinton, Howe, etc” (though the elder Howe’s death was poignant—I’ve never encountered anyone who had the courage to suggest the younger Howe’s performance was predicated on his and his brother’s sympathy to the Americans rather than incompetence, lethargy, lechery, etc).  I will definitely look at Borneman’s book on the War of 1812.  It’s a nice book to have on the shelf for references.

Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest – Richard Meltzer

Great pictorial history work—good starting point and definitely worth having on the shelf. 

The Ninjas – Jane Yeh

This was slightly disappointing.  Too many ekphrastic poems that, to me, had nothing new to say.  The style was this combination of absurd opposites that didn’t gel for me when coupled with the almost deadpan voice you could never trust to be genuine.  Not my cup of tea.

Black Snow – Mikhail Bulgakov

“There is a certain sort of young man who must have seen about Moscow.  They hang around editorial offices on publication day, but they are not writers; they are at every theatre for the dress rehearsals, although they are not actors; they go to art exhibitions, but they do not paint.  They refer to operatic prima donnas by their first names, as they do to many other public figures whom they have never so much as met.  At premiers at the Bolshoi, pushing their way between the seventh and eighth rows they wave to someone in the dress circle; at the Metropole they are to be found sitting at little tables right by the fountain and the multi-coloured bulbs light up their wide-bottomed trousers” (36).

Wow, the more I read Bulgakov, the more I adore him!  This novel was hysterical, and spoke so much to the writer’s life I would combine it with Russell T Davies’ A Writer’s Tale to teach a class about reflexive writing.  It was short and sweet, and what a wicked ending!  What a cutting dismissal of Method Acting, too.  I’m convinced I need to read the entire oeuvre now.

Scars Upon My Heart:  Women’s Poetry and Verse of the First World War

A real range of quality—though Vera Brittain was represented, most poets were not of her calibre.  Nevertheless, some interesting readings. 

Good to Go:  A Guide to Preparing for the End of Life – Jo Myers

A disaster of a book.  Beautifully edited and packaged, written as though a down-homey schizophrenic was at the typewriter.  A few nuggets of helpful tips, but mostly “Google this” and stories and anecdotes that led nowhere or were inappropriate.

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

The fifth book for book club.  I really can’t say I understand the hype.  There is certainly a mastery of voice that sucks you in, particularly at the beginning, and I guess if you like Naturalistic novels where there isn’t (or doesn’t seem to be) foreshadowing, parallel structure, pathetic fallacy, or standard plot devices (apparently there’s symbolism in this book, but I didn’t know what it was), you probably get more out of it than I did.  I felt the characterizations of the tragic female leads was crass and exploitative.  The sex was such that many a fan fiction writer has written (and with more justification, I might add).  I was left thinking, what was the point?  I don’t know that the translation was a good one, either. 

Lost City Radio – Daniel Alarcón

“The phone collapsed distances, just as the radio did, and like the radio, it relied on the miracle of imagination” (152).

It was hard for me to get over the lack of specificity—an unidentifiable Latin American country—for obvious reasons.  The almost cinematic, almost speed-of-thought transitions between scenes was also a bit difficult to reconcile at first.  However, the narrative payoff was quite enjoyable, especially after the experience of Murukami, and it was interesting and engaging.  It certainly understood how radio works.  One of the few books I can remember that meandered in the middle but pulled it all together in the end.  Also especially good with suspense and chronology. 

Collected Poems – Chinua Achebe

I preferred his later poems; they were a bit less abstract and more original.

The Peasant Prince:  Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution – A. Storczynski

A great subject for a book, and Storczynski brings together so much that I didn’t know about Poland, making it instantly accessible.  He bent over backwards to make Gates seem blameless, though from the evidence of the way they treated Black people, Kosciuszko and Gates were light years ahead of Jefferson and Washington, though it pains me to say it.  The Polish battles for freedom were incredibly exciting, and I really ached for Kosciuszko when he got to the end of his life without having found true love or having led Poland to a victory over its oppressors.  An occasional typo or inaccuracy was put into sharp relief because the rest of the book was really quite good.

Kosciuszko was an impressive human being. He was born into a highly stratified society.  The Kosciuszkos were part of the top 10% of Polish society, the szlachta, but above them was the top 1%, such as the Czartoryskis, the Potockis, and the Radziwills.  After his father’s death, Kosciuszko’s mother, Tekla Ratomska, ran the homestead, managing the estate.  When he was 18, Kosciuszko learned that Prince Czartoryski was looking for recruits to the Royal Knight school.  The prince arranged for a scholarship to send Kosciuszko to the academy in Warsaw.  Once there, Kosciuszko was so eager to start his studies he had the night watchman tug on a string tied to his wrist with the other end in the hallway, waking him up at 3 am.  He learned about fort construction, topography, practical geometry, trigonometry, drawing, and engineering. “When fighting broke out Kosciuszko had the difficult choice of joining Pulaski’s confederates, who wanted to overthrow the king and drive out the Russians, or supporting his patrons, the monarch and the Czartoryski family, who favoured a gradual strategy of shaking off Russian domination”—he and his friend Captain Joseph Orlowski chose to go abroad instead! (12).

Lord Sosnowski hired Kosciuszko as a tutor to his daughters Catherine and Louise, but Kosciuszko fell in love with Louise.  Louise was his intellectual equal; he was lecturing the sisters on the theories of Quesnay, they told him they had been the first to translate his work into Polish.  After the disastrous end to their affair, Kosciuszko went abroad again, searching for a place to use his talents, believing that Pulaski was already in America (he was hiding in France; there was a price on his head).  

Much later, after Kosciuszko’s valuable contribution to the American Revolution, the freedom fighter turned to his own besieged nation, particularly the rights of the serfs.  “By mentioning the Jews in the same context as the peasants, Kosciusko made it clear that he would stand up for the two largest disenfranchised groups in Polish society” (136).  Later, Kosciuszko was “secretly lobbying the Vatican to help Poland.  He made friends in Vatican hierarchy and nearly became head of the Pope’s army, but conservative cardinals viewed his participation in the American Revolution as too radical” (177).  

After having been defeated and imprisoned by Catherine the Great, Kosciuszko had his second trip to the US, where he was fêted and appreciated, yet he was “frustrated that France was fighting with the democratic United States rather than Poland’s tyrannous enemies” (231). 

Heartbreakingly, Kosciuszko ended his life in exile and penury, and his exploits were not recognized for a long time.  The sable that Thomas Jefferson wore in his famous portrait by Rembrandt Peale was a gift from Kosciuszko who got it from Czar Paul.  When he died, K’s heart was placed in a bronze urn to be returned to his country only when Poland was free – it took until WWI for this to happen.  “When news of his death in exile spread through Europe, funeral masses were held in Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist churches.  Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques also held services where worshippers prayed for Kosciuszko’s soul” (278).  Sadly, by the 1850s, “none of the money that Kosciuszko had set aside to free and educate [American] slaves [entrusted to Jefferson] went for its intended purpose” (282).  He was certainly a man ahead of his time.

Funny Poems – ed. Wendy Cope

A witty and accessible collection.

Hiroshima – John Hershey

I agree with the statement on the cover:  everyone who can read should read this book.  It presents as objective a viewpoint as it’s possible to get without losing sensitivity to the humanity of the six hibakusha it profiles.  I learned a lot and was both sad and inspired to read the further life stories of these people in the last chapter.

In Evil Hour – Gabriel Garcia Márquez

I liked some of the collected short stories better, though there were many character crossovers.

Leaf Storm – Gabriel Garcia Márquez

As experiment in form that was very successful although I’m not sure I completely understood it.

Country Girl – Edna O’Brien

I really enjoyed this, despite the conviction in places that O’Brien is really weird.  She’s a brilliant, poetic writer, and it’s hard not to empathize with her as a human being.  The ellipses, the hinted at absences remain just that, and enigmatic—her relationship with her father and her brother and her latter years of relationship with her mother—the lives of her sons after the divorce.  I thought the name-dropping got to be a little much—or else I misunderstood its purpose.  But definitely, a good book for another writer to read.

The Dead Sea Poems – Simon Armitage

Very good wordsmith, crafting each line to count, but a bit too ambiguous for my personal taste.

Connemara Blues – John O’Donohue

It’s difficult to explain what was lacking here; perhaps a sharp sense of sameness, a liturgical rhythm, that willed some good (not great) images and perhaps the annoying stanza similarity?  It was a disappointing collection, but I’m not sure what I would have advised the author to change.

The First Muslim:  The Story of Muhammad – Lesley Hazelton

This was an accessible biography that looked mainly to the early chronicles of Muhammad’s life, composed largely of first-hand accounts, but it is also sometimes sceptical of later clerical flourishes or misinterpretations.  It is respectful and tries to understand Muhammad as a real-life person.  As Hazelton says, his life was in fact very well-documented (far more so than is Christ’s or Shakespeare’s!) so it’s reasonable to build up this kind of picture of him. 

Gentlemen of the Road – Michael Chabon

I don’t see why the author felt the need to apologize for this book; it was delightful from beginning to end and wonderfully illustrated narrative unity.  The characters were excellent, the vocabulary staggering, and it was much in the vein of an arch, modernist Sabatini or a more fanciful On the Road to Samarkand.  I don’t think, though, that I’m much encouraged to read his other books given the way he’s dismissed this one.  How much fun it would be adapt for radio!!

Lords of the Storm – David A. McIntee

Vintage Doctor Who Missing Adventure stuff.  An Indian-caste-inspired world; while from a white guy’s perspective, it seemed to chime all right.  The Doctor wasn’t protesting against the inequality of the caste system; he was more worried about the planet Ragni getting caught in the Sontaran/Rutan crossfire.  Featuring a strong female lead and a particularly well-written Turlough. 

Toast – Nigel Slater

I really liked the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Eating for England, and when I couldn’t find that on the shelves of the library, I got this instead.  I wasn’t prepared for all the sex, but in other ways this was surreally like Adrian Mole for real—obviously set two decades earlier and with a descriptive emphasis on food that rivals M.F.K.Fisher’s.  

“At Christmas the windows would light up with clementines in coloured foil, biscuits in tins with stagecoaches on the lids, fresh pineapples, whole peaches in tins, trifle sponges and packets of silver balls and sugared almonds.  Mother would buy wooden caskets of Turkish delight and crystallised figs, sugared plums and jars of cherries in brandy” (24).

Where Fisher was coy about the personal, Slater is almost uncomfortably, blisteringly honest in his disappointment with his mother, his dislike of his father, and his irration with his stepmother.  He hasn’t got a lot of time to be sympathetic with any of them—after all, I suppose it was his childhood and it appears he reckons they scarred him for life! 

“Since my mother had gone, my father’s evening meals had been an almost steady stream of toasted cheese and Cadbury’s Mini-Rolls.  He had his pipe, of course, but I wasn’t sure if that constituted a meal or not. . . . Every meal was seasoned with guilt.  His.  Mine.  ‘You might at least do the plates.’  He said it just once.  From then on I washed up after every meal, standing on a stool to reach into the deep steel sink” (110).

Nevertheless, as memoirs go, this is extremely well-written.  Despite the schadenfreude, I didn’t want it to end.

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

“It started again, as though it had been listening, waiting to hear their voices and what they said, to identify them, to know how well prepared they were against it, waiting to hear if they were afraid.  So suddenly that Eleanor leaped back against the bed and Theodora gasped and cried out, the iron crash came against their door, and both of them lifted their eyes in horror, because the hammering was against the upper edge of the door, higher than either of them could reach, higher than Luke or the doctor would reach, and the sickening, degrading cold came in waves from whatever was outside the door” (130).

This was very well-written, very well-crafted, an unsettling ghost story.  I can’t help but think it was inspired by an episode of I Love aMystery.  Nevertheless, it gave me the heebie-jeebies, and I couldn’t help but marvel at its potency and narrative eloquence.  I wished in some places it was less obvious where Eleanor was going insane and more ambiguous as to what role the house was playing, but I really really enjoyed reading this. 

Printer’s Devil Court – Susan Hill

Unfortunately, reading Susan Hill is a series of diminishing returns.  This was a badly edited book with superfluous illustrations.  When the ghost finally showed up, things got to be entertaining and perfect reading for early October, but most of the (very short) book felt derivative. 

Poe:  Nineteen New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe – ed. Ellen Datlow

Very strangely, I thought all the weakest stories were at the beginning and slowly we got to the really good stuff toward the end.  I think the authors showed tribute to Poe’s more obscure works just as well or even better than the famous ones.  I appreciated most of them, though I guess the ones that stayed with me the longest were “Kirikh’quru Krokundor” by Lucius Shepard, “The Red Piano” by Delia Sherman, “The Mountain House” by Sharyn McCrumb, “Lowland Sea” by Suzy McKee Charnas, “The Brink of Eternity” by Barbara Rodin, and “Flitting Away” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  Note these are mostly female authors.

The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories – MR James

Compulsively page-turning, though having read them all it’s easier to see that they are definitely full of recognizable motifs from the same pen.  Despite all that, they are quite addictive.  My two favorites were probably “A Residence at Whitminster” and “A View from a Hill,” both of them deceptively prosaically-named.

Black Poppies:  Britain’s Black Community and the Great War – Stephen Borne

A really excellent book—I learned so much.  Bourne is self-educated and not an academic, but he is able to tell stories that need telling and have been neglected for too long. 

Olivier – Philip Ziegler

I saw this book when it was published last year in paperback and was immediately desirous of reading it, but I’m afraid it wasn’t until it became more affordable in paperback that I was able to read it.   It was an enjoyable and well-researched biography—I quite like reading biographies of twentieth-century actors.  Despite the fact Ziegler found many similarities between Olivier and Earl Mountbatten, I found many similarities between the young Orson Welles and the young Olivier (as hinted in the play Orson’s Shadow which I saw earlier this year).  I was fascinated with Olivier when I first saw Richard III many years ago, but now I am convinced I must see his other films, even if they are inevitably a pale shadow of his theatrical genius.

And the graphic novels: 

Daredevil:  Cruel and Unusual – by Ed Brubaker & Greg Rucka, art by Paul Azaceta, Michael Lark, and Stefano Gaudiano

Unsurprising to have two excellent writers on the case, though I have to say I didn’t like it quite as much as Waid/Samnee.  The story is actually freakily close to Serial, which makes it very entertaining indeed. The idea that Matt Murdock can hear a convict’s confession on tape and be able to hear if he’s lying is very appealing. 

Daredevil:  Here Comes the Man Without Fear 5 – by Mike Waid, art by Chris Samnee

I could have done without the Spider-Man/Doc Ock interlude (just isn’t my bag) but even that was well-written and kind of amusing.  So nicely drawn, too.  I love the exchange in Issue 22 about how the blind deal with cash.  

MATT:  Yes, it’s a pain that American paper currency is of a uniform size regardless of denomination.  . . . But my most helpful tip:  surrender to the 21st century and use a debit card as much as possible.  It’s always good to have a little cash in your pocket, but the debit card is the blind man’s best friend.
>>This ATM provides spoken instructions for your convenience. 
>>You have exceeded your account balance.  Please try again.
MATT:  Except when it isn’t.

Daredevil:  Here Comes the Man Without Fear 7 – by Mike Waid, art by Chris Samnee, Jason Copland, Javier Rodriguez, Alvaro Lopez

Another enjoyable Waid/Samnee outing, although a bit far-fetched.  (DD is more far-fetched than I generally like my comics—okay, so it is Marvel—but this story more so than the others I’ve read so far.)  Of course I appreciate it when DD uses his hearing (rather than his superpowers) in a way that elevates him beyond all us normal sighted people, as he does here.  Foggy Nelson is wonderful, as always; Dr Strange makes a flying visit.  The best part, however, is the opening to Issue #33, as it portrays how DD dreams. 

Batman:  Knightfall Part One:  Broken Bat – by Doug Moench and Chuck Dixon, art by Jim Aparo, Norm Breyfogle, Graham Nolan, Jim Balent, Scott Hanna, Tom Mandrake, Bob Wiacek, Joe Rubinstein, Dick Giordano

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this. The art is actually very good—I think it’s the primitivism of the coloring (though hats off to Adrienne Roy, who did ALL the coloring) that really dates it as being of the early 1990s.  (Though some of the villains’ hair styles don’t help!)

It’s so painful and yet riveting to watch how far Batman can push himself even though he knows there is no good way for this to end.  It’s almost as if he’s on a suicide mission—if he pushes hard enough, he will have a release, and the responsibility of protecting Gotham will pass on to someone else because he’ll be dead.  The last few pages were just Bane beating up Batman—you know the outcome, and yet I found myself flipping the pages really fast.  

I didn’t enjoy The Dark Knight Rises very much (well, I enjoyed the bits with Catwoman and “Robin”), and I see that the reasons for that are planted in Knightfall: I just don’t get Bane.  I know that in the comics he’s this Mexican wrestler pumped full of venom (which, for reality’s sake, they were right to dispense with in the Nolan!verse).  However, his motivation just doesn’t make much sense.  Maybe I’ll be able to deal with it better when I read Part Two.  Also, I thought they really missed a trick here—Bane is seen without his mask, and he looks like a normal guy (though with hideously hairy shoulders . . . ugh!).  Why not keep him hidden under the mask?  That really would have contributed to his mystique.  It was also bizarre to see him sitting with his feet up watching TV in his hideout with his ridiculous henchmen.  At least the Nolan!verse Bane did no such thing. 
I suppose a variety of circumstances made Bane’s plan in Knightfall—setting free Arkham Asylum’s prisoners—not appropriate in The Dark Knight Rises, though I suppose they nodded to it.  In Knightfall it allows for a rogues gallery assault not unlike the one Loeb/Sale come up with in Batman:  The Long Halloween.  

I guess perhaps what surprised me most was how much I liked Tim Drake’s presence as Robin.  He was a nice antidote to all the pain and gloom.

The Hedge Knight – by George R. R. Martin and Ben Avery, art by Mike S. Miller and Mike Crowell

My first experience with George R. R. Martin.  The pencils were impressive, but somehow I wasn’t blown away by the art (and my God, those panels were crowded and FULL of text).  The story was interesting and I did want to keep reading, but the female characters were atrocious.  I believe it was waaaay toned down as far as violence, swearing, sex, and nudity were concerned, so I don’t know how true a portrait of Martin it is.  *shrug* What makes it so much better than all the medieval-esque fantasy already out there?

The Crow – Special Edition -  by James O’Barr

As Clive Barker announces on the back cover, “O’Barr’s intensity frightens me.”  This is an intense piece of work, The Shadow + the most vengeful moments of Matt Dillon + Labyrinth—the late ‘80s/early ‘90s style reminded me of the Batman Elseworlds titles that I both enjoy (Red Rain, Gotham by Gaslight) and revere (Masque).  As luck would have it, O’Barr noted that he named his character Eric after The Phantom of the Opera (though his Eric has more in common with the Cockney Rebel music video than either ALW or the original novel).  Still, I find it strangely moving to think O’Barr identified Erik with the super-human, supernatural, angsty force of the Crow.  The artwork isn’t perfect, but O’Barr certainly knows how to tell a story via graphic novel.  Unlike superhero comics, the sexualization/objectification is equal opportunities, Eric being in uneasy pin-up form much more often than angelic Shelly.  He’s more Bowie and Césare from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari; I can’t always condone the excessiveness of his blood purge—at the very least, it feels very uncomfortable against the moral example of Batman.  I was inspired to watch the movie for the first time and loved it.

Richard Stark’s Parker:  The Hunter -  by Donald Westlake/Darwyn Cooke

This was really disappointing.  The art was good, as ever, but the story was disgustingly misogynistic and not even that interesting.  Remind me to steer clear of Richard Stark.

Woman Rebel:  The Margaret Sanger Story – by Peter Bagge

Totally pretentious introduction aside, this was a wonderful graphic biography; Bagge’s admiration for Sanger, warts and all, comes through.  It’s funny, incredibly interesting, and very absorbing—also induces shock and anger.  Certainly, the lifestyle we take for granted would not have been possible without Sanger’s tireless efforts.  She seemed like quite a character, as well.  Bagge is an enthusiastic and meticulous storyteller; I loved the fact he devoted the final 12 or so pages to explaining where he had to fictionalize slightly and provided photographs as well. 

Daredevil:  Born Again – by Frank Miller/David Mazzuchelli

Miller-tropes aside (what’s with the junkie girlfriend?), I really quite enjoyed this.  It’s the same principle as Knightfall—push Daredevil to the wall—but with a very different outcome (at least compared to Knightfall part 1).

Batwoman:  Hydrology Vol.1 The New 52 – by J.H. Williams/W. Haden Blackman

The art in this was really incredible—I know I go on about good art quite a lot, but the amazing double-page spreads really lent themselves to the misty, swirly forms of La Llorona—a superb idea for a villain and gorgeously—and creepily—portrayed by J.H. Williams.  As ever, I’m not privy to all the back story, especially Kate Kane’s past baggage, but as Rolling Stone says on the back cover:  “In our world, barriers slowly erode; in superhero stories, they get smashed.”  On the whole, I wouldn’t say that’s true, but they are certainly disregarded in Hydrology, as Kate Kane is an unashamed lesbian and has a real connection with Detective Maggie Sawyer (already outed as a lesbian courtesy of Greg Rucka).  

Fiction  20/52  38%

Nonfiction  13/52  25%

Poetry 9/52  17%

Graphic Novels 10/52   19%

Monday, December 29, 2014

Books in 2014

This year kind of went haywire in terms of books.  I didn’t take careful note of the graphic novels I read and I wrote far fewer reviews simply because I had no time.  Also I spent less time reading than ever before.  Oh well.  Looking over it, there’s a heck of a lot of ghost stories and the occult; not on purpose.  And of course, a lot having to do with the American Revolution.  There’s still quite a lot of good stuff on this year’s list . . .

Ruso and the River of Darkness – R.S. Downie
Ten Days in a Madhouse – Nellie Bly
Wilkie Collins – Peter Ackroyd
*The Grey, the Blue, and the Bat - Elliot S. Maggin / Alan Weiss and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez

The Great God Pan – Arthur Machen
Beyond Black - Hilary Mantel
The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins
American Insurgents, American Patriots – T.H. Breen
Torchwood:  Something in the Water – Trevor Baxendale
Writing for Comics - Peter David
A very engaging and well-written structural look into what makes good comics tick and how to emulate them.

*Foiled - Jane Yolen / Mike Cavallaro

*The New 52: Wonder Woman Vol 1: Blood - Brian Azzarello / Cliff Chang and Tony Akins

*Gotham City Sirens: Union - Paul Dini and Scott Lobdel / Guillem March, David Lopez & Alvaro Lopez

*The Escapists - Brian K. Vaughn / Jason Shawn Alexander, Steve Rolston, Philip Bond, and Eduardo Bando

*American Vampire Vol 1 - Scott Snyder and Stephen King / Rafael Albuquerque

*Fatale Vol 1: Death Chases Me - Ed Brubaker / Sean Phillips

*King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel - Timothy Truman / Tomás Giorello & José Villarrubia

*The Five Fists of Science - Matt Fraction / Steven Sanders

*Northlanders Vol 3 - Brian Wood / Vasilis Losos and Danijel Zezelsj

*Fables Vol 6: Homelands - Bill Willingham / Mark Buckingham

Lascivious Bodies – Julie Peakman
Supposedly this is the second time I read this, though only the Casanova section seemed familiar.  I can’t help feeling that, in order to make it accessible, the research has been watered down until simplistic.  That said, the organization is neat and the reliance on primary sources makes it more scientific than, “hey, look at 18th century porn!”

Battlefield – Marc Platt (the Doctor Who Target novelization)
After the bad experiences with the last few Targets, I was heartened to find a well-crafted and far more meta effort for one of my favorite McCoy-era stories.  The dialogue of ‘80s Doctor Who doesn’t work well in prose, but that’s a minor annoyance.

The History of London – Walter Besant
This book, published in 1894, was evidently written for a youthful (male) audience, though its author was a historian and went on to write many nonfiction books about London as well as a plethora of novels.  The charming black-and-white illustrations, taken from contemporary designs from each period, make it an enjoyable read for people of any age.  

The author made a passionate plea that anyone who lives in London should take time out to examine old buildings and realize what an important contribution to history they made. He loved London Stone, for example, though in his day it was in a different place than it is today. He wanted to stop people razing historical buildings, especially churches, and he also inculcated his readership with the importance of the British legal and government systems, encouraging his readership to exercise their right to vote. He has a great affection for Londoners, describing Blitz spirit before there was a Blitz!

Unsurprisingly, the book begins with pre-history followed by the Roman period.  What is notable is that, of course, in 1894, discoveries like the Roman mosaics in the crypt of All Hallows by the Tower hadn't been made, so the musings on London as a Roman city are based on conjecture. “Whatever there is in the English character of persistence, obstinacy, patience, industry, sobriety, love of freedom, we are accustomed to attribute to our Anglo-Saxon descent.  In religion, arts, learning, literature, culture, we owe little or nothing to the Anglo-Saxon.  In all these things we are indebted to the South” (35).  “It used to cry aloud in time of Plague:  it cries aloud now in time of typhoid, diphtheria, and cholera.  Physicians cannot cure them:  but they can learn their cause and they can prevent” (182).  For the most part, however, the book doesn't date too badly.  Besant very much seems to be biased toward medieval London, and it's disappointing how little he has to say post-1666.  He seems to despise the Georgians (though being a Victorian I guess that's to be expected).  He finds them noisy and drunken and as a rule, made up of a criminal class.  

Occasionally the author has let his political opinions slip through (naturally enough).  Talking about the end of Roman occupation, “Britain had to be abandoned.  It was as if England were to give up Hong Kong and Singapore and the West Indies because she could no longer spare the ships and regiments to defend them.  The nation which abandons her possessions is not far from downfall” (19).  He is also forthright on crime and punishment:  “If for a single fortnight we should all refuse to give a single penny to beggars:  if in every street we should all resolve upon having none but honest folk among us:  then and only then, would the rogue find this island of Great Britain impossible to be longer inhabited by him and his tribe” (201).    

There is plenty to be learnt from this book.  Besant reproduces the first Charter granted to the citizens of London by William the Conqueror and “translates” it into modern English. On page 171 he states that the giants carved in 1707 and which I believe are still in Guildhall are not named Gog and Magog, but Gogmagog and Corineus.  However, he doesn't give any citation or explanation, which is most frustrating!  He is at his best when describing large and impressive scenes from the past, such as the market at Chepe in late Norman London, the March of the Watch in the fifteenth century and the Mystery Plays.  Overall, it is written in a very friendly and approachable style and moves along at a good pace.  

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America – John Demos
Narrative history—a bit histrionic and babying sometimes, but overall a very in depth study of a moment in time and its repercussions—a web, really, with Deerfield 1704 at its center.  An interesting approach to something that is increasingly unknowable as the centuries go on, but not quite what I was expecting. 

Telling Tales – Melissa Katsoulis
A lightweight but very entertaining book, covering all the greats (Chatterton, Ireland, Witter Bynner, James Frey) and bringing to light a lot of Australian [hoaxers] I’d never heard of.  Makes you either want to perpetuate a literary hoax yourself or question the veracity of everything you’ve ever read.

Torchwood:  The Twilight Streets – Gary Russell
*Tribes:  The Dog Years – Michael Geszel & Peter Spinetta /  Inaki Miranda

Washington’s Secret War:  The Hidden History of Valley Forge – Thomas Fleming
I really enjoyed this, more than any other book I’d read about the American Revolution since 1776 (except perhaps the Joseph Ellis or the fragment of the Bernard Bailyn I read).  Wonderful grasp of the overall situation and admirable focus on telling “the whole truth” while being vastly entertaining and unashamedly partisan.  I liked when the author’s voice came through and the way it was structured.

Torchwood:  Pack Animals – Peter Anghelides
*Avengers vs X-Men Vol. 0 – Michael Brian Bendis / John Romita Jr., Olivier Coipel, and Frank Cho
*Daredevil vol. 4 - Mark Waid / Chris Samnee and Michael Allred
*Batman:  Streets of Gotham:  Leviathan - Chris Yost, Paul Dini, Mike Benson / Dustin Nguyen
*She-Hulk:  Laws of Attraction – Dan Slott / Will Conrad, Paul Smith, Rick Burchett
Richard: The Young King to Be - Josephine Wilkinson

The Secret Life of France – Lucy Wadham
A very enjoyable and easily readable book, a lot more politically charged than I expected (I was expecting something more along the lines of a Peter Mayle).  I learned a lot I hadn’t known or even begun to interrogate, but it also underlined a lot of my experiences in France, particularly as regards the patriarchal society there.  

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
I enjoyed this much more than I expected to; however, when I got to the end, it felt a bit insubstantial.  It had been page-turning while it lasted, but to me it certainly didn’t feel like any great work of literature and certainly didn’t warrant the three pages (!) of accolades at the beginning.  I kept being reminded of A Wrinkle in Time.

Ordinary Courage (annotated journal of Joseph Plumb Martin)
I fell in love with JPM.  He was so funny, and his observations were so utterly ordinary and approachable, it felt as if the distance of 300 years had been shrunk to nothing.  A book every student of American history should read.

*Supergirl Vol1:  The Last Daughter of Krypton - Michael Green and Mike Johnson / Mahmud Asar
*Saga Vol. 1 - Brian K. Vaughn / Fiona Staples
*Birds of Prey: Between Dark and Dawn  - Gail Simone/Ed Benes, Ron Adrian, Jim Fern, Eduardo Barreto, Eric Battle, Rob Lea, Steve Bird, Andrew Pepoy, and Rooney Ramos
*Civil War:  Front Line – Paul Jenkins
George Washington’s First War – David A. Clary
Apart from a few rather weird passages, this was a very interesting book that wasn’t afraid to show how inept the inexperienced Washington was in his early 20s.  Nevertheless, Clary wasn’t out to smear our Founding Father—the best part of the book was where Clary attempted to show how Washington learned from (most) of his mistakes to become the heroic leader of the 1770s.  I suppose it fills us all with hope that if we’re screw-ups in our 20s we could still be awesome in our 50s, 60s, and 70s.  The general overview of the period was also quite helpful.
Bleak House – Charles Dickens
I was a bit disappointed with Bleak House, as I had such high expectations after Little Dorrit (though it was an interesting experiment to read the novel neck-and-neck as I watched episodes of the 2005 TV series).  There were a few sections of Little Dorrit I skipped over, but there were quite a few more in Bleak House.  The first 4/5s were pretty exciting, but the final revelations were just a little less thrilling than I had hoped.

The characters were a mixed bag.  The heroine Esther Summerson was somewhat annoying; I didn’t take to her as I took to Amy Dorrit.  She was good; she was dull.  She was only interesting through her relationships with other characters. 

“But why her [Lady Dedlock’s] face should be, in a confused way, like a broken glass to me, in which I saw scraps of old remembrances; and why I should be so fluttered and troubled (for I was still), by having casually met her eyes; I could not think” (250).

Her paramour, the good doctor Allan Woodcourt, felt like a practice run for Arthur Clennam.  The nasty characters—as ever—abounded, such as the chilling, enigmatic Mr Tulkinghorn and the irritating Mr Smallweed.  Mr Krook was annoying and obstructive, but I did wonder if maybe all his problems could have been solved by getting him some hoarding help?  And helping him to learn to read and write?

“ ‘It would be easier to be taught by some one,’ said my guardian.
‘Aye, but they might teach me wrong!’ returned the old man, with a wonderfully suspicious flash of his eye.  ‘I don’t know what I may have lost, by not being learnd afore.  I wouldn’t like to lose anything by being learnd wrong now’” (201).

That scotches that!

Judy Smallweed is a piece of work. 

“Judy never owned a doll, never heard of Cinderella, never played at any game.  She once or twice fell into children’s company when she was about ten years old, but the children couldn’t get on with Judy, and Judy couldn’t get on with them . . . It is very doubtful whether Judy knows how to laugh” (290).

Hortense, the scorned French lady’s maid, is a missed opportunity, but she is so delightfully spiteful:

“ ‘Truly?’ returns Mademoiselle, in the same pleasant voice.  ‘That is droll!  But—my faith!—still what does it matter to me?’
‘My fair friend,’ says Mr Tulkinghorn, ‘make another visit here, or at Mr Snagsby’s, and you shall learn.’
‘In that case you will send Me to the prison, perhaps?’
It would be contradictory for one in Mademoiselle’s state of agreeable jocularity to foam at the mouth, otherwise a tigerish expansion thereabouts might look as if a very little more would make her do it” (589).

Ooh, and Mr Skimpole.  MR SKIMPOLE!! Who I wanted to strangle/stab/beat to death throughout the narrative.  How on Earth did he ever come by children?  His wife clearly needs her head examined.

I wondered what to make of characters like Mrs Jellyby (truly the gender problems in this exceeded those in The Moonstone) and Miss Flite.  Mrs Jellyby is roundly condemned by Dickens as the unnatural mother:  she has taken ideas of charity and compassion to extremes by abandoning her family to bring change to unfortunate people in Africa:

“We had never seen such dissatisfied children.  It was not merely that they were weazened and shrivelled—though they were certainly that too—but they looked absolutely ferocious with discontent.  At the mention of the Tockahoopo Indians, I could really have supposed Egbert to be one of the most baleful members of that tribe, he gave me such a savage frown.  The face of each child, as the amount of his contribution was mentioned, darkened in a peculiarly vindictive manner, but his was by far the worst.  I must except, however, the little recruit into the Infant Bonds of Joy, who was stolidly and evenly miserable” (101). 

These are not Mrs Jellyby’s children, by the way; they are a friend’s of hers, likewise condemned.  I quite admire Mrs Jellyby in the modern sense because she dares to have a “career” not out of economic necessity but because she wants to have something to do other than maddening Victorian middle class embroidery.  Her daughter is ashamed of her and needs the influence of Esther to get married and be happy (how conventional).  Her husband is apparently driven to ruin by her.  Le sigh. Miss Flite is likewise a batty old maid à la Miss Bates in Emma and Drusilla Clack in The Moonstone and deserves sympathy rather than censure.

Mr George, Sir Leicester Dedlock, and Mr Snagsby had their moments.  But I didn’t know what to make of Mr Guppy, of whom I had heard so much.  Was he there merely for comic relief? 

Mr Guppy saunters along with it congenially.  He has blunted the blade of his penknife and broken the point off, by sticking the instrument into his desk in every direction.  Not that he bears the desk any ill-will, but he must do something, and it must be something of an unexciting nature, which will lay neither his physical nor his intellectual energies under too heavy contribution.  He finds that nothing agrees with him so well, as to make little gyrations on one leg of his stool, and stab his desk, and gape (272).

What of his dedicated yet sometimes shallow, sometimes profound pursuit of Esther?  Did he really love her?  Is he just not good enough for her?  Should we laugh at him or feel sorry for him?

“ ‘I wish to prove to Miss Summerson that I can rise to a heighth, of which perhaps she hardly thought me capable.  I find that the image which I did suppose had been eradicated from my art, is not eradicated.  Its influence over me is still tremenjous; and yielding to it I am willing to overlook the circumstances over which none of us have had any control, and to renew those proposals to Miss Summerson which I had the honour to make at a former period.  I beg to lay the ouse in Walcot Square, the business, and myself, before Miss Summerson for her acceptance” (862).

In the book, Guppy goes to the theatre and stares up at Esther—in the TV series, he stands on a street corner and watches her.  Which is more stalker-ish?

Lady Dedlock was an amazing character and discovering her secrets was almost as sensational as a Collins plot.  It was a shame she had to SPOILERS die for her youthful indiscretions. /END SPOILERS  Funnily enough, one of the most chilling scenes in the novel was put on a filmic loop in the British Library’s Gothic Imagination exhibition (it surprised me that Bleak House was considered Gothic, though I think the argument can be made):  Lady Dedlock and the wretched street sweep Jo:

“ ‘Is this place of abomination, consecrated ground?’
‘I don’t know nothink of consequential ground,’ says Jo, still staring.
‘Is it blessed?’
‘WHICH?’ says Jo, in the last degree amazed.
‘Is it blessed?’
‘I’m blest if I know,’ says Jo, staring more than ever; ‘but I shouldn’t think it warn’t.  Blest?’ repeats Jo, something troubled in his mind.  ‘It an’t done it much good if it is. Blest?  I should think it was t’othered myself.  But I don’t know nothink!’” (225)

The social problems at heart—mainly the uselessness of the Court of Chancery—were a little too removed from us to make the impression of satire they no doubt made on the original audience, though in the abstract, I suppose they still apply.  Mr Gridley, for example, is emblematic of the legal system of that time (and this, probably) as Arthur Clennam soon understood in Little Dorrit the futility of trying to make things move in the Circumlocution Office.

“ ‘The system!  I am told, on all hands, it’s the system.  I mustn’t look to individuals.  It’s the system.  I mustn’t go into Court, and say, “My Lord, I beg to know this from you—is this right or wrong?  Have you the face to tell me I have received justice, and therefore am dismissed?”  My Lord knows nothing of it.  He sits there to administer the system.  I mustn’t go to Mr Tulkinghorn, the solicitor in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and say to him when he makes me furious, by being so cool and satisfied—as they all do; for I know they gain by it while I lose, don’t I?—I mustn’t say to him, I will have something out of some one for my ruin, by fair means or foul!  He is not responsible.  It’s the system.  But if I do no violence to any of them, here—I may!  I don’t know what may happen if I am carried beyond myself at last!—I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!” (215) 

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – Paul Torday
This was a quick read, but strangely structured and quite depressing in the end (although very British in its satire; so much so that I don’t think it had anything new to say).  I didn’t like the way Dr Jones’ wife was characterized, it seemed caricatured and cruel.  I’m sorry to say I think I actually preferred the film.   

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
“The Customs-House” is the most boring thing ever written, but fortunately the rest of the book is fast-paced, richly described and reasonably accessible.  I confess I read it because we had just seen The Crucible on stage, and I thought it was high time I read The Scarlet Letter.  For his part, Hawthorne is apologetic about his ancestors: 

At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a year back, would argue to exist—may be now and henceforth removed (10). 

Then he goes on to blame moonlight for inspiring this tale:

My imagination was a tarnished mirror. [ . . .] Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly,--making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility,--is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests (36-7).  

Although Hester Prynne becomes, with the scarlet letter, a walking advertisement for the errors of sin, she is not a shrinking violet—she does not forgive or forget.  “She was patient,--a martyr, indeed,--but she forbore to pray for her enemies; lest, in spite of her forgiving aspirations, the words of the blessing should stubbornly twist themselves into a curse” (88). She also would have sold her soul if they had taken illegitimate daughter Pearl away from her.  Hawthorne presents Hester as a heroine despite society’s censure:

“She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest, amid the gloom of which they were now holding a colloquy that was to decide their fate.  Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods.  For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church” (207).

She makes a real contrast with her lover and the father of her child, self-deceptive divine Arthur Dimmesdale.  I’ve always been a little attracted to Dimmesdale because he was played in a 1980s adaptation by a young and handsome John Heard, but he is rather a worm of a human being and difficult to feel sympathy for.  “He had striven to put a cheat upon himself by making the avowal of a guilty conscience, but had gained only one other sin, and a self-acknowledged shame, without the momentary relief of being self-deceived” (149).  Eventually his lies get more and more outrageous: a townsperson sees his glove abandoned on the pillory and suggests that Satan stole it. 

What was never clear to me in the TV adaptation was whether Dimmesdale actually had an A upon his chest or not—and that, in fact, is how it’s supposed to be.  Some people said there was no mark on Dimmesdale, some implied it was self-mutilation like his scourging himself, some suggested that he actually wasn’t guilty but was taking on the guilt for himself.  Hawthorne wants it to remain a metaphysical mystery.

Fan Phenomena:  Batman – ed. Liam Burke
Enjoyable and interesting, though the essays are for the most part too short to give real insight.  Nevertheless, a lot has been packed into the book.

Fan Phenomena:  Doctor Who – ed. Paul Booth
Some very interesting articles and seems to run the gamut of the experience.  

Because You Died – Vera Brittain, ed. Mark Bostridge
I wrote this review for a non-existent First World War review blog:

‘An autobiography!  But I shouldn’t have thought that anything in your life was worth recording!’
This was the rebuff Vera Brittain faced in the 1920s when a high-flying male writer asked her what her next project would be.  It’s a good place to start with Brittain and a good place to start this review.  This is a judiciously-edited and copiously illustrated “Brittain-lite” which, for someone like me who had merely ever heard her name before and perhaps the title of her innovative book, Testament of Youth (1933), was utterly perfect.  Bostridge knows his subject (he should; his biography of Brittain was shortlisted for three major prizes) and has presented her to the public at large by use of a comprehensive introduction, photographs and documents handpicked from Brittain’s personal collection including telegrams, postcards, and family snapshots, and then let her work speak for itself (the notes at the end are copious but discreet).  I therefore feel very glad to have read this book.

Brittain was a middle-class English teenager in 1914, cultivating a future literary career.  She had just gotten engaged to a friend, Roland Leighton, of her beloved brother Edward before they were both sent to France.  Brittain became a VAD (a volunteer nurse), stationed first in British hospitals, then Malta, then France.  Leighton was killed in late 1915, and Edward in 1918.  Though she later married and had a family, Brittain’s writing, both prose and poetry, was something that defined the rest of her life.  She began to realize in the aftermath of the war’s end that women’s experience had been sidelined, brushed under the carpet, something which she tried to address in Testament of Youth; an issue which, unfortunately, she was still working toward in 1968 upon the 50th anniversary of Armistice.  Bostridge has made sure that all periods of Brittain’s life are represented, and it makes a magnificent cumulative progression.

The book is cleverly divided in half by her poetry and prose.  The temptation is to dismiss the poetry as idealistic and conventional, which many of her first poems are. Though, curiously, the first poem, from 1914, concludes,
But where His desolation trod
The people in their agony
Despairing, cried, ‘There is no God.’
She isn’t bad in the conventional, late 19th century style—her potency with color and nature are evident in poems like “In a Summer House”—just held at a distance. Almost like magic, as soon as she abandons iambic pentameter and rhyme for blank verse and irregular stanza length—the moment she allows abstraction to enter her work—she becomes both more personalized and more universal. Her poem of 1920, “The Lament of the Demobilised,” covers what in prose she began to describe as the lengthening gap between her generation and the one which had been children during the First World War.  In “A Poppy for Her Cot:  Some Armistice Day Reflections,” a piece written for the Guardian in 1930, she both understands and laments the way her children’s nurse regards Armistice Day as a ritualized holiday.  “Time has a deceptive habit of blurring our pain while preserving the glamour of our larger-scale tragedies.” This is a theme she develops in “The Superfluous Woman” and “The Unseen Undergraduates,” each poem adding more bitterness along with the strong need to preserve the memory of the past, not only in order to memorialize the dead, but also to prevent the tragedies of war happening again.     

The first piece of prose in the collection, written for her old school magazine in 1917, describes the work of the VADs and shows Brittain’s “pluck” and humour.  “Our Backs to the Wall:  a Memory of the War,” written in 1928, describes how being a VAD was the making of her.  The themes of her more mature writing are compelling and within the context of the growing body of “war literature” she describes springing up.  Questioning the absence of war memorials to women, she mentions “the curiously repellent statue of Nurse Cavell above Trafalgar Square” (repellent is not the word I would use to describe it; imposing and somewhat immoveable is how it seems to me in 2014) “and the vivid description in The Well of Loneliness of women ambulance drivers at the front.”  She lashes out—with great humour—at the publication of shock-memoirs about how being a VAD was just one long orgy. 

As Brittain grew older, her pacifism grew more pronounced at the same time her cynicism deepened.  She lamented the apathy of modern people while understanding its genesis and implored young people to have political awareness.  If anything, these feelings were strengthened in 1933 when she took a holiday to northern France and visited many war memorials and battle sites.  She was preoccupied by the way Australian, American, and British memorials differed—recording great curiosity at the lone Chinese grave and those of the “natives,” South Africans, Indians—and was disgusted by the way manicured lawns could sanitize the past into something glorious.  Her great knowledge of horticulture, however, shows her own brand of remembrance as she finds roses and yellow flowers growing on Leighton’s grave and saves some blooms to give to his mother.  Aveluy Wood deeply impressed her with pockets of scarred forest.  “It reminded me that after the next War there will be no one left to put up memorials to the missing, for we shall all be missing—a putrefying heap of pulped flesh and poisoned blood & disintegrating bones,” an image she found so powerful she included it in her piece of the New Clarion that year.  By 1968, having lived through the Second World War (about which she might have been able to say, with grim satisfaction, “I told you so”), her cynicism was so deep she wondered if the human race could “count in a few more years of life on its insecure planet.”

If Brittain had been all cynicism, the book would be hard to take.  However, her other strands of interest make her observations deeply-felt and accessible.  The most impressive selection in the book, for me, was her short story “Re-encounter” (1932), which grew out of a dream.  I won’t give it away, but it’s one of the most haunting ghost stories I’ve ever read.  

Orson Welles:  The Road to Xanadu – Simon Callow
Reading this was a massive undertaking (writing it was, too, no doubt).  I learned a lot, and when Callow finally started treating the radio drama seriously, it was well worth a read.  He must have assimilated a huge amount of material, which is made into a clear and entertaining narrative.  Callow is by no means a quiescent biographer:  his opinions about Welles’ emotional and artistic life are authoritative, affectionate, honest and often quite amusing.  I admit Welles is the sort upon whom I would get a crush while knowing it was very bad for me.  

Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln – Doris Kearns Goodwin
Another massive undertaking (it was not my intention to read two enormous, exhaustive biographies of American giants one right after the other).  The only criticism I had was that Goodwin, like me, has a love for extraneous details.  She set out to give a different kind of Lincoln biography which was instead a quintuple biography of Lincoln, Seward, Chase, Bates, and Welles; she was sympathetic to Mary Todd Lincoln.  Fans of the film might be disappointed to learn, however, that much of the action of that film comes from a section of 30 pages of the book:  less than 23% of the book as a whole.  Fortunately the other 77% is just as good and wonderfully rich and humorous.  You mourn the death of Lincoln sincerely at the end, just as you do Washington at the end of Ellis’ biography.   The referencing system gave me a headache, however. 

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter – Seth Grahame-Ellis
Like Twilight, this had scattered moments that aspired to brilliance. It was extremely valuable to read it just after the Kearns Goodwin biography, which Grahame-Ellis may or may not have read (he thanks Wikipedia but doesn’t give any other sources . . . ouch!).  That showed just where fantasy diverged from historical fact and, by golly, there were some clever touches amid all the claptrap.  It hasn’t made me want to rush out and read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but it was better than I expected.

Mysteries and Miracles of New Mexico – Jack Kutz
I got this book for $5.00 at Page One, and it was well worth the price, despite the fact it was published nearly 25 years ago.  The folklore inside is just too interesting to ignore, and I figured that if any of its mysteries caught my eye, I could look up more recent sources for verification.  In the entire book, there were only a few stories I had already heard of, which for me is very exciting.  A good story is a good story is a good story!
Mystery Rock, near Los Lunas  -  A large rock described in the 1930s by archaeologist Frank Hibben.  Not mentioned by explorer Adolph Bandelier in 1880s, thus suspected to be a hoax.  However, there are reports that others had seen the rock in the 1850s.  Dr. Robert H. Pfeifer in 1948 “translates” the characters and comes up with the Ten Commandments.  In the late 1970s, Dixie Perkins retranslates it as ancient Greek, a lament from someone called Zakyneros.  Considered these days to be a hoax, but evidence is inconclusive.  

The Lost Adams Diggings, southern New Mexico - A real-life treasure hunt.  In 1864, two men named Adams and Davidson staggered into Fort Wingate.  Davidson died, but Adams passed on knowledge of a gold stash somewhere in the Gila Wilderness.  Prospectors and adventurers have gone looking for the gold ever since, but for various reasons have had to turn back.  A man named Bob Lewis spent 30 years trying to find it.  Current Internet searching reveals that the gold is still lost.  See here:
The Stone Lions of Bandelier National Monument - The illustration in the book is deceptive. The two remaining Stone Lions (mountain lions carved in a sacred shrine) are accessible by hike, but the third one, which the UNM Department of Anthropology tried unsuccessfully to remove via helicopter in the 1970s, remains in a secret location so it won’t be vandalized.  So far, the Internet is keeping mum about its location (which is probably a good thing). 

Chimayó  - Shrine made famous by Los Hermanos Penitentes del Tércer Orden de Franciscanos.  One of their order found a cross with Our Lord of Esquípulas on it (a Guatemalan saint) buried in the earth around 1813 and a santuario was built on the spot.  Between 1850 and 1860, the figure of the Santo Niño was found nearby and another shrine was built.    Here is a very skeptical approach to the healing powers of the dirt:  

Miracles of Old Santa Fe - The Church of San Miguel (1610) is the oldest in the US.  A legend states an old blind man prayed and St. Cecilia caused the bells to ring and temporarily restore his sight.  He could only see when the bells were ringing.  La Conquistadora arrived in Santa Fe in 1625.  She played a profound role in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the reconquest of Santa Fe by Don Diego de Vargas.  And of course the miraculous staircase of Loretto Chapel.  (The staircase may not be so miraculous, but there is still no consensus on the type of wood of which the staircase is made, see here:  

Dog Canyon, near Alamogordo - A popular site of ambush, it was also from 1884 the home of eccentric Frenchman François-Jean Rochas (who, according to that website above, was also the architect of the Loretto Chapel staircase!).  

A smattering of New Mexico ghosts - A charming story of the haunted rectory of Santa Cruz (1892).  A different 18th century priest’s casket kept rising to the surface of the church between 1819 and 1895 near Gran Quivira.  A ghost town called Bonito City suffered from its very own serial killer and ghosts (allegedly—this one is scary).  A folk story that was supposed to have taken place near Watrous is chilling. 

Witches - Were-coyotes (which can be combatted with roadrunners).  The “oldest house in the US” (in Santa Fe) is said to have been a witches’ workshop.

Billy the Kid Lives! - In 1937, a country character known as Walk-Along Smith died, and ranchers revealed that he was really Billy the Kid.  In 1950, a man named Billy Roberts claimed to be Billy the Kid and asked the Governor of New Mexico for a pardon.  

Skeleton Canyon - In 1879, Los Bandidos de las Estradas joined forces with the Hughes Bunch for a daring raid on Monterrey, New Mexico.  The Hughes Bunch killed the Estrada Gang afterwards, hid the loot in Skeleton Canyon, and then were lynched in Silver City after boasting about what they’ve done.  One man got away, but no one has yet found the silver.

Cattle mutilations, rural New Mexico - During the last quarter of the 20th century, ranchers began to find bizarre cattle mutilations.  

Trick or Treat:  A History of Halloween - Lisa Morton
Forever Autumn - Mark Morris
The English Ghost:  Spectres Through Time – Peter Ackroyd
Occult London – Merlin Coverley
This is a very straightforward, straight-faced look at a possible sub-history of London (occult=occluded=hidden).  It hasn’t convinced me about psychogeography or ley lines, but I learned a lot nevertheless.  It was arranged like a history textbook in easily digestible chronological chunks, with the gazetteer at the end, and quite surprisingly brief at that.  

The Virago Book of Ghost Stories – ed. Richard Dalby
With the exception of a very few duds, this was a really wonderful short story anthology.  Some of the stories were chilling; almost all were memorable, with a little frisson of horror.  The tales are all written by women (women writers in English have been particularly well served by the ghost story as opposed to other kinds of literature) and range all the way from the early Victorian to the 1990s.  Margaret Oliphaunt’s “The Open Door” was the standout story, palpitatingly terrifying, wonderfully written, and also immensely sad.  Some other absolutely chilling titles included “The Violet Car” by Edith Nesbit, “The Haunted Saucepan” by Margery Lawrence, and “The Haunting of Shawley Rectory” by Ruth Rendell.  There were other stories that were just unsettling and sometimes in an amusing way, such as “The Vacant Lot” by Mary E. Wilkins, “The Token” by May Sinclair, “The Station Road” by Ann Bridge, “Don’t Tell Cissie” by Celia Fremlin, “Who’s Been Sitting in My Car?” by Antonia Fraser, “The July Ghost” by A.S. Byatt, “The Dream of Fair Women” by A.L. Barker, and “Redundant” by Dorothy K. Haynes.  I found “Roaring Tower” by Stella Gibbons and “The Traitor” by Joan Aiken to be very moving.  I was disappointed only by stories whose authors caused me to expect more of them, to wit, Charlotte Brontë, Edith Wharton, and Angela Carter.     

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes – David Grann
This book was extremely disappointing—or maybe it was just packaged and marketed wrongly, because I was expecting a completely different book.  The piece on the death of a Sherlock Holmes expert offered no answers, the piece on the giant squid specialist was perhaps the best-written, but true crime is not really my bag, and that’s mostly what this was.  The New Yorker is welcome to this guy.

Darkness Over Cannae – Jenny Dolfen
A curious book—almost the prose version of a docu-drama:  because it was so meticulous about being historically accurate and was very concerned about describing tactics, it didn’t really come together as a novel or a drama.  Nevertheless, I found it very interesting, and what drew me from the first was the art.  

Tales from the Dead of Night:  Thirteen Classic Ghost Stories – ed. Cecily Gayford
This was a delightful collection (mostly Edwardian and 20th century), and rather remarkably, I thought, there were only two I had previously read.  As usual, a mix of stories that are very well-written; and very well-written ghost stories, such as “The Clock” by W.F. Harvey, “The Crown Derby Plate” by Marjorie Bowen, “The Toll-House” by W.W. Jacobs, and “The Black Veil” by A.F. Kidd.  It also rounded off nicely with a humorous piece by Saki, “The Hedgehog.”