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.”