Sunday, December 31, 2017

Books Read 2017

In 2017, I just about scraped by with my goal of 52 books read, although most of this was achieved in March and April when I was Artist in Residence and was working intensively on research-based projects.  I got three-quarters of the way into The Pickwick Papers so I hope to finish that in 2018.   

Moon Over Soho – Ben Aaronovitch

The second book in the generally entertaining series that started with Rives of London.  It was a bit of a disappointment.  The hero Peter Grant was too busy having sex to be the charming, hilarious, sarcastic, individual character he was in the first book.  There wasn’t enough of Nightingale, and I didn’t at all like the ending revelation regarding Lesley (see Whispers Underground below).  That said, the plot was for the most part very intriguing and there were potent images and characters—Larry the Lark being discovered in the basement was a memorable one.  There were a few good laughs to be found here and there . . . it was not a book that would be picked up without having read the first one. 

A Grim Almanac of Georgian London – Graham Jackson and Cate Ludlow

This was a fascinating book and written with humanity and humor, despite the sometimes disgusting, sometimes saddening, sometimes maddening material.  The 18th century was rife with infanticide, (fatal) domestic abuse, temper tantrums, cruelty and starvation, not to mention its share of maniacs and sheer unfortunate accidents.  It was still, of course, the era of public executions, grave-robbing, and rather barbaric punishment that seldom fitted the crime (branding on the hand for manslaughter, death for stealing handkerchiefs).  Still, human nature has remained virtually the same.

Gothic Tales – Elizabeth Gaskell

Many of these I quite enjoyed.  “The Nurse’s Tale” is probably the scariest ghost story, though there was definitely a strong sense of the uncanny in “The Poor Clare.”  I enjoyed how “Lois the Witch” filled in between The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible.  Gaskell’s female characters are much more lifelike than their equivalents in Wilkie Collins.  I was surprised that religious evangelization played very little part; they seemed generally stories to entertain rather than edify. 

The Broke-Ass Bride’s Wedding Guide – Dana LaRue

Interesting and potentially useful.

A Monstrous Commotion:  The Mysteries of Loch Ness – Gareth Williams

I have always wanted to believe in something living in Loch Ness—I am interested in cryptids, after all.  However, having been presented with all the evidence in this non-polemical book, I (painfully ) have to agree with Williams and disbelieve that anything resembling the “Loch Ness monster” exists.  Waves, optical illusions, families of otters, and perhaps sturgeons are evidently the only things that can reliably said to account for the sightings.  Most damning of all, Williams—a former believer and medical professional—argues that a newspaper man concocted the whole thing in the early 1930s, based on a few sights of “something” from St Columba on.  That doesn’t wipe away how enticing the plesiosaur idea was and is, nor the fact that Loch Ness is still a very interesting place.

Dakota:  A Spiritual Geography – Kathleen Norris

Although evidently dated now—the Internet has probably had a huge impact on the residents of the Dakotas as much as it has had for other rural people; and the author has since moved to Hawaii!—this was an important book to read before integrating, however briefly, into South Dakotan society.  I believe its observations about the emptiness of the land, the pride and parochialism of the people, the tension of extremes, and why some people really love to live there hold true to this day. 

Lakota Woman — Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes

An engrossing book; hardly a piece of great literature but important and revealing for its absolutely honest depiction of Native America in the second half of the 20th century.  In the second decade of the 21st century, you could get that from Scalped but back in 1991, Mary Crow Dog (also known as Mary Brave Bird, a Lakota Sioux) was where you went for uncomfortable truths about female AIM activists being raped, mutilated and murdered, about forced sterilization of Indian women, and “we were happy because we didn’t know we were poor” childhoods on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations. The narrative high point was during the AIM siege, after which the narrative petered out slightly as the story became more about her husband, peyote priest and medicine man Leonard Crow Dog.  She wrote a second memoir of her older years which would be interesting to read.  

Tatanka-Iyotanka:  A Biography of Sitting Bull— Michael Crummett

This was brief, readable, to the point, and often remarkable; I found it fascinating that this man’s first name as a child was Slow as he was slow and steady but eventually began counting coup and gaining widespread recognition as a wise man.

Big Bat Pourier — Hila Gilbert

Like so many of the books I read in the Badlands, family history and memoir tales don’t necessarily equal great literature.  Yet they tend to tell a remarkable story, as this one did, about the very interesting Baptiste Pourier, second generation French-Canadian fur trader, trapper, “squaw man,” and denizen of the Badlands area during the second half of the 19th century.  This one was definitely a cut above the rest for its plentiful and relevant photographs and genuinely interesting details from grandchildren and contemporaries.

Reflections of the Badlands — Philip S. Hall

Although carefully edited this was not (and sometimes confusing in its chronology), this was the go-to source for general history of the Badlands, with a reasonably strong bibliography of primary sources to back it up.

Legends of the Lakota — James LaPointe

A well-written, generous, imaginative, and sometimes quite funny collection of tales in English translated from Lakota oral tradition; I found it immensely rewarding.

Scotty Philip:  The Man Who Saved the Buffalo — Wayne C. Lee

Similar to the previously-mentioned small-press family histories, this book was no riveting gamechanger.  Nevertheless, it was a solid study of a fascinating man whose origins in rural Scotland seemed very far away indeed from his eventual destiny as inheritor of Bat Pourier’s legacy in the Badlands area:  a freighter, gold-hunter, “squaw man,” Army courier, and eventual cattle baron supreme (with the added twist that his respect for the dwindling bison actually saved them from extinction).

Frontier Woman:  The Life of a Woman Homesteader on the Dakota Frontier — Walker D. Wyman 

This was a rather peculiar book, only in the sense that Grace Fairchild’s personality was a hard nut to crack. It was her relationship with her husband, “Shy” Shiloh, that seemed really difficult to fathom, as he seemed a totally incompetent ne’er-do-well (and she admitted as much), and she had to support the entire family in the unforgiving Dakota frontier.  What homesteading experience had she had?  Mainly as a schoolteacher and from her farm upbringing.  Despite the psychological questions which are never answered, it’s a book full of excellent details about real homesteading life, filled with tragedies as well as Grace’s general beating the odds.

Painting the Dakota:  Seth Eastman at Fort Snelling — Marybeth Lorbiecki

The Eastman story has all the aspects of an opera:  Seth Eastman, an ambitious West Point graduate, brings his art skills to a backwoods trading post in Minnesota.  He captures the Dakota Indians in beautifully observed watercolors, takes an Indian wife, and has a child; yet, “in the custom of the country,” he leaves the fort and his wife.  When he returns some years later, an elevated artist, he has a white wife and white children; who can tell what his first Dakota wife thought of them.  Intriguingly, his descendent was Charles Eastman, an articulate doctor proud of his Dakota heritage.  This short book was merely an introduction to all of this, heavy on the beautiful artwork, but a compelling introduction nonetheless.

Women of the West — Cathy Luchetti and Carol Olwell 

This lavishly illustrated book (including many archival photos which had never been published before) took considerable effort to get through, though its scope was admirable.  The editors’ introduction was superb, authoritative and also intriguing.  The bulk of the book was diaries from women pioneers of every possible stripe, which made a fascinating counterpoint to the many homesteader accounts I’d been reading (mainly those women were from similar socio-economic/cultural backgrounds), and to the exciting but slightly more circumscribed accounts of Chris Enss.  They included Miriam Davis Colt who joined an ill-fated vegetarian colony experiment in the 1840s; Mary Richardson who left Massachusetts for Oregon in 1838; Pauline Lyons Williamson, an independent Black single mother who moved to California in 1885; Priscilla Merriman Evans, a Welsh convert to Mormonism who arrived in Zion in the 1850s; and the extraordinary Bethenia Owens-Adair, surely one of the most bad-ass women to have ever lived.

Daughters of Dakota:  Volume II Stories from the Attic —Sally Roesch Wagner, (ed.)

In its own way, this more modest tome was just as revelatory as the bigger-budget Women of the West, as it ferreted out astonishing stories of Dakota women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  These included urban women of eastern Dakota (many of whom had very complicated love lives) and ethnic minorities such as Norwegian immigrants in Dueuel County and Italian immigrants in the Black Hills.  Particularly affecting was the story of Nellie Fulker whose isolation and depression stuck on her homestead threatened to drive her insane, as recounted by one of her daughters. The Todds have the most extraordinary story of all, as Scottish immigrants whose story rivals Scotty Philip’s. 

The South Dakota Road Guide to Haunted Locations — Chad Lewis & Terry Fisk

The quality of prose was about what you’d expect from self-publishing with its fair share of typos, inaccuracies, repetition and superficiality.  Moreover, with no bibliography, it’s difficult to believe the authors put in much historical research.  Nevertheless, two sections of the book stand out:  the well-researched section on the Easton Castle (Aberdeen) and the investigation of Sica Hollow (Lake City), which includes a lot of thoughtful information on will’o’-the-wisps and their pseudo-scientific explanations.

Sea Dragons:  Predators of the Prehistoric Oceans - Richard Ellis  

This book was odd in that it seemed to be a literature review from a non-scientist for laymen (as an illustrator of oceanic life, Ellis’ clear forte is in visually depicting ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, and mosasaurs). What I got from it was how many questions about these reptiles remain unanswered, including whether plesiosaurs gave birth to live young or returned to shore to lay eggs like turtles; what exactly the reptiles ate; and other behavioral issues. 

After the West Was Won:  Homesteaders and Town Builders in Western South Dakota, 1900-1917 - Paula A. Nelson

This book was succinct and academic in tone, and while it focused mainly on Kadoka, it was well-researched and perfectly justified in the arguments it made.  Namely, that newspaper writers and editors had a dubious and powerful role in advertising western South Dakota as “the last great frontier” and chastising disappointed settlers as lazy when they dared to suggest that they had been ill-equipped (as much mentally and emotionally as physically) to live in such an unforgiving land.

Homesteading in the South Dakota Badlands, 1912 - Ernest C. Bormann

Even though second-generation German immigrant Bormann only spent about 18 months on his Badlands claim (south of Wall), it left a strong impression on him, and he kept his land for nearly 40 years subsequently.  He is a hilarious and entertaining raconteur, self-effacing and with a good eye for comic detail.  I very much enjoyed reading his account.

Bedside Book of Bad Girls: Outlaw Women of the Midwest – Chris Enss
Enss is the doyenne of popular women’s history of the West, and this short, enjoyable collection of biographies of a diverse range of “bad girls” is a good example of her style.  Her research is sound and her writing well-paced. 

Whispers Underground  - Ben Aaronovitch

I’m sorry to say book 3 in the series still has not lived up to the sheer virtuoso skill and enjoyable quality of Rivers of London.  Although longer than both previous books and with a premise that seems ripe for storytelling— the endless urban legends of mole people who live in the London Underground tunnels—the novel takes a long time to get started.  The presence of the FBI officer stretches credulity, and none of the other new characters have the authenticity and flair of previous books.  On the other hand, I have warmed to Lesley’s new role, and there were some good set pieces.  Plus, it was set at an improbably snowy Christmas.

Interior, the Badland Town and Stories of Badland Homesteaders – Mary Solon Lewis

The organizational principles of this book left something to be desired, but it was a trove of interesting information about the area gathered from primary sources.  Some of the biographical sketches of early settlers compiled by Lewis herself were definite highlights.

Banjo - Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch

Sometimes I do wish she’d write some notes as her work can be very enigmatic.  But overall she was on form with some interesting poems from the POV of men on Antarctic expeditions.

Nothing Like Love – Jenny Joseph

I had never read any of her poems before, but some of her controlled rhymes were really moving.

Angels of Music – Kim Newman

The Doctor Wore Petticoats:  Women Physicians of the Old West  - Chris Enss

Although full of interesting stories, I found this to be the least well-written of Enss’ works that I’ve read, as if it were dashed off in a hurry without proper proofreading.  Nevertheless, her bibliography always turns up helpful leads should one wish to read further.

For the Love of Radio 4 – Caroline Hodgson

A rather dreadful book.  Anyone who has the nerve to say that Val Gielgud was an iconoclast because he discovered Joe Orton is clearly no historian.  To be fair, it did have some interesting facts about Radio 4 that I might not have been able to find elsewhere.

Disturbance – Ivy Alvarez

This collection had a fabulous wheeze—voices reacting to the senseless crime of a father killing his wife and son and then himself—though I wasn’t 100% sure that every poem lived up to its potential.

Sweetly Sings Delaney:  A Study of Sheelagh Delaney’s Work 1958-1968 – John Harding

I’ve had a very strange and meandering association with Delaney over the years, from Country Life, her very popular radio drama written toward the end of her life, to reading about her influence in social histories of the 1950s and 1960s.  This book was neither biography nor strictly speaking a history and was rather poorly edited.  However, it was very interesting and probably overdue.

Making History – Brian Friel

A great example of how to write non-grandiose historical drama, but no quite as mind-blowing as Translations.

Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin

Reading this somehow made me feel like I was in high school again, perhaps because of superficial similarities with Song of Solomon. Despite being a little bit one-note (a classic cathartic first novel, I suppose), it was well-written.  I would definitely like to read more by Baldwin. 

The Disappearance of Maria Glenn – Naomi Clifford

I very much enjoyed this.  Clifford was scrupulous in accurately relating a historical trial whose enigma was actually much like Serial’s—instead of who is lying, Jay or Adnan, we had to ask, who is lying, the Tucketts and Maria or the Bowditches?  Despite the fact the case was very different than what I thought it would be, it was nevertheless an excellent story and well-told.

A Skull in Connemara – Martin McDonagh

I enjoyed this morbidly humorous play (the humor is very much that of The Cripple of Inishmaan which I saw on stage several years ago).  The grave-digging scenes were sharp and unusual for a stage play—I still felt none the wiser about the satirized community at the end, though.

Of Mutability – Jo Shapcott

This collection was mostly about the author finding out something bad about her health—her cells were erroneously subdividing so likely it was some kind of cancer—but in the end the threat seems to have passed.  There are some good poems.

British Museum - Daljit Nagra

This poetry is very literary in style, though, as the publisher blurb says, Nagra is also a transparently political writer (it’s one of the few poetry collections I’ve actually read the year it came out, making everything even more topical). 

The Hired Man - Aminatta Forma

I enjoyed elements of this book, but I still felt like something was missing when I finished it.  It was told from the POV of a Croatian who has lived through the events of the last 30 years, and much like McDonagh’s characters, is keeping uneasy alliances with his fellow townsfolk after unspeakable crimes were done.  I don’t know what the point of the English family was—if they were a trigger for Duro to remember the horrors of the war years, then I wish Forma had used another trigger as they were so aggravating and thin on characterization.  However, I guess its value lies in covering similar territory to McDonagh, the extreme instability of small, rural communities, hiding behind a façade of normality.  

The Glass Castle – Jeanette Walls

This was compulsive reading, at first suggesting quirky reminisces of eccentric Americana, a bohemian upbringing from a nostalgic period when— I suppose, according to most of its readers—life wasn’t so needlessly PC.  On the other hand, it quickly becomes an indictment of irresponsible parenting brought to frightening extremes.  This is all depicted (generally) without rancour, in bald language, but the inciting causes for such selfish behavior are suggested to be alcoholism, sexual abuse, cowardice, and poverty.  Walls clearly loved both her parents but had attained the distance to tell the story with some objectivity.  So while I felt a little manipulated and a little sordid, it must be said it was a great story, very well told.

The Dark Wind – Tony Hillerman

The poorest of the Hillermans I’ve read so far, through with an impressive finale set piece and interesting meditations on Hopi/Navajo antagonism.  I didn’t feel the Jim Chee depicted here was that Jim Chee-like (he started a fire, for heaven’s sake!) though the ending would only have been believable coming from Chee.

Walking London’s Medical History – Nick Black

This was a really excellent book:  detailed, well-organized, conversational.  Unfortunately, it had nothing about the medical history of Southwark (why the heck not?!), which was the reason I bought the book.  Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more beautifully-edited book. 

Over Land, Over Sea – Poems for Those Seeking Refuge ed. Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan

I found this collection to be mostly quite affecting, though some poems were more adventurous, both content-wise and the verse form, than others.

The Letter of Marque – Patrick O’Brian

The year was moving along, and while I had read a Patrick O’Brian novel last year, I hadn’t had time to write a review (an indefensible tragedy).  From what I remember, The Reverse of the Medal was well-written and paced but came with a heart-breaking conclusion.  Captain Jack Aubrey had been (falsely) implicated in a stock exchange scam (through his land-based ineptitude more than anything else, though also through the machinations of the sinister Mr Wray, Stephen Maturin’s opponent in the espionage cat-and-mouse.  As a consequence, Jack had been struck from the navy lists, meaning his career as a naval man was gone, and he had been publicly pilloried (though public opinion was on his side, so he was not harassed).  Stephen, through inheritance on his Catalan side, became a wealthy man, to the extent that he bought Jack’s old ship, HMS Surprise.
Inheritance is certainly a roundabout theme of The Letter of Marque as well.  The book opens with the Surprise outfitted as a private man-of-war, with Jack afforded a letter of marque—and due to Stephen’s acumen, a letter from the Admiralty excusing Jack’s sailors from impressment.  It is evident of how much the characters of O’Brian’s universe hold Jack in esteem, for sailors are fighting to be part of the crew of the Surprise, including naval sailors who were previously in Jack’s crew, and a new breed of privateers, the professional seafarers and smugglers of Shelmerston.  If you have gotten this far in the series, you, too, have a high opinion of Jack, and just as Stephen’s frequently fraught romantic situation pains you, Jack’s total unhappiness at the turn of events hurts like a mother. 
It was a matter of great personal joy that Rev. Martin, originally from a previous voyage, returned in The Letter of Marque, to accompany his friend Stephen and the Surprise—and to receive his due.  The Surprise’s action is a daring and successful one, which brings a great deal of prize money to Jack and his crew, including the penurious and recently married Martin.  For Jack, it’s helpful to his growing family, but he would “give his right arm” to be back on the navy lists.  The infrequent interludes at Ashgrove Cottage are always amusing, as Jack’s children have picked up their vocabulary from Killick and Bonden, who keep the house ship-shape (why didn’t more people hire sailors as cleaners?), but I feel myself missing Sophie’s interactions in the most recent books.   When Sophie finds herself in Shelmerston, that smugglers’ and whores’ haven, she rises to the occasion, her narrow upbringing notwithstanding.  Indeed, the whole town fascinated her. 
The next mission, to capture the Diane, is, even with diagrams, beyond my understanding, but it’s a tense action that sees Stephen take up a cutlass and pistols—apparently, among his many other talents, he can fence—making his boarding action in Master and Commander the movie seem less far-fetched.   This is the most exciting fighting of an otherwise rather placid book.  In the event, Jack is severely wounded by a pistol-ball to the sciatica, but due to Stephen and Martin’s good care, he recovers—the hero of the hour.  ‘Well, I am ashamed to say he took a pistol-ball out of the small of my back.  It must have been when I turned to hail for my hands—thank God I did not.  At the time I thought it was one of those vile screws [horses] that were capering about abaft the wheel.’
                ‘Oh sir,’ [said Babbington], ‘surely a horse would never have fired off a pistol?’

The success of this mission brings Jack great acclaim but still does not restore him to the navy lists.  His father, meanwhile, has contributed nothing positive to his life and has caused Jack a great deal of difficulty—which is repaired in this book, when he up and dies.  This brings us on shore to Jack’s childhood home in Woolhampton, a very interesting section of the book.  Relations are awkward with Mrs Aubrey, Jack’s stepmother, a former dairy maid whom everyone in the village, including Jack, has slept with.  Nevertheless, Jack is on good terms with his young step-brother, who in turn worships him.  At General Aubrey’s funeral is the almost deus ex machina character of Mr Norton, Jack’s distant relation who gives him an MP-ship in his county seat, propelling Jack back into respectability and the navy lists.  I say almost deus ex machina, because Mr Norton is an interesting enough character that he doesn’t feel as slight as a mere plot device.   
After this happy restoration, for the last sixth of the book, we have to resolve Stephen’s story.   Stephen’s adjustment to newfound wealth is comical; from a pinch-penny slovenly background, he has to reconcile himself to a few of life’s luxuries.  Ironically, his largesse seems to have inspired him into an addiction to laudanum—unlike Thomas De Quincey, he seems not to be able to admit even to himself that he is an opium-eater.  I hope that in the next book he may come to terms with this, given the disastrous effect it has on his Irish-speaking servant, the gentle giant Padeen, not to mention Stephen’s own brush with near-death (more on that anon).  Yet, this being O’Brian, I suspect Stephen’s sense of denial will remain one of his few blind spots.  Indeed, he admits as much regarding Padeen—Stephen’s addiction fuelled Padeen’s which in turn literally caused Stephen’s accident—a surprising lack of judgement from an incredibly lucid man (though, like his blind spot regarding trusting Wray, it’s understandable but disappointing).  I fear Stephen may in future risk his marriage over an incipient addiction to cocaine.
In the excellent Treason’s Harbour, several books back, Stephen had to appear to be dallying away from his new wife Diana, and they have been separated ever since.  Armed with Diana’s blue diamond, her most prized possession which she bartered believing Stephen’s life was in danger in The Surgeon’s Mate, he seeks her out in Sweden, where she has been living as a kept woman with Jagiello, the delightful Lithuanian adventurer from The Surgeon’s Mate.  My heart sunk when I thought of Diana and Jagiello together, simply because Diana belongs with Stephen (!), but Stephen is buoyed by rumors that Diana is under Jagiello’s protection—no more.  Indeed, when Stephen meets Diana, she says as much.  ‘Protection in the plain sense was what I wanted, not a bed-fellow.  He did not believe it—indeed, even while he was protesting all possible respect, brotherly sentiments and so on, he smirked, as men will smirk, I am afraid.
Along with inheritance, the powerful symbol of the hot air balloon has been haunting this novel and it’s finally in Sweden where this image takes flight.  One of the few criticisms I can have of the series is that we don’t get to spend nearly enough time with Sophie and Diana, the two female characters of any consequence, and it’s not because O’Brian can’t write convincing women—at least as far as Sophie goes.  I’ve always been ambivalent about Diana; sometimes her superficiality gets on my nerves.  But Stephen works out that her independence is more important than her love of luxury.  When Stephen returns the diamond to her, I believe she understands how much he loves her, just as when she gave it up to save his life, the readers understood that she loves him (despite them being a star-crossed couple if there ever was one). 
The book, then, ends on a wildly uplifting note.  Before Diana learns the truth, that Stephen was never untrue to her, and before he returns the diamond, he offers her companionship and financial security as his wife.  ‘I say this only because it means you could have room for your Arabians—you could have half the Curragh of Kildare—you could have a great stretch of English downland.’
                ‘Stephen, you know what I said to Jagiello:  I will not put myself in any man’s power.  But if ever I were to live with a man as his wife, it would be with you:  there is no one else at all.’  Stephen’s intention, despite Diana’s rejection, is to go up in a hot air balloon with her, but he unintentionally takes an almost fatal dose of laudanum, faints, falls down a set of stairs, breaks a leg, stabs himself, and is wild and raving for days (!).  Diana nurses him back to health (talk about hurt/comfort!) and decides to accompany him back to England and stay with her cousin Sophie while Stephen voyages to South America (!).  ‘What a sad mercenary creature I am—I find my heart is quite thumping with happiness.  I was quite pleased to have my husband back, but to find him covered with gold from head to foot as well fairly throws me into transports.  How vulgar.’  And thus we are left to wait for the next book, with Mrs Maturin being conveyed to Dr Maturin’s cabin aboard HMS Surprise.  It’s unlikely this happiness will last, but I thought the last sixth of the book was fantastic; well-worth the read.

The Witches – Peter Curtis

I was surprised how nail-biting and compelling I found this novel, originally from 1960 and made into the Hammer Horror film (which I’ve never seen).  I really appreciated Miss Mayfield as the heroine; much to everyone’s surprise, she had sussed the problem in the village of Walwyck in East Anglia by about 40 pages in, yet the book was about what she did with that knowledge.  It was definitely scary. It was refreshing to find a character like Miss Mayfield, and I feel like Norah Lofts (the real identity of the author) was able to make a much more convincing job of rural Satan-worship than any 1970s hysterical treatment (which were invariably written by men).   

Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories – M.R. James

I have to say, I wished I had read this collection first, as all the best stories were here.  I became more aware of James’ potential misogyny but also, conversely, of his sense of humor.  I got to see a bit more range from James (not just the prototypical, albeit disturbing, spook epitomized in the rather disappointing “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”). 

Antique Dust – Robert Westall

Westall’s first adult ghost story collection, it includes such gems as “The Devil and Clocky Watson,” “The Doll,” and the ones I’d previously read, “The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux,” and “The Woolworth Spectacles.”

Ghosts:  A Haunted History – Lisa Morton

I picked this up because I enjoyed her (award-winning) history of Halloween.  While I learned quite a lot from the section on Asian ghosts, much of this felt lightweight.  It’s hovering between “popular” and “academic,” and I would have liked a bit more academic.

Raising the Dead – Andy Dougan

I wasn’t sure about the level of historical accuracy of this book at first, but I quickly grew to admire the level of detail characterizing this precise and circumscribed book.  It tells the story of a single incident in Glasgow in 1816, the electrification of the corpse of a hanged criminal, and how this event was linked both to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the whole history of galvanism.  As this was the perfect reference for my novel, I eagerly picked it up, not expecting to find it quite so readable nor so interesting. 

Why Was the Partridge in the Pear Tree?  The History of Christmas Carols – Rev. Mark Lawson-Jones

I was initially skeptical as I wasn’t sure what more I could learn about the origins of familiar Christmas carols.  However, I was wrong— this well-written and interesting little book refined and expanded my existing knowledge, particularly regarding the 17th  and 18th  centuries.

The Story of the Other Wise Man – Henry Van Dyke

This very short book is told in vignettes, which is rather frustrating at times.  Yet each vignette is extremely well-written, and in such a story, it does feel like brevity really helps its effectiveness. 

Batgirl:  Volume 1:  Batgirl of Burnside—by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher—art by Babs Tarr (issues #35-40)

I kept forgetting this was written in 2014, as it seemed more relevant than ever.  I don’t know how much I like the reinvention of Barbara Gordon as a slummin’ it college student who is seduced by fame and surprisingly immature at times (and has apparently recovered from being attacked by the Joker, negating all the previous storyline of Oracle; heck, it’s the New 52, isn’t it?).  Whether I like her or not is a bit of a moot point, because the writing here feels very fresh and real, at least as en pointe as Sherlock (and less annoying by far).  Barbara is a computer genius (retaining that much of Oracle, I suppose) working on her Masters thesis while spending way too much time fighting crime and doing the things her peers do (going to nightclubs, vegging out with coffee, not-quite-sleeping-around).  She also seems to have a cousin named Dinah (who I think is Black Canary?), and they fight frequently.  The storylines are clever, and the art is impressive.  I feel the volume is highly enriched by Babs Tarr having worked on it.  Is Barbara sustainable in this mode?  I don’t know, but it was fun while it lasted. 



Fiction – 12/51   24%
Nonfiction – 29/51   57%
Poetry – 6/51   12%
Plays – 2/51   4%
Graphic Novels 1/51    2%

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Angels of Music by Kim Newman

Angels of Music
By Kim Newman

“Isn’t Fantômas an imitator of Erik? He wears evening clothes and a mask.  He strikes from the shadows and issues press releases, just like Erik’s black-edged notes.  Even the name sounds like Phantom.”
“Once an imitation has been perfected, it makes sense to smash the original.”
“Don’t you know,” said Irene. “Angels never bleed.”

Naturally, the wheeze is a good one.  From the well-spring of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, we have a similar beginning, a group of female operatives of different nationalities who are assembled and trained by Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, and his companion, the Persian, to investigate for the French government and various other clients and generally be around to kick ass.  As a phan of many years’ standing, I won’t say I wasn’t intrigued. “What the Devil does the plot signify, except to bring in fine things?”  Angels of Music is certainly crammed with fine things, from steampunk/clockwork automata and masked balls (“At the Paris Opéra, Sophy thought, there would be a masked ball to celebrate a great failure  . . . or commemorate the opening of a ham pie”) to Dr Van Helsing’s rationalist wife, a sanguinary coroner, Springheel’d Jack-like vampire acrobats to Grand Guignol (if you like that sort of thing) to Fantômas and the 1910 Deluge.  I’m not sure the plots always gel—particularly “Les Vampires de Paris” and “Deluge”—and to my surprise, the cleverest, the most creative and coherent narrative centered around the youthful exploits of “Citizen” Kane[1] in Paris (though the Burgher Kane jokes were a bit wearisome). 

As a pseudo-historical/horror/sci fi tale, Angels of Music is enjoyable enough.  However, the phan in me can’t recommend this is as a book for other phans.  Would I have enjoyed the novel more if I had been familiar with every fandom from which Newman plundered his Angels[2] (and indeed, in the case of Georges Du Roy and Charles Foster Kane, his antagonists?).  Possibly, yet I suspect not appreciably. (The interpretation of a certain Mrs Eynsford Hill is soul-destroying.)  I do love fan fiction, and great new stories can be created from weaving together threads of other works—Phantom by Susan Kay may not be every phan’s cup of tea but it is a very convincing reworking of Leroux that sits confidently within the canon.  My problem was with the characterization of the Angels who were, by and large, ciphers, emblematic of their literary (and in some cases, cinematic) forbears and with, I felt, little in the way of their own personalities.  Surely this is a consequence of the (admittedly ambitious) proposition of the book, not to focus on just one period of history in the Opera Ghost Agency but upon several.  As there are few recurring Angels, it’s hard to get to know any of them very well.  Irish journalist Kate Reed, I believe, is one of the few “Newman’s Own” characters (though apparently borrowed from an early draft of Dracula), and not coincidentally, the most fleshed out and by far the best narrator.  Evidently there are other Newman’s Own characters running around in the narrative too, which I’m sure must be a delight for those who follow his Anno Dracula series.  As I don’t, I found them rather irritating because I thought they were going to be interestingly revealed or illuminated—and they weren’t.  “It has become a challenge to populate the supporting cast entirely with people from history or other fictions,” he claims, from a 2013 interview. Then why bother? I wonder.  Why not invent some more of your own characters?  Are some fans (definitely not phans) really keeping score?  Oh, there are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Basil Hallward from The Picture of Dorian Gray and Joseph Rouletabille (Leroux’s famous locked-room detective)—but what’s it all tending to?  Quite frankly, the only fangirl frisson I got was from the “After the Curtain” section which referenced another of Leroux’s novels.  

Newman’s Angels are, primarily, drawn from pulp fiction of the 1870s – 1910s, from Holmesian lore and Walter B. Gibson’s Tibetan “power to cloud men’s minds,” from science fiction, horror, and other writing from the bizarre end of the spectrum.  He is especially fond of La Marmoset, a master of disguise and a great detective—indeed, I think we would have gotten quite an enjoyable novel if the relationship between Erik, the Persian, and La Marmoset had been the prime focus.  Trilby from the George DuMaurier novel is an easy target, evidently not too bright, though one wonders why Erik bothered employing her.  Sherlockians will no doubt be delighted that a (young) Irene Adler is also one of the first three Angels, and to be honest, she and Kate Reed are the most vital characters from the whole novel.  I’m not a Sherlockian, and I am not at all invested in “the Woman” (I have to admit I was laughing out loud when she appeared with a New Jersey accent—I’m sure that’s canon but WTF?). Where I draw the line, however, is the portrayal of Christine Daaé.  Christine is rightly the Angel of Music of the title, and Newman raises some interesting points about Erik’s ability to (potentially) make Christine and Trilby Olympia[3]-like automata through his voice and even through the destructive power of their own voices, a theme continued with later Angels including Mrs Eynsford Hill[4], Riolama, and Gilberte[5]  However, Christine is portrayed as a tittering moron, not really good for anything but her singing.  Christine gets a lot of flak, but if you go back and actually read the original novel (preferably in French because most of the English translations make cuts here and there), she is a career woman, a proto-feminist whose thread features in many of Leroux’s heroines and probably stems from the women in his own life (Jeanne Cayatte).  She defends herself with scissors when she thinks she’s going to be raped, and she forces Raoul to self-examine:  how does he have the right to think she answers to him?  In any case, the love Erik feels for Christine is the whole point of The Phantom of the Opera, and not only does that love not exist in Angels of Music, this Christine would not be worthy of that love.
Where I think Newman has got the original book’s characters right is with the Persian, who becomes the front for the secret agency by sitting in his café smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.  He is a bona fide action hero (you would expect no less from the Daroga of Mazenderan) and plays referee between Erik and the Angels at times.  The Angels have a touching friendship with him.  Leroux invested characters like the Persian with mystery, and whereas Kay chose to dispel that mystery by giving the Persian a name and identity, something Newman withholds, Newman’s depiction of the Persian chimes with his omniscience and omnipresence in the Opéra in Leroux. I also love that the Angels can get armored by Chief Armorer of the Opéra.  

There are further occasional hints that Newman’s been reading the same Leroux that I have.  The focus on exposing the hypocrisy of 19th century French bourgeois and aristocratic society is utterly Leroussian.  Erik’s rather bitter prank on the cast of Zémire et Azor, a Beauty and the Beast opéra comique, rings true.  Erik keeping up with new technology (such as wax cylinders and cinema) feels right. There’s a potential nod at the thankless role of Mirror Bride in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in a scene where Christine has to hang limply like a doll, bent at the waist.  Newman has borrowed Kay’s Khanum but made her mother-in-law to Leroux’s “little sultana.” Erik makes rare but dashing rescues of his Angels, sometimes by using the Punjab lasso.  I can’t really see Erik ever wearing a kilt, even after a performance of Macbetto.  More seriously, he evidently doesn’t age—who knows if he is actually around fifty at the time of the first adventure?  Apparently this Erik never cried to Christine, “I am not a ghost nor a good genius . . . I am Erik!” because he must be some kind of supernatural creature.  In fact, Leroux worked hard to show that Erik wasn’t a supernatural creature.

That is, I find, the major problem with Angels of Music.  Leroux’s tale works because we are very slowly introduced to the character of the Opera Ghost even though he is often in plain sight—the gala dinner, for example, where he appears as a literal “skeleton at the feast.”  Adaptations which focus on the events in Leroux will find themselves hard-pressed to tell the story from Erik’s point of view because the mystery of who he is and how he operates is working almost real-time for Christine and Raoul.  In a prequel or sequel or fan fiction, I expect to get a little more under the skin of the Phantom—even if not to the intimate level presented in Kay’s Phantom.  In Angels of Music, he hides behind a mirror, apparently forever grinning with his skull-face—other than moments of sardonic humor, we never get to know him. His seductive qualities are evinced by the actions and reactions of the Angels, but only in one section (on page 400) do I ever feel his seduction of the reader taking place.  Even taking into account the apparent reference to the mysterious Charlie of Charlie’s Angels, in the words of K.E. Wildgren, Erik “wishes to be heard, acknowledged, even more than he wishes to be loved” (163).  If we reduce the Phantom to a mere cipher, then I think we miss the whole point: “Behind the repressed anxiety projected onto its façade, each ghost signifies [ . . .] the possibility that there is no meaning” (Isabelle van Elferen, “Sonic Gothic,” 432-3).      

[1] There’s a good cameo from a Frank Capra film as well . . .  and one from Bret Maverick of the ‘60s TV show . . .
[2] He very thoughtfully listed these fandoms in his acknowledgments section.
[3] The ETA Hoffmann automata—she’s there too.
[4] The former Eliza Doolittle
[5] GiGi