Monday, April 07, 2014

Monte Cristo: More than a sandwich!

by Yann Droneaud via Flickr
Okay, I probably am more familiar with the novel than the sandwich, but I had not actually read it until a few weeks ago. In fact, it is the first Alexandre Dumas I've ever read. Not even The Three Musketeers! I'm not sure how I've gone for so long ignoring Dumas, since I've read so many other French writers from Hugo to Robbe-Grillet (and even Michel Houellebecq, whom I'm not sure I should mention in polite company). Of course, I have one other major omission in my reading of French literature. Proust! But there's still time; I'm just working up to it.

There are some classics you can probably get away with pretending that you've read, simply because they are so ubiquitous in literary conversations and essays, not to mention, the movie versions. But somehow, I must have tuned all that out, because I really knew nothing of the plot except that it was a revenge story. Briefly, our hero Edmond Dantes, a young sailor on the cusp of professional success and marriage to the girl he loves, is falsely betrayed to the royalist government as a Bonapartist spy in 1815, just before Napoleon escapes Elba in an attempt to regain power. Edmond is sent to the island prison called Chateau d'If (pictured above) -- the French version of Devil's Island -- and left to die through the machinations of an envious shipmate, a jealous lover, and a guilty judge, who sacrifices Edmond to conceal a dark secret of his own.

I'm not to going to give away much more of the plot, so like me, you can read it with surprise. Suffice to say, Edmond manages to escape his prison and create an entirely new identity (several actually). These feats rather miraculously achieved, he sets about tracking down and exacting revenge on those who were responsible for all that he lost.

The Count of Monte Cristo is a good, old-fashioned adventure story and has a number of well-drawn characters, particularly the villains: Caderousse, Danglars, Morcerf, and Villefort. It is also epic in length (first published in 18 parts as a serialized novel, much like Dickens' works), but if you're ready to settle into a fictional world and stay awhile, you won't mind. I liked the rich historical background, Dumas' description of Carnival season in Rome, and of course, all the details of Parisian life in the 19th Century.

Dantes contemplates suicide:
Before him is a dead sea that stretches in azure calm before the eye; but he who unwarily ventures within its embrace finds himself struggling with a monster that would drag him down to perdition. Once thus ensnared, unless the protecting hand of God snatch him thence, all is over, and his struggles but tend to hasten his destruction. This state of mental anguish is, however, less terrible than the sufferings that precede or the punishment that possibly will follow. There is a sort of consolation at the contemplation of the yawning abyss, at the bottom of which lie darkness and obscurity. (Project Gutenberg edition, p.110)

Friday, March 07, 2014

Hild by Nicola Griffith

Based on the life of St. Hilda, founding abbess of the Monastery at Whitby, Hild is the story of a young girl in 7th-century, post-Roman Britain, when the isle was divided into warring kingdoms. Most of what little is known about Hilda, comes from the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English, written in 731. This spare history leaves yawning gaps in Hild's life, which is where novelist Nicola Griffith comes in and boldly imagines her life -- a princess in Anglo-Saxon England, a counselor to kings, an early Christian convert, and finally, an abbess who became a saint in the Catholic Church. Here is some of what we know about the historical woman, born in 614: her father Hereric, a would-be king, was poisoned while in exile; she, her sister Hereswith, and mother Breguswith went to join the court of King Edwin of Northumbria (her uncle) when she was still a child, and in 627, the king and all his court, including Hild, were baptized on Easter day in 627. These are the bare facts on which Griffith builds the rest of her story.

I didn't plan it this way, but I can't think of a better book to champion during Women's History Month. Griffith's work is historical fiction at its finest, illuminating a slice of Anglo-Saxon history that begins and ends for most of us with Beowulf and the heroic culture of the mead hall. Kings, thegns, and mythical beasts aside, women usually occupy the shadows, but in Hild, the towering figure at the center of the tale is a girl on her journey to adulthood as king's seer, fearsome warrior-princess, and political intriguer in a complex web of dynastic and religious power shifts. Griffith has been compared to Hilary Mantel, and for good reason. Her meticulous research, intricate plotting, and beautiful characterizations are definitely on the level of Mantel's best work in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. As imagined by Griffith, a 13-year-old Hild could go toe-to-toe with Thomas Cromwell any day.

In the novel, Hild grows into a role prophesied by her canny mother Breguswith, to be "the light of the world," a seer, a reader of omens, and counselor to King Edwin of Northumbria. In this world, counsel generally pertains to helping the king consolidate his power and puzzling out who is planning to invade, assassinate, make war, or conspire against him. Breguswith has created a path for her daughter, but it is one with incredibly high stakes. A seer who gives the king bad advice is liable, as Edwin threatens Hild at one point, to have her body thrown in the river with "tongue and toes tied in a bag around her neck."

Even as a child, Hild's position is precarious, shadowed by death, bound by secrets, and dependent on a suspicious and short-tempered patron. Because she is king's seer, the young Hild sometimes accompanies the war parties, which puts her in the unusual position of having to learn to defend herself. She is barred from carrying a sword like a warrior, but she learns how to handle the deadly seax, a dagger-like blade worn in her belt. Later, she learns to fight with a staff as well. She's no Disney princess. Violence is frequent and merciless.

The purely fictional characters that Griffith creates to people Hild's life are Cian, a childhood playmate and son of her mother's gemaecce (a formal friendship between women, sort of a lady-in-waiting, but more intimately paired); Hild's own gemaecce, Begu, and her "bodywoman" (slave), Gwladus. One of the best scenes in the novel, and most pivotal, is how Hild comes to acquire Gwaldus. Another important figure is the captured Irish priest Fursey, who teaches Hild to read Latin and introduces her to Christianity.

Hild is an empowering heroine of great physical strength and intelligence, but the secondary pleasures of this novel are manifold, such as the progress of Cian from romping boy with a wooden sword to fierce warrior in Edwin's army and the richly detailed descriptions of the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. Griffith learned everything she could about jewels, armor, weaving, pagan religion, herbal medicine, and the life of the mead hall to render a world that seems as real to us as our own. It may not be what actually happened, but it is what should have happened --such is the assurance of the writer.

The excerpt below is from the aftermath of one of the more brutal chapters in which Hild has led a band of warriors to clear out marauding bandits on land she has sworn to protect. There is a myth building up around her now, not just as a royal representative of "the king's fist," but a witch, an unkillable being, one who must be feared and followed.

They hammered stakes across the gap and impaled the bodies, the heads, the hands, in a long row facing Craven, all branded with the wolf's head. That night , by firelight , her men limewashed their unused shields and painted a staked man and a wariangle in a glistening mix of blood, rust, and oil. Men of the butcher-bird....
She told herself it was all to the good. The rumours were doing her work for her. But not far from the road a tremulous voice shrieked Butcher-bird! and a hazel tree shook as someone small scrambled out of reach.
She wanted to leap offer her horse, climb up the tree, back the child against the trunk, and shout, It's how I keep us safe!
But there was no us. Belonging was not a seer's wyrd. (p. 422)

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Occupy London: Thomas More's Utopia

Reading Thomas More's Utopia, it is cold comfort that as screwed up as we think things are now...well, they were screwed up in almost exactly the same ways 500 years ago.
I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable.

That's a sentiment that could come from Occupy camps in any city. And as to the folly of politicians, More's narrator explains how the citizens of Utopia do not allow any debate to be had on the same day a bill is proposed in order to head off "rash" talk.
...And in the heat of discourse engage themselves too soon, which might bias them so much that, instead of consulting the good of the public, they might rather study to support their first opinions, and by a perverse and preposterous sort of shame hazard their country rather than endanger their own reputation, or venture the being suspected to have wanted foresight in the expedients that they at first proposed.

I will have More know that the delay of only one day does not hinder any politician from "perverse and preposterous" stands on the issues. More wrote  Utopia in Latin around 1516 but it was not translated into English and published in his home country until 1551, well after Henry VIII had him beheaded in 1535 for refusing to recognize the King as Head of the Church (Act of Supremacy).

More was an intriguing character in Hilary Mantel's novel, Wolf Hall, but treated much less sympathetically than in the movie, A Man for All Seasons. I will have to look into a good, balanced biography of More.

Friday, February 14, 2014

All hung over with Kingsley Amis

Lucky Jim has been recommended to me several times, usually by people who couldn't believe I hadn't already read it. It is well-known as a scorching comic novel of academic life at a provincial university in post-war England. I read the New York Review Books edition in their classics series, which all serious readers should check out. They offer some really interesting, and slightly off-the-beaten track titles, many of which had gone out of print. They also include good introductions by contemporary writers and cool cover art.

I have to admit, it took me awhile to get in the spirit of the novel and start appreciating the humor. It is unremittingly mean-spirited. Once I got over trying to like Jim or anyone else, it was better. Jim is a composite, according to Keith Gessen's introduction, of Amis and his pal Philip Larkin, the poet. (I'm pretty sure I would not want to share a pint with either). Jim is a junior lecturer in Medieval History, a subject he finds short of inspirational:
Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African government, Chiang Kai-shek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages. Had people ever been as nasty, as self-indulgent, as dull, as miserable, as cocksure, as bad at art, as dismally ludicrous, or as wrong as they'd been in the Middle Age...? (p. 87) 
That quote alone makes the novel worth reading, and there are numerous smaller gems such as one character's face looking "more than ever like Genghis Khan meditating a purge of his captains." And, of course, one of the most deservedly famous descriptions of a hangover in literature:
He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth has been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by a secret police. He felt bad. (p. 60)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Happy endings?

One of the greatest challenges of writing a novel (and one reason I've had so many false starts) is figuring out how to finish it. There's nothing more deflating for a reader than a novel that falls flat at the end. And, of course, a good finale doesn't mean it has to be a "happy ending." It can be uplifting, heartbreaking, tragic, or surprising, but the end has to feel satisfyingly complete and fit the tone of the story. I've been thinking about this lately after reading a novel by Geraldine Brooks called Caleb's Crossing. This is the only novel I've read by Brooks (she won the Pulitzer for People of the Book), and she is a fine writer.

The story is narrated by young Bethea Mayfield (completely fictional), the daughter of one of the original English colonizers of Martha's Vineyard in the 1600s, and it is very loosely based on a real Wampanoag man who was the first native to graduate from Harvard College. Bethea and Caleb meet clandestinely as children and become friends, but events conspire to bring Caleb into the Christian mission as a student of Bethea's father. The remarkable young scholar is trained to join the first class of natives at Harvard, a project of benefactors still living in England for the most part. That is the backbone of the story, which beautifully details the yearnings of a gifted young woman who craves learning for herself and the complications of a friendship between two people divided by their cultures.

This novel is right in my wheelhouse -- well-written historical fiction set in early colonial America. It is one of those novels that I was completely enamored by until the very end, when the painstakingly detailed journey of the characters flashes suddenly forward to their various ends. It was just a weird pacing for me, especially after having come to sympathize so  much with the main characters. Their stories were dispatched, I thought, with a rather cold brevity. Perhaps I'm nitpicking here, because there is so much to like. For me, a so-so book with a flat ending is all of a piece and soon forgotten; however, the better the novel is in the beginning and middle parts, the more disappointing it is when the ending goes splat.

This happens all the time (perhaps more frequently) in other mediums. Television is rife with them: Lost. Need I say more? Ditto, Twin Peaks. I can't count Deadwood, because they didn't get a chance to wrap it up before cancellation (for shame, HBO!). On the other hand, I thought Breaking Bad's finale was brilliant and so was MASH's. Getting the ending right is what distinguishes a classic from mere entertainment.

Have you had this experience with books -- when you liked everything about it except the end? I felt the same disappointment in Donna Tartt's otherwise terrifically creepy The Little Friend. I literally couldn't put it down; I read it until my head hurt. Perhaps nothing could sustain my level of intrigue at the finish. I'm not even sure what it was about it that made me feel let down. On the contrary, endings that I loved were Ann Patchett's Bel Canto and Meyer's The Son. What about you? I'd like to know which books jump out at you for having either very satisfying or bad ends.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

My year in books: 2013

As an English lit major, a bookseller, a writer, and an editor, I've spent my entire life among books. I occasionally see the dismal statistics on how little the general populace reads, a figure that continues to plummet. It baffles my understanding -- right up there with string theory, reality TV, and wine spritzers. I'm thankful to have been born into a vanishing community of readers, even before my education and professional life propelled me into it.

Maybe my family's reading mania was due to growing up in a rural area where opportunities for cheap entertainment weren't that numerous. Our tastes were catholic -- mouse-nibbled copies of Shakespeare lay cheek by jowl with Harlequin romances and Hardy Boys mysteries. We had those old books of fairy tales -- the most dark and twisted kind with terrifying illustrations. My early grounding in stories of witches tossing little kids into the fire and ogres grinding up the bones of other unfortunates prepared me for the grown-up horrors of George Orwell and Cormac McCarthy.

The foregoing is a long-winded explanation of what feels like an extremely old-fashioned thing to do: a retrospective of books read in the previous year. It's not exhaustive, but I'll mention some of the notable ones, which I would recommend to others.

While immersed in 19th century literature, I read the biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne by James Mellow and re-read Moby Dick. A novel that neatly fell into the midst of these interests was Joyce Carol Oates' The Accursed. A sprawling, Hawthorne-haunted tale of ghosts and demons in turn of the century New Jersey, Oates packed in maybe one too many plot threads, but overall the story was a fascinating mix of purely fictional and historic characters crossing paths during Woodrow Wilson's tenure as president of Princeton. The spine of the novel concerns an old New England family, the Slades, and the curse that afflicts them. Spooky weddings, murders, vampires, and all manner of supernatural disasters lie in wait for the unhappy Slades. If you can manage the layered plots (some more successful than others), you'll encounter not only Wilson, but Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Jack London, and Grover Cleveland.

My "summer vacation" book had to wait until an October beach trip, but I picked a perfect one. Pure by Andrew Miller offers a slice of pre-revolutionary French history. A young engineer is handed the dubious challenge of "purifying" and dismantling the Cemetery of Les Innocents, a centuries-old burial ground in Paris (later the site of Les Halles market). The cemetery's walls are disintegrating, the charnel pits literally overflowing into the surrounding city, and in the interest of public health, Jean-Baptiste Baratte must direct the digging up of the bodies and their removal in the face of a disapproving public and a half-mad priest who still inhabits the derelict church that stands on the grounds. If your benchmark for good historical fiction is Hilary Mantel, then you won't be disappointed with Miller's richly detailed world and its cast of colorful characters, including, again, both the historical and the imagined.

Keeping with my theme of classic American literature, I read Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood and then got caught up in the collection of her letters edited by Sally Fitzgerald, Habit of Being. The letters are a revelation, if you are an O'Connor fan. The sharp-edged humor is expected, but the thoughtful explanation of her Catholic faith and stoic attitude to her declining health are truly engaging. It is also a wonderful testament to the craft of writing, which she never tried to disguise as anything other than a discipline that required sustained work and attention, and the confidence to insist on her own unique vision. She greatly valued the input of trusted editors, but stood firm when it came down to preserving the integrity of her original ideas. Her letters are instructive and inspirational for any would-be writer.

I ended the year very neatly where  I started out -- back in New England with one  of America's most influential and original poets, Emily Dickinson. Her biographer, Alfred Habegger, borrows the subtitle from a line of one of her poems, "My wars are laid away in books." I feel much better prepared to return to the poetry itself after getting a better idea of the formative relationships and significant events of her life. Habegger relies on more recent scholarship, original sources, and a clear-eyed interpretation of the many gaps and vague clues that remain from her life. While he punctures the myth of the white-clad hermit of Amherst, there still remains the essential, alluring mystery of Emily Dickinson's power as a writer -- a  great feat of scholarship and writing.

And in the dwindling days of the year, I returned to one of my favorite settings in American lit, the Old West. Going old school, I read Elmore Leonard's Hombre, the basis for the movie with Paul Newman. It's a classic Western, featuring Leonard's signature stripped-down prose and heroes who don't quite fit the standard heroic mode. Oh, just read it; it only takes a few hours!

My very last entry for the year took a bit longer, but is a great American novel. Thomas Berger's Little Big Man deserves a wider readership than it is probably getting these days. I suspect that it has been pegged as merely "Western" genre fiction, but it is far more than that. Narrated by it's 111-year-old narrator, it is the picaresque adventures of Jack Crabbe, kidnapped by the Cheyenne at age 10, he claims to be the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and in between, meets iconic Western figures -- Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickock, Wyatt Earp, and Custer himself. It is immediately engaging, humorous, moving and will make you think deeply about America's history with Native Americans. Published in 1964, it is the basis for the movie with Dustin Hoffman. It was especially interesting to me, having read this year's acclaimed novel, The Son, by Philipp Meyer. The protagonist's experience as a young boy, kidnapped by the Comanche in 1846, closely resembles that of old Jack Crabbe, but the two novels are as different as night and day in general tone and narrative style.

These are the books that most affected me in 2013, and I haven't quite decided how to begin 2014. I'm eager to get to Donna Tartt's Goldfinch, but there are always tremendous back logs of books that I've neglected.

What books do you have in mind for the new year? Tackling the classics or catching up with what's new?

Monday, September 02, 2013

Manifest Destiny, Philipp Meyer, and the way the West was won

New Mexico butte (Public Domain)
I've always loved a good Western. My brothers and I would stay up late on Saturday nights to watch John Wayne movies and after school, it was often Bonanza, Gun Smoke, and even The Big Valley, where the hair was teased and all the women were impossibly fashionable. From My Darling Clementine to Unforgiven and Deadwood, I'm still stuck on the genre. As a kid, who doesn't romanticize the cowboys and Indians, the non-stop action of shootouts, and galloping horses across vast plains? All that messy American history hasn't yet dimmed the glory of the Wild West.

Of course, a more sophisticated understanding of the history of settling the west brings with it all sorts of moral conundrums, and the best of the Western genre, whether in film or books, gets the deep ambivalence at the heart of it. The lines between "bad" guys and "good" guys blur; one minute you're cheering for the intrepid pioneers circling their wagons and the next, you're admiring the courage of the Sioux or Apache warriors attacking the wagons. It's the heyday of the anti-hero: Billy the Kid and Jesse James sticking it to the Man. Occupy Dodge City!
Dodge City Peace Commissioners: Wyatt Earp, front center (Public Domain)
At some point ambivalence turns to downright disillusion. Wounded Knee, Powder River, and Border Wars pile up the bodies on the ever-expanding frontier in the history books. Rivers of blood and displacement accompany the march westward, and yet the fascination lingers. The very lostness of the myth compels the imagination, a sad enchantment takes over. You start with Wyatt Earp and are left with the hideous Judge Holden in McCarthy's Blood Meridian.

All that was taken belonged to someone else first. And that is what brings me to Philipp Meyer's newest novel, The Son. It is an oft-repeated phrase in the lives of three generations of the McCullough family of Texas, whose history spans a period from the 1800s through 2012. The first McCullough we hear from is the formidable Eli, known as The Colonel, his story set as a WPA recording in 1936. Occupying a homestead beyond the settlement line in 1846 near Pedernales, thirteen-year-old Eli recounts the brutal murders of his family by raiding Comanches while his father is absent. He is kidnapped and taken west by the Comanche band, giving us the most thrilling parts of the novel. After his slow assimilation into the tribe and eventual return to his white roots, Eli builds the McCullough holdings, section by section, and passes it to his ancestors.

The story then alternates between Eli's remembrances, his son Peter's journals, and a great-granddaughter, Jeannie, who brings us into the present day. Along the way, history unfolds from the final surrender of the great Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, through the Border Wars with Mexico and two world wars, to the age of the oil barons.

Meyer's novel is masterful, an old-style epic of an American family that confronts the moral quagmire of what Manifest Destiny really entails -- wiping out all that is "other" in the quest to remake a continent into an American ideal. It's a story of decline and fall in the Edward Gibbon line: of a family, of the Native Americans, of Mexican territorial ambitions, and of the land itself, stripped and denuded, first for cattle and then for oil.

What keeps the novel from becoming a strident and oversimplified critique of evil American empire-building is that the characters themselves mourn the losses that will bring them ever greater wealth and power, a quintessentially American dilemma. Eli grieves more for his Comanche family than his white one, misses the empty plains and thigh-high grasses of his boyhood. For Peter, the debilitating guilt that springs from his family's raid on their Mexican neighbors blights his life; even the hard-nosed Jeannie mourns the disappearance of the old ranching lifestyle that makes possible her oil fortune and hard-won entry into the male-dominated world of business. Everything is bought at a price and sometimes the price makes all the rest, if not quite worthless, terribly fractured.

On the craftsman's level, Meyer's meticulous detailing of the Comanche lifestyle through the voice of Eli often reminded me of Melville's descriptions of the whaling life in Moby Dick. Eli takes the reader through the process of killing the buffalo -- in what manner the animal was dispatched, who performed the various tasks of disassembly, who was allowed the chief delicacies, and the further uses of each and every part in stomach-churning specificity. Similarly, the making of lariats, bows and arrows, and tipis is lovingly rendered -- all the more lovely because even in Eli's days, these things become meaningless anachronisms.

Meyer's writing is very finely nuanced; he balances the weight of history with the storytelling, and most impressive of all, he pulls off an ending that is both practically satisfying and wonderfully symbolic -- two things that don't often go hand-in-hand.

From The Son, by Philipp Meyer, Chapter Nineteen:

All in all, it was the greatest summer I had ever had.... I might be killed any day, by whites or hostile Indians, I might be run down by a grizzly or a pack of buffalo wolves, but I rarely did anything I didn't feel like doing, and maybe this was the main difference between the whites and the Comanches, which was the whites were willing to trade all their freedom to live longer and eat better, and the Comanches were not willing to trade any of it.